Analysis

Five Rules for Retelling Old Stories

maleficent-now-and-then

Humans have been retelling old stories for as long as there have been old stories to retell, as the current plethora of Hollywood remakes can attest. On its own, this isn’t a surprise. There are only so many kinds of stories, and it’s much easier to make money with a title people recognize. What is surprising is how bad we seem to be at it. Look no further than 2013’s The Lone Ranger for a major example, and there are many other works (mostly films) along the same lines. We’ve learned to react to a remake announcement with apprehension rather than excitement. We’d have a much better experience if the people behind these retellings would follow just a handful of rules.

1. Know What You’re Trying to Accomplish

Wonder Woman Torcher

Every storyteller should know what they’re trying to accomplish, but it’s especially necessary for someone doing a remake. Hollywood retellings are motivated by what could politely be called an enthusiastic pursuit of profit. As such, they very often try to be all things to all people, for the widest possible audience. Just as often, they are made by people with no idea what they’re doing.

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is a classic example. Even though only one person is credited for writing, the script feels like there were a lot of hands on it. At first, it seems like it will be the sort of Alice film where all the Wonderland characters have real life counterparts, but it turns out to be just Tweedledee and Tweedledum. This creates a false expectation, because you keep waiting for the real-life Queen of Hearts parallel, and she never arrives. It also raises questions of why there are two people in real life who just happen to mirror two of the characters from Wonderland.

Then it’s revealed that it’s actually a return to Wonderland film: Alice has been there before, when she was very young. Since they spent time establishing this, it should be important somehow. Instead, the fact that Alice has been in Wonderland before is barely relevant to the plot. The characters mention it constantly, but there is no payoff.

The unaired Wonder Woman pilot from 2011 is even better. In this proposed show, Wonder Woman would have been an Amazon Princess, a rich business woman, and a quiet loner who just wants the world to leave her alone – all at the same time. Thankfully, NBC did not pick it up.

The writers also seemed confused on if she was going to be a shining beacon of morality or a dark and gritty anti-hero who did whatever had to be done. There are scenes in which Wonder Woman feels the heavy burden of her responsibility as a role model, and scenes where she beats up a hospitalized man for information.

A story that doesn’t know what it’s trying to do will confuse and alienate the audience. Having more than one theme in a story is fine, but when those themes are incomplete or contradictory, it becomes a problem.

2. Don’t Betray the Original

Sulu Sword

If a classic story is popular enough to warrant a remake, chances are good there were some very important messages running through it. In a retelling, it’s vital to retain those messages, lest the new story lack the very thing that made it relevant in the first place.

Way back in 1967, there was a plan for an episode of Star Trek in which Sulu would run around the ship with a katana. This seemed the natural choice because George Takei was of Japanese ancestry, except that Takei himself objected. He didn’t want Sulu to be completely defined by his genetic background. There had never been any indication that Sulu was into Japanese culture, Takei reasoned, so why not do something unexpected and give him a fencing foil? That’s exactly what happened, and since then, it has stood as one of Star Trek’s many strides against racist storytelling.

Then 2009 rolled around, and with it, JJ Abrams’ first Star Trek movie. In the film, Sulu specifically says he is trained in fencing, an obvious callback to a fan-favorite episode. Then a major battle starts and Sulu goes for his sword…which looks very much like a katana. Just like that, one of Star Trek’s major accomplishments is done away with. It seems that in the 21st century, Sulu is going to use a Japanese sword because he’s Japanese.* Trekkies were, shall we say, less than pleased.

The way Tim Burton’s Alice treats the titular character is even worse. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland was one the first fantasy stories to feature a female protagonist, and it is regarded to this day as an important piece of feminist literature. That’s why it’s so surprising that the 2010 film robs Alice of her agency and her power, turning the story’s message into misogynistic garbage.

Throughout the movie, Alice is told that she must slay the Jabberwocky and save Wonderland.* The only problem is that she doesn’t want to, both because it’s dangerous, and because she doesn’t want to kill a living thing. It’s made very clear that killing the Jabberwocky is the only acceptable path, regardless of what Alice wants. When she finally agrees, things get even worse. It turns out that all Alice has to do is hold the Vorpal Sword, which will then do the work for her. Not only is she required to do this, but her contribution is then marginalized.

Since remakes cater at least somewhat to fans of the original, betraying an important and positive message is bad for approval ratings. It’s also just terrible storytelling.

