A Few More Thoughts on Retellings

As I wade through my final round of revisions on my latest novel, I’ve been thinking a lot about the requirements of retellings (I wrote about this some last year).

At the time, I said:

“Holly’s way of thinking about retellings freed my mind from some of the doubt demons I had about tackling my own. And basically, what I got from the conversation was this: fair game. No matter what the source material, that’s THEIR story. Your story is your own, and you can feel free to jettison, combine, and remix whatever elements you need to to make your story the best it can be.In fact, the more it is your own, the better I like the retelling.”*

And I still feel that way, after writing a retelling that both fully encompasses all the major plot points and character arcs of Persuasion while also jettisoning, combining, remixing and, most of all, adding stuff that makes sense for my version. (I’m not going to detail what that is quite yet. I’ve been working on that post in my head for the future, though!)

Recently, I was reading an article about John Scalzi’s new book, Fuzzy Nation, which is a reboot of an old SF series from the 60s. He says, in part:

“You start asking, “What do we expect from our main characters today? What do we want out of our protagonists?” Those are the things that I would be asking myself, as opposed to individual, particular story plots. The overall arc of the story, you’ll notice, is pretty much the same in both books. The way that I look at it is, here’s the opening part of the book, here’s the end part of the book. Both books inhabit a sort of plot field. And the way that both of the stories wander through that plot field is markedly different.”

That’s it exactly for me. The arc is the same, and most of the plot points (the biggies, in my mind, anyway) are the same. But there are things that concern me as a writer that didn’t concern Jane, that concern today’s readers that don’t concern hers, and that concern my heroine that did not concern Anne Elliot. There are ways that my protagonist is very different than Anne Elliot — she inhabits a different world and was raised in a way that is similar to Anne’s in many ways, but also completely alien in others.

The first time I watched The Fellowship of the Ring movie, I was impressed with the way the filmmakers (and I really give Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens a lot of credit here) simplified things by getting rid of extraneous characters. (I love Tom Bombadil and Goldberry as much as anyone, folks, but people who were first coming to the story didn’t need them.) The example of this that stuck with me most, as a storyteller, was getting rid of Glorfindel and putting Frodo on Arwen’s horse instead. It makes Arwen a more vital part of the story in a way that’s required, given the primacy of the love story on the plot, and it cuts down somewhat on a pretty enormous character count.**

I think when you sit down to do an adaptation of any sort, you have to ask yourself what aspects of the story are the parts you are most interested in preserving, and what must change in order to serve those aspects of the story within the framework of your adaptation (even Tolkien didn’t know how to incorporate the love story into his book, which is why it’s an appendix).

There’s an added psychological benefit if you’re like me, and are neurotic enough to offer an apology to the little-Jane-looking-over-your-shoulder every time you make a big change — you tell yourself you’re doing it so you can keep something else, something important, something that both Jane and you love.


* Though when some people criticized me for that blog post, they quoted out of context an entirely different section of the post that made it seem like I don’t believe in saving anything from the original. In fact, I am quite faithful, and there are certain parts of the book that are to me, absolutely sacrosanct.

** Yes, I said that — me, who is known for populating her novels with entire football teams.

Posted in Austen, PAP, story, writing life

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