A Few Thoughts On Retellings

Since, y’know, I’m writing one.

I am a big, big fan of retellings, in general. I think the first time I was aware of one was when my parents introduced me to West Side Story. My dad is not the biggest musical fan, but he loves West Side Story, because ballet-dancing gang members are totally awesome. I saw West Side Story way before I saw or read Romeo and Juliet, in fact.

(My husband, Shakespeare lover that he is, is probably even now drawing up divorce papers. Nah, just kidding. In fact, last year, he got me tickets to the new bilingual WSS when it was in DC gearing up for its Broadway run.)

Anyway, thus began my long love affair with retellings. I love Clueless, I love Bridget Jones’s Diary, I love Valiant, I love O, Brother, Where Art Thou.

And of course, given my long and devoted love, I’ve come to several conclusions about what makes for the best kind of retellings,or indeed, what even constitutes a “retelling” as opposed to an “adaptation” or a “reboot.”

For instance: The Baz Luhrman film Romeo + Juliet is not a retelling. It’s an adaptation. Though set in modern day California, it uses Shakespeare’s dialogue. West Side Story, on the other hand, takes the general plot (two young people from feuding groups fall in love, igniting street warfare and death) and certain character relationships (the “Romeo” and the “Mercutio” are best friends, the “Juliet” and the “Tybalt” are closely related) from Shakespeare’s play, and creates something entirely new.

On the other hand, I think the Drew Barrymore film, Ever After would definitely count as a “retelling.” The framing device reveals that the story is going to be about the “truth” behind the legend of Cinderella. There’s no magic, and the fairy godmother is really Leonardo Da Vinci. (Oh, and the prince recognizes a heck of a lot more than Cinderella’s slipper!)

It starts to get a little sticky at times. Now they’ve even got these “remixes” — stuff like Pride & Prejudice and Zombies, which takes the actual text of P&P and mixes it up with original material. (And no, since i get asked this all the time… my book is not one of these.)

Adaptations (by their very nature) and “reboots” (due to the rights issues involved) are much more common in film than in books. (I say, just as John Scalzi announces his sale of the “reboot” of the Little Fuzzy series.) So what differentiates these things? Might be one of those “I know it when I see it” things. It usually requires a very different setting. Batman Begins is a reboot, because there have been other Batman film franchises. Otherwise, it would have been an adaptation, because it was adapted from the comics.And yet, Ever After, which takes place in a frocks and swords European fairy tale-ish setting, is a retelling.

Gah, now I’m even confusing myself. Perhaps I should just stick with “I know it when I see it.”

How excited am I about the movie adaptation of the Beauty and the Beast retelling BEASTLY, by Alex Flinn? 1) I totally loved the book, 2) I love how many adaptations are coming out of YA novels these days, 3) Neil Patrick Harris.

Also, dudes in hoods are hot. I think I spent four books detailing that little insight into my psyche.

In passing, is it me, or does Beauty and the Beast, in particular, lend itself very well to retellings? I can’t tell you how many romance novels I’ve read that are retellings of that book, and one of my favorite YA novels of all time, Valiant (my troll love is vast), is also a retelling of that story. I think because it has a really great theme about loving someone for their insides, and the magic in that story is so metaphorical in nature, that it can truly be whatever you want it to be.

Speaking of Holly Black, I definitely credit a few conversations I had with her in Ireland last year with my decision to move forward with this project. Holly has tacked several retellings, and done it so skillfully that more than one person I know has said to me, “Oh, yeah! Valiant *is* Beauty and the Beast! Now I see it!” Her newest retelling is, of course, White Cat, which is based on the (rather obscure) fairy tale by the same name. Having read both Holly’s incredibly awesome fantabulous book and the fairy tale, I would argue that even fewer people would make the connection. You know, if they’d ever read the fairy tale. Which most people haven’t.

My point being, is that Holly’s way of thinking about retellings freed my mind from some of the doubt demons I had about tackling my own. And basically, what I got from the conversation was this: fair game. No matter what the source material, that’s THEIR story. Your story is your own, and you can feel free to jettison, combine, and remix whatever elements you need to to make your story the best it can be.In fact, the more it is your own, the better I like the retelling.

For instance, the troll in Valiant (unlike the boy in Beastly) is not under a curse. He is, in fact, a troll. True love will not make him “beautiful” again. Because that wasn’t the point of Black’s retelling, which was more about Val (the “Beauty” character) and her personal journey. Whereas it is the point of Flinn’s retelling, because her story focuses on Kyle’s (the “Beast”) personal journey and how his “curse” was the catalyst for that to occur.

In Bridget Jones’s Diary, it’s not Bridget’s little sister who runs off with a disreputable man, thereby ruining the family’s reputation, it’s her mother, whose lover scams the Jones family friends out of their savings. (If you’ve only seen the movie, you are probably wondering what the heck I’m talking about, since they cut this plotline.) But in both cases, the fact that Darcy (it’s so convenient when characters get the same names in retellings, isn’t it?) tracks down the scoundrel in order to save Bridget/Lizzy’s family is the catalyst for them to reunite. In West Side Story, Tony (Romeo) still kills Maria’s (Juliet’s) beloved relative after the man kills Tony/Romeo’s best friend, sending him on the run and forcing Maria/Juliet to make a horrible choice between her family loyalty and her one true love.

The point is, in a retelling, you are taking a particular part of a story (a plot, a character, a story question, a theme) and using it as a jumping off place from which to create something entirely new. West Side Story used the plot and characters of Romeo & Juliet to talk about race relations in mid-century Manhattan. Valiant took plot elements and themes from Beauty and the Beast to tell a story about dark fairies, murder, and drug addiction. Clueless cut and combined and jiggled around character relationships from Emma to fit into a late 20th century lifestyle. And you can do those things because you are serving the needs of your story, and in order to create that omelet, well, you might have to break a few of the old story’s sacred eggs.

In other words: No fairy godmother? No problem. Use Da Vinci.

Posted in Austen, biz, movies, other writers, PAP, story, writing industry, writing life

9 Responses to A Few Thoughts On Retellings

  1. Jena says:

    You’ve read Deerskin by Robin McKinley right? My favorite retelling EVER (and I, too, am a fan of them). I reread it every year.

    If you’re unfamiliar, it’s based on the French fairy tale Donkeyskin. McKinley fleshed out the bare-bones story beautifully.

  2. Diana says:

    No, I haven’t but it sounds great! I love her BatB retelling.

    I also love Shannon Hale’s.

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  4. *happy sigh*

    I do love Valiant. So much. :) In fact, I’ll have to reread the trilogy sometime this year.

    And speaking of retellings, here’s one that might interest you: Toads and Diamonds. It’s the Western fairy tale by Charles Perrault set in pre-colonial India. Yum!

  5. Jennifer says:

    There is one book I really want to do a retelling of, but man, I just canNOT figure out how to do it with regards to changing the setting/time period. Which is to say, the brilliant mindfuckery one character pulls on another due to his personal stereotypes just wouldn’t work later on in time. ARGH!

  6. Diana says:

    Jennifer, I feel your pain. “A retelling of Persuasion” was on my to-do list for YEARS before I found a story it would fit. Sometimes you just keep it around and wait for the day when it all comes together.

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