Friday, 19 February 2016

Fairytale retellings!

I'm not a huge reader of fairytale retellings but I am endlessly fascinated by the idea. I don't read them that much for the same reason I don't read fanfiction: I tend to like my own interpretations the best. Eh... However, I feel a lot less guilty interpreting characters that are thought to be somewhat common property, more like part of some common literary consciousness than actual characters. In most cases they appear to be archetypes, symbols or roles rather than human beings. And that's why they're a big part of my foundation in writing. I do write actual retellings sometimes, but more than that I just feel like I'm constantly interacting with classical fairytales as a writer and a reader.

I love to see how a character carries the ”spirit” of a famous fairytale character. I love it when a character has aspects of many of them. It doesn't really matter if it's intentional or not, I like to play with those thoughts anyway and find new meaning and relationships between what I'm reading or writing and the ideas in fairytales. I can't help but think about Cinderella and The Little Mermaid, when I'm reading about Fanny Price in Mansfield Park. I'm always reminded of Little Red Riding Hood in The Hound of the Baskervilles. I find Snow White and Rose Red in The Hunger Games. And I'm aware that most likely none of the connections I find were intentional and I admit that in the allegorical realm my thoughts are very likely to go a bit over board. That's probably one of the reasons why my head makes up stories. If the connection I make between separate stories seemingly only exists in my head, then there obviously is another story somewhere between the old ones that still needs to be written. That being said, I'm probably not clueless about when the author has made the connection intentionally, either.

Recently, I've been writing a collection of short stories, some more and some less based on fairytales. So, that's were all of this is actually coming from. I noticed I was instinctively using pretty distinct types of retelling and interpreting, so I might as well write about that. There's probably going to be some overlap and it's likely that most books will fit into more than one category, but... I'm just writing this for my own reflection. And who knows, maybe this list will benefit someone else as well.

The rest will contain spoilers.

1. Expansion

This type is probably fit for those who excel at writing settings and characters, since plot-wise it's not meant to be surprising. If you think of the original fairytale as puppet theather, this type of retelling is going to take that exact piece and make it into a full-lenght movie instead. The point is to tell the same story but make it somehow deeper, more detailed, more nuanced. To bring out actual persons from the cardboard characters, actual worlds from the vague fairytale lands. If the plot is very simple it might be made more complicated, but essentially the story remains the same from beginning to end.

Whether or not I like reading these comes down to the characters. But if you can turn Sleeping Beauty into a person from a plot device, I'm all in. I think it really takes talent to write this type of story as if it was all original, when basically everything from the fairytale is kept the way it is.

I think some good examples of this type are The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale and Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. Both are great books in my opinion and if you're not too familiar with the tales of Goose Girl, or Snow White and Rose Red, I actually recommend you to read these books before the original tales. Because they follow the original in such detail, they don't require any knowledge of them, and that way there's a lot more suspence.

Maybe, depending on your preferences, the fact that this type follows the fairytale can be the book's greatest strength or greatest weakness.

2. Twister

This type usually changes major aspects of the original tale, sometimes only a few, sometimes more. What I see as the point, or would set as the basic rule, is that the source story is obviously recognizable without it being stated. That way the contrast is greater in relation to the aspects that remain the same. The whole story may be born from one question, like: What if Little Red Riding Hood was the wolf? What if Cinderella's stepsister managed to fool the prince? Or it may be inspired by a notion that something in the original story isn't quite believable, or doesn't apply to our time, or would be just too hilarious the other way around, or is always one way so that's a reason enough for it to be another way. One way or another, it makes twists to the original tale.

I think these stories have a danger to fall short if the writer is only interested in their twists and the rest of the story is left underdeveloped because it's not that interesting. This type will probably work the best if you are as intrigued by the original story as you are by your new idea, and use it to strengthen the original in some way.

The simplest example in this category would probably be something like Disney's Little Mermaid, although there's hardly much thought behind changing the ending so that the mermaid gets the prince. Marissa Meyer's Cinder (since I haven't read more of the Lunar Chronicles) is a better example. It's definitely Cinderella, the story is there, but almost every aspect of it is twisted in one way or another. Starting from Cinder being a cyborg.

3. Translation

These can seem really similar to the Twister type, but the point isn't in making the story different from the original, but ”translating” it into another world, time or context as analogically as possible. I have to admit this is one of my two personal favourites. I especially like ”the modern day adaptations”, when they're done well, and I can't count the times I have written them myself, based on fairytales but also on other classics, such as Shakespeare's plays.

The danger with these stories is that they might get stuck on a level where they're entertaining but nothing more. This usually happens when the cleverness of the analogies becomes the main focus: the story falls flat because it's just a replica of the original, there's no deeper meaning behind why the story needed to be transferred to another realm. Ideally, every analogy should be there because it says more/other things than the original story, without changing the storyline.

I think the movie Cinderella Story is a good example of this, though my memory of it isn't very clear. I think the glass slipper was changed into an MP3 player and the ”prince” of the school tried to find the girl by asking which songs were first on the playlist.

4. Blanks Filled In

This is the other favourite of mine! It's similar to ”Expansion” but somewhat less loyal to the original story, in the sense that it doesn't change a thing about its basic plot, but it takes complete freedom everywhere where the original doesn't reach. Wherever things are left untold, there's a blank canvas for this type of retelling. With enough blanks filled in, the whole meaning, or interpretation of the story may change. The Stepmother may not look so evil after all, or the prince may not turn out to be as Charming as you'd think.

The trap with this type is overanalyzing. There definitely is such a thing as too much interpretation. It's not going to look very convincing if it seems that everything that looks like one thing in the fairytale, is going to turn out to be the exact opposite in the retelling. Contrast here is as important as ever. 

The movie/book Red Riding Hood is mostly this type. The original tale has a pretty minor part in it, but it's all there. What happens before Red Riding Hood goes into the woods with the basket, and why the wolf is interested in her in the first place are the main focus of the story.

5. Story Inside a Story

This is basically when an insignificant part of a tale inspires their own story. Often it is a minor character. This can easily get so far from the original it's not really a retelling anymore but I think it qualifies when the plot of the fairytale is observable from the context of the story, even if it's happening away from the time and place of the original. Also, this may often be basically the same thing as the ”Blanks Filled In” or even ”Expansion” but I think it deserves it's own category because its focus is more singular.

The hard part in this type is how integrated it should be with the characters, the setting, or the plot of the original story. Common ground is important, but the story should probably be able to stand on it's own too.

I've failed to think of actual fairytale retellings of this type, so let's go with Lavinia by Ursula Le Guin (based on The Aeneid). Lavinia is only briefly mentioned in her husband's story but in this book she has a whole life.

These are the five basic categories I could come up with. Someone might want to add categories that I have excluded, so here's some of them:

Cross-overs, like Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier. The story mixes elements from The Twelve Dancing Princesses and The Frog Prince but I think it makes more sense to analyze it as ”Blanks Filled In” or an ”Expansion”. The fact that there's elements from more than one fairytale seems less relevant within these types of categories.

Stories that use allegory, like As Red As Blood by Salla Simukka. There's definitely a lot of elements from both Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Snow White and Rose Red but the story would make total sense without the reader ever noticing the parallels. These types are not really retellings.

Stories that are ”off-springs” of a fairytale, like Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas. Apparently, this book started as a retelling of Cinderella and you can see the parallels especially in the beginning, but it takes it's own course pretty fast and as the story develops it pretty much has nothing to do with Cinderella anymore, so...

That's all I have for now! I do enjoy this topic and there's some fairytale retellings out there I'm quite eager to read... so, untill future explorations!