Jo Talks Books: On What Makes A Good Retelling

Hi all! I hope you’ve all been staying well in the past month and that you’re not all going too stir crazy being stuck inside. I actually got inspired for this month’s discussion post by an article I wrote for Cape Chameleon whilst I was out in South Africa. I was comparing Bridget Jones Diary and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as retellings of Pride and Prejudice, and it got me thinking: What actually makes a good retelling?

I’ll admit I don’t read a massive amount of retellings. Part of that is just that I don’t find many that appeal to me, and I don’t find a lot of variety in the stores being retold (how many Beauty and The Beast retellings do we really need?) and part of it is that it’s really difficult to do a retelling well (or at least for me it seems to be)!

So what makes a good retelling (for me anyway)? Well obviously the source material, the inspiration for the retelling is incredibly important. Fairytales, myths and legends seem to be incredibly popular as inspiration, likely because there are many different versions of these stories in the first place, so there’s much more to draw on when it comes to reinterpreting them. Classic stories reinterpreted within modern frameworks also seem to be quite popular.

Whatever you chose to draw from, it’s important to pick a story to rework that you can do something new and interesting with. There is no point retelling a story if you are just going to tell the exact same story that has already been done before, with a few minor tweaks. Retellings are a chance to get creative, to tell an old story in a completely different way than it has ever been done before.

Think of the live action Disney remakes: whilst it is fun to see our favourite animated Disney movies done with real actors, do they actually do anything different with the stories? Not really. Retellings are a chance to take a story that may have centred white, cis, straight people before and allow marginalised communities to see themselves centre stage (or at least they should be). They’re a chance to take classic stories and rework them in a different way for a modern audience. There is so much room to be creative, and for me, that’s one of the most important things that I’m looking for when I read a retelling: I want to see that the author has done something new and different with the source material.

Of course, you do still need to be able to recognise the original tale in the retelling, but personally I prefer if this is done through subtle “nods”. This is where authors acknowledge the origins of their retellings in small ways: be it through the names of the characters, or having certain moments in the plot reflect points in the original telling.

A recent example of a story that did this really well for me was Night Spinner. Addie Thorley’s fantasy story takes The Hunchback of Notre Dame as it’s inspiration, but it’s set in a fantasy world. You can see the nods to the original tale (Enebish is scarred and banished to a monastery, religion is a large part of the story) but it takes place in a completely different world and so the plot and the stakes are different and of course, the main character in Hugo’s tale is a man.

A trap I find a lot of retellings fall into is making the characters carbon copies of the ones in the original story that they are retelling. Obviously these characters have to be recognisable (though if you’re doing a fairytale retelling, there’s obviously a bit more leeway as there are so many different versions) but you can allow a reader to identify a character without having them be exactly the same as their original counterpart.

Brittany Cavallaro’s A Study in Charlotte fell into this trap for me, Jamie and Charlotte are great-great-great grandchildren of Sherlock and Watson, but yet they seem to be exact carbon copies. I can’t say I really know anything about my great-great-great grandparents, and whilst it’s possible I do share some traits with them, it’s highly unlikely that we are exactly the same. I read another Sherlock Holmes retelling, Every Breath by Ellie Marney shortly afterwards and she did much better with this, it was easy enough to recognise the “Holmes” and “Watson” character, but neither of them felt like exact carbon copies of Conan Doyle’s characters.

A good retelling should also challenge the problematic elements of the original story and improve upon them. For instance, a Beauty and The Beast retelling definitely needs to tackle the whole Stockholm Syndrome element of the story and I’ve yet to read a retelling of it that handles it well (A Curse So Dark and Lonely attempts to by having Harper come to Emberfall whilst trying to protect another girl, but kidnapping is still part of the story, which you know isn’t great). Many fairytales, like Rapunzel, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty etc, all involve a lack of consent in one way or another. Many classic stories involve elements of sexism, racism, homophobia etc. In order to successfully retell these kinds of stories for a modern audience, it’s vital to face these kinds of issues head on and not brush them under the carpet.

I also feel like a good retelling should give you some kind of new insight on the original tale. Whether it is expanding the perspective of one of the secondary characters (like Marissa Meyer’s Heartless, which explore how the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland came to be that way), gender swapping the main character or introducing a classic tale into a modern setting, a retelling should allow readers to explore familiar stories in ways that they may never have thought about before.

The types of stories that are retold and the ways that they are retold do sometimes seem to play it a little safe for me. There’s a plethora of different stories out there that could be retold and yet we do seem to see a lot of the same stories being retold over and over again. Beauty and The Beast, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, among others seem to have innumerable retellings. I’d love to see retellings of stories that I’m maybe not as familiar with, or stories that don’t get retold all that often.

I’d also really love to see more retellings use the opportunity to add more diversity to the original stories: I know there are amazing retellings written by AOC out there, but I would definitely love to see more. Most retellings do seem to draw on stories from Western culture and it would be amazing to get to see more stories from other cultures retold.

I also think historical retellings are definitely an area that is under utilised. I read Nadine Brandes’ Fawkes a few years ago, and I loved how she took the history of the Gunpowder Plot and added a fantastical twist to it. I definitely think there are many other historical events and people that would be brilliant fodder for retellings, it’s something I would definitely consider writing myself someday!

There’s a reason why retellings are so popular: they largely draw on tales that we are familiar with, tales that we may have nostalgia for from our childhoods and allow us to see new sides to them. However, there is a very fine line between following the original source material too closely and veering away from it too much and I think this is where most retellings fall down for me. They either stick so closely to the original storyline that I feel there’s no point, or are barely recognisable from the original story. They’re really hard to get right, and though I’ve find ones I’ve enjoyed, I’ve yet to find a truly great retelling: at least in book form.

So there we go, that’s my thoughts on retellings. What do you think makes a good retelling? Any recommendations for me? Let me know in the comments!

I don’t know what my next Jo Talks post is going to be about, I’ve got some ideas for future posts, but I’m not sure what I’m going to feel like talking about yet, so I guess you’ll find out when I do! In the meantime, I should have my April Book Vs Movie post up at some point this week, I’m going to be talking about Noughts and Crosses and the new BBC adaptation, so it should be a fun one!

4 thoughts on “Jo Talks Books: On What Makes A Good Retelling

  1. The Storyteller 27/04/2020 / 9:24 pm

    Loved this! I haven’t read all too many retellings myself, but I’m interested in reading more. I’m like you in that I don’t want to just read the same thing but with a different main character, or something so far from the original, I didn’t know it was a retelling in the first place! Fawkes looks really interesting, I’ll have to check it out

    • iloveheartlandx 29/04/2020 / 2:46 pm

      Thanks! I definitely want to try more, I have a few on my TBR, but I just haven’t got around to them yet. Ooh you definitely should, it’s so much fun 🙂

  2. M.T.Wilson 28/04/2020 / 11:10 am

    This is an interesting discussion. Getting the right balance is so important for retellings. I recently read The Court of Miracles which I felt didn’t work well as a retelling, it didn’t get that balance right. In terms of film retellings, I love 10 Things I Hate About You because it takes ideas from Shakespeare but completely modernises it! I’m planning to write a King Arthur retelling at the moment which is fun but challenging!

    • iloveheartlandx 29/04/2020 / 2:41 pm

      Thanks! Oh that’s a shame, I’m looking forward to that one. Hopefully I enjoy it more than you did. Oh 10 Things I Hate About You is my actual favourite, it’s so great. I also really like She’s The Man, another great modern Shakespeare retelling. Ooh that’s so cool, good luck to you.

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