January 29, 2015

The Beauty of Retellings

Retellings are a popular part of our culture—whether it’s fairy tales reinvented for television or YA novels, generations-old urban legends around campfires, or the all female remake of Ghostbusters.

Most of the time we like the sense of familiarity from the original tale, with the added bonus of something new and reimagined. Or maybe we hate the original and are looking for someone to do it better. Either way, retellings aren’t going away any time soon.

But retellings can also be problematic because we have a set of expectations going in that may be unmet in the newer version. For example, last week I went to see a musical version of The Count of Monte Cristo, which is one of my favorite books of all time.

I hated the movie that came out a few years ago because it took a tale about revenge and humanity and turned it into a Hollywood romance. Very disappointing. I had high hopes for the play though. Theater performances tend to be darker, and a musical seemed like a really cool medium to do something new and interesting with a great story.

There were a few things I really enjoyed about the musical. For one, it had fantastic digital graphics projected as the backdrops. They were able to do some visually amazing scenes, like the prison shots with the underground digging and underwater scenes like the body bag sinking and Dantès finding the treasure.

They also did some fun gender-bending. The pirate ship that picked up Dantès was captained by a loud, brassy, over-sexed female. They tried to make some of the scenes fun and quirky amidst the dark storyline.

But overall, it didn’t work for me. Like the movie, the Count forgives Mercedes and they live happily ever after. I think the book has a lot of themes that are much more meaningful than just another love story (the book contains some of the best love stories—just not the happily ever after between Edmond and Mercedes that remakes seem to like).

The voice of the musical, for me, was the “it’s not you it’s me” type of rejection that agents send authors all the time. The songs were loud and involved a lot of shouting, instead of the nuanced mix of light/soft/dark/loud of other similarly heavy-themed musicals like Les Misérables or Wicked. The narrative felt monochromatic and one-dimensional. I often wonder if that’s how agents see stories from their slushpile when they respond that the voice didn’t grab them.

Although I didn’t love either the film or musical adaptation of this particular book, I like other spinoffs of The Count of Monte Cristo—like the television series, Revenge—but I think it’s because they don’t resemble the story much at all. They’re their own thing—they aren’t trying to improve upon the original so much as springboard a new story from an existing idea or theme, which I think is the beauty of retellings.  

For me, it holds true that I like retellings that develop another dimension or adapt the story to a new narrative. Some examples include 10 Things I Hate About You as Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew; Austen’s Emma in Clueless; and Ever After or Cinder as new takes on Cinderella, to name a few. Or I like retellings that stick true to the original in theme and story, like BBC's Austen remakes. So I like them either really close to the original or really far away--if that makes any sense.

Arthur Frank’s Letting Stories Breathe says that stories over time “change plots and characters to fit multiple circumstances, allowing many different people to locate themselves in the characters in those plots” (Frank 39).

So, I guess if some girl sees herself in the bawdy, bossy pirate captain and is able to embrace feminism because of the gender twist, then the retelling did its job.

In general, I think retellings are a great way to expand a story and think about new ideas within the framework of a familiar tale. And as writers, I think we’re always influenced by different parts of already existing stories. I think retellings are a fascinating part of the creative process and of contemporary narratives in a variety of mediums.

Do you have any favorite retellings? Or any retellings that you hate?

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