- A wise someone once said, "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again.
There is nothing new under the sun."
And by someone I mean the book of Ecclesiastes from the Tanakh or the Christian Old Testament.
And this bit of knowledge has maintained its relevance more than 2000 years later especially when it comes to the fiction we enjoy.
And I'm not just saying that because I'm rereading the latest New York Times' bestseller retelling of "Pride and Prejudice", I'm not saying I'm not.
But from James Joyce's "Ulysses" to "Bridget Jones's Diary", you've probably read a book that was just a modern retelling of a well-established story, which is to say nothing of other forms of media and their own obsessions with retelling and rebooting.
And despite what you're writing 101 instincts might tell you, this is neither bad nor lazy writing, or even a new concept, because let's be honest, sometimes a story is just so danged good, it bears repeating sometimes more than once, sometimes multiple times.
I'm looking at you Ms. Jane Austen.
(happy music) So why do we retell stories?
To put it simply in Wilde's words, "There is art found not in a work's perceived originality, but in the way the artist has used or deliberately not used and arranged preexisting thoughts and motifs to make something that is entirely their own."
So with that, let's take a look at three authors who engage in literary up cycling and compare starting with the bar himself, great gay of history, William Shakespeare.
That's right, our Billy Boy would probably be rocking in archive of our own account today.
Written centuries before Wattpad was a twinkle in the Internet's collective eye, many of Shakespeare's works are retellings of historical events or common narratives that were already well established in Elizabeth in England.
According to Professor Gordon McMullan, director of the London Shakespeare Center at Kings College, "With almost no exception, Shakespeare got his stories from elsewhere, and reworked them in his own way.
The point was, everyone did this.
The concept of originality like genius was invented at the end of the 18th century."
And for immigrant children everywhere, I wish it had stayed there, personally.
Even works as ubiquitous and widely taught as "Romeo and Juliet" and "Hamlet" are retellings of some other story.
The former being based on a 1562 English translation of an Italian poem, "The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet" by Arthur Brooke.
The latter being derived primarily from the medieval Scandinavian legend of "Amleth" and perhaps more alluringly from what is referred to "Ur-Hamlet", a play of unknown origin published more than a decade earlier in 1587 which some scholars believe may have been written by Thomas Kyd, Shakespeare's contemporary.
Then there are his historical plays which take a very loose, but poetic take on real life figures like Julius Caesar and King Richard III.
BTS fanfiction has nothing on Shakespeare's take on "Henry V", for example.
Reshaping the Lancaster Monarch of England as not just a war hero, but as a complex and sometimes unscrupulous ruler whose military ambition comes at the cost of tremendous violence and bloodshed, whole academic careers have been devoted to the study of Shakespeare's Henry ad plays dissecting how the texts paralleled and prophesized events in the playwright's contemporary England and the rise of the Tudor Dynasty.
And yet as much as we think of them as high literature today, Shakespeare's works at the time we're seen as popcorn for the unwashed masses that is easily available written in language that was easily understandable to poor uneducated folk and cheap rehashes.
Professor Jessica McCall and Kavita Mudan Finn perhaps capture best the uncanny parallels between how Shakespeare's retellings and modern fanfiction work saying, "Amongst fans and the academics who study them, it is generally accepted, perhaps even a truth universally acknowledged, that a good portion of what we consider canonical literature including Shakespeare also fits the broadest definition of fanfiction, in that it is clearly written in response to or adapting a specific source text.
Although it is difficult to reconcile any category that comfortably includes both Shakespeare's plays and El James' 'Fifty Shades of Grey', 89% of which had already appeared on the internet as a piece of Twilight fanfiction entitled 'Master of the Universe' Some have argued that this juxtaposition is the very point fandom."
But Shakespeare was hardly the first or last person to throw his hat into the retelling ring and come out the victor, nor was he the only person making modernized hay out of antiquity.
And we can't talk about modernized retelling without talking about James Joyce and the sprawling work that is his "Ulysses", dear God.
"Ulysses" is based on that flagship of high school literature, "The Odyssey", Homer's ancient Greek epic poem concerning (indistinct) hero Odysseus and the many perils he face as he is trying to return home to his kingdom in Ithaca.
And FYI Ulysses is just the Roman version of the name Odysseus, for the nerds out there that wanted to make sure I pointed that out.
A fixture of study, Joyce was hardly the first person to grapple with retelling "The Odyssey", however, what Joyce ended up creating is considered one of the most important modernist texts of the 20th century.
In place of Odysseus is Leopold Bloom.
And instead of spanning a decade in ancient Greece, his adventures occur over one June day in modern Dublin.
Where "The Odyssey" is comprised of 24 chapters, "Ulysses" roughly corresponds to them in 18 stream of conscious segments.
Birming with characters and plot situations that all directly are lifted from the source material.
Your Penelope, your Stephen Dedalus and whatnot.
But Joyce uses these similarities to convert Odysseus' trials into the psychological feeling of being lost, lost to modern conceptions of day-to-day living, lost to feelings of national identity, lost an Ireland's relationship to the United Kingdom.
From his 1980 introduction to the work, Canadian literary scholar, William Hugh Kenner remarked, "Ulysses and The Odyssey are identical in not existing, save as manifestations of human trade of power, products of an artistic process that is like a natural process, and that intuits in many times comparable situations, whether in the mind of Homer of Chios or in the mind of James Augustine Joyce.
Both far from the scenes of their stories created their heroes and recreated an epic geography.
Both were guided by the circumstances they knew, warfare, seafaring, marvels, commerce, perambulation, novelties."
All this to say that James Joyce was what the kids might refer to as the true godfather of the modern AU.
That is the writer who is able to take a story older than written tradition, and definitely draw significance from both the similarities and differences by placing it in a new setting.
So this is why I toil and labor over my Inu Yasha fanfiction because you know what?
Lord just shown where we needs to be in present day so that he can be with me.
Speaking of female desire, misunderstood by audiences, no video essay about modern retellings would be complete without talking about the queen herself, Jane Austen.
And the profound legacy she has left to literature and its fascination with retellings.
I bring up Austen, not because her novels are specifically retellings, though she herself often use well worn, romantic and comedic contrivances that had long existed in literature and contemporized them for her own readers, but because of the profound impact her body of work had on the modern commercial novel and media in general.
From "Bridget Jones's Diary" to "Clueless" to "Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters", if we have one social acceptable cache for stories of retelling outside of Shakespeare, it's our girl Jane.
I don't think there's a way to capture this vibe succinctly so here's just some of the novels that are direct retellings of her work.
This doesn't even begin to touch on film, comic book, and television reiterations of