In Defense of Retellings

In Defense of Retellings.png

Two-and-a-half years ago, I wrote a post called¬†Why I’m Sick of Retellings, where I discussed the deluge of retellings and appendages to existing mythos. As soon as I wrote it, I knew I’d only talked about half the story, and started this post – and then I had a crisis of confidence over writing longer form blogs/essays, so never finished this post. It had a few scattered notes, but that was it.

However, one of my goals this year was to write more essay-style posts, so it’s time to dust off these ideas and write!


Returning to Retellings

Since writing that post, I have read over fifty retellings, of which eight made it onto various of my “best books of the year” lists. A retelling is no longer an automatic “I’m not sure if I’m going to pick this up” for me – in fact I have actually bought some books specifically because of the material it is retelling. In part, that is because I have matured as a reader and a writer to look deeper at the stories rather than simply just going “oh heck, not another retelling?”

I stand-by my comment about being bored by seeing the same old material reworked, and there are still some properties that you really have to sell to me with a really fresh new take for me to pick up (*cough, Beauty and the Beast, and the Iliad, cough*). Some things have been done so many times I cannot see any difference between the stories any more – what distinguishes them – and can predict what happens as I know what is coming. It’s about an idea becoming stale for me if it’s used too many times.

However, dipping a toe into retellings myself (with history and Shakespeare) forced me to reconsider my stance. Experience is the best teacher, and I can now appreciate the double edged sword that is the retelling beast.

The Commercial Draw of Retellings

Clearly, retellings sell. And sell well enough that they keep getting bought by publishers. Yes, publishing is often a few years (sometimes more!) behind what readers want, as is the nature of timelines and editing processes. It’s all about guessing what will sell in the future. But retellings are consistently bought by publishers year after year – from debuts and established authors alike. If they weren’t shown to appeal to readers, this wouldn’t happen.

There is a familiarity to retellings, the comfort of seeing someone bring their own words to a known story. Just like being told a book has “enemies-to-lovers” in it is guaranteed to get some people to buy a book, saying “this is a retelling of Cinderella” will appeal to others. It’s all a matter of taste.

Retellings and Twists

The thing about a retelling, particularly of popular material, is that the reader will probably have an idea of what to expect. One the one hand, as discussed in the previous post, this is a challenge as you have to sufficiently surprise the reader with a new take so it doesn’t feel dull and already done.

But it’s also a useful short cut. Retellings are like tropes in that sense – it’s a set of expectations the reader comes in with that the writer doesn’t have to establish. In an industry where word count limits can be rather strict for certain age ranges and genres (particularly for debuts), it’s a useful way of economising. In this, retellings are a step ahead of conventional narratives when it comes to pulling off twists.

I believe a good twist needs three ingredients:

  1. To flip the previous story on its head, by giving it another meaning or perspective
  2. To subvert a set of expectations that have been set up in the narrative
  3. To be based on a set of clues that have been subtly included so that you only notice them but in retrospect

The expectations for the story are already partially set up by the nature of it being a retelling. There are pitfalls here – the author relying entirely on readers to set the expectations themselves based on the property being retold – but less page time needs to be spent setting up the “expected story” because enough hints dropped here and there allows the reader to fill in the blanks.

The Reader and the Retelling

These expectations, though, are directed by the reader. They will come to the book with their own opinions on the source material. They will have their own views on whether they like a character or not beforehand. With fairy tales and mythology, there will be versions of the story they prefer to others. And these opinions will not match the authors. They might run parallel in some places, but are guaranteed to diverge in others.

Let’s take the body of Greek Mythology – a pretty broad body, I admit. I deeply dislike the character of Athena, for reasons that would detract from this post. Whenever I read something based on Greek mythology, my personal dislike of her colours my reading, so if the hero/ine admires Athena, or the goddess is portrayed as a feminine role-model, I will vehemently disagree with the book. Sometimes to the point of causing a disconnect between me and the book.

The author has the unenviable task of taking on my opinions – and the opinions of every reader, none of whom will agree perfectly. Faced with this spectrum of opinions, the author has to convince everyone to set aside their own interpretations and instead view the myth through their eyes for a bit. They don’t necessarily have to change the reader’s mind, just present a compelling enough story that sweeps the reader away in their version.

It is a mammoth task, and will not succeed on every reader. But we, as readers, can help. We can try to put aside our own opinions and go into a book with an open mind, rather than dismissing it as “just another retelling”. We can give the book a chance.

At least, that’s what I’m trying to do.

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4 thoughts on “In Defense of Retellings

  1. Well, they say that there are only seven (or 12) basic plots in the world, so technically, everything is a retelling of one kind or another. But yes, some retellings miss the mark. Two I can recommend are The Charmed Wife by Olga Grushin who reimagines the Cinderella story, but with a very distinctive twist (I gave it 4.5 stars out of 5, but I’m starting to think I should up that to a full 5 – I can’t stop thinking about that book). Another is Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood, where she takes Shakespeare’s The Tempest and reuses it in a very distinctive way.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a really great discussion post on this topic. I personally adore retellings, but I do agree that sometimes, they get a little samey-samey for me and the Beauty and the Beast has been done so many times! I actually like more mythology ones to be honest!

    Liked by 1 person

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