Monday, September 18, 2006

Retell Me A Story (She Makes With The Excuses Again)

Remember back when I posted everyday and y’all were like, “Won’t this girl ever shut up? And what’s with these y’alls anyway, I thought she was from the West Coast? This weird hybrid of southern slang and valley girl ‘likes’ gives SoCal a whole new meaning.”

Well, that? That was the honeymoon period known as the happy time when they kept pushing back inventory and there were no major holidays, and that time is now over. Cyborg mania stayed up for so long last week (and made its rounds to a surprising number of other places) for the simple reason that the heat is on. That’s right: we had inventory, bigwig visits, and employee training. Oh, my!

At one point as I was rushing around trying to pull missed returns so that I could then go receive my new shipment, my trainee looked at me and said, “You must go home exhausted.”

Honey, you have no idea.

The thing is, this really has nothing to do with you guys, unless it was your books I sent back or didn’t have time to up-sell because I was running around like a mad woman. Inventory, bigwig visits and employee training are a necessary evil because we’re not all popped out into the book world, fully formed and knowledgeable, to spread and knowledge and light, nor are the customers and their sometimes sticky, kleptomaniac fingers.

Where was I? Oh yeah, long week, vacation not coming soon enough, brain functioning on dying power cells.

Excuses, excuses, excuses. Blah, blah, blah. You’ve heard it all before so move on, bitch.

Got it.

So let’s talk about something else. On Friday I pulled out a book that is a retelling of Alice in Wonderland called The Looking Glass Wars that is now making its U.S. debut, and it got me thinking about retellings that have become famous the last few years. Whether it is simply taking an alluded to character like Geraldine Brooks’ March or more intertwined with the original like Maguire’s Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, it seems like we have embraced this fanfiction-type send-up to the stories that intrigue us. Are we really seeing more of these retellings taking place or has this been a long, ongoing practice that I’ve missed by eschewing English classes for Biology in college?

Talk to me people, because I really do believe this is becoming popular. I mean look at all the retellings and continuations of Pride and Prejudice that exist today (from Darcy’s point of view, the marriage saga, and the resulting daughters’ books), and let’s not forget Louis Bayard’s Mr. Timothy. So what is the power in retelling a story from a different point of view? And what are the downfalls? Why would someone attempt it in the first place?

And what are some of the great retellings out there?


Eileen said...

I liked Wicked. I hated the book Scarlett that was the "sequel" to Gone with the Wind. Oh so very wrong. I think the book would have been fine on it's own- but taking on Scarlet's voice didn't work for me.

alau said...

Retelling stories in pop culture can also serve as a critique of society.

Remember the uproar over the "The Wind Done Gone" ? The retelling of "Gone With the Wind"? Or maybe it was just because it talked about race and racism *gasp* in a Southern fantasy plantation land.

David de Beer said...

Think King Arthur and there is pretty much your answer as to how long retellings have been going on.

Even Mallory's Morte D'Arthur was not the first, it was simply the definitive as we know the legend today. It goes back all the way to the 14th century, to German ballads of Parzival. (Percival, the knight who found the Holy Grail).

Why has this one story captured the imagination of people for so many centuries? Dunno, but I am a HUGE sucker for Arthur stories!

The person I know who has done the most rewrites, or re-tellings, of famous literary works from different pov's is Marion Zimmer Bradley. In both cases, she told it from the pov of the women, which should have been interesting, but (to me) was a disappointment overall.

I did like most the ideas for The Firbrand, where she tells the tales of Cassandra from a "historical" point, with little of the mysticism. My main problem with this is, it came down more like a diatribe against men in general, and was therefore obviously off-putting to me.
I don't know what the Avalon book is like, although I have heard it get good reviews.

The power of re-telling?

Well, I think Helen of Troy kind of sums it up for me:
Helen is the "reason" for the war between Troy and the Greeks, yet we know little to nothing about her! Certainly, she was not the focus of the Illiad, which was only concerned with Achilles and Hector.
Lately, the popular belief is similar to one the Romans held - the Greeks were "bad", and the Trojans were "noble and good", with Helen a sad, tragic figure given a chance at happiness.
This, however, was not the view of the Greeks at the time - to them, Achilles was the hero's hero, and Hector as kinda ok, and Helen didn't matter, because women didn't matter in Greek society of the time.
The Illiad remians a remarkable story, probably the most definitive about the nature of heroism, and that is probably why people attempt re-writes (David Gemmel is doing his version of Troy now, where the two main characters are Andromache and Aeneas).

ok, before I go off on too long a discourse (and this is an essay question), Helen has two very broad interpretations, both of which can take the same story, with familiar settings and events, and cast them in a whole different light:

1) Helen was a victim, genuinely in love with Paris, and trying to escape a loveless marriage and an abusive brute of a husband (sounds familiar? we hear it on Oprah every year, and it is a worry)

2) Helen was a conniving dog's mother, in league with the Greeks, seduced Paris and wrangled her way into the Trojan court, thus providign the reason for war

Ok, that's enough now, but I think the charm in retellings lie in the fact that it's a chance to examine the known from a new perspective, to see how much the picture and values of the original remains the same or changes.

