Reusing stories as retellings have flourished in the recent years. From legend and myth to folktales, from fairytales to plays and classics. They also come in various shapes and sizes: modern-setting, gender bent, futuristic, mishmash of different stories, LGBTQ+ retellings, giving more depth retelling… basically, there are endless options of books available for us to enjoy if we want more of the story.
The problem is, how much liberty and creativity can we put into this existing story to make it ours? How much can we change from the original material? Because I don’t wait to read someone doing a retelling of a fairytale I loved so much or from a story based on my culture, yet they totally change it. Does changing too much and left too little of the original story still makes our story a retelling or is it just a “story inspired by—“? Do we disrespect the culture the story from, or writers of the play if we change too much of the story?
Here are two things on how I think retelling should be written. Bear in mind that this is my opinion, especially the good and bad examples are purely written subjective to my opinion.
The story still has to have the core elements of the story.
If we are doing Cinderella, I still need to have an evil step-family, a party (ball or whatever), and the search by the love interest. If we are doing Beauty and the Beast, I still need to read about how this love interest is more than what meets the eyes. Give me the essence of the story. You can change or twist them cleverly that it makes us guess, but these points need to be in the retellings. Don’t just remove them, because then it will be a different story. What is Cinderella without her evil step-family, the masquarade, and the search by love interest? What would that story be if you remove all of those things?
Bad Example: The Flame in the Mist, which was marketed as a Mulan retelling. First of all, the book set in Japan while Mulan is Chinese, but I don’t mind that because IMO, retelling doesn’t have to set in the same countries. I mean… Aladdin is originally from China. What’s pissing me off is how, besides the cross-dressing aspect, there’s no other resemblance to Mulan. What makes Mulan a Mulan is not the cross-dressing aspect, cross-dressing present in other myth and stories far before Mulan. Even in the Myth, Achilles cross-dressed to hide in Skyros. What makes Mulan a remarkable story is how she cross-dressed to defend his father honor, her resilience and determination is what makes her memorable. She didn’t do it to hide or to get revenge; she did it simply because she wanted to protect his father and proved that girl had the same worth as boy. If Flame in the Mist is truly a Mulan retelling, it missed the essence of the story. It erased what makes Mulan an amazing story and change it into another thing.
Good Example: Phantom by Susan Kay gives us more background and depth to Erik. We get to know him from his childhood and all the bad things he had to endure that made him who he was. Is the story canon? No. Kay took the barest mention of Erik’s past in Phantom of the Opera and made it into her own thing, yet it’s still the story of the Phantom of the Opera. Why? Because despite the connection and empathy we have towards Erik while reading Phantom, we also know that he’s not a saint and he’s guity of all the shitstorm happening in Phantom of the Opera. We didn’t lose sight of him as the villain. All the background and depth Kay gave to Erik did make us see him in a different light, but not so different that he suddenly become a saint, hero, or victim of the story. Phantom is the story of how Erik become Erik in PotO and his point of view from the events, but he’s still Erik. She doesn’t change the whole point of Phantom of the Opera, and that’s what I really love about the book.
Respect towards the story.
Fairytales are not really that hard to be made into retellings because the story is universal. Even though we associated Hansel and Gretel to Germany, it does not exactly belong to the Germans. Myths and folktales, however, is an entirely different story. Most of them are part of a culture, deeply rooted in someone’s values because it’s what their ancestors told them from generation to generation. Myths and folktales are also deeply linked to a particular country or race, which made it even trickier. Greek mythology belongs to Greek people; in the ancient times, it was a religious belief for the people. I don’t know whether there are Greek people who still believes in the Olympians in the modern time, but we definitely still associate the myth with the present Greece. Also Three Kingdoms and Fa Mulan, which are historical tales, are stories Chinese people deeply identified and take pride with. What I think we need to do is keep in mind to respect the stories when we write a retelling of it. Same goes for plays or classics. I don’t know how it works since for plays and classics, the authorship of the story is known for sure, and I think there will be copyright to deal with? But basically, we need to treat the original material with respect.
Of course, sometimes there are gray areas. The Legend of King Arthur, for example, is a mix of myth and folktales. Some think it was just a story, but there are also others who believed King Arthur would rise again when he’s needed. There are whole scientific area dedicated to study the Arthurian legend, some actually believe Arthur is real and therefore, part of Britain’s history. But what’s certain is this legend can be traced back to a particular country, where there are people who deeply believe and identify with the story. Therefore, it needs to be treated with respect because it reflects the people’s culture.
- Some people hated The Song of Achilles ending, others argue that changing it will disrespect the Greek culture.
- There are some gods that have similar domains, like Hades, Thanatos and Erebos; also Osiris and Anubis. If authors don’t do enough research, it’s easy to fall into wrong-deity trap and causes outrage from people. I’ve seen people complaining, even raging about wrong-deity on review because it just changes the whole mythology and overlook certain gods.
- Whether or not Hades and Persephone is a story of kidnapping and rape, or is it just kidnapping, or a moral tale is still up for debate. The wedding tradition in the ancient Greece is different from modern times, the meaning of the word rape also has changed throughout the millennia, and the Hades we know now is not the Hades the ancient Greece knew, since after the rise of Christianity, Hades was kinda made to be synonymous with Satan- dark and evil while he was actually portrayed as passive rather than evil. I won’t get into much details here, but basically the myth we knew now might not the whole truth, since there are millennias between now and the ancient times, in which civilization rise and fall, the next civilization carrying their stories and legacies, where some changes could happen. So the romantisation might actually be true, might actually be wrong. Each scholars have their own interpretation and each authors do their research with different materials. Whether or not Persephone eventually be happy with Hades, we never know, but one thing most story seems to get right, which is the essence of the story is Persephone was taken without her will. Nice or not, Hades took Persephone to the underworld against her will and no one should erase that.
What do you think author should pay attention to when writing retellings? How much could they change from the story?