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Author Topic: retelling old tales
brian_j
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Fellow writers,

Have any of you heard about the new movie The Nativity Story? It is projected to do very well, much as The Passion of the Christ did a few years ago. But neither of these stories is original.

Have any of you heard of Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist? It is a fast-read, sort of engaging, and a complete ripoff of one of the 1001 arabian nights tales. Yet, it has done well in international sales.

My question is this: What are your thoughts on taking well-established stories and re-telling them for fun and profit?

For example, there is a book of the Bible that I think could make an excellent novel and movie. It's not a well known story (sort of like the Esther movie that is out), but it is a good story with a clear hero, conflict, and storyline. Have any of you ever written anything like this? Is it like writing fan fiction, something I have never done? Didn't Anne Rice just re-tell Christ's nativity and flight into Egypt in her latest opus?

Also, philisophically speaking, is any story original? If nothing is original, then style really is everything and we might as well take Shakespeare's approach to maximize fun and profit. I mean, we should just re-tell old tales, and dress them up so dazzingly that five centuries hence the glitter of gold still holds the patina at bay.

(Metallurgists, forgive my mixed metaphors).


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Retelling old (as in at least old enough to be in the public domain) stories is a tradition of literature.

Part of the fun of doing it, for readers as well as for writers, is to bring new insights to the story, to try new perspectives, new points of view, new ways of looking at the same old same old.


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Jenn
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My personal view on originality is that we never know what's original until we fall over it. Most inventions are just reinventions but there are always some that, mostly by accidental discovery, work outside the mould.
So by all means, recraft the recraftable. But let's not say there's not anthing impossible, hmm?

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Jenn
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Moron typing: I meant 'let's not say anything's impossible'.
Inset smilie here: embarrassment.
(Also one about not knowing how to stick on a smilie.)

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Robert Nowall
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They say there really isn't anything new, just variations on old stories. Or: It's not in the story you tell, but how you tell it.

I think one reason I've become less prolific in thie particular phase of my writing career is that I switched from concentrating on the "what" onto concentrating on the "how." I may not be writing as much, but I'm hopeful what I'm writing is better---ideally, different from anybody else's take on things.


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tchernabyelo
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As noted; this is hardly new territory. And it can be extremely successful (look at Gregory Maguire's revisionist takes on Oz and fairy tales). Personaly, I don;t see it as a problem, so long as you're totoaly open about your sources and derivation.

But then, since one of my projects is rewriting the Norse myths (and interpolating some pieces of my own to further "illuminate" them), I might be biased.


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Pyre Dynasty
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This is a fuzzy memory so you'll forgive me if I screw it up, but the guy who did _Connections_ got the idea from a book, when he went to ask the author's permission to turn the idea into a tv show the author said, "I stole it, you steal it."

Books fade, stories live.

[This message has been edited by Pyre Dynasty (edited November 30, 2006).]


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oliverhouse
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_Grendel_ by John Gardner is a highly original version of "Beowulf" from Grendel's perspective. As Tchernabyelo mentioned, _Wicked_ and its successor gives a different perspective on the Wizard of Oz story. I think both of work because they make us live through the "every villain is the hero of his own story" idea.

_The 13th Warrior_ by Michael Crichton is also based on "Beowulf", from what I hear.

C.S. Lewis wrote _Till We Have Faces_, a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth, and I think it's brilliant -- a wonderful story with a true and deeply felt theological point, but that isn't preachy at all.

There have been numerous retellings of the King Arthur legend, including movies, ranging from fantasy (_Excalibur_) to a form of historical fiction (_King Arthur_). (Loved the former, disliked the latter.)

I'm sloooowly working on my own Arthurian retelling -- the danger being that it has to be familiar without being trite. That's tough! And I think that's the point. All of the things mentioned here (I haven't read _The 13th Warrior_, though) were familiar and yet unique. If you can hit both of those wickets, I think retelling old tales is fine.

Now, I love ancient stories of a variety of types, and there's a market for retellings that are very close to the originals (Kevin Crossley-Holland's collection of Norse Myths comes to mind), but that's different from the novels I've mentioned. The former are considered retellings (at least, they were marketed as such and I perceived them as such) first, and are typically more episodic, while the latter are marketed as novels first and the retelling aspect is more of a hook or concept.

Rambling now. Should go.