3. Have Something New to Say

MALEFICENT

Far too often, remakes are so focused on making money that there isn’t a creative spark in them. If the audience can get the same experience from watching the original work, then something is wrong. The 2013 remake of Carrie is one such film. It is almost a shot for shot duplicate of the 1976 version, except nothing works quite as well. The actress playing Carrie is gorgeous when she’s supposed to be an average-looking outcast, the mother isn’t as menacing, et cetera. In general, it feels like a grainy photocopy of the original. Everything’s the same, but not all there.

In contrast, Maleficent has a lot to say. Not only is it a retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the villain’s perspective, but it addresses the original story’s most problematic theme: sexual assault. There’s always been something very creepy about a prince who sees a sleeping girl, then decides to kiss her – and in some versions of the story it’s even worse.

Maleficent not only has a scene where the Prince specifically questions the morality of the situation, but the entire story is a metaphor for the trauma and recovery of a sexual assault survivor. Mild spoilers ahead. Maleficent’s wings are taken from her by someone she trusts intimately, and the way Angelina Jolie acts the scene makes it clear what’s really happened to her. The rest of the film is her dealing with that trauma and, in the end, overcoming it. The film also thumbs its nose at the wise and powerful male authority figure that fairytales love so much, which gives it an extra bit of kick.

While Maleficent is hardly a perfect movie, it uses an old story to show us something new. The best remakes are those that either put a twist on something the audience already knows, or that subverts the original work’s harmful message.

4. Don’t Try to Be Like Something Else

alice in wonderland via disney

Lord of the Rings completely changed how Hollywood looked at fantasy movies. Not only did the three films receive more awards than they knew what to do with, they also made a LOT of money. They made so much money, in fact, that other filmmakers immediately started copying them.

Nowhere was this more obvious than in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.* The Alice books are about as different from Lord of the Rings as it is possible to get and still be written in English. Carroll’s stories are surreal tales that questioned reality at every turn with their own absurdity. Tolkien’s work is an epic struggle of good vs evil for the fate of the world, and could not be more serious if it tried. Both are great, but they are clearly not the same.

None of this mattered to the people behind the 2010 Alice. Not only does the story revolve around an epic battle of good vs evil for the fate of the world, but it even looks and sounds like Lord of the Rings. The characters have names like Iracebeth of Crims and Mirana of Marmoreal. You could put those two next to Legolas of the Woodland Elves and no one would bat an eye. Much of the background music sounds like it should be playing as Uruk-hai assault Helm’s Deep, and the bleak landscapes smack more than a little of Mordor.

Oh, and the Dormouse has basically been transformed into Reepicheep, because while Tim Burton’s Alice wants desperately to be Lord of the Rings, it’s also trying to be Narnia.

It’s not that a ‘war in Wonderland’ story can’t work. In fact, it was done very well by a TV miniseries in 2009, and before that in the Looking Glass Wars books. What made those works successful was that they embraced the strangeness that is Wonderland, rather than discarding it in favor of something that was considered more profitable.

5. Reduce Discrimination

roslin

The unfortunate truth is that the older a story is, the more likely it is to be racist, sexist, or both. That’s not to say we don’t have those issues today, but at least we know they are problems. This was not always the case. Star Trek, a show known for its forward-thinking nature, has a scene in which Spock says without irony that “women are more easily and more deeply terrified.” What a logical thing to say!

Discrimination should never be preserved in the name of staying true to the original. We’ve grown as a society, and our stories should reflect that. Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica understood this 100%. The original BSG featured very few female characters, and the cast had a distinctly pale look to them. The remake features an extremely diverse cast, along both gender and racial lines. President Roslin is female, and no one in the show questions her for it. William Adama, possibly the most important character on the show, is played by Mexican American actor Edward James Olmos. Some characters from the original BSG, like Starbuck and Admiral Cain, have been unapologetically gender swapped.

Unfortunately, Abram’s Star Trek films do the reverse. Even as they found time to introduce a rock gnome sidekick for Scotty, the movies were cutting out characters like Nurse Chapel, Janice Rand, and Number One.* That last one is particularly confusing, considering that Captain Pike is a major character in both movies, but his female first officer is nowhere to be seen. Instead, we are left with an Enterprise almost devoid of women, especially in the 2009 film. Star Trek: Into Darkness was better, but even there the females were almost entirely in the background, and Carol Marcus went from a woman who invented the most powerful piece of technology in the Federation to a bit of eye candy for Kirk.

As a final blow to diversity, the role of Khan Noonien Singh was given to Benedict Cumberbatch, perhaps the whitest white guy England has ever produced. While it’s true that Khan’s original actor, Ricardo Montalban, was Hispanic rather than Indian or Sikh, the new role could easily have gone to one of the many Indian or Sikh actors who have trouble in Hollywood because all the major parts are written for white people.

