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.