Why Can’t We Resist Retellings?

This is a guest post from Jessica Pryde. She can’t remember a time when she didn’t love to read, but that’s not why she’s a librarian–it’s a nice perk, though. Follow her on Twitter @jessisreading.


I’m no social scientist, but I do notice things. And one of those things is that people really like being reintroduced to stories that they know.  They don’t mind them being told over and over again. Look at the movies coming out this summer: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Godzilla, Macbeth. All made at least once before in our lifetimes on film, and originating in other materials even before that.

So why make them again?

Because people will go see them, of course.  Some to hate-watch, some to expose their children to a story they’re familiar with, and some because they don’t know any better.

The same can be asked about authors taking stories that we’ve heard before, and creating something new about it.  Some have said that almost all novels have the same basic storyline; we can all say that idea is pretty much bunk.  But I, at least, have an almost inherent attraction to novels that are about stories I already know–whether it’s a version of Pride and Prejudice set in the American Southwest or about a New York teenager being turned into a furry monster with a strong affinity for roses.  I want to see whether the author will stick to the same basic storyline, or if they will make one of those drastic changes that make me cackle in delight.

The success of what I like to call “Pastiche TV”–shows like Once Upon A Time, Sherlock and Hannibal–indicates that there are others like me, who love to hear those stories, as long as there’s a twist.  And images like this show that Alex Flinn and Gail Carson Levine are just the tip of the iceberg of the retelling universe.  And our reading practices are not limited to the retelling of fairytales, though they do seem to be the Next-Last-Thing happening in fiction written for children, teens, and adults.  Authors, especially in YA, are publishing novels ranging from a modern version of The Great Gatsby to a really screwed up version of Oz, and everything in between.

And people are eating it up.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but these kinds of story are my kryptonite.  It’s due, in part, to my intrinsic fascination with fanfiction–published or otherwise–and in part due to my everlasting love of twists (and my recent discovery that not everyone loves a twist! Who are these people?).  My favorite kinds of retelling–whether they’re about Beauty and the Beast or Superman–is the kind where the plotline is familiar enough that you know which story it’s based on without checking, but the changes that the author makes to the setting, or characterization, or even the actual plot itself, make for a brand new story.

We’ve seen authors put The Scarlet Pimpernel in outer space and Allan Quatermain in charge of a bunch of literary heroes for adventure.  Literary characters have been kidnapped and dropped into other universes. We’ve heard the same story from the points of view of Mr. Darcy, Mary Bennet, and the Longbourn servants.

We still want more.

I will be the first to say that a new story told in a new kind of way is always thrilling.  That’s what was so great about Noughts and Crosses or Y: The Last Man.  Heck, even Twilight was so popular in part because it was something so new…at least in 2005.  But I will always return to that comfortable world of pastiche like a favorite fluffy blanket.