Retellings seem to be more popular than ever, either in film or literature. While I’m a firm believer that most art is derivative or connected to its predecessors in some form, there is undeniable variation in the qualities of retellings.
What makes a retelling good? I recently read Neil Gaiman’s Marvel 1602 and found myself asking this question. This post uses this comic series and other examples of retellings as a case study for a better understanding of the topic of retellings in fiction.
What is a retelling?
As to be expected from the name, a retelling takes a cast of characters (or a single character) already familiar to readers and reshapes their narrative. The aim is to provide readers with a new angle from which to view that story.
It can be an interesting creative exercise and fascinating for readers to experience characters in new ways.
What is Marvel 1602 about?
In Marvel 1602, Neil Gaiman reveals a world in which the age of superheroes has dawned far earlier than readers are familiar with. Superheros and other familiar characters exist, for mysterious reasons, in the Elizabethian court and must face political and world-threatening events on several fronts.
Retellings and Comics
In my opinion, the comic genre has shaped much of what we expect retellings to be. Comic characters are created with a degree of expectation, that the character will be reinvented and retold many, many times, by different authors for different generations of audiences.
Comic book runs often contain a particular storyline, and for someone beginning to explore comics, it can be overwhelming to know where to “start” in this sense. But once a storyline has concluded, the character can go on to be reinvented time and time again.
So if this works so well in comics, how do we see this at play in broader fiction? (whether novel or film). There seems to be a growing similar expectation, that certain intellectual properties need to be retold to maintain relevancy. There are so many Cinderella retellings, that it’s hard to fathom. But more recently, other intellectual properties are having retellings explored. The Star Trek franchise keeps having movies made, along with other properties such as Spiderman, or Ghostbusters.
Audiences seem to be fascinated by retellings, as we keep buying books or watching films. But there’s a consensus that not all retellings are created equally. Why? Let’s get into some of the things that make a retelling work well, and what makes it not.
Intent & Audience expectations
As I’ve mentioned above, some characters are generally more available to have their stories retold. Those in the comic genre are retold constantly (by the property owners), in part because that’s how that genre has functioned throughout its history. The retellings often work because readers know that these characters are intended to be retold.
This intent carries over to the audiences each time they see a new retelling. For example, audiences tend to grasp that each iteration of Batman on the screen should be viewed within the parameters set for that particular version. In film, often this is broken up into what actor or director was involved with the retelling. (eg. Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Ben Affleck and Robert Pattinson are all understood to be “different” versions of the same character — in other words, a retelling)
In literature, that intent can differ. Many characters may have started out as ‘once-offs’ with there being no expectation from the original creators (or not that is known) regarding retellings.
Regardless of the genre, a retelling tends to focus on characters who are culturally significant and are in the public domain (though this isn’t always the case). Characters such as Cinderella, Snow White and other Grimm Brothers’ characters make excellent candidates for retellings because they’re familiar to readers, without authors having to navigate too many permissions to take them on new adventures.
(It should be noted that I’ve given examples from a White Western standpoint because that’s my cultural background, but there are many non-eurocentric characters who have their own retellings for same reasons: cultural significance, and access to permissions)
Over time, audiences have come to expect that particular characters will have their stories retold. There’s an openness to hearing a retelling that is borne from this.
A retelling that aims to highlight a new facet of a character or story is quickly distinguishable from one motivated primarily by finances or an ‘easy hook’. Some characters and stories have perhaps been ‘overtold’ because of financial gain. But there’s definitely still room for a thought-out and well-crafted retelling.
It’s that desire to view a story from a fresh angle, to learn something new from a familiar tale that keeps us coming back.
Compelling Story point
A story point can be boiled down to the take-home impression left by the original story. It’s why people love the source material and long for more. There’s something about the source material’s story point that was compelling.
Many retellings fall short when it comes to the story point because they deliver the exact same story without making a compelling story point. (Cue the plague of “reboots” where very little compelling changes have been made)
This is why Ghostbusters 2016 seems to have failed to perform as a retelling — and as a more broad statement, a gender-bent version of a story is not typically enough of a compelling change when all the other elements of the story remain the same.
It can feel cheap to audiences, who are searching for that moment of illumination when a story they thought they knew, delivers the unexpected. It’s the same emotional impact as when they saw the original, but now more complex thanks to the changes made through retelling. Afterall, it’s retelling – it’s supposed to offer something compelling and new to audiences.
What makes a compelling story point, or compelling changes in a retelling is regularly up for debate (looking at you 2022 Persuasion)
Examples of compelling story points highlight different things to the Source material. For example, both Cruella and Maleficent have done work to highlight the complexity of the villains and offer a humanising view to characters that are largely simplistic in the source material.
Breaking the story
Other retellings seem to fail because of a lack of understanding of the themes, characters and story points of the source material. For a retelling to be good, there’s a high level of understanding about what that original story was hoping to achieve, and how it can be brought alive for contemporary audiences once more.
Marvel 1602 demonstrated Gaiman’s awareness of all the characters in the book, and cleverly played off readers’ expectations for what those characters would or wouldn’t do. Their appearance, world and even names, were largely changed but at their core these characters were working with the source material — even as they offered a fresh and exciting adventure for fans.
We don’t want a story that’s exactly the same, but nor do we want something completely unrecognisable from the source. It’s a difficult balance to master, but rewarding when done well.
Gaiman is definitely a master of a retelling, which he demonstrates through many of his works. The Sleeper and The Spindle is another favourite of mine. I’m also currently reading Norse Mythology.