Retellings, Adaptations, and the Importance of Theme

Retellings

 

A few weeks ago, I asked the people of Instagram to send me some ideas for blog posts, as the business of the winter months had zapped me of my creative juices. One of my friends sent in a request for a post about retellings and adaptations and, at first, I didn’t think I had much to say on the subject. I’m not a huge fan of either, with the notable exception of some BBC adaptations of classics like Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Jane Eyre. And the only retellings I’ve ever done were Bronte-esque versions of fairytales (Cinderella and Blue Beard, specifically). Surely, there are people more qualified to answer this question. But, I mulled it over for several weeks, and here I am; the question led me to some interesting musings about the importance of theme.

The first thought that came to mind when I started thinking about retellings and adaptations was: why are there so many bad Pride and Prejudice retellings? I’m not, of course, referring to differing opinions on what movie version is best (1995 vs. 2005), or if genre mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies are a good idea (I haven’t seen the movie so I don’t have a solid opinion). I’m instead thinking about Hallmark movies that take the basic plotline of P&P and mesh it with bad acting and a dog show as the setting (ever heard of “Unleashing Mr. Darcy”?), or the countless spinoffs about Lydia Bennet or Mary Bennet or relationship drama between Lizzie and Darcy after years of marriage that you can find on Goodreads if you do a title search. It’s not simply the low-quality of these pieces but the utter disregard for the source content that makes them so awful. And yet, there are many successful and overall good retellings and adaptations of P&P—the aforementioned 1995 and 2005 movies are generally well-liked, and the YouTube series “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” was a charming modern adaptation that also saw huge success. What sets these retellings apart? In short, theme.

Consider, for a moment, the theme of Pride and Prejudice—if it isn’t clear from the title, the theme is pride and prejudice (how clever, Miss Austen). However, upon reading many retellings or watching some adaptations, you might come to believe that the theme is, in fact, about miscommunication that causes drama. Or, you may come to believe the crux of the entire story is built upon Darcy being a jerk for drama’s sake and Lizzie eventually softening him, like some Beauty and the Beast motif. While it’s true that Mr. Darcy is rude for a good part of the story, and you could possibly stretch to make miscommunication a plot device, both of these things are not the center of the story. The original is a very clever exploration of how the vices of pride and prejudice can cloud judgment, cause people to make silly decisions, blind people to the truth, stop good relationships from being able to blossom, and lead to all sorts of trouble. It is not about romantic tension, dark and brooding characters, or trivial miscommunications. By extension, then, building a retelling based upon minor elements will result in a story that falls flat because it does not capture the core of the original (the reason why the story worked in the first place).

Another example that came to mind when considering poor adaptations was when I watched the 2009 version of Wuthering Heights a few years ago. The cinematography and acting were well-done, but the writers chose to focus on the relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine and romanticize it until it overtook the rest of the story. In doing so, they missed the broader and, in my opinion, more interesting theme of the story: the damage caused by revenge. Had they focused on the core theme, they could have incorporated some of the fantastic parallels and foreshadowing moments from the book that they otherwise neglected, and could have sustained the interest of the movie beyond Catherine’s death. Instead, the movie lacked the deeper meaning that the book provides.

But the examples I used are my opinions on the adaptations. What broader lesson can be learned, personal preferences aside? There are two that I can gather:

First, if you venture to do a retelling or adaptation of a story, take care to pinpoint the core purpose, theme, or structure of the original to incorporate into your work. Find what makes the original story work so well. Then, consider how that theme or structure will have to change to fit the new story. For example, say you want to write a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. You would first need to grasp the core conflict and theme of the original—as I mentioned before, the consequences of being prideful or prejudicial. You’d also probably want to include a relationship dynamic that mimicked Mr. Darcy and Lizzie, as their specific ways of showcasing the themes are what make the story unique. But that’s not enough. In the original, the specific ways in which pride and prejudice are shown are closely tied to the culture of 19th century England. You can’t simply take the plot or characters or general theme and plop it in the middle of 21st century New York City. You would need to consider what would be a period-accurate equivalent of the original dynamic, social expectation, or cultural value, then place the original themes into their proper places within the new structure. This often includes small tweaks or a little bit of research—nothing complicated. But the little bit of extra effort can create a much richer story than if you neglect to do so.

To use a personal example: last year, I wrote a mash-up of sorts of the Brothers Grimm’s Cinderella and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. On the surface, the tales seem incredibly different, but I sensed an underlying commonality that drew me to want to do the mashup in the first place. To find that commonality, I analyzed the mechanics of both stories. The similarities were mostly plot or character related: a poor orphan (Cinderella/Heathcliff) mistreated by pseudo-siblings (the stepsisters/Hindley and Catherine), the death of the one parent who cared for the poor orphan, a moment in the plot where the orphan makes a debut as having higher standing in society. Those overlaps would become the bones of the retelling. But beyond that, I had to decide what I would maintain that was unique to each of the originals. I decided to keep the theme of revenge from Wuthering Heights and tell the story in the simple fairytale style of Cinderella. My retelling would be recognizable as both of the original stories while also being different. As far as I know, I was able to achieve it, but I would not have been able to do so unless I had first analyze the source material and carefully picked what elements I would keep in my retelling.

Second, if you venture to create a new story, take just as much care to pinpoint the core theme that you wish to convey. This was always a part of the writing process that eluded me during my teens. I would come up with a genre and setting I wanted, hammer out a plot, develop some interesting characters, and hope that a meaningful theme would happen consequently. I thought that coming up with a theme first was not only ineffective but pretentious—I didn’t want to tell preachy stories. I still don’t, but I’ve been learning that theme is just as important as plot or characters. If plot is the skeleton of a story and characters are the heart, then theme is the soul: you can’t have a whole “person” (story) without all three.

Theme does not have to be complex or grandiose; often, it is hiding beneath the story you already have, waiting to be discovered. Or, sometimes, it develops and expands as you set out to address a topic that is important to you. I’ve experienced both with the two novels that are my WIPs: the first, the one I’m currently writing, was centered on a specific theme but has grown into something much richer over the years as I uncovered nuances. The second, one that seemed mostly character/plot focused without much to tie it together, had a theme all along that I did not see until recently. Some of that is due to passage of time, but some, I think, is due to a personal change, a desire to give meaning to the stories I create.

How do you sort out themes for your stories? I can’t tell you a fool-proof method of doing so—I’m just starting to discover it myself. For me, it involves a lot of musing about life, a lot of reading and watching stories that move me deeply, and a lot of analysis of why those things move me. Theme, by nature, is abstract, and perhaps that is why it is so difficult to pin down in the writing process. But I know that whether I’m figuring out why I liked or didn’t like a movie adaptation of a favorite book or figuring out what my own writing is saying about the bigger truths of life, theme is worth considering. It may very well be the most important thing to consider.

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