Anonymous said...

Funny you should mention Helen of Troy, since Margaret George has a marvelous new historical novel out about her. It's brilliant, like all of her books.

David de Beer said...

Margaret George? Am not familiar with this author, is she new? Other titles?

sarah said...

I got the best book for you! It's a can't put it down, laugh out loud book that comes out in October. "The What-if Guy" by Taylor Wilshire. It's a chick lit book with a spiritual twist, and I don't read chick lit but it's aweome the latest buzz with reviewers. Check it out

Anonymous said...

I love fairy tale updates. I'm a huge fan of children's lit, and "Ella Enchanted" (which was, of course, a much better book than movie) is my favorite retelling of Cinderella ... and GCL's retelling of Snow White just came out (Fairest), and I hope it's as good as some of her previous work.

Little Willow said...

I have an entire booklist dedicated to Fairy Tales Retold.

My favorites for adults (or at least older teens) are:
Innocence by Jane Mendelsohn
Straight on 'til Morning by Christopher Golden

. . . and for kids:
Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix
The Princess Tales series by Gail Carson Levine
The Legend of Holly Claus by Brittney Ryan

Penny L. Richards said...

I'm surprised nobody's mentioned Jean Rhys's _Wide Sargasso Sea_ (1966), a retelling of some events alluded to or occurring in _Jane Eyre_. It's set in the Caribbean, and covers Rochester's disastrous first marriage. Don't go by the bleh movie version; the novel is very effective.

Kendall said...

Occasionally I see a rehash, I mean, fan fiction, I mean, retelling, and think, "That sounds groovy!" But most retellings sound like cool ideas, and then don't deliver. David Gemmell's Troy: Lord of the Silver Bow was amazing; Wicked was a disappointment I didn't even finish. In general, I'd rather people stuck to more original works. (For something like The Looking Glass Wars, it sounds like such a gimmick; even changing the girl's name; if the story didn't so pointedly "retell" Alice in Wonderland, I'm sure most people would pass it by. I hate gimmicks...except when they work out. ;-)

As I write this, I think maybe I just prefer reimaginings of much older works (the stuff of myth & legend), to more recent things like Alice in Wonderland. By the way, there have been some interesting comic book take-offs of Baum's Oz books (with a much darker tone).

Kendall said...

p.s. by "except when they work out" I meant "except when they work out for me" -- i.e., occasionally I'll find an exception.

are you asking me to dance? said...

I like Robin McKinley's retellings: "Beauty" and "Rose Daughter" - Beauty and the Beast; "Spindle's End" - Sleeping Beauty; "Deerskin" - Donkeyskin; "The Outlaws of Sherwood" - Robin Hood.

I also like Pamela Dean's "Tam Lin", Diana Wynne Jone's "Fire and Hemlock" and Elizabeth Marie Pope's "The Perilous Gard", all of which more or less have something to do with Tam Lin.

I like Stephen Lawhead's version of the King Arthur stories as well. And Teresa Tomlinson's and Jennifer Roberson's take on Robin Hood. And Laurie R King's Sherlock Holmes. I also thought Jasper Fforde's first Thursday Next book was fun, although it's not really a retelling; I haven't read the others yet.

I think the books above work for me because the author has retold the story in his or her own way - from a new perspective or changed it enough that it's different from the original or other retellings - as opposed to, say, two of Christina Dodd's books I read a little while ago that I thought were rewrites of "Sabrina" and "The Sound of Music". The only thing different about them were the names of the characters; It didn't seem to me like anything new was introduced or explored. I thought it was unoriginal and more fan-fiction-y than retellings that perhaps use the same names and story arcs but tell the story in a different way. If that makes any sense.

Wesley Smith said...

The classical fairy-tale and mythical "re-tellings" don't irritate me all that much because, in their way, they're following the tradition of how the stories developed in the first place.

But what does get to me more and more are the licensed and approved 'sequels' to more modern literary works. 'Scarlett' has already been mentioned, and I even tried 'As Time Goes By,' a sequel to Casablanca where Rick and Ilsa travel to Germany to stop a Nazi plot.

Yes, as a matter of fact, it was as bad as it sounds.

Trish Ryan said...

I'm not a huge fan of retellings, but I will admit a secret adoration for all the Pride & Prejudice spin-offs, particularly the ones where the more onerous characters are disposed of in creative ways :)

quiche said...

I enjoyed The Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde. He plays with fairy tale characters and even questions what makes a character real, as Jack Spratt himself wonders. I enjoyed it more than his first nursery crime mystery The Big Over Easy.

