Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Nothing New Under the Sun...

What is it about a retelling that is so enticing? The lure of the familiar, backed by the promise of something new to come? There's something safe about reading a retelling, as if you already know where the author is taking you, and you willingly let yourself be sucked beneath the waves.

Yesterday's review of Jessica Verday's debut novel, The Hollow, got me thinking about taking inspiration from literature, mythology and legends, or folk and fairy tales for your own work. Authors have run the gamut from simply being inspired by a story or tale and incorporating that into their work, to rewriting their own version with an original spin.

Probably one of the most famous rewritten stories of recent decades is Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones' Diary, which is more or less a modernization of the classic Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice (sans zombies, of course). The Hollow took only hints of Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, relying on the tone of the original to flavor the book. Whether he drew upon Lewis Carroll's classic for inspiration or not, Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere was compared to Alice in Wonderland by multiple reviewers when it was published.

Robin McKinley's Beauty is one of the first novelized retellings of a fairy tale that I remember reading. Though it's been at almost fifteen years since I last cracked its spine, I remember that all the classic elements were there: Beauty, the Beast, the Rose. McKinley's full-length novel loaned the story a level of intensity and emotion, something a fairy-tale can never develop in its short morality tale.

The fairy tale boils down to its purpose-- to teach a lesson (which can carry over to a novel in the form of theme). But, because of their brief format, can readers ever really bond with the characters? Especially when their "types" have become so well-used as to become uni-dimensional and clichéed: the kind woodsman, the generous daughter, the noble beast. Extending a fairy or folk tale to novel length can allow the writer to give these cardboard cut-outs life, whether they be main characters or otherwise.

Retellings of fairy and folk tales or myths can be successfully set in a historical or fantastic world, but they can also utlize a "real life" modern day setting. Imagine the difficulties of writing Rapunzel in our modern world. Symbolism plays a larger role in this type of story, with Rapunzel's tower and her hair being replaced perhaps by a psych ward and an indomitable will to get out of there with her sanity intact:

Sometimes, Zellie thought as she surveyed the padded walls of her cell, my plans work too well. How was she supposed to convince the doctors she wasn't really crazy when she'd tried so hard all week to look like she was? If she'd just put all her efforts into studying for her math midterm instead of trying to get herself committed, she wouldn't be in this mess.

This makes it even easier for the author to take his or her liberties with the story, giving it an original spin. Fairy tales, because of their simplicity and practically universal theme, can be easily modernized, giving an old story a second chance in our modern world. Shakespeare is a perfect example of an author whose work is so universal, his plots have been recycled by other authors and screenwriters/playwrights since his day.

Social commentary has a relevant place in a modernization. Retellings of classic literature are more often than not modernizations. Bridget Jones may be a modern woman, but she is just as limited by her parents and her career (and her perceptions about her body) as Elizabeth Bennett is by her social status. I've always wanted to rewrite Jane Eyre, but the fear in modernizing a classic is not knowing where to deviate from an already complicated plot, and where to stay true to the original.

Can you guess what the next two modernized fairy tale snippets are?

Both of her older sisters had lost their virginity on their sixteenth birthdays. Briony vowed she would too, or else be so embarrassed she'd lock herself in her room for a hundred years.


From the moment Marina saw Troy, she knew deep down in her soul that she'd give anything to be with him. Even if that meant throwing her audition so that his girlfriend would win-- a semester at a vocal training school abroad. Then Troy would be all hers.

This is actually lots of fun! Maybe next time I'm stuck on a project, I'll make an exercize of writing a few lines of a modernized fairy tale.

Do you have a favorite story, myth or legend, or even a classic you'd like to update or take inspiration from?
What would it be?

Feel free to post snippets of your own rewrites. In fact, you might want to warm up your writing muscles, because I'm planning a contest for Thursday...

You could win a free copy of The Hollow just by dropping by and commenting!

But if you play along, you'll earn more chances to win!


Abby said...

Great post, Tere! Sad, but I've never considered doing this before. I have a tendency to dismiss an idea if it's too close to something I'm familiar with. I'll think about it, and maybe I'll come up with something. Right now I'm at work, so no thinking allowed! ;)

Tere Kirkland said...

Thanks, Abby!

I've always wanted to write a retelling, but, like you, never put much thought into it because I could never figure out how to put an original spin on a beloved story. Maybe someday...

Sarah said...

Ohhh I was never good at writing them, but I love retold stories.

Tere Kirkland said...

Sarah, me too. That's why I wrote this post-- to show the variety of ways in which retold can be retold. It doesn't need to be a historical, which can be difficult. Take the morale or a theme from your favorite story, and use that as the framework for a modernization that pays homage to the original. The hardest part is not stressing too much!

Tere Kirkland said...

LOL, and by morale, I mean, of course, moral.

Lazy Writer said...

Yay! I love contests. I don't know that I'll participate, but I'll certainly enjoy reading everyone else's. I haven't done any retelling as of yet, but it is something I'd like to try.

Tess said...

Wow, you put a lot of time and thought into this post. It is something I've mused on and noticed in some books, but I've never really considered doing it in my writing. I do enjoy it, however. It's like getting a new spin on an old classic. Why not, right?

Angie Ledbetter said...

Wonderful post here. I've done the modernized fairy tale in a poem before. Mega fun.

YOU'VE WON MY BOOK TITLE CONTEST! I'll need a mailing address to get your prize to you. Congrats and great work. :D

Tere Kirkland said...

Susan, I love contests, too, so I figured it was about time I ran one of my own. You certainly don't need to participate other than post. I'll reveal details in tomorrow's post.

Tess, thanks, I was worried I put too much thought into this post! Why not, indeed. Or, as I discovered, just use them as little brainstorming exercises to get the creative juices flowing.

Angie, yay! And thanks! Yours was a fun contest and it inspired me to do one here. I'll be right over to your place, lol!