Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Retellings of classics

At tor.com, a post by Christina Orlando and Leah Schnelbach on retellings: 23 Retellings of Classic Stories From SFF Authors. 23 is certainly an odd number. In both senses. Why not 10 or 15 or, if you’re going all the way to 23, how about 25? Still, fine, let’s see what’s on this list …

Okay: two retellings of Frankenstein. I am not remotely interested. I don’t particularly like tragedies to start with and have never been inclined to read the original, much less retellings. The Red Shoes. Two retellings of the Orpheus myth . . . this post seems heavy on tragedy so far . . . Persephone . . . Hansel and Gretel . . . Alice in Wonderland.

Oh, here’s something I’ve never even heard of: The Shahnameh, a Persian epic, it says. “A princess with poison skin, doomed to be isolated from society and her family.” That’s unfortunate. It says this is a book about a girl overcoming her circumstances, so hopefully not a tragedy.

Hah, listen: here’s one called Burning Roses which apparently merges Red Riding Hood and the Hou Yi myth. This sounds like fun. “S.L. Huang just loves us, honestly. Why else would she give us a story in which Red Riding Hood and Hou Yi the Archer team up to save the world? The mash-up of the two stories delights in weaving something new and exciting with characters from two mythological traditions. Set in a mythological landscape of fire demons, Burning Roses tackles age, identity, found family and lost relationships.”

Here’s the description from Amazon:

Rosa, also known as Red Riding Hood, is done with wolves and woods. Hou Yi the Archer is tired, and knows she’s past her prime. They would both rather just be retired, but that’s not what the world has ready for them.

When deadly sunbirds begin to ravage the countryside, threatening everything they’ve both grown to love, the two must join forces. Now blessed and burdened with the hindsight of middle age, they begin a quest that’s a reckoning of sacrifices made and mistakes mourned, of choices and family and the quest for immortality.

That sounds promising! This one isn’t out yet. It’s being released this September.

All right, let’s see, what else?

Two retellings of Snow White. One of Cindarella. Just one Beauty and the Beast — you could put together a list of the Top Twenty-Five Beauty and the Beast retellings with no trouble. Mulan. Wizard of Oz. Pride and Prejudice. There’s another one you could do at least a Top Ten list for, I bet. And all the retellings would probably suffer from comparison with the original. Very difficult to measure up to Jane Austen.

Three entries on this list cheat; Orlando and Schnelbach lumped up things like “Norse myths” or “Gothic novels” or “Korean Gumiho Tales.” Well, no. If a book isn’t retelling a specific story, it’s not a retelling; it’s a story in the tradition of.

Okay, last, let me focus on this one: A Count of Monte Cristo retelling. This is Scavenge the Stars by Tara Sim.

My first reaction: Oooh! My favorite classic novel!

My second reaction: Uh, how likely is it that this YA fantasy retelling has in any way retold The Count of Monte Cristo? I am immediately nervous about a retelling; I fear the author may have done terrible things to my favorite elements in the original.

Skimming through some reviews at Amazon, I see that very few reviewers have read the original. Well, there’s no way those reviewers can assess the book as a retelling, then. So, hopping over to Goodreads and poking around a bit, I found this review, by someone who IS familiar with, and loves, the original. And, well … yeah, no, this cannot possibly be a good retelling. The departures are too important. Click through and read the full review, which is long and thoughtful. Just one point I’ll pull out (there are more, equally important):

In the original, Edmond Dantes becomes super wealthy and then vanishes for years. When the world (and the reader) sees him next, he is decades older and has forged himself into a weapon of vengeance. He’s set up hidden plans that tick inexorably forward toward the destruction of his enemies. The only thing that can prevent their complete ruin or death is his own decision to exercise restraint. From the linked review, we find out that in Scavenging the Stars, the girl protagonist gets rich and immediately sets out to bring down the unjust society. Also, she’s not developing her own plans and setting out to achieve them, restrained only by her own sense of morality. No, she’s uncertain and afraid of failing. Moreover, she’s being manipulated by older, more experienced characters.

