The Silver Lining | Retellings and modernizations

Warning, long post. Some of this is behind the cut to make it easier to read on your F-list.

So my current super secret WIP is a contemporary modernization with a twist of a classic story that’s (so far) never been done in YA before. My agent and I are both extremely excited about this project. As some of you know, I sent her the first five chapters and we had a phone meeting about it earlier this week. She loves the writing and some of the things I’ve done, but she thinks I’m being too literal with the retelling, focusing on plot/structure and sacrificing character because of it. Mostly, I’m forcing my characters to do things they might not do in order to fit with the plot. This makes sense, after all, I’d started with an outline where I listed scenes and then figured out how to re-imagine them into a contemporary setting…and only after that I created characters that fit into the roles I needed. We discussed the themes of the original and she suggested I start with that and what the characters want in my version of the story instead of a list of scenes. We also agreed on a new central arc for the story that would make it more character-driven. So I have a lot of ideas on how to go back to character and get rid of some of my plotty stuff. I’m really excited to get started on this, the book will DEFINITELY be a lot stronger, and I’m so glad and relieved I sent my agent a partial at first instead of writing a whole book and then having to start over on it.

I’m trying to immerse myself in all the re-tellings I can find so I can determine what works and doesn’t work for me. I love to research, and my agent had a great idea that I should become an expert in re-tellings plus the original story I’m working on before I begin my rewrite. I’d like to open this discussion to others with an informal questionnaire…

What re-tellings do you think are successful? Which aren’t? (If you don’t want to post this bit of info in public in case of googlebots, feel free to email me at shanasilver at gmail dot com). What elements make for a successful re-telling?

When you pick up a book that claims to be a re-telling, do you want it to be based more on theme and character rather than plot? One thing I’ve noticed is my critique partners kept getting excited whenever they recognized something that came from the original. They even tried to read into transitional things I’d added to tell my own version of the story. Would you feel upset if certain scenes–iconic or not–didn’t make it into the updated version of the story? Do you look at the re-telling and try to decipher how it adapted from the original?

Do you prefer the characters to have similar traits to the original or do you like twists on them? The best example of this I can think of is how Twilight is loosely based off Pride and Prejudice plotwise, like how all the boys ask Bella to the prom could be a reimagining of all those men proposing to Elizabeth Bennett. Both females turn their suitors down. And then like Elizabeth at first hating Mr. Darcy and then falling for him, Bella at first finds Edward scary/intriguing before she falls for him. It’s a reversal of perspective. And Edward Cullen has a lot of Mr. Darcy in him–they are both protective of their love interest and selfless in some ways and they both must let go of preconceived prejudices (Edward’s is his bloodlust and vampire nature to kill his <i>singer</i>).

Any other info or opinions you may have on re-tellings are welcome!

Also, I’m looking for recommendations of contemporary re-tellings of classic stories where the POV character remains the same. Preferably no fairy tales since all I can seem to find is Cinderella. Also, the reason I don’t want a fairy tale is because I’d like to compare the original source material with the re-telling and fairy tales change from version to version, so that’s not what I’m looking for.

And ideally nothing fantasy or paranormal as I am going for a story based in reality like all the other YA books I’ve written. IF I HAVE A WICKED STEPMOTHER, WHERE’S MY PRINCE by Melissa Kantor is a good example of what I’m looking for except that it’s Cinderella

I’ve come up with a lot of movies, but I’d like to find some books too. I’ve already read (and loved!) A CURSE AS DARK AS GOLD by Elizabeth Bunce, but that’s historical and a little paranormal. Also, I’d prefer to find non-Shakespeare re-tellings since I’ve already discovered a lot of them, and I’m not really looking for that except if it’s done in a way that completely turns the original on its head with a new twist, such as The Lion King is based off Hamlet or West Side Story is really Romeo and Juliet. Ideally, I’d like to find more re-tellings of classic books like the ones based off Jane Austen. I’ve already read some of Alex Flinn’s books, Gail Carson Levine’s, Gregory MacGuire (his Wicked re-telling, though fantasy, is a good example of completely turning the original premise on its head even though it uses the villain from the original as its narrator). I also know about Simon Pulse’s ONCE UPON A TIME series, but that’s not what I’m looking for either since those are fairy tales.

I’m also interested in re-telling plots done on TV shows. Please only suggest books that are currently available. I know there are a few contemporary, realistic retellings coming out later this year.

This is the list I currently have of contemporary re-tellings. I’ll keep editing it in with suggestions in case anyone else needs this info as well:

-CLUELESS is a contemporary re-telling of Emma by Jane Austen
-10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU is a contemporary re-telling of The Taming of the Shrew by Shakespeare
-THE LION KING is a contemporary re-telling using animals of HAMLET by Shakespeare
-BRIDE AND PREJUDICE is a retelling of Pride & Prejudice (suggested by kellyrfineman )

-BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY is a contemporary re-telling of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
-My agent recommended ONE THOUSAND ACRES by Jane Smiley which is a re-telling of King Lear
-THIS SIDE OF MARRIAGE is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice
-PRINCESS OF THE MIDNIGHT BALL is a retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses (suggested by kellyrfineman )
-THE AMARANTH ENCHANTMENT is a retelling of Cinderella (suggested by kellyrfineman )
-RADIANT DARKNESS (which releases later this spring) is a retelling of the Persophone myth. (suggested by robinellen )
-BEAST by Donna Jo Napoli (beauty and the beast I presume?) (suggested by britlitfantwin )
-Ella Enchanted by  Gail Carson  Levine is a retelling of Cinderella (suggested by britlitfantwin )
-VALIANT by Holly Black is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast (suggested by annemariewrites )
-PHANTOM  OF  THE  OPERA is also a retelling of Beauty and the Best. GREAT suggestion! (suggested by annemariewrites )

How about Beast (Donna Jo Napoli) and Ella Enchanted (Gail Carson Levine)? Or are those too close to the original stories?

-The story of Penny and Desmond from the last two seasons of Lost (not this one) is a re-telling of The Odyssey

Thanks so much for helping me out!

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15 Responses

  1. Books:

    PRINCESS OF THE MIDNIGHT BALL is a retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, and it’s highly successful (reviewed today).
    THE AMARANTH ENCHANTMENT is a retelling of Cinderella, and it mostly worked for me.


    BRIDE & PREJUDICE is (obvi) a retelling of P&P.

  2. This is totally my taste, but I like it when a retelling takes the original story and doesn’t change it so much as delves much deeper into it. Expands on what the character motivations might have been, finds reasons for them to do the things they did, or reimagines those things so they fit what such a character would reasonably do… So I do like character-driven stuff, but I like it if the story stays reasonably close to the original, just expands on it, gives new angles or interpretations, that sort of thing.

    Good luck with your story! Sounds like a lot of fun. 🙂

    • Thanks! This is really helpful and exactly what I’m looking for. I like when retellings stick closely as well. I think I may have just been *too* close. This will help me figure out a good balance.

      • Those were fairy tales. Oops. I didn’t read all the instructions. Here are a few musicals that are modern operas:

        1. RENT is a retelling of La Bohème
        2. MISS SAIGON is a retelling of Madame Butterfly
        3. Elton John’s AIDA is a retelling of Aida (ha ha, imagine that)
        4. Carmen: a Hip Hopera is a retelling of Carmen (again, clever re-title)

        Here are some book retellings that aren’t fairy tales:

        1. The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley is a retelling of The Aeneid, well some of it
        2. Grendel by John Gardner is a retelling of Beowulf
  3. I don’t know if it helps but Meg Cabot’s Avalon High is based on the Arthurian legend. Good luck with your research!


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