Fairy Tales Fairly Told (again…and again…and again…)

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.


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6 Responses to Fairy Tales Fairly Told (again…and again…and again…)

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    An interesting variety of categories.

    Part of what makes this subject a tricky one for writers (and readers/viewers) is the question of just what the “true” version of the story is. Postmodernism would tell us that all versions are equally true, and that authenticity is (in this sense) a trap. Rossini’s reply on being caught having stolen a theme from Bononcini (as reported by music humorist Victor Borges, to the best of my recollection) was that “it was much too good for Bononcini” — suggesting an ethos whereby the story belongs to whoever puts it to best use. Or new use, or original use, or whatever. And yet as humans we insist in priorities certain versions over others persistently enough to suggest to me that we can’t afford to simply dismiss the question.

    All of which does not answer the question of why writers and others so often choose to retell existing stories. Your own experience suggests one possible answer: such stories represent a rich source of inspiration for writers. Another (more crass) possibility is that writers, moviemakers, etc., draw on such stories because they feel there is a ready-made market for them. There’s no question in my mind that good as the Peter Jackson movies might be, far fewer people would ever have seen them without the “The Lord of the Rings” label. Which is part of why I feel they can legitimately be critiqued on the basis of what they do with that label, for good and ill…

  2. For whatever it may be worth, it seemed to me that the John Wayne version of TRUE GRIT followed the dialog in the book very closely (almost as if the book were written from the screenplay), but the ending was different from the book.

    The ending of the new version does follow the book more correctly, but otherwise, the only real difference I can remember comes from the fact that the actors and director (and everyone else involved in the film, of course) were different people.

    And sometimes, that can be reason enough (for some people) to remake a movie or retell a story. The new set of people will bring new things to the original just by being different people from those involved in the original.

    I’d like to submit that just as there isn’t ONE RIGHT WAY to write, there really isn’t one right way to tell a story, and when someone retells or re-enacts or re-imagines a story that someone else has already told, new things can happen just because new people are involved.

    What drives me crazy is when I see a remake of a movie, and it seems clear to me that someone is trying to copy what was done before. If Jeff Bridges had tried to be John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn instead of being Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, that would have been irritating at the very least. I want to see new insights into the characters, not an actor who thinks he can out-John Wayne John Wayne, so to speak.

  3. Moriah Jovan says:

    Well, I can’t speak for any other writers, but when *I* retell/reimagine, it’s because the framework is already there and useful. I discarded some elements of Hamlet in The Proviso because they weren’t pertinent to the story. You’d really have to know “The Gift of the Magi” to know how Stay turns out before you turn the last page (and my European readers don’t know who O. Henry is at all). Magdalene was trickier. I tried to be clear without being obvious, but I seem to have failed on both counts: My non-member readers don’t catch much, if any, of the Christian myth and thus, the allegory is lost on them. My member readers think it’s way overdone (but they still don’t catch every detail in there).

    That said, I’m finished with that little experiment of retellings/reimaginings. I did what I wanted to do with them and now I’m back to whipping novels up out of thin air.

  4. Scott Parkin says:

    Of course there are a wide variety of ways to tell a story “right,” some of which involve retelling or reimagining. It just seems like a disproportionate number of remakes or re-issues have been taking place lately—at least in film. I tend to think that’s little more than a business maximizing its profit potential with proven winners, a decision of business over art.

    Nothing wrong with that except that I like new stories mixed in with the retreads.

    Being inspired by something is very different than retelling it. When I was reading slush for a college SF magazine we got a wonderfully written story about a sick boy who (alone) could see a delicate unicorn whose presence made the roses grow—and eventually helped heal the boy himself. It was beautifully written, well told, and very hard to publish because it reused so many familiar tropes in relatively ordinary ways.

    As an aspiring writer I took that opportunity to write the anti-unicorn story. Instead of a loving creature that made the rose grow I wrote about the alien monocorns that killed household pets and made the wheat die–threatening the lives of all the human settlers on another planet. It was a nearly perfect inversion of the first story that I wrote in two days and submitted the following week (and which ended up being published).

    One could argue that mine was a simple formula, except that nothing about my story would make you think of the story it was a response to. Inspired by, but not specifically based on.

    It’s been argued that all basic stories have already been told and all that changes is the scenery and the characters. That might be true, but I also believe that those changes can bring new insight—or, as mentioned here, bring old insight to a new audience who has become disconnected from the older tropes or institutions.

    It’s a thorny problem, and I’m not taking anyone to task. Though I admit freely that I would rather see a story reimagined that simply retold.

  5. Julie Wright says:

    I’m currently writing a retelling of a couple of different fairytales. I’ve loved writing the story and I can’t say why I’m drawn to writing this particular story. I like reading retellings too, because I like seeing how someone else imagined an idea. I loved Princess at a Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, which is a retelling of the twelve dancing princesses. Maybe because it’s fun and feels familiar, and yet remains fresh. I think that’s why some people really like to read a series. They want the familiar. We like the world already there and want to play in it for a little while longer before they’re forced to say goodbye to that world.

  6. Tom Rogers says:

    Thanks, all, for your astute comments about the fantasy–realism balancing act. The Salt Lake painter John Hughs has succinctly spoken to it in discussing visual media: “The abstract gives beauty to detail, while detail gives meaning to the abstract.” A critic I recall reading many years ago suggested that, at least in the short story, the writer must choose between plot, character development and elaborate description–favoring perhaps two such elements but not all three. Tracing most all contemporary fantasy back to Tolkien, Adam Gopnik also has several worthwhile things to say in the December 5 “The New Yorker” (“The Dragon’s Egg: High fantasy for young adults,” pp. 86–89).

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