Apart from every other potential flaw, this completely ruins the story as a retelling.

Edmond Dantes is a fantastic protagonist because he is aloof, chilling, and powerful. Because his own internal thoughts are largely hidden from the reader, he is also an ambiguous protagonist who could very well go all the way, wreaking terrible vengeance on those who wronged him. Each time he steps back from complete vengeance, that decision is powerful. Re-imagined as an uncertain young protagonist who is much more passive and following someone else’s plans, the character loses absolutely everything that made the original Count of Monte Cristo memorable.

So, well, that’s disappointing. Not sure how possible it would be to do a real Count of Monte Cristo retelling, but this doesn’t appear to be it.

Now I am thinking of whether it’s possible to do a Top Ten list for Protagonists Similar To The Count Of Monte Cristo. I can think of one or two somewhat similar protagonists. I’ll have to think about this and see if I can come up with a few more.

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14 Comments Retellings of classics

  1. Allan Shampine

    Love the Count of Monte Cristo! Will avoid the “retelling”…

    Agreed that the Count story seems antithetical to YA. Not sure it’s possible to make the core elements mesh.

  2. Alison

    There should be more retelling of Alexandre Dumas!! So many tropes— did he originate the twins sharing feelings in The Corsican Brothers? I don’t think there’s been a good retelling of any Dumas story since the movie ‘Start the Revolution Without Me’ with Gene Wilder and Donald Sutherland, panned by everyone but Dumas aficionados in the seventies. My middle name is after a Dumas character in The Count of Monte Christo. Someone, please write a new version of Marguerite de Valois and Chicot the Jester!

  3. Allan Shampine

    Steven Brust redid the Musketeer novels in his fantasy world. I think that was a pretty good retelling and I’m happy to recommend them.

  4. SarahZ

    There are so many retellings of these stories, there was no reason to cheat and say “gothic”, or to cut it off at such an odd number. Heck, is there even a Romeo and Juliet in there? Why not Warm Bodies?

    There are some great Tam Lin retellings (Tithe by Holly Black), and it’s my understanding that The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson was loosely based on the epic of gilgamesh. Or, The Princess Curse, by Merrie Haskell (12 dancing princesses & some beauty and the beast). Could go on and on.

  5. Mary Catelli

    I’ve read re-tellings that strayed much further than purported original works with the serial numbers barely scraped off

  6. Rachel

    SarahZ, yes, it would actually be pretty easy to do a Top 100 List for the retellings of classics. Noooo shortage.

    Alison, I don’t know that I’d call Brust’s books retellings . . . or maybe I would! But they are certainly at the very least an homage to the Three Musketeers. I agree with Allan, they’re very good if you’d like something in the Dumas style.

  7. Pete Mack

    I can’t take seriously any such list that fails even to mention David Drake. What an insult!

  8. Rachel

    Pete, I’ve never read it, but didn’t Drake do a retelling of The Odyssey? That would be as classic as it gets.

  9. Pete Mack

    Yes–among others. (“Voyage Beyond the Stars” He reads the classics in the original language, and uses bits and pieces (or more!) throughout his work. He also uses Patrick O’Brian.

  10. Kim Aippersbach

    Pete, my library has Drake’s The Spark and The Storm, which are apparently Arthurian retellings (or inspired-by, at least). Would you recommend?

    Helen Oyeyemi sounds like a fascinating author; has anyone read her?

    I could not read a book with a character named Silverfish. Silverfish are gross and in all ways repellent and I would be shuddering the whole time I was reading.

  11. Pete Mack

    Have not read Spark and Storm, sorry. I vaguely remember bouncing off it while reading the online preview. Online reviews are mixed. (They aren’t mixed for Redliners.)

  12. Elaine T

    I read the Spark, it seemed more my thing than most of Drake and I wanted to try something by him. It was all right, but a read once, and discard sort.

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