Ever pick up a new to you book, only to get the feeling, only a few pages in, that you’ve read this story before? Not the book, because the publishing date is new. Perhaps you even pre-ordered it, or it’s the author’s debut, so there is no possible way you have read this book before. The story, though, hews close to a favorite fairy tale, movie, or other material. The names are different, but the structure of the story is the same. Is this a ripoff? Nope, it’s a retelling, which is a whole different animal, new and familiar all at once. How does that even work? Let’s see.
The books that brought this topic to mind aren’t romances. Well, at least one of them isn’t. Brideshead Revisited, (which is not a sequel, despite the re– in the title; that has thrown a few people for longer than some people care to admit :shifty eyes:) by Evelyn Waugh, (He-Evelyn, for those keeping track of these things, because his wife at the time was also named Evelyn) is a love story, though…of sorts. A young artist falls in love with the glamorous family of his college friend. Also maybe with his friend…or his friend’s sister…but definitely their way of life, which may be breathing its last. Same thing with Even In Paradise, by Chelsey Philpot, only this time, it’s YA instead of general fiction, contemporary instead of between world wars (though, to be fair, Brideshead was contemporary when it was written, too) and the genders are flipped. Instead of Charles, we have Charlotte, called Charlie, and Catholicism does not seem to be as big a sticking point as in the original, but fans of one will find familiar faces in the other, yet they are each their own creation.
Since Even In Paradise is not written from the same period or perspective as Brideshead, there are already going to be a few differences, and with the ages and genders of the leading characters changed, as well as the omission of one subplot from the original (which would not have survived the trip across the Atlantic, or forward a generous handful of decades) and substitution of another, it’s not the same thing, though the influence is certainly there. Even readers familiar with how Brideshead came to a close (spoiler: it’s not a romance) can still follow the love relationship of the central couple here and have hope that, maybe, this time, things will turn out differently. Is there a HEA (or, more likely, HFN, as the characters are teens) in the cards for Charlie and Sebastian? Well, that would be telling, and isn’t part of the fun of reading retellings or reimaginings finding out for oneself?
Sometimes, that’s the whole point. Romance novels have a long tradition of bringing new perspectives to classic fairy tales. Authors such as Eloisa James have had great success with doing exactly that, and being up front about it. Whether it’s bringing Cinderella into Regency England, Rapunzel into contemporary America (with or without paranormal elements; take your pick) or countless versions of Beauty and the Beast, set in one’s choice of times and places (not to mention levels of sensuality, from chaste kisses to burning down the house) these tales as old as time continue to find fresh new ground, and please a discerning audience.
Why is that? Surely, if we know the story already, there’s no reason to cover the same ground all over again, is there? Anyone who has ever re-read a favorite book knows this isn’t true, and those of us who have had the experience of sharing a child’s favorite bedtime story with them again and again and again and again and again (phew!) can give a laugh of recognition. In fact, the more familiar we are with a core story -let’s say Beauty and the Beast, for ease of reference- the more we’re able to appreciate the components, and exactly what changing one -or more- of them can do to give us an entirely new reading experience.
Since romance is all about the characters and relationships, this is one area where we can have a whole lot of fun, playing the “what-if” game. What if we flipped the genders around, and Beauty is the hero, while the Beast is the heroine? How would that change the dynamics of the relationship, and how our lovers break the spell keeping the Beast under enchantment? What if the lovers are the same gender? What if there is a large age difference? What if one of them has a small child? What if the Beast stays beastly and Beauty must choose to join in Beast’s enchantment or lose them forever? What if Beauty has amnesia and is forgetting her role in Beast’s enchantment? What if their story has a steampunk element, or takes place in outer space, contemporary Australia, in the middle of the American Revolution, or Tang dynasty China? What if there were an inspirational element? See how one small change can give a whole new feel to a story we all know?
So, what kinds of stories can be retold in the romance world? Lots of them. If the original love interests in the source material didn’t have a happy ending, in the hands of a skilled romance writer, this time, they can. Whether that means turning the tide so that this version of one or both characters make different choices, or even choose a different partner, the only thing we know for certain is that there will be a HEA for our lovers at the end of it all. Other than that, all bets are off and anything can happen. Not so predictable now, is it?
So, dear readers, I turn it now over to you. Have you ever read a romance novel that is a retelling of a fairy tale or some other work? What did the author change in their version, and what did they leave the same? If you’ve never read a romantic retelling, why or why not? What story or sort of story would you like to see retold as a romance novel? Do certain types of stories lend themselves to romantic retellings more easily than others? Is there a certain sort of retelling that will catch your attention every time? If the original version of a story is your one and only, we want to hear about that, too. Pull up a chair in the comments section and tell us all about it. There’s room for everybody at this table.