One of my favorite things is modern reimaginings of classic works, even if I don’t particularly like the original classic work. For example, I’m not a huge fan of the Brontes (sorry), but Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is my favorite book. Don’t come at me with any argument that it’s not a reimagining. I know they are two separate books (I cannot believe someone felt they had to tell me that), and you won’t be able to prove a negative. Especially in light of literally hundreds of academic papers comparing the two. Really, you’re just going to look like an idiot.
My bizarre fight with online randos who kicked and screamed that it just could not be true and my ability to get one of them to educate herself (though the backfire effect would not let her actually learn, apparently) led me to wonder about the broad spectrum of how art inspires art. Where do we draw the line between “this new work is a retelling of this older work” and “these two are different, though one inspired the other”?
Of course, an argument can be made that there are only two plots in all stories. Every story is some variant of either “a boy goes off to seek his fortune” or “a stranger comes riding into town.” That doesn’t mean all of a particular type of story is a retelling of, or was even inspired by, all others. But it happens so much in literature and entertainment that it seems so ignorant to ignore.
On one end of the spectrum, I think there is Macbeth and Lord of the Rings. A reader can clearly see how Tolkien was inspired by his hatred of Shakespeare and how the fulfilment of the witches’ prophecy was so freaking lame. Oh, Macbeth won’t be defeated until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill? Ok, let’s dress as trees then. Tolkien said fuck that and wrote about tree people marching and fighting. Oh, none of woman born will kill Macbeth? Ok, well, this guy’s mom had a C-section. Tolkien said fuck that and wrote “no living man may hinder me” and “but no living man am I!”
I especially love how she bangs on her shield around 1:58 as if to say “come and get it, bitch king.”
But I wouldn’t call Lord of the Rings a retelling of Macbeth even if these two parts are obviously not just inspired by but reimaginings of the prophesies.
On this same end, there’s Moby Dick and Jaws. We can see more of the similarities between the plot and themes between the two works (and the sailors singing the same chanty, in case that wasn’t enough for you), but there are new focuses. The mayor who won’t close the beach. The fear and horror. That doesn’t mean a new work that changes the genre of a classic isn’t a reimagining, of course. Just look at Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
Or Twilight. The first book was inspired by Pride and Prejudice (just like Bridget Jones’s Diary was), New Moon by Romeo and Juliet, Eclipse by Wuthering Heights (which also inspired Jamaica Inn, for all you du Maurier fans), and Breaking Dawn by A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Some say The Merchant of Venice for that last one. I never read it, so I can’t speak to that. If you feel strongly one way or the other, please let me know in the comments.) But would we say that New Moon is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, for example? I wouldn’t. For one, spoiler alert, they survived. And the tension and themes seemed to come from different and unrelated places.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, we have The Taming of the Shrew and 10 Things I Hate About You, Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Cruel Intentions, Emma and Clueless, or The Scarlet Letter and Easy A. In these, changes were made, but you cannot deny (well, I don’t know…I dealt with some really willfully stupid people online talking about remakes and retellings) not just the influence but the attempt to make a modern retelling.
Easy A is a good one to talk about. The plot was totally different. There was no child or even adulterous relationship. It was just rumors and a girl who wanted to use her ability to not give a shit about what other people thought to help others. Everything blew up. She tried to save a marriage but destroyed it anyway. And she got the guy in the end. This wasn’t in the book. Can we call it a reimagining if the plots are so different? How can we not? The movie was about characters reading the book, and the themes of shame and ostracization were the same.
Somewhere in the middle are the hundreds of others where we can see clear inspiration and clear change. Hamlet and The Lion King. The Pardoner’s Tale and J.K. Rowling’s The Tale of the Three Brothers. The Snow Queen and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Are they close enough in style or similar enough in plot to be called a retelling?
Where do we draw a line? Is it plot, or style, or intention that makes something a reimagining? When is something just inspired by something else and when it is a retelling? And why is that line important?
For me, it’s not important at all. Sure, recognizing the degree to which a work was inspired and the differences is important. But I don’t think we need to draw a line. We can acknowledge a writer’s creativity even in a retelling. Understanding the author’s inspiration helps me appreciate the new work more and maybe make we want to take another look, or a first look, at the classic. Seeing why and how things were changed helps me better understand the new author’s message. I don’t see what is gained in denying inspiration and imitation.