I love fairy and folk tale retellings, things that twist and turn familiar stories so that they become new or updated or offer new insights. Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin retells the Tam Lin ballad at a small college and turns it into a campus novel with supernatural elements. Adele Geras’s Egerton Hall trilogy, which I know I’ve mentioned before, blends the boarding school story with fairy tales, and transplants fantastical elements into the real world. This can make things more mundane, or it can work brilliantly – I think it does the latter in Geras’s work, as does the Doc Marten boot in Siobhan Parkinson’s Sisters… no way! Laurie Halse Anderson’s Prom retells Cinderella in a nifty and realistic way, while Malinda Lo’s Ash introduces a whole new mythical world to the familiar story.
Then there’s Jane Yolen’s stunning Briar Rose, or most of the adult works of Gregory Maguire. And numerous retellings from Francesca Lia Block, Emma Donoghue, Angela Carter, Anne Sexton, Olga Broumas, and last-but-not-least Roald Dahl.
Retellings are popular, whether it’s fairy tale or myth – something familiar which nevertheless presents the opportunity for a unique slant on it.
But if you’re doing this – where do you start making changes? Where do you stop? If you’re explicitly invoking a particular story, what do you have to do in order to convince the reader of your version, particularly if it deviates significantly from the original? Do we find loose adaptations ‘sloppy’ or ‘refreshing’ – or does it depend on how well they’re written? What expectations does it set up for the reader when they’re viewing something as a ‘modern version of’ or a ‘retelling of’ something?
Of the retellings I’ve mentioned here, it’s Lo’s Ash that surprised me the most. Not because it’s a ‘lesbian Cinderella’ (Donoghue’s ‘The Tale of the Shoe’ does that and yet feels far closer to the familiar story) but because there’s so much else in it. The prince is not especially important, and there’s magic and history and a richness to the book that makes it in equal parts a fairy tale retelling and an original fantasy novel. Parkinson’s Sisters… no way!, despite being set in 1990s Dublin, feels far closer to the original – there is a richness to its world, too, but there are key elements in place that seem to confirm that it’s still basically the Cinderella we know and love (it has all the right characters, even if things are less black-and-white).
It can sometimes, in less skilful hands, feel like ‘cheating’ if it’s set up as a version of something and then the rules change midway through. I don’t think we necessarily need a Happily Ever After – but we need something consistent with the fairy tale or mythic elements we’ve selected and the way we’ve used them throughout.
ETA: do check out R.F. Long’s response to this post!