There are some tales that we tell, retell, reimagine, recast, adapt, invert, and update—time and time again. Stories we can’t seem to get enough of; stories that stick in our minds, infest our imaginations, and find expression in both intended and unintended ways. Whether folk legend, religious parable, or cultural fable, these (usually illustrative) stories demand to be retold.
What is it about these stories that demand such attention? Heaven knows it seems like more and more films are simple adaptations or retellings of existing stories. Whether fairy tales, comic books, or re-thinks of recent novels, we seem to be retelling an awful lot of stories rather than reimagining them.
There’s nothing wrong with a good retelling. While I haven’t seen it yet, I understand the new True Grit film is a significant improvement over the John Wayne version—or at least closer to the original novel. Frankly, I think the Dark Knight films are real improvements over both the Tim Burton and William Dozier versions, though it still misses both the heart and soul of either Bob Kane’s original comic book or Frank Miller’s startling re-imagination of Kane’s original.
There’s the upcoming rethink of Spiderman (yet again). The umpteenth retry of The Hulk. Yet another Ice Age sequel to complement yet another Shrek sequel. There’s even a new Snow White and the Huntsman as another in a long string of retellings (I watched a German adaptation this morning called 7 Dwarves). We’ll see when the next Beauty and the Beast comes out.
Many of these retellings attempt to update the story for a modern audience. I quite liked the Ever After update to Cinderella, though Tangled left me somewhat flat as a retelling of Rapunzel. (Honestly, I’ve never found a more interesting telling of Cinderella than the Grimm Brother’s original Ashenputtel, with its foot-disfiguring sisters and eye-plucking birds—grim, indeed.) I ended up with mixed feelings about Tin Man, an updated sequel to The Wizard of Oz that put in all the dark details and violence I would expect of an adult-audience reimagination of Frank Baum.
So my question is why so much retelling or simple recasting of classic tales rather than true reimagination? I have nothing against starting from a traditional take and generating a new story from it. My first creative writing class at BYU included an exercise where we started from a biblical parable (I chose the prodigal son) and used it to generate a new story that was not an evident retelling. Years later noted genre author David Farland suggested using historical events as plot frameworks for new stories; I promptly imagined the Willey Handcart company version of a planetary exploration story—details that informed the movement of the story, but did not form the basis of the tale.
One of my favorite novellas of all time was written by LDS author Russell Asplund, who found himself unsatisfied by the Data character in Star Trek: The Next Generation (himself a Pinocchio character who just wanted to become a real boy). Asplund completely inverted the story and instead of telling about an automaton that wanted to become a real boy he told of an animated wooden golem who just wanted to be a good piece of wood that could be fashioned into something useful. His story, The Unhappy Golem of Rabbi Leitch, won the quarterly first prize in the Writers of the Future contest that so many other LDS authors have also won.
Not so much a retelling as a true reimagination. A new story inspired by the original (and at least one of its retellings), but that diverged in nearly all the details, if not the thematic foundation.
As Mormons we have an expanded set of cultural tales on which to base plot frameworks, or thematic foundations, or even simple retellings. We have not only those tales available to everyone (Aesop, Grimm, Andersen, etc.), but the unique tales of our own people and culture from which to draw. Maybe this is one of the many reasons that stories by LDS writers are often viewed as fresher or more unique.
Whatever the case, there is more than one way to use an existing story to seed another. They don’t all have to be retellings, resettings, or simple updates; our stories can also be reimaginings that recast old takes in light of new times, places, situations, and technologies. We can build, line upon line and precept on precept, on the stories we know to create new wine for new bottles, not just another repackaging of the same old stories told so often before.