Savvy Saturday – On Retelling Stories

Recently, I read a fantasy novel that I liked quite a bit more than I should have. The characters were pretty flat, the book wasn’t edited very well, and a lot of the happenings were unrealistic for the world and the characters as established by the author. However, I found myself entertained by the book for one reason – it was clearly inspired by the Biblical story of David, and I wanted to see how many of the parallels the author was going to bring in. Looking for allusions to this classic story, and being pleased every time I found one, made me consider this style of storytelling more closely.

When you already know a story, reading it again is like talking with an old friend. You know what the story’s personality is, you know (roughly) how it’s going to end, you know what the major twists are and how various characters should interact with each other. But adapting an old story to a new context is like meeting an old friend in an alternate universe. You know what you expect to happen, but you don’t know quite what will be different.

Spock might have a beard and be callously evil.

Sherlock Holmes might be a high-functioning sociopath who uses a smart-phone.

The Wicked Witch of the West might have gone to school with Glinda the Good.

And these are universes that are still similar enough to our own to immediately recognize that the story you’re reading is a direct adaptation of one you’re familiar with. More subtle ways of incorporating old stories into new contexts can be seen in the works of Gail Carson Levine, whose Ella Enchanted is one of my favorite retellings of the story of Cinderella. In this style of storytelling, the most important plot and character points from the original work are kept, but the story is so different from the original that readers or hearers are kept busy finding similarities and drawing parallels between the two works rather than finding differences.

For instance, in Ella Enchanted, Ella (Cinderella) is stuck under the thumb of her evil stepmother and two evil stepsisters, falls in love with Prince Char (Charming), goes to a ball with the help of her fairy godmother, and eventually lives happily ever after. BUT, more importantly, Ella’s main goal throughout the book is to break the curse that has been put on her since the time she was a baby – a curse of having to obey any direct order she is given. Add in an impulsive fairy, a flair for linguistics, evil trolls, clever elves, a boarding school, and a great deal of adventure, and the elements of Cinderella are deftly embedded in a larger, grander novel that leaves readers wondering what will happen next. Further, it delights readers as they see how this plot works together with the fairy tale they know and love.

Moving further away from the original text, authors can take old stories and run with them, as Disney is fond of doing. For instance, The Lion King is a “Disney-ized” version of Hamlet, its sequel was a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, and the company’s most recent film, Frozen, was (very) loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. Each of these films was a startling success, due in no small part to the power of the story behind them.

As an author, I think an interesting challenge is to take a well-known story, pull out the parts that are essential to it, and see what would be different if it happened in a new context. The stories that are still with us today are those that speak to the human condition and to deep truths. Retelling them, then, or being inspired by them to tell a mostly-new story that still feels familiar, is a worthy endeavor – and one that I, as a reader, very much enjoy. What do you think? Leave a comment below!

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