BuffySquirrel said...

If I were cynical, I'd suspect the main reason for doing these "retellings" and spin-offs is that there's a guaranteed readership.

Oh, wait, I AM cynical.

I did enjoy Wide Sargasso Sea, with its 'other side of the story' approach. Not so much Spindle's End, which seemed a lot of description leavened with very little story. It came in a three-pack with The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown. I sometimes reread the other two, but Spindle's End has no reread appeal.

I have a lot of King Arthur's of one stamp or another, but I confess I'm a bit weary of the story by now. Every retelling takes us down the same route, after all. It is however interesting to me to see how the story changes its details in the hands of different tellers--Excalibur and the sword in the stone are becoming one and the same, rather than distinct, for example. I think the best retelling I've ever read is TH White's The Sword in the Stone. I recommend it (but don't watch the Disney film).

Books that really can work for me are ones that take a sideways look at well-known stories. For example, I remember a book I read as a child (was it a Geoffrey Trease?) about a boy living in Troy during the Greek siege. The book gave a different perspective on familiar events. Similarly, Woolf's story about Flush, Barrett Browning's spaniel. These sorts of "secret histories" are more intriguing to me than straightforward retellings.

hot teacher chick said...

For a light, charming reading of a mythical retelling, try "Maid Marian" by Elsa Watson. It is Robin Hood from Marian's POV - the powerless role of women in medieval society, etc.

michele_lang said...

Ooh! My first book, Ms. Pendragon, is a time-travel/paranormal romance that is a retelling of the King Arthur legend. Gwen, a NYC lawyer, finds out she is an incarnation of Queen Guinevere and Merlin brings her back to Camelot to deal with her past and her husband, Arthur.

My book will be in the stores in early October and it's good to know Ms. Pendragon is part of a larger trend. Thanks to BSC and all for your comments -- you made this fledging author's day.


Little Willow said...

New list alert: Sassy Sidekicks of Children's Literature. Come play!

Anonymous said...


I'm late on the ball, I know, but I just found you.

Here are two of my absolute favorite "do-overs", as my niece refers to them. Robin McKinley has done to retellings of the "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale. The first is called "Beauty" and the second is called "Rose Daughter".

I think the worst retelling was done by Mercedes Lackey. Several years ago (okay, long enough ago that it makes me wince because I was in high school when I first found them.) C. J. Cheryh did a shared worlds anthology/novel called Merovingian Nights. Ms. Lackey was one of the authors who participated. Her contributions were the characters of Rif and Rat, Jones the Canaler and Raj and Denny Takahashi, as well as several minor characters. The tales were rollicking good fun, a bit short on literary merit but a good all the same. My sister described them as science fiction twinkies. You couldn't live on them as a steady diet, but they were good eatin' besides.

Fast forward to 2002. Ms. Lackey collaborates with Dave Freer and Eric Flint on the "Heirs of Alexandria" books. She didn't just recycle her cast from "Merovingian Nights", she recycled the side plot. Some scenes were re-used word for word. I'm not kidding. Substitute place and character names and you could read a few chapters right out of the first series and not miss a thing in the second. I don't know if the blatant recycling continued after the first few chapters because I got disgusted and threw them away.

That's right. I didn't return them to the store (even though they have a 100 percent money back guarantee) or take to trade at the used store. I was so disgusted that I did something I NEVER do. I threw them in the trash. I had bought BOTH of the "Heirs to Alexandria" books on the strength of her reputation. I won't do that again.

I know that as far as intellectual property goes, Ms. Lackey was well within her rights to do what she did. It wasn't plagiarism as she was the original author. But I felt that it was a slap in the face to her readers. We're not stupid. Trying to pass it off as a new story was foolish. It cost her fans. I won't buy her stuff again and I have gradually given away or traded in just about all of my collection. If you're going to reuse a plotline, that's pretty cool. But taking something that was published years ago, and making purely cosmetic changes and marketing it as new is wrong.

I was a fan when she was writing things that would be a hard sell, for example, she tackled having an openly gay main character. I was used to innovation and creativity from her. These things did get a little slowed down as she wrote more Valdemar books, because, as your guest blogger wrote, readers are somewhat resistant to change unless it is done subtley. But not all of us are like that. I will be honest and tell you that I was getting a little frustrated with the way she was writing in the a comfort zone. I understand that she makes her living this way, and sometimes it's hard to be successful when you're pushing the envelope. I expected better than this, though.

Ironically enough, a young neighbor of mine had the same reaction as I did in an opposite manner. He found the Merovingen Nights series in a used store and bought it. He jumped in feet first and got to Rif and Rat and was dissappointed as he'd already read that story, because he'd read "the Heirs to Alexandria" books first.

Anyway, sorry for being all verbose at you. But you did ask.