I recently wrote about a Beauty and the Beast re-telling that just wasn’t for me. It wasn’t that the writing was poor, it was that the novella didn’t work as a re-telling, for me. So today, I’m going to discuss re-tellings. Why do some of them work, while others do not?
One simple factor that dictates whether or not a re-telling will succeed or not, of course, is related to the economic theory of supply and demand. Is this re-telling something that people want?
When speaking of mythology and fairy tale re-tellings, these stories almost have a built-in audience. Who did not grow up hearing and reading fairy tales and/or mythology? Stories originally told around campfires, that only ceased becoming a malleable narrative when they were written down, both fairy tales and mythology are intended to be living, breathing works of art that change every time they are told. Consequentially, writing a different take on these tales that are well known is not only something that people want to read, it is, in fact, what the story is intended to do – change and evolve, to remain relevant and loved.
So, now that we’ve established that there is, in fact, demand for fairy tale re-tellings, we need to distinguish the factors necessary for a re-telling to be characterized as a “good” re-telling. To me, a re-telling needs to retain the basic core of the well-loved and well known characters, cannot stray too far from the original story line, but adds enough to the story line to make a re-telling seem valid.
To illustrate the first requirement, let’s take a shambling, decaying walk on the dark side. That’s right, folks: I’m talking about zombies.
Specifically, the mash-up that added these undead beings to Pride and Prejudice:
When I decided to purchase this novel from Barnes&Noble, the saleswoman gushed: “I love this book! It actually has good writing!” A lot of people have read and enjoyed this mash-up – but of those to whom I have spoken who read and liked it, most of them also haven’t ever read Pride and Prejudice – you know, the original work composed by Jane Austen. The first few pages are, admittedly, funny. Then, the premise began to wear a bit thin for me, but I’m not actually a zombie fan, despite the fact that they are a wonderful metaphor. Yet, what made me truly unhappy with this work was the fact that Grahame-Smith felt the need to change the characters in Pride and Prejudice in order to make the Regency setting post-apocalyptic. If he had only altered some of the supporting characters, that might have worked, but he changed the character of Elizabeth Bennett.
Elizabeth Bennett is one of the most beloved characters in fiction. If you can’t add zombies to Pride and Prejudice without altering the character of one of its’ protagonists, then you shouldn’t add zombies to Pride and Prejudice.
In addition to retaining the core character of, at least, the protagonist(s), it’s also important to keep the core of the story intact. A re-telling, as opposed to a more conventional story, or even fan fiction, is meant to not only refer to a well known story that already exists, but to actually BE the same story. While it might be told from a different viewpoint, or have minor details changed, the basic story line needs to remain the same. I accept clever exceptions that alter the story line but allude to the well known story line to explain how the story as we generally know it came to differ from “truth.”
Finally, while the story needs to retain core similarities to the original, and thereby meet the “repeat” qualification of a “re”-telling, it also needs to have enough differences to have made a re-telling worthwhile. After all, it’s called a re-telling, not a paraphrasing or a translation. If there are no differences, then while the resulting writing may be a good exercise for the writer, most readers are going to scratch their heads and ask why the work was released.
These are my qualifications for a “good” re-telling. Please, comment on additional characteristics I have missed!