Salman Rushdie says television drama is the new literature. The Atlantic calls it “TV-as-Literature.” And for those of us who watch Mad Men with a volume of Cheever in hand, the emergence of high-quality, literary-minded television is something to celebrate. Culture buffs love their tropes, and it’s thrilling to see our favorite literary themes and archetypes repurposed in other media. With that in mind, here are ten classic literary characters resurrected onscreen.
Jess Day is Dorothy Gale
Doe eyes, dark hair, rosy cheeks. Physically, there’s no question that New Girl’s Jess Day is Dorothy incarnate. Native Angeleno Zooey Deschanel isn’t exactly a corn-fed Kansan, but the two share more than wide-eyed naïveté and a penchant for vintage dresses. Just like Dorothy, Jess commands her own ungainly harem: a curmudgeonly Tin Man (Nick), a vacuous Scarecrow (Schmidt), and a Lion prone to histrionics (Winston). Friends of Dorothy? In theory.
Ron Swanson is Captain Ahab
With a gruff disposition and sportsman’s spirit, it’s clear that Melville’s Captain Ahab is resurrected in Parks and Recreation’s Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). There’s no doubt in my mind that this born-hunter would be totally game for a high-stakes transoceanic whale chase. That is, when he’s not playing Great White Whale for an Ahab of his own — his deviously persistent second ex-wife, Tammy Two, played by Megan Mullally.
Dr. Mindy Lahiri is Becky Sharp
Both The Mindy Project’s Mindy Lahiri and Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp are quick-witted picaroons — Becky among the British aristocracy, and Mindy in the male-dominated field of medicine. Decked out in heels and a sparkly cocktail dress (the modern-day spats and hoopskirt), Mindy is reluctant mentor to the artless Betsy as Becky is to the guileless Amelia; and both find themselves in the crosshairs of a few devilishly handsome English jerks. Interestingly enough, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is laced with a genuine, albeit slightly orientalist, admiration for Indian culture. So it should come as no surprise that the modern manifestation of its heroine is none other than America’s favorite Indian-American funny woman.
Ryan Hardy is Professor Abraham Van Helsing
Handsome face? Check. Generally grim demeanor? Double check. Maniacal nemesis? Checkmate. It doesn’t take a PhD in gothic literature to see the similarities between Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing and former FBI agent Ryan Hardy on Fox’s The Following. Played by the inimitable Kevin Bacon, Hardy, like V.H., has a flair for hunting down monsters. And like Dracula, Hardy’s archenemy (played by James Purefoy) is all about converting followers — although more by brainwashing than vampire hickies. How many degrees of separation is that now? Two?
Amy Jellicoe is Candide
You love her. You hate her. You love to hate her, and hate to love her. Like Voltaire’s hero, Amy Jellicoe of HBO’s Enlightened (Laura Dern) is a chronic optimist. After a workplace breakdown, Amy jets off to rehab where she’s indoctrinated in Panglossian idealism (read: self-help and vague Buddhism). She returns to her job at a pharmaceutical conglomerate with the intent of righting all wrongs in corporate America. Utterly oblivious to the bleakness of her situation, she alienates friends and family with her crusading ways. Season 2 wraps this Sunday; we can only hope that Amy, like her predecessor, learns to tend her own damn garden.
Saul Berenson is Gandalf the Grey
Homeland’s willowy Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is hardly hobbit-like, but that doesn’t make her mentor, the twinkly-eyed Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) any less wizardly. Saul, the CIA’s Middle East Division Chief, fills the archetypal role of grey-bearded guide perfectly. Like his pointy-hatted counterpart, Saul reveals next to nothing about his personal life. And he glides in and out of Carrie’s life with the same mysterious purposefulness as Gandalf does for his diminutive charges. But really, it’s the beard. Every proper senex has a nice, full beard.
Dennis Reynolds is Dorian Gray
Vain, disparaging, pompous — can you tell which one I’m describing? No? No matter. The shoe fits both feet. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Dennis Reynolds (Glenn Howerton) is the catoptric double of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. Hedonistic and youth-obsessed (traits compounded by the fact that Glenn Howerton doesn’t seem to age), Dennis surely has a rotting portrait tucked away in a supply closet at Paddy’s Pub.
Dr. Temperance Brennan is Hercule Poirot
Fastidious and encyclopedic, forensic anthropologist Dr. Brennan of TNT’s Bones is surely a modern day Poirot — minus the mustache. Played by Emily Deschanel (the whole family’s here!), Dr. Brennan, or “Bones” to her colleagues, exhibits the same meticulous eye as her Belgian analogue. Both are maîtres at solving whodunits, although Brennan's decomposing corpses lack the elegance of the freshly whacked peroxide blondes that are Poirot’s forte. Monsieur Poirot is far less socially awkward, but he nevertheless requires his stalwart partner, Inspector Hastings, to keep him grounded; likewise, Bones depends on the square-jawed Agent Booth (David Boreanaz).
Hannah Horvath is Esther Greenwood
At first glance, Girls’ Hannah Horvath and The Bell Jar’s Esther Greenwood couldn’t be more different. Esther is a deep existential feminist; Hannah is a low-functioning narcissist. The only surface-level similarities are some disillusioning internship experiences. But there are other, more subtle parallels: Esther’s father is dead, and Hannah’s parents have cut her off financially. Both events are respectively earth-shattering. Esther’s ex-boyfriend wants a traditional wife. Hannah’s wants a man. Both are neither. And each girl struggles profoundly with the notion of modern womanhood — Esther in a pre-women’s liberation America, and Hannah in the romantically ambiguous age of texting. In the end, however, Esther is the suicidal depressive, and Hannah just has HPV.
Frank Underwood is Richard of Gloucester
House of Cards? More like House of Bards. You can taste the Shakespeare. In this Netflix original series, Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood is House majority whip, outwardly celebrating the election of a Democratic POTUS. But between you and him, he’s plotting the downfall of the President-elect, who reneged on a promise to make him Secretary of State. Much of this is conveyed via Underwood's suave and oddly assuaging soliloquies. We’ll forgive him his lack of scruples — why not? We forgave Richard for murder, after all. Consider our pantaloons thoroughly charmed off.