Book Report: 'Mean Girls' meets the Bard
Art thou serious? Portland author Ian Doescher's latest book, "William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Mean Girls" ($12.99, Quirk Books), turns the movie "Mean Girls" into a five-act Shakespearean play complete with stage directions.
In Doescher's delightful play, which follows the "Mean Girls" plot to a T, a ruthless cadre of popular high schoolers known as The Plastics welcomes new student Caddy Heron into their clique, informing her that "on Wednesdays we array ourselves in pink." The following directives also are given:
"Remember this: no tank top shall be worn
From one day to the next, two in a row,
And neither shalt thou wear a pony's tail
As thy hairstyle, excepting once per week —
It seemeth thou hast chosen thus today."
As in the film, Caddy struggles to adapt to the new high school environ- ment, make real friends, and be true to herself. Drama doth ensue for Caddy as she strives to be popular and excel at math at the same time.
The author, a Portland native and Grant High School alum, had a high school English class that was a harbinger of things to come. The teacher asked the students to write a few verses in iambic pentameter, the poetic style in which each line has 10 syllables. Shakespeare wrote many of his early plays in this manner.
"When I tell my friends the kind of writing I've ended up doing, they say, 'Of course,'" says Doescher, who later attended Yale University and majored in music. But he still thanks his Grant High English teacher Jane Bidwell in all of his books.
Doescher's prior works include "William Shakespeare's Star Wars" and "Get Thee Back to the Future." With his new book, both he and his publisher wanted to move beyond sci-fi, he says. Tina Fey's "Mean Girls," a pure comedy, was a blast to work on, Doescher says, because "it's as if you got all of Shakespeare's best heroines and put them in a room together." The title is a little misleading, he adds, because there isn't much of the actual play 'Much Ado' in his story.
Doescher often is asked by high school students if they can stage his plays. But, he has to turn them down.
"When a movie studio licenses the books, they own everything," he says. "So it's not my permission to give, unfortunately." The film that famously starred Lindsay Lohan as Caddy Heron has had staying power since it came out 15 years ago and currently is a hit musical on Broadway.
"High schoolers are still watching that film and finding it just as relevant today," Doescher says.
Doescher's next book is a bit different. It's a retelling of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" called "Mactrump" and it's about the first two years of the Trump administration. It publishes in October.
Readers of his books emerge from all over, but mostly they are avid fans of the films that precede them. Other readers are students who have read and enjoyed Shakespeare. Some are curious to see the Bard of Avon presented in a different light. In some cases, the books can act as gateways to reading or rereading Shakespeare.
"Mean Girls" is a comedy about the backstabbing, gossip and power plays between high school cliques, especially the young women who exert the most control in their school. What drew him to a project that focuses primarily on young women?
"I was humbled going into it," he says. "One thing I did was to use a kind of Easter egg in the book, in which readers can uncover references in Caddy's lines — and she's in nearly scene — to women's history. Her references become more modern as the play moves along."
Writing these mash-ups has always been a tightrope, he says, as he tries to stay true to the language of Shakespeare's time.
While it's challenging to write in iambic pentameter, Doescher says he's practiced it over the years and it's become easier. "It's like a muscle that you exercise, but in the beginning it took a lot of practice," he says.
Iambic pentameter, he explains, "was a convention of Shakespeare's time. It was both oratory and poetic, and then as Shakespeare went along, he became a lot freer and sort of broke his own convention."
His books usually take two or three months for him to write, working after hours (he has a full-time job at marketing agency Pivot), and the entire process takes him about a year.
"Getting the movie studio's approval takes time as well because the books are licensed through them," he says. "I jokingly refer to it as the best side hustle ever. It hasn't replaced my 9-to-5 career, but the books have done well. The movie studio takes a good chunk of the royalties, of course."
Books, music and radio all fuel Doescher's writing.
"I'm not reading as much Shakespeare as I'd like right now, but I want to reread 'The Collected Works,'" he says. "This morning I finished 'Circe' by Madeline Miller. It's the story of Odysseus and Circe. And I listen to everything from classical music to Weird Al Yankovic."
If he could do any project Doescher says, "I'd love to do 'The Princess Bride' — it's always been a favorite book and movie. That tops my list."
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