Some try to defend the Abrams films by saying that there weren’t many female characters in the original Star Trek either. That isn’t true, but even if it was, it wouldn’t be an excuse. Character genders and ethnicity are not set in stone, no matter how hard some fans protest. We have a responsibility to be less prejudiced than our forebears, and that means not leaving our entertainment overwhelmingly white and male when we update it.

There’s a balance that needs to be struck in remakes between staying true to the original and making changes. You should be using the original work as a springboard for your own story, rather than being attached to it like a ball and chain. The key is knowing which changes to make so you can say something worthwhile, without negating the reason for doing a remake in the first place.

Want pointers on your story? We’re available for hire.

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Comments

  1. John Ferguson

    Nicely done. I had wondered what the issue with the sword was…some people who just didn’t like Abram’s Trek seemed to object to it outright, despite the classic episode pictured here, but they refused to go in depth with a rational explanation for why they didn’t like it. The only excuse I can think of is still pretty lame – perhaps a folding katana was easier to put on screen than a folding fencing foil (say that three times fast). And REALLY good call about #1’s absence…I had honestly not thought about that. I officially turn over one of my Trekkie cards.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’ma give you back that Trekkie card on account of I know you love Star Trek, which matters way more than any trivia.

      If I had my druthers, Sulu wouldn’t have carried a sword at all. Frankly, the idea that Starfleet Officers carry swords into combat is really hard to take seriously. What I wish is that something like this had happened:

      One of those many spars sticking out everywhere on the laser drill breaks lose during the fight. Sulu loses his phaser. He grabs the broken spar and runs the Romulan through with a perfect fencer’s lunge. I’d have watched that for a dollar.

      • Skylark

        I’d have paid the price of another movie ticket just to see that twice on the big screen.

  2. Bill

    I have to dispute you about the live-action Maleficent film. The film took a wonderful character, usually voted as Disney’s greatest female villain, and diminished her into one more tired repetition of the “rape as origin story” cliche’ that has become so popular and that has offended so many survivors of sexual assault. (cf. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/RapeAsBackstory) Maleficent and her fans deserved better (so did Jolie, for that matter).

    There was nothing new to this retelling, nothing innovative, insightful, or sophisticated about Maleficent’s new origin; it was lazy storytelling, nothing more, and a retread of the overused and dehumanizing stereotype that women lack the agency to become “evil” unless a man coerces them into it by betraying them.

    This is why so many therapy groups of male and female survivors of sexual assault dislike the film, regardless of what self-appointed spokespeople may allege without actually consulting them.

    • Janet

      Bravo! Couldn’t have said it better!

  3. Bill

    On a related matter, although modern retellings of classic fairy stories often reinforce outdated and offensive gender hierarchies, the original faerie stories were overtly gynocentric and often misandric. (cf. mythcreants.com/blog/the-problem-with-prince-charming/ of your own blog for more about this!)

    For example, the reason Snow White and Sleeping Beauty have princes kiss their seeming corpses in the original tales is that the gods themselves are rearranging reality for them, and part of this includes puppeteering a prince to fall for them. This is not some lowly rationalization, not during eras when people genuinely believed in spiritual possession and divine mandate as physical facts as clear and unquestionable as gravity and breathing, but rather the honest belief among women of the time that women had magical and spiritual power over men.

    This is one reason why the names of the princes are irrelevant to these tales; they function only as instruments by which Snow White and Sleeping Beauty can obtain their wishes for power, authority, wealth, and romance on their own terms (the princes really have no agency at all in the matter).

    For these reasons (among many others), they were popular tales told by women in all-women environments during the many centuries prior to industrialization.

    Unfortunately, modern retellings, including many by Disney, significantly altered the stories to impose 1950s-era gender hierarchy and to obliterate as much as possible their overt gynocentrism and occasional misandry. Hence, in Disney, Sleeping Beauty’s Prince suddenly has a name and a mission, and Sleeping Beauty’s heroic battles against her cannibalistic half-ogre mother-in-law are elided as she is reduced to a damosel in distress. Similarly, the Wicked Queen’s antipathy for Snow White is reduced to mere vanity, whereas the Queen’s original wish to be the fairest in the land arose from a terror of death as represented by signs of aging, a far more weighty motivation; according to fairy tale logic, killing Snow White would have reversed the Queen’s aging and therefore kept her away from death. (for more on this, consult Maria Tatar, Jack Zipes, Bruno Bethelheim, Alan Dundes, etc.)

    However, although the modern retellings are unfortunate, it is anachronistic to judge the older tellings by them.

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