Monday, December 19, 2011

The Greatest Stories Ever Retold

Christmas is a time for retelling storiesfrom the story of Jesus’ birth, to the countless viewings of It’s a Wonderful Life, to the retelling of family stories of past years, we never seem to tire of old stories, which is really weird in a culture otherwise obsessed with the new and disposable. Why are some stories worth retelling, and not others? And why are some retellings better than others?
The story of the nativity might seem like an exception, because retelling it is an act of faith. Nevertheless, it offers some explanation for why it bears so much repeating even to those outside the faith. Without getting too academic, one can still say that it’s one of those archetypal stories that tap into our most basic drives. The mythical birth, the rise of a common individual to the rank of God, the saving of the world through an act of sacrificeall these are themes that recur in culture after culture in the most popular of stories.  Think of the parallel to Star Wars: another mysterious birth (the twins birthed by the queen hidden away separately), another simple boy who saves the day and restores good. The sacrificial element might not be as condensed as it is in the Passion, but it’s there from the moment Luke has to do his chores instead of going into Tosche Station to the moment he sets fire to the body of Vader, who dies in the attempt to save his son.

So why are some retellings of the same story so much better than others? My husband makes fun of me because of my penchant for issuing edicts. I have two edicts relevant to this discussion: no more retellings of A Christmas Carol, and no more vampire stories. My edicts are very useful, I think, because they stop me from wasting my valuable time that I could be spending on Facebook or writing this blog. I’m always very tempted to cave in to retellings of A Christmas Carol or vampire stories, and the edicts help me to resist, even if Scrooge is recast as Fidel Castro or the vampires are robotic. Somehow, these two stories, though archetypally appealing (the change of heart, the pros and cons of immortality), always fail to impress me in the retelling.

The reason is pretty simple, I think, and it requires that we clarify what we mean by retelling. Putting on a production of a play is not the same as retelling a story in print form. Let’s take another one of those often retold stories, Romeo and Juliet. Whether you’re attempting to be faithful to Shakespeare’s original or recasting the leads as a vampire and a klutzy teenager, if you’re performing the play your success will in some measure be dictated by the quality of the performances, or other production factors like staging, direction, etcetera. Ergo, you can have the same faithful rendition of the original performed by two different sets of actors, and one will be good but the other suck. This situation cannot be duplicated in print, since it would hardly make sense to rewrite the original as-is. Perhaps the most you could do is work on a new translation. To wit: a production is not the same as a retelling.

So, what about the vampire version? Are you guaranteed a good retelling (as opposed to a production) if you turn classic characters into vampires? Of course not, and herein lies my problem with the countless retellings of A Christmas Carol featuring Scrooge as Castro or Mickey Mouse or, what the heck, a vampire. You get all excited by the switcharoo, and then it falls flat. Nothing happens. The retelling fails.

Why? Because, when you retell a story, you still have to tell it well. You can’t just piggyback on an old story to carry yours. You still have to have all those elements of good storytelling in place to make it work: great characters, a complex plot, rich setting, and, of course, good language and a complex theme. If Scrooge-as-Castro is exactly like Scrooge-as-Scrooge, with the same actions and feelings, then what’s the point of resetting the whole story in Cuba? Therein lies the heart of the retelling problem: there must be a point to your retelling, and so many of the quirky versions of these popular stories seem to have none. What happens if we trade Scrooge in for a communist dictator is not a matter of what he would wear or what language he would speak. Such matters are simple exercises in replacement, not in creativity.

I’m currently reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a novel about historical figure Thomas Cromwell. It’s a shame that I’m reading it as I am, here and there, this waiting room, these fifteen minutes before I fall asleep. It’s riveting, which is amazing, given that it’s a true story and one that has not only been told countless times before, but also read by me countless times. I’m a sucker for the Tudors, and I must have read a thousand stories about Henry VIII. I’m glad I don’t have an edict, however, because it would have kept me from reading this wonderful book. What’s so wonderful about it? It’s not just that she chose a comparatively minor figure (hardly minor, really, but most people go for the king himself or Anne Boleyn), although that does help. It certainly worked for Philippa Gregory, who also told this story very well in The Other Boleyn Girl, told from the point of view of Anne’s sister, Mary. More than the choice of focus, however, what makes Mantel’s novel so enjoyable is just the fine writing. She really humanizes Cromwell, who is usually seen as just a conniving figure, by giving him a family and complex feelings that have nothing to do with being “good” or “bad.” She also tells the story in present tense, in sparse, clear language that is immediate and gripping. She could write about her dog taking a crap and make it compelling.

So tell and retell all the stories that you want. Tell them straight, or tell them slant, but tell them well. Don’t delude yourself into believing that, just because you’ve turned all the usual characters into robotic vampires from space, you’ve got yourself an original take on an old story. Originality is not a matter of circumstance, but of thought. Mantel apparently spent five years researching the historical circumstances of Cromwell’s story, and didn’t turn a single character into a robot space alien, and yet this umpteenth retelling of Henry VIII’s shenanigans is the freshest thing I’ve read in years. In the end, there’s no such thing as a good story. When we hear a story, watch a movie, or read a book over and over, it’s not the story we’re enjoying, it’s the way it’s told.

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