Let’s Get Lit-erary: Into the world of retellings

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crop faceless woman reading book on bed
The process of writing can be very daunting, especially when it comes to creating new and fresh ideas. This is the very reason as to why many authors have started using their favorite literatures to "retell" these stories, in a way that is unique, and can hold as it's own separate entity. Photo by Koshevaya_k on Pexels.com

As the years go by, it has become harder to find original ideas untainted by the literary works that have come before. Thus, authors have been turning to retellings — taking inspiration from the foundation classics have laid to create their own tales.  

These renditions are inspired by mythology, fairy tales and have even evolved from fanfiction.  

“After” by Anna Todd started as One Direction fanfiction posted on Wattpad and is now a feature-length film. The “Fifty Shades” series by E.L. James developed from Twilight fanfiction. A widely popular fantasy series, “The Mortal Instruments” by Cassandra Clare, began as Harry Potter fanfiction.  

This brings up the issue of plagiarism. Are these authors using inspiration or imitation to tell their tale? I’d like to think it’s the former. Though many books draw on the plots or themes of others, authors are able to personalize their works, making them inherently theirs. Often, these narratives offer even more complexity than the pieces they were based on.  

“Are these authors using inspiration or imitation to tell their tale? I’d like to think it’s the former. Though many books draw on the plots or themes of others, authors are able to personalize their works, making them inherently theirs.”

Fairy tale retellings provide a fresh take on the watered-down versions most of us get from Disney. Marissa Meyer, whom I view as the queen of fairy tale retellings, does an incredible job of bringing in the element of science fiction in her quartet, “The Lunar Chronicles.” Each book revolves around a character inspired by  renowned childhood favorites — Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Snow White. However, her take on these figures are far from the meek girls who sit still and look pretty, waiting for their Prince Charming. Instead, they are powerful women who create their own path in life. 

“Heartless,” another book by Meyer, is my all-time favorite retelling. It’s an origin story that takes place in the world of Alice in Wonderland, complete with characters like the Mad Hatter, White Rabbit and Cheshire Cat. The main character, Cath, challenges the picture-perfect life her parents have dreamed up for her, but finds herself in a showdown with magic, monsters and, perhaps most terrifying of all, fate.  

Sarah J. Maas is also known for taking inspiration from fairy tales in her fantasy series. However, as the books progress, her characters take on their own form, bearing no resemblance to what may have served as the catalyst for the work. “Throne of Glass” began based on Cinderella and “A Court of Thorns and Roses” drew from Beauty and the Beast. Yet, if readers went into the books with no knowledge of this, it is highly unlikely they’d make the connection on their own. Maas has also contributed to the “DC Icons” series, along with authors Marie Lu and Leigh Bardugo which centers around prominent characters like Batman and Wonder Woman.  

Sarah J. Mass is an excellent example of story retelling, as her stories fantasy series is known for taking inspiration from fairy tells in her fantasy series. For example, one of the books “Throne of Glass” is based off Cinderella. Photo courtesy of Discount99.

“The Wrath & the Dawn” by Renée Ahdieh is a reimagined version of  “One Thousand and One Nights,” a compilation of Arabian folk tales. Though I haven’t read this yet, I have checked out the Webtoon adaptation and it is absolutely stunning. The characters are diverse and the story opens up an avenue to the world of Middle Eastern folklore.  

A newer release, “These Violent Delights,” is written by debut author and college student Chloe Gong. The story is reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, but takes place in 1920s Shanghai, featuring a blood feud between rival gangs.  

There is even a selection of books out there inspired by British and American Classics. “The Wife Upstairs” by Rachel Hawkins is a psychological thriller that draws on Jane Eyre. As soon as the copyright to “The Great Gatsby” was up, Michael Farris Smith jumped to publish his novel “Nick” which acts as a prequel of sorts. 

“Perhaps most notable, in terms of retellings, are novels inspired by mythology.”

Perhaps most notable, in terms of retellings, are novels inspired by mythology. Rick Riordan stands out, having created a myriad of series delving into Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Norse mythology. For many, “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” is the most memorable, diving into the possibilities of Greek gods and goddesses having a say in the happenings of the modern world.  

Riordan is not the only author to envision what the world of the Greeks looked like. Rather than turning to modernization, author Madeline Miller expands upon characters of the past through her novels “Circe” and “The Song of Achilles.” When you think about it, even Virgil’s “Aeneid” took into account “Odyssey” and “Iliad,” so his work is essentially a retelling of the world Homer set up.  

It may not even be possible to compose an entirely original work, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Drawing on pieces of the past does not discredit a writer. In fact, it can be admirable when skillfully done. Retellings spark creativity, engagement and offer unparalleled interpretations, making them a fully valid form of storytelling.  

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