We’ve all found a story we love brought to life by a fantastic writer. It’s great, engaging and somehow makes the world a better place for every minute spent lost in it. Then someone else decides to write their own version. Or, they decide the characters would be great in a completely different situation, or a completely different stage in their lives. How do you react?
Just to be clear, for the purposes of this post I’m using retelling to describe any time a writer has either rewritten a story in their own style, or taken key elements of a story (characters or events) and presented them in a very different light; not to mention anything and everything between these approaches.
There are a range of reactions, and it’s an understandably personal thing. From refusal to acknowledging the retelling has taken place, to giddy excitement about a new take on a story you love by an author you love (or could end up loving if they just get this right). I tend to err towards giddy excitement, even if it’s an author I don’t know, because I like the thought that it somehow keeps stories, and characters I love alive and relevant. Let’s face it, it’s also a natural part of story evolution, a practice that could be as old as the second story ever told!
Whilst a retelling is likely to get me reaching for the bookshop shelf, my enthusiasm can quickly wain if I can’t find that all important spark. The reason why the author thought it would be a good idea to tackle a retelling rather than work on something new. And this is the challenge of retelling, meeting readers’ expectations. Every version of a story that has gone before shapes readers’ views of what the story and characters should be.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that every retelling needs to be a fastidious, blow by blow, copy of the original. Equally there isn’t a requirement for a revolution; a trouncing of the old to justify the new. It’s simply a case of understanding those key elements of a story that readers expect and building the narrative around those.
So how much change justifies a retelling? For me the answer is simple, provided there’s a balance between meeting expectations and hearing the author’s own voice I don’t see how anyone can go wrong! Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Christina Henry’s Alice are great examples of retelling. Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is a straight retelling enhanced by his exquisite pros. Henry’s version of Alice is very much at the other end of the spectrum. The backdrop and characters have sizeable makeovers, yet through the turbulence and blood (a hallmark of many of her books) it is still unmistakably Alice.