Friday, October 29, 2010

Tell It to Me Again...

I’m a little muddled on the concept of the “re-telling” of story.
From what I've seen lately, I think the term has become quite confused and ill-used.

Webster’s Dictionary defines it simply as: a new version of a story gives a little more info with this entry:
a new, and often updated or retranslated, version of a story.

I always took it to mean someone else is conveying a previously told/created story using their own flair, wit and words and possibly adding a new element here or there, or (as the online Dictionary suggests) updating it to meet current trends.

For instance, the story of Cinderella has been around since, for all intents and purposes, the dawn of time. One version or another of a tale of a bedraggled and abused person coming to happiness and fortune by the aid of a presence beyond the normal scope exists in every culture for century upon century.  Along the way, storytellers have put their own spin, so to speak, fleshing out the well-known facts of this rags-to-riches narrative in another light, changing a bit to give it their own pizazz or making it seem fresh.  Take Charles Perrault, who brought us the glass slipper as opposed to the golden footwear. Is it the spirit of her dead mother in a tree or is it a Fairy Godmother that comes to her aid?  In essence, it doesn't really matter... so long as she does have a “supernatural” helper to some degree. And so, Cinderella is “re-told.”

So my idea of a the reason/form of retelling would simply be for an author to “put it” as s/he would in her or his own style and way but ultimately following the original plot.

Where it gets complicated, it would seem, is when it's applied to a story that is not derived from an undiscernable source (a la fairy/folk tales passed down via oral tradition) but rather a tale conceived of and set down by a particular author.  Lately I have seen the word describing stories that use such an established tale as a springboard to send the characters and/or plot in a new direction.

For instance, let’s say one wants to retell Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. This new version starts off with her following the White Rabbit down the hole and meeting most of the same wacky bunch of characters but now Alice finds the cookbook to control the potent size-manipulation and uses her knowledge of the chessboard (as we can assume that the new storyteller wants to bring in elements of Through the Looking-Glass as well) to become the supreme ruler of the wondrous place and does so permanently, never leaving 'Wonder-Glass World.'

Okay... to me, that’s not a retelling. That’s something else...a... hmm... I’m not really sure. The word “reimagining” is often bantered around, but I don’t think that quite applies either.

As I see it, a reimagining would be something that takes the premise and tweaks it into another way of looking at it. For instance, the Alice tales reimagined: Alice is a quantum physicist who stumbles into another ‘string’ of reality and becomes increasinly more insane as she tries to apply her knowledge of how our universe functions in a place where the behavior of matter (and customs) are quite different and 'break down' from our own.  However, for all this imagined-differently, Alice still winds up at a banquet table, plays lawn darts with a Queen, is put on trial and then escapes...hence, recounting, more or less, the original events through this lens of our modern scientist Alice.  But then... since this "version" follows the semi-exact path of the stories by Lewis Carroll, does it then become a retelling rather than a reimaging?
Let’s take an example that actually HAS built upon Alice. The Looking-Glass Wars series by Frank Beddor has been labeled a retelling, so it's a prime candidate for this argument. For those who don’t know, heir to the throne Alyss escapes from another world (you know where) into ours and tells mathematician/deacon Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Carroll) her harrowing tale of her aunt (the Red Queen) having taking over the throne and the land with a bloody and iron fist. The main characters are there, but in almost complete other forms. The ‘rub’ is that Dodgson/Carroll got her true stories all shuffled up, mistaking her plight for fantasy and "told it wrong" thus creating the wacky “children’s story" we know. And so, Beddor presents us with the "real" story of Alyss/Alice.  But that’s not a retelling... is it?  Again, the Alice stories aren’t quite being TOLD in it... they’re being used.

For another example, would Sarah Gray's Wuthering Bites be a retelling?  (See this post.)

I don’t mean to suggest that new elements cannot be brought in, nor that the events of the new version/vision must follow the sequence of events to the letter. Far from it... as evidenced by the Cinderella example. But when one takes the story itself FAR FROM IT, that’s, well, another story...

From the realm of the silver screen, I put up Sydney White as an example of what a completely overhauled story can be like and yet STILL be considered a re-telling.  Sydney White reconstitutes the story of Snow White but on a college campus.  Is it one-for-one with the fairy tale?  Okay, no, not exactly.  But then again, the SPINE of the story is there.  The major elements from the original tale exist in one form or another -- the magic mirror is a social networking website at the school showing student popularity, the poison apple [very easily yet smartly done (I won't reveal how!)], the seven dwarves become the 'seven dorks' [all wonderfully 'translated:' Sneezy has major allergies, Doc is a grad student, Bashful has social development issues, etc.] -- and the story takes serious turns from the original such as an election for Student Body President... yet it flows along, quite obviously parallel to the famous tale we all know.  It's marvelously done.  Bravo to writer Chad Gomez Creasey!

So I put this question out there:
What is a retelling?
Can something be a “retelling” if the original tale is not actually being told?

And if not, what DOES one call such a novel/story that borrows the locales, concepts, characters and a smattering of events from another author's  (whether specific or not) story? 

And if you’re wondering: No, in my mind the bold & marvelous Hook & Jill by fellow author and friend Andrea Jones is not a retelling.  Andrea's work is grounded in the adventures the Darling children are having in the midst of Barrie's tale, but then veers from his events into a brand new adventure for every character in it.  Thus it’s a... an alternate timeline, perhaps?  Yet this term does not cover many (or most?) of the other such adventures (ahem!) re-told.

Is the word we need for such storytelling re-envisioning? Or maybe reworking?

Is it just me?  Why are we labeling things a retelling when they are merely based on another tale?  Am I unclear on the meaning of "retelling" or has the world gone mad with a misnomer?

1 comment:

Anon said...

You make very good points. I don't know what a good word would be for when it's the characters and setting of a story being redone but not the plot itself.... "reuse of a stock world" doesn't sound good....

Makes me wonder, though, what would Stanley Kubrick's film version of The Shining be vis-a-vis Stephen King's novel? It sort of LOOKS almost like you can follow along to some degree, but not really exactly--it's almost like the title and characters' names are all they have in common (minus a few lines and plot points)....