The Magic of Retellings

by Lexi Cooper, Editor

Retellings, specifically fairytale retellings, are abundant in the science fiction and especially the fantasy genres. But retelling stories isn’t a new phenomenon. We’ve been telling the same stories, myths, and legends for hundreds of years. But what makes these stories so compelling? Why do we want to read a modern version of Cinderella or Hamlet when we know the outcomes? What makes a good retelling? And how far can or should the author go with their deviances from the original stories? (Is it blasphemy to put zombies in Pride and Prejudice?)

It is astounding to me that we don’t get bored of these stories. Yet as shocking as it is, I find myself going back to the same kinds of stories and characters over and over. (I’m looking at you tall, dark, and handsome male lead with a tortured past). So how do we not get bored?

If you are bored of the same stories check out BDR’s other blog about Reading Outside Your Favorite Genre.

Retellings Are Familiar

the magic of retellings

Most people don’t really like new things, at least not things that are completely new. We like the familiar, and retellings are a perfect mix of familiar and new. It’s exciting to see how familiar characters and plotlines are tweaked by a new authors imagination. Perhaps retellings are the ideal story because going into them we don’t have to learn a whole new world, new cast of characters, and new plot. They are an easy genre to read because of their familiarity.

Speaking of the excitement in seeing how an author will change an old story, it is fun and refreshing to see modernized versions of old stories. The views of society often change over time, and retellings offer a way to reflect how society has changed. When the show Once Upon a Time was first coming out, I for one was excited to see all the ways they tweaked not only the classic tales but also Disney’s animated versions. Yes, the women were no longer all damsels in distress, but the show went beyond that, giving us much more complicated and fleshed out characters. The bad guys weren’t all bad, and the good guys weren’t all good. Which seems to be a more modern way of looking at protagonists and antagonists.

A Retelling or Something New?

the magic of retellings

With the changes modern writers make to old fairytales and classics, is it possible to go too far? How much must they honor the original while still adding their own flavor? The balancing act is a hard one, but I’m of the opinion that writers can’t go too far. If they change so much of the story that it doesn’t resemble the original at all, that’s fine, as long as they don’t really claim it as a retelling. Rather the original should be called an inspiration at that point. They shouldn’t give readers false expectations with whatever they choose to label it.

The reason I say they can’t go too far is that by sticking to the original, authors can limit the story’s potential. If the story they’re trying to tell works better with more deviance, they should go for it. As I’ve said, we’ve seen these stories before, so deviating from them is the fun part. If we want the original, we can go back and read it; the point of retellings isn’t to be an exact copy (that’s plagiarism), the point is to give readers a modern and new take. I personally love retellings that are so far from the original that it is almost difficult to see the threads of the first story. Then, when there are things that hint at the original, they are even more exciting to pick up on.

What Makes A Good Retelling?

Cinder is a retelling of Cinderella
Cinder by Marissa Meyer

So what makes a good retelling? Is it the characters, theme, plot, setting, or premise of the original? In my (probably biased) opinion, I think that good retellings take a handful of elements from the original and fill in the rest with the author’s imagination. Marissa Meyer’s Cinder did an excellent job of this. Meyer kept many of the characters (Cinderella, the step sisters and step mother, the prince, etc.) and the general plot. However, she added so much from her own imagination (Cinder being a cyborg, the plague, the evil queen living on the moon, etc.) As the series went on, though Meyer added in three more classic tales, it only became more unique and more charming. The mixture of the different fairytales together with a sci-fi world added depth to the original characters and made them grow in ways they couldn’t in the originals.

All in all, I don’t see the genre of retellings fading any time soon. However, as the retellings themselves shift the stories of the originals, the genre will no doubt shift with time, adding and taking away its own trends. As long as the magic in these stories continues, I’m here for it.

the magic of retellings

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