Welcome back, everyone, to the return of the folklore blogging!
So last year (yikes), we were discussing the characteristics that mark a folktale out: plot grammar, aesthetic style, and so on. As I said at the time, modern retellings may conform to those characteristics to a greater or lesser extent.
I’m not terribly concerned with drawing boundaries around what is and is not a retelling. What purpose would that serve? The interesting part is looking at how a given story mimics or alters the original, and how that affects the way we read it.
Meredith Ann Pierce’s novel The Darkangel, which has been a running example of mine this entire time, shows how a story can feel like a fairy tale even when its plot is wholly original: we read the connection in the style. Conversely, you might write a “Sleeping Beauty” story with all the diagnostic components of the tale type, but tell it in a psychologically realistic style, with the story set in the inner city and the spindle replaced with a hypodermic needle. The more you change, though, the more distant the resemblance gets. If your “Sleeping Beauty” story is not only psychologically realistic and set in the modern day, but also features such plot twists as your heroine trying to find her father’s murderer . . . well, you can say it’s a retelling, but don’t be surprised if people aren’t convinced.
What do we get by changing things up? If you’re an old granny sitting by the fire, telling stories to your grandchildren, you don’t need to change a thing; the kids may even be annoyed if you try. But once you start talking about the publishing industry, novelty becomes more important. What does your version bring to the table, that all the other versions out there don’t?
Plot alterations are common because we’ve got a cultural prejudice against predictability, which is a real problem for a genre where everybody knows how the story ends. By throwing in a twist — the prince, Cinderella, and her two step-sisters settle down polyamorously! The Beast turns out to be an alien! — you can escape those expectations. (Whether or not the twist is a good one . . . that’s harder. One person’s fresh idea is another person’s cheesy gimmick.) Another common approach is to shift the story to a new setting: out of the generic, nameless kingdom of the original and into the Old West or Meiji Japan or outer space. Done right, this puts a different spin on familiar elements. Done badly, it’s a decorative paint job that adds nothing to the story.
It’s very common for retellings to add psychological depth to the source, because we expect that out of our fiction nowadays. A flat character with no real motivation and no emotional reaction to events gets boring very quickly. But as soon as you do that, you send other elements out of balance: actions that seem reasonable under the weird logic of a folktale become a lot more bizarre when supposedly normal people undertake them. Do you say Cinderella’s sisters injected themselves with anesthetics before carving up their feet? Do you realistically depict their agony? Or do you just leave that element out entirely?
Finding a new angle can be hard, when there are so many retellings out there. Some people get around this by just choosing a source less well-trammeled: a more obscure story from the Brothers Grimm, or a tale from a different part of the world. All of these and more are valid options; the interesting part — at least to me — are the patterns.