From movies to music to TV shows, some things age better than others. from the 1960s or 70s, like Australia’s low-budget high-camp Great Expectation for example, and you’ll certainly find your attention grabbed for a few minutes, but more in a sense of astonishment that people really used to be entertained by this sort of thing. On the other hand, movies like Casablanca or Citizen Kane have every bit as much power to pull you in as any modern blockbuster, despite being more than 80 years old.
The same applies to literature. The novels of Dennis Wheatley and Somerset Maugham were best-sellers in the 1950s. Today, most are out of print and long-forgotten, the elitist and sneering perspectives towards anything and anyone, not white, British, male, and upper class just too jarring by 21st century standards. Yet other works, written centuries earlier when everyday attitudes were even more alien to today’s thinking have somehow survived. Let’s look at two examples.
Beowulf’s lessons in humility – from the battlefield to the casino
The oldest surviving piece of Old English literature, Beowulf’s Adventures has been told and retold for more than 1,000 years across the English-speaking world, from the UK to Australia to the USA. Over the past century, the epic poem has been adapted for the screen and there is even a Beowulf slot game or pokie as it is known in Australia.
Beowulf is widely available in print, while the movie can be viewed on most of the usual streaming sites. To have a go at the pokie, Australian players have a choice of websites with generous payouts (see https://www.australiainternetpokies.com/bonuses/best-payout-pokies/ for details) and the game is available at online casinos in other countries, too.
So how is it that Beowulf remains so relatable 1,000 years on when some 20th-century writers seem like dinosaurs? The story keeps things simple, well-pitched against evil, and not always coming out on top. Yet Beowulf always shows humility when he is victorious and good grace when he is not. We might not be up against dragons and monsters, but we all face battles of our own and can take inspiration from the first great Hero.
Macbeth is a cautionary tale that still resonates
People find Shakespeare off-putting because, unlike Beowulf, there is some stigma to “translating” it into modern English. Perhaps that is a good thing, as we would lose some of the subtle wordplays, but the 16th-century language undeniably makes The Bard slightly hard work in the 2020s. Nevertheless, it is amply rewarded by what is plain and simply good stories. Love and loss, adventure, crime, corruption, and even some supernatural scares – all the same themes we see in contemporary literature and film.
We have chosen Macbeth here because it is such a clear example of how jealousy and over-ambition can lead to the downfall of the best of men when it is not tempered by wisdom and nobility. “The Scottish Play” continues to be one of the most popular and commonly performed of Shakespeare’s works. It has also been adapted for the screen more than 20 times.
And many more
These are just two examples, but we could also look at titles as diverse as Frankenstein and The Picture of Dorian Gray. These are tales that don’t just enthrall but also give us food for thought.