Oliver


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Ray
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Crichton's novel is based both on the actual journey of Ibn Fadlan to the Northmen, and after three chapters delves into the Beowulf story.

There's no original ideas, but there are original stories. Much of the originality in stories depends on how you combine ideas together, and what happens when you do.

As for style, I don't think it matters all that much. It's something you'll end up with eventually, but except for poetry, I've never read anything and thought, That was a great style! What's more important is telling a story everybody can understand.


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CoriSCapnSkip
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King Arthur has been mentioned, how about Robin Hood?
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Ray
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Robin Hood is good, but the most retold story I'm aware of is Cinderella. Her story goes back four thousand years, originally started in China, and people all over are still retelling it.
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Corky
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Isn't Zorro a kind of Robin Hood? And all the other "masked avengers" as well? (Or does the larger-than-life alter ego of Zorro, Superman, Batman, Spiderman, etc. qualify them as a separate story type from Robin Hood?)
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djvdakota
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Every story in the world, in my opinion, is a retelling of or heavily influenced by other stories.

Sometimes it's conscious, sometimes simple inspiration is consciously taken, sometimes it is an unconscious process by which the author's mind delves into his own memory data banks for fragments of this and fragments of that for inspiration.

A couple years ago we had a Rewrite Challenge going around here. We'd read and rewrite fairy tales, looking for that unique angle that would make a story all our own, or even simply retelling the tale in, as has been mentioned before,a new way. Our first challenge was on the Three Billy Goats Gruff.

The variety of stories inspired by the skeleton (or even the blood and body) of the Gruff story astounded, I think, all those who participated.

My point is that retelling old stories seldom grows tiresome, because those stories have survived for so long for a very good reason. They speak to humankind. And writing any story that speaks to us is never a bad thing.


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Survivor
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Wearing a mask doesn't make you Robin Hood. Note that Superman, Batman, Spiderman, etc. don't usually turn to actions that are unambiguously crimes against the established social order. Overthrow of the existing social order is virtually the entire program of Robin Hood and Zorro, it is taken pretty much for granted in both stories that once the corrupt order is destroyed, a "natural" and just order will automatically take its place.

Superman, Batman, and Spiderman all could be more easily compared to Cinderella than to Robin Hood, once you consider that Cinderella is a transforming magical girl (i.e. a specialized superhero) and Robin Hood is a criminal.


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Robert Nowall
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Superman is a good example of "it's not the idea, it's how you tell it." Take the basic back story: a foundling infant is discovered and, when grown, proves to be extraordinary in many ways. One might take the character in question to be Superman...or Moses, or Romulus and Remus, or Cyrus the Great, or others.

Superman's story owes a lot to early science fiction and pulp hero magazines...a destroyed planet and a spaceship journey...powers like great strength and agility and X-ray vision...fighting in a costume...

Even the name "Superman" isn't original. I gather it was coined by Nietzche, in a different context, as Ubermensch in German and translated into English as "Super-Men." ("Over-men" or "Upper-men" might be more accurate, but my German isn't good enough to be sure...besides, I've never read Nietzche, only read accounts of him, and am not even certain I've spelled his name right.)


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Survivor
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Yeah, Superman was originally supposed to be the ultimate super-villian, espousing a "might makes right" philosophy and viewing humans as nothing but flies to be crushed for fun. This proved unpopular, so he was reinvented as a hero of justice and all that.

There is a strong "Cinderella" aspect to his story as it eventually evolved, particularly the romatic dicotomy between Clark Kent and Superman's relationship with Louis Lane.


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Lynda
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Back to the original question - retelling a Bible story can be good business, I think. I just read a wonderful novel called "Madman: A Novel" by Tracy Groot. It's about the demon-possessed man who Jesus healed (remember the story - the demons said their name was "Legion" and they asked to be sent into a herd of pigs. Jesus complied and the pigs threw themselves into the Sea of Galilee). This novel barely mentions Jesus at all and isn't religious in flavor, not the way you'd think Christian novels would be. It tells the story from the POV of a Greek visitor to the area. I was amazed at how fresh the story felt and how well-told it was. It was truly creepy in the places where it should be, and shows the demoniac from inside his head at times, which was REALLY creepy! So go ahead and rewrite your Bible story. It's been done before and will be done again. Hopefully, each telling will give a different insight into the original tale.

Lynda


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