Retelling the Classics, by Rebecca Jamison

Retelling the Classics, by Rebecca Jamison

Sometimes fan fiction writers get flack for being copycats. The truth is, though, that many successful books, movies, and TV shows are classics reworked. Here are a few examples I’ve noticed lately:

  • The movie You’ve Got Mailis adapted from The Shop Around the Corner, a classic movie that starred Jimmy Stewart.
  • Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca is very similar to Jane Eyre.
  • The Hobbit started out as a retelling of Beowulf.
  • Disney’s The Lion King is based on Hamlet. 
  • The TV show Castle’s 100thepisode is based on the movie Rear Window, also starring Jimmy Stewart.
  • Anne of Green Gables is very similar to Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms, which happened to be one of L.M. Montgomery’s favorite books.

If you look up “Shakespeare sources” on Google, you will find that even the great bard copied from other authors.

In a day when writers can be sued for plagiarism, we can become so afraid of “copying” that we fail to let other authors influence our writing. A good writer should be reading the best books available. While doing so, she can take note of things to emulate or writing that inspires new ideas.

Lisa Wingate, a successful novelist, offers this advice on her website: “If there is a particular area of your writing that seems to be holding you back (action scenes, dialog, description, characterization, etc) devote extensive study to this area. . . . Study other authors’ techniques in this area. Don’t just read and admire—dissect, break down, make notes, keep a scrapbook of examples and notes-to-self. Read these notes-to-self when you’re stuck/struggling/editing something that isn’t working.”

Dr. Lance Larsen gave similar advice to writers in his BYU Forum address, “Coaxing the Muse—Thoughts on the Creative Process.” He tells the story of a student named Ethan, whose poems were stale and uninspired. When asked about his sources of inspiration, Ethan admitted that he didn’t read any poetry. He wanted his poems to be completely original. What Ethan didn’t understand, according to Dr. Larsen, was that “if we don’t consciously seek out the best models, we unwittingly put ourselves at the mercy of the worst.”

Writing an adapted classic may seem like a cop-out, but it’s not as easy as it looks. Since I’ve spent so much time adapting Jane Austen’s classics into contemporary fiction, I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned.

Here are six tips for adapting the classics:

  1. Keep the Emotions. The classics are still around because they touch people emotionally. We feel for Hamlet, Jane Eyre, and Elizabeth Bennett. Your goal in adapting the classic should be to create the same range of emotions with new characters and settings.
  1. Twist the Events. If you market your novel as an adaptation, as I do, you’ll need to mirror the events of the classic. However, you also have to avoid predictability. The events in your novel should seem natural to the setting you choose. When Scar kills Mufasa in The Lion King, he doesn’t pour poison in his ear as Hamlet’s uncle did; he kills him with a stampede.
  1. Remember the Movie too.  Many of the people who like retellings are more familiar with the movie versions than the book. Therefore, you must create a twist on the events in both the book and the movie versions. Also, pay attention to the way movies portray the characters.
  1. Make the Characters Real.You want the reader to be so invested in your characters that they forget they’re reading an adaptation. To do this, you must give your character an original back-story, quirks, and traits. Make sure each chapter reveals something new about your main characters’ personalities.
  1. Watch the Dialogue.A common complaint I hear about contemporary adaptations of classic novels is that the dialogue seems old-fashioned. The author has spent so much time reading the classics that antiquated dialogue seems natural to her. An easy remedy for this problem is to read your dialogue out loud, asking yourself if it seems like something you’d actually say.
  1. Pick up the Pace.Not to be rude, but classic novels tend to be . . . well, a little slow. If you want your retelling to compete in the modern world, you have to write a modern story. That means that you’ll need a tighter plot that uses fewer words and has more action (even if it’s only emotional action.) In other words, skip over the boring parts.

That about sums up what I’ve learned over the years, but I’d love to hear your suggestions. What do you look for in a retelling?

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October 13, 2018 8:53 PM

I especially like number six, lol 🙂 Great post!

John Smith
John Smith
December 10, 2017 10:27 AM

I have just never read or watched the L.M. Montgomery stories. I would hope that a TV version would someday have super-high production values and scripting to make it look unmissable!

Laurie McClain
Laurie McClain
January 18, 2019 6:22 PM
Reply to  John Smith

The Canadian mini series from the 80’s is really fantastic! Have you tried that one (with Megan Follows)? I enjoyed the Avonlea series very much as well.

Sharon Lathan
August 28, 2016 3:28 PM

Thanks for this post, Rebecca. Fan fiction does get a bad rap, and it is unfair. SO many books and movies are inspired by, if not direct rewrites of past works. This links tells it all:

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
August 27, 2016 11:00 AM

Excellent points and every author should consider them before adapting the classics. That is why so many JAFF authors wind up with one star. They did not heed your advise. Thanks for posting. Blessings. JWG

August 26, 2016 4:14 PM

Rebecca, Thank you for a fun post. I love using references to old movies and classic books in my comedies. Often they fit perfectly into the story I am crafting. And readers love finding the hidden gems. It becomes like a treasure hunt for them. I have used them in my Mister Darcy series comedic mysteries also in my Wendy Darlin Tomb Raider series. There is one book in that series that I have received so many delighted comments on: Miami Mummies is a send up to Alfred Hitchcock. I slipped references for most of the brilliant director’s many films in the comedy tale that takes place in present day Miami. It was so much fun to play with my readers. Thank you! 🙂

August 26, 2016 2:39 PM

I would add to your good advice that you should make it your own. There is no point in retelling a classic if you have nothing to add to it.

Consider the comparison you made between Rebecca and Jane Eyre. Rebecca is much more interesting character than Rochester’s mad wife. That is one of the things that make Rebecca a good story.

Rebecca H Jamison
Rebecca H Jamison
August 26, 2016 3:49 PM

Very true, Teresa. I love your point about Rebecca.

Sheila Majczan
Sheila Majczan
August 26, 2016 2:07 PM

I am not a writer but have noticed that a basic seems to be lacking in a number of books (and I have reviewed over 500) and that is simply spell check or even grammar check. Yes, I know that the British spellings are different from the American and that Regency is different from modern. What I like is angst, some mystery and sexual tension if you are writing JAFF stories. I don’t need bedroom scenes, necessarily, but I do like to read how just how the attraction sizzles between ODC. The points you made were logical ones from my POV.

August 26, 2016 3:44 PM
Reply to  Sheila Majczan

Such good points. I think all writers can work on these things.

August 26, 2016 3:43 PM
Reply to  Sheila Majczan

Good points. Those are things that matter in most books I think.

August 26, 2016 9:40 AM

If our English teachers are to be believed, all the good stories have already been told; that’s not the point, though. Why are you telling this story? What is it about the story that compels you to reimagine it? Why is it relevant now? If you changed something about it, why did you do that? Lots of fiction, fan and original(ish), lacks purpose. If you have good answers to any of these questions, you may be on to something.

August 26, 2016 3:45 PM
Reply to  Summer

That’s a good point, Summer. I think the best stories ask questions about life too, not that they need to come to an answer.

August 26, 2016 8:44 AM

Thank you for putting this together, Rebecca. As I have just embarked on my first attempt at a P&P variation (actually my first attempt at fiction) I have bookmarked this page and intend to refer to it often.

August 26, 2016 3:45 PM
Reply to  JanisB

Good luck with your variation, Janis!

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