Do you guys have a movie? You know, that movie. The movie of your childhood, or of your adolescence, the one for which you know every single line, every beat, every moment? As I was growing up, I didn’t watch a huge amount of television. We didn’t have cable, and I’m old enough for that to be meaningful, in that there weren’t a lot of other screen-entertainment options. So of course, I read a lot, but we also had several movies on VHS (yes, yes, I know—I am OLD), and one of them in particular has always been my favorite. So much so that it is woven into several inside jokes I share with my two sisters to this day. So much so that I have seen this movie at least thirty times.
The Scarlet Pimpernel was originally a book, written in 1905 by Baroness Emmuska Orczy. I highly recommend it—it’s an adventure novel, and full of passionate and thrilling scenes, along with great dialog. Several stage and movie adaptations have been made, including a 1934 version starring Leslie Howard, but the movie, my movie, is the 1982 version starring Jane Seymour and Sir Ian McKellen, with Anthony Andrews as the Scarlet Pimpernel himself. Andrews somehow manages to balance dashing swooniness with perfect comedic flair, and the result is just … you have to see for yourself.
The story is set during the Reign of Terror at the end of the French Revolution. An English aristocrat dons all sorts of crazy disguises to rescue French aristocrats who are about to have their heads removed from their exquisitely dressed bodies via Madame Guillotine. And to remain on the loose and above suspicion, this English guy, Sir Percy Blakeney, has the perfect strategy: he convinces everyone that he’s a shallow, incompetent, fashion-obsessed fool. That’s his Clark Kent—not glasses, but idiocy. But it’s tricky when he falls in love with Marguerite St. Just, the most famous actress in Paris, because he wants to show her his true self, but there are so many lives on the line…
Anyway, I love this story obviously, and so I decided to write a retelling, as one does. Beneath the Shine is the result, set here in the States, fifty years in the future. My challenge was to plausibly recreate a French Revolution-type setup, and after a lot of pondering and reading, I decided that the gap between aristocrats and the bourgeoisie (middle class)—the issue that would create inequality and resentment and then revolution—had to be technology, both access to it and the consequences of its deployment. In my future US, artificial intelligence has taken over all sorts of jobs, everything from driving (the teenage characters in this book were born long after the time when we drive our own vehicles) to teaching (Marguerite’s father was a teacher who lost his purpose in life when he was laid off and replaced by Aristotle, a virtual AI teacher that can individually tailor lesson plans to each pupil).
The people who create and sell the tech are thriving. But those displaced by it? Not so much.
Into this world (some might call it a dystopia, and if so, yipes, because it seems like a pretty plausible future from where I sit), I placed my characters—Marguerite, a scrappy vlogger whose viral fame and fiery rhetoric were major factors in bringing a new populist president to power, and Percy, the prancing, privileged, politics-dissing fool (who also happens to be a popular fashion vlogger). Once the terrorist attacks on our nation’s capital begin, only a week after the inauguration, neither character knows who to blame, but both are determined to save as many lives as they can.
There was something especially fun about re-imagining some of my favorite aspects of the original story, like Percy’s disguises (illegal, touch-activated nanotech brow and jaw implants that defy facial recognition scans, anyone?), as well as exploring issues in a futuristic setting, such as the flexibility of gender presentation, the ethics of AI rights and responsibilities, and the implications of being tethered by the neuron to a constant stream of information. The great thing about having such a different setting is that it allowed me to tell my own tale while paying homage to the original.
Beneath the Shine is the second retelling I’ve done—Of Metal and Wishes, a loose retelling of Phantom of the Opera by way of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, was the first. But while Of Metal and Wishes was set in a completely fictional society and culture, Beneath the Shine is meant to represent a possible future here in the United States. It might be tempting, therefore, to try to draw connections between events or issues in the book and our current political situation, but I’m not actually that prescient; I wrote Beneath the Shine well before last year’s election, with a focus on retelling a story that bears intense sentimental and emotional value to me. I hope readers can connect with it, and if I create a few new Scarlet Pimpernel fans along the way, well. Achievement unlocked.