With the news that J.R.R. Tolkien is releasing a new book, The Story of Kullervo, doing the rounds, I’ve been thinking a lot about retelling stories. I’m one of the first people to lambast the current trend in Hollywood of rebooting every lame-ass story a thousand times in the name of making a quick buck.
Retelling a story is very different from a remake. In my mind at least, a retelling needs to change something significant about the original while maintaining its spirit. It’s all about the familiar and the strange. This is how The Lion King can be a retelling of Hamlet just as Clueless retells Jane Austen’s Emma and Game of Thrones is War of the Roses set in a newly made fantasy world.
There’s a saying that goes something along the lines that all the stories in the world have already been told. Whether or not that’s true is a matter for another time. Retellings evoke the feelings and associations of the original, often without us realizing it. Clueless may be recognizable as Emma retold but for me at least it took Brandon Sanderson pointing it out to realize that Simba was Hamlet reborn.
So obviously one does not simply copy the stories and the characters straight as is. That would be like the completely unnecessary Amazing Spider Man. Even something we think of as classic as fairy-tales have been retold throughout cultures and history. Before the Brothers Grimm wrote it down, Snow White was told in Germany, Albania, Malay, Armenia and Russia. The Aarne-Thompson tale type index lists several other similar stories throughout Europe. We seem to be fond of telling stories over and over again, changing things to suit the ongoing era.
And sometimes it means reviving a mythology from a very out of the way place.