Sunday, May 22, 2011

A New Twist on An Old Tale

Over the last few months, I have noticed a new craze in the YA market. Retellings. The Goddess Test. Starcrossed. Abandon. The Dark Wife. Prom and Prejudice. Cinder and Ella. Cinder. Beastly. A Long, Long Sleep. Red Riding Hood. Shut out. The list goes on...

What all of these books have in common is that they are a new variation on an old story. Some of them are good, some interesting, some truly terrible... and some still in the works. But despite the fact that I really, really liked some of these books, they still fail to kindle in me the same wonder the original did.

I think the queen of fairy tale retellings is Juliet Marillier. Atmospheric, emotional and absolutely perfect, her writing reflects the true heart of what a fairy tale is meant to convey. So why do most of these other authors fail to capture the same magic?

Let’s start with the ‘retelling’ portion. There’s a nice big thick line between literally ‘retelling’ a story, and changing it so completely that it bears no resemblance to the original. A retelling is a meld of your creativity and that of the original author’s. It is both tribute and rebirth. And in order to be able to truly re-interpret something, one must understand and empathize with the original.
So if you’re planning to retell Pride and Prejudice, for example, you have to understand that it is not, at heart, a romance, any more than Romeo and Juliet is. The romance is merely a vehicle, and a heavily satirical one at that, to convey a biting social commentary on the shallowness of Regency society.

One of the reasons I intensely disliked Prom and Prejudice, for example, was because the author failed to understand this precise point. It’s no good picking up the entire cast and characters of Pride and Prejudice and transferring them to a prep school in Connecticut. That’s what is known as a cosmetic change. If you understand only the surface story, and then decide to unsubtly ‘retell’ that same story without deviating from the original one little bit, you’re missing the entire point of a retelling. Worse, you’re detracting from the very soul of the story and devaluing the beauty of the original author’s words.

And how can I forget this new, wholesale massacre of the Greek Gods? Each new retelling is worse than the one that went before. A Greek underworld in Florida? A Greek pantheon that judges people according to the seven sins? Helen as the daughter of Aphrodite? Just. Kill. Me. Now.

Seriously, if you find the Iliad too much to digest, there’s this much simpler primer called Bullfinch’s Mythology. Look it up. Buy it. Read it. Here’s the thing: Greek mythology is one of the most fascinatingly amoral mythologies in the world. And one of the most sexual. Incest, murder, rape, bestiality, you name, it’s probably there. You can’t take an entire culture like that, full of life and colour and violent emotions, and transform it into a pale, angsty, white-washed teen love story. There’s something called creative license, true. There’s also something called embarrassing lack of research.

The thing about basing your story on mythology is that mythology never really tells just a simple story. Mythological stories are not fables. They aren’t necessarily moral, but they are a reflection of the religious beliefs of an entire culture and people. The ancient Greeks were pagans, through and through. Their entire mythology is based on the deification of nature spirits. And Mother Nature? Well, she’s not what you’d call judgemental. Nasty and violent, soothing and bountiful, but always, always amoral. And so, when an entire society of people build their beliefs around these amoral deities, their way of life, their culture, is necessarily different from the Christianity-inspired moral code of Western societies today. And when you forget that, when you try to make your story more ‘politically correct’ and ‘acceptable’, Greek mythology loses everything that made it interesting in the first place. The vibrant difference that draws us to an ancient culture so unlike our own, gets lost in the all-round homogenisation common to YA lit today.

This is also a problem that fairy tale retellings face. Fairy tales aren’t pretty stories about Tinkerbell. They’re dark, they’re violent and they’re a study of human nature. Does anyone over the age of fifteen really believe that the wolf was just a wolf? Fairy tales encompass more social and sexual undertones in a few pages than most novels can in a trilogy.

As I said before, there is a nice middle ground between sticking strictly to the original story and smashing it to bits so that it’s unrecognisable. A Long, Long Sleep, for example, is a great re-imagination of the story of Sleeping Beauty. While the basic premise remains the same, the author has put a sci-fi spin on the tale, introducing several themes into the book, dealing with abandonment, change, culture shock and environmental issues. There is depth to the story. It’s not just girl meets Prince Charming, he kisses her and sweeps her off her feet, and they live happily ever after. Neither is it the exact story about a girl whose been cursed by a witch with a sleeping spell, etc, etc.

A retelling needs to be both derivative and individualistic. Sounds like an oxymoron, right? That’s precisely why retellings are harder to do than your own stories. You can’t dismiss the history and the culture that adds depth and meaning to a story.

Whether it’s Chaucer, or Shakespeare, Hans Christian Andersen or the brothers Grimm, Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters, literature has always served as a means of conveying the mores, the culture and the history of an entire people. It is a form of bearing witness, one that lasts through the ages. To try to re-interpret this history is no easy task, and it’s not one that should be undertaken lightly. Unfortunately, most of the YA retellings I have read so far seem to have forgotten that words have weight. That ‘borrowing’ from someone means having to acknowledge the importance of their contribution. There’s a reason the classics are, in fact, classics, and while I totally appreciate, admire and encourage authors who try to situate the classics in a more modern context, and make them more relatable to the youth of today, the point of the exercise is lost, if you didn’t get the subtleties of the story to begin with.


  1.  I have to agree wholeheartedly on this subject.  I probably sound like a snob, but as someone who became obsessed with mythologies as a child (and not just the Greek stuff), I feel extremely disgusted and cynical about these sort of "retellings" and am unable to look at them very objectively.  Of course, I see this trend as less of a genuine resurgence in passion for mythology and more as a way for some authors to cash in on the Percy Jackson craze.

  2.  This is an excellent post. I like new uses of old mythologies when they're done well and carefully utilize the resonance of the myth cycles they draw on. But I don't encounter those very often.

  3. The problem today is that even the subtleties of life are hard to comprehend sometimes. We live in a world that is governed by money and technology, and many writers have that big $ sign in front of them when they're writing a book, they sometimes don't really care what they write about. Once a story is told, it is told, and no matter how many retelling of it you have, the original is always the best. I am not a fan of retold stories.

    As for mythology, I completely agree. There are no subtleties in today's books - they're too simplified to bring in more younger audience, or they try to act like grown-up stories but it doesn't work like that. Kind of like a 5-year-old me trying my mothers shoes - no matter how much socks you put on your legs or inside the shoe, they're still going to be too big.

  4. The inherent problem with re-tellings is that the basic plot is set, so it's often difficult to let characters run the story and develop the plot on their own. This is especially problematic if the world is cliche and unoriginal (ie, stereotype and clique-heavy high school settings).

    The interesting fairy tales construct a world and a cast of characters that are original while simultaneously supporting the events of the plot. I read Malinda Lo's Ash recently (re-telling of Cinderella). While I found the main character a bit boring, I liked the setting a lot. It was detailed enough to come alive, while at the same time maintaining a very fairy tale atmosphere. 

  5. Good points.  It's not YA, but have you read The Book of Lost Things, by: J. Connolly?  It's an outstanding exploration of fairy tales in a new context.  (I'm not sure if it fully falls under retelling, but it's a great read).

  6. As a struggling writer of fantasy retellings, I agree with you. I think it's a good marketing tool for the ones that aren't that great. Just tell people it's a retelling of Blank and Blank fairytale set in high school and many people will most likely read it. I feel that if they are going to be incredibly off base with the interpretation, they might as write an original piece. 

    Maybe a lot of authors just watch a movie and/or read something and think "That would be cool but set in high school" and choose elements to make it more appealing or
    convenient. (like making Helen Aphrodite's daughter or whatever). I guess it's the literary equivalent of a poorly researched disney movie. When it's bad, you get movies like Pocahontas (history treated like a fairytale) and when its good you get movies like Princess and The Frog and Tangled (I maybe biased because I absolutely love these movies; fairy tale with a twist). The ultimate goal is to make money and regardless of the quality, you have to make sure that your target audience will go see them. If they can capture the same audience who reads Percy Jackson by just throwing in some random (misused) Greek mythology, then they have done their jobs. It's a sad thing though because the quality of the novels seems to be going down. 

  7. That's the very thing that frustrated me about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies - I was desperately wanting the zombies to add something to the story, for them to be worked into the plot somehow in a way that re-examined the original story.  I wanted the zombies to be the cause of the ending.  Instead, it was just Pride and Prejudice with zombies lingering around the edges of the story.

    You're so right about needing to know and understand the original story (or mythology) before trying to re-write it. It always shows when the writer's understanding is lacking.  On the other hand, if a writer truly appreciates what was lying under the words of the original story, it makes for an amazing new working of an old classic.

  8. This exactly.  It's not that I frown on retellings as a whole (I mean, there's so much you could do with them!); it's just that most of them coming out now seem so superficial and gimmicky.  

  9. Wonderful post. I've always liked the idea of re-telling old myths in theory, but so rarely in practice-- and you've articulated why quite nicely.

  10. Thank you  for this, especially the section on Greek myth. Beyond the myths, the views on life, death, etc. is so vastly different from, as you put it, the Christian moral code. Ancient Greek religious beliefs permeates into their myths but people just chalk up the myths as creation stories. However, the myths are also fun and filled with camp. As someone who studied classics and is writing a project inspired by Greek religion and myth, I feel partially cheated with these retellings because it strips away the ridiculous camp while taking away the more ambiguous qualities of its characters.

  11.  I love this post so much I want to hug it. 
    I'm in love with the idea of retelling, but I have found very few authors who did it successfully. Honestly, I am not going to be original here, but the one I can think of is Juliet Marillier. I think it's because for me, she basically made these stories plausible, instead of using them to compensate a lack of creativity.
    So I keep reading them, hoping I'll encounter another such author.

  12. "The vibrant difference that draws us to an ancient culture so unlike our own, gets lost in the all-round homogenisation common to YA lit today."

    As another classics student: thank you thank you thank you. I love ancient cultures because of the difference in values and morals and general way of life. So please, YA writers, don't try to transfer them to high schools because it's almost impossible, and don't try to make them more PC either, or you will just kill their charm. It's that hard to understand that the mentality of an Ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian or anyone around the Mediterranean was completely different to us? Jesus, just watch HBO's Rome, the first episode will be enough.