From Cinderella to Kathleen Kelly: Retellings in the Romance Genre

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Jessica Pryde

Contributing Editor

Jessica Pryde is a member of that (some might call) rare breed that grew up in Washington, DC, but is happily enjoying the warmer weather of the desert Southwest. While she is still working on what she wants to be when she grows up, she’s enjoying dabbling in librarianship and writing all the things. She can be found drowning in her ever-growing TBR and exclaiming about romance in the Book Riot podcast (When in Romance), as well as on social media. Find her exclamations about books and pho on twitter (JessIsReading) and instagram (jess_is_reading).

As a romance reader, I have an inclination for reading the same stories over and over. And I don’t mean genre romance as a whole; I literally mean the same stories. I spent half of high school, all of college, and a significant part of grad school reading Pride and Prejudice fan fiction, and discovered I’m always curious to see how someone is going to take the same beats, the same key elements, the same characters or character archetypes, and bake them into a new cake.

I still enjoy fan fiction (usually canon divergences and AUs), but I spend most of my time reading romance novels — and while the majority of the hundreds of romance novels published every week are original stories, there is still a significant number that are retellings. Retellings of fairy tales, myths and legends, classics of the canon, cult films, folklore, and anything else people can think of. There are probably thousands of romances that use a prior source material as their inspiration or even setting, and while there are some tried and true favorites, we definitely see trends in both traditional and independently published romance when it comes to authors revisiting familiar stories and making them their own.

The first romance retelling I read was one based on Pride and Prejudice, which shouldn’t be a surprise. But the most recent romance retelling I read was also based on Pride and Prejudice. There are probably 20 years between the two, but the story continues to stand firm as the story to retell in romance. The stories of Jane Austen in general have inspired a hundred years’ worth of historical romance set during the Regency era. They’re also tried and true stories that the right author can use as a formula for a new story. As long as they’re bringing something new to the mix, a reader will pick it up to see how they meet the beats and torture the characters.

I’d like to say it kind of started with Helen Fielding and Bridget Jones’s Diary, but I think it really has to do with the entire zeitgeist of Pride and Prejudice being reintroduced into popular media at least every ten years through the 20th century and into the 21st. The last decade or so has seen countless retellings based on Austen novels — primarily Pride and Prejudice, but increasingly more of her other novels, like Persuasion, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility — not so much Northanger Abbey, which is a shame because it’s my favorite. And honestly, I couldn’t tell you if something was based on Sanditon unless someone outright told me. But Pride and Prejudice is the one people (authors, editors, consumers) can’t get enough of. It’s a familiar story that you can do lots of things with and still have it recognizable. It’s fine with me. I might not pick up every single one, but I’ll definitely be intrigued by it.

cover of Thickerella by Tanzania Glover

But what about the other things that get retold? A decade ago, you couldn’t swing an arm without hitting a young adult novel based on a fairy tale. That pendulum has started to swing back in our direction, but now Cinderella has to save herself, and the Beast doesn’t turn back into a man at the end. That’s when the stories being told are set in fantasy land, of course. Contemporary retellings lean more towards the essence of the original stories, whether it’s Disney’s own new series featuring a Cinderella set in the world of reality TV and a publishing Beauty who has to help a reclusive author Beast, or a dark underworld where Hook and Tink pair up to bring down Pan. (Okay that one is a classic of the canon, not a fairy tale, but it’s inspired more by Disney than anything else.) And then of course there are books like Trapunzel and Thickarella, which use the original source material to inspire the stories but don’t feel trapped by their story beats.

While fairy tales and Pride and Prejudice (and a few other 19th century classics like Jane Eyre and Little Women) probably count for a good 75 percent of the most prominent retellings in romance, there are a couple of newcomers to the genre that I am looking forward to watching.

drag me up cover

The first? Mount Olympus. I don’t know when this fascination with Hades and Persephone exploded, but we’ve been seeing it in comics and webcomics, in young adult novels, and in some of the most popular romances on TikTok. RM Virtues, Scarlett St. Clair, and Katee Robert all have series with Hades and Persephone at their center, and they all approach it in very different ways. Virtues and Robert have built dark worlds in which their human gods exist, while St. Clair has allowed them to have magic. We can say that there have been plenty of stories that give off that vibe — a god of the underworld, whether it be Mafia, or some other crossroad of darkness and wealth — these are the ones that proclaim their stories to be set in their own version of Olympus. They build out these worlds to introduce more of the Olympians, and have plenty to play with when it comes to complex personalities. Now, are these all people who read Percy Jackson and imagined a grown up version and “what if it fucks”? No clue. But I’m interested to see what more authors will do with the Olympian trend while we’re still at its height. (And I’d love to see them respectfully and thoughtfully approach other pantheons, if they’re interested.)

The other retelling trend is cult media: mostly films from the ’80s and ’90s, whether it’s the Brat Pack or Nora Ephron. Of course, You’ve Got Mail is already a pastiche of The Shop Around the Corner, and the books we’ve seen that are inspired by it pull a little bit from the original and the retelling. Interestingly, while the movie is very much a product of its time, it’s probably the most commonly seen reimagined in book form. For many authors, they like the idea of the dual relationship, but might fix the third act so that there isn’t the whole…keeping a huge secret element of their relationship. Courtney Milan’s Hold Me and Sally Malcolm’s Love Around the Corner approach that element pretty well. But Joe and Kathleen are not the only booksellers appearing in a new format — there has been at least one romance inspired by Notting Hill recently. I’m sure there are more, too.

cover of west side love story

While these are settling in, Shakespeare is on the rise. Shakespeare is always on the rise, but genre romance is probably where we see it least when it comes to literary pastiche. Lots of literary fiction authors like to approach the tragedies, but romance is less inclined to take to the comedies. We’re seeing more Much Ado About Nothing reimaginings, but you know, you have to really change some elements of that story for it to be a worthwhile story. Romeo and Juliet has seen an uptick in retellings (with the ending changed, of course); Ramon and Julieta and West Side Love Story have appeared just in the past year. (One might say the latter is more based on the musical than the source material, but you know what? Whatever.) I don’t see Measure for Measure or A Midsummer Night’s Dream inspiring swaths of romance novels in the future, but you never know.

At least everyone agrees Ten Things I Hate About You is perfection and nobody could ever succeed at trying anything like it again.

It’s anyone’s guess where romance retellings might go next. Are we going to have more queer gothic retellings like The Wife in the Attic? Or are there going to be authors trying their hardest to romancify The Great Gatsby? Or maybe we’ll just watch as other works become public domain, and hang out with the Regency Brat Pack in the meantime. Whatever happens, retellings are going to continue to be a core element of romance novels for as long as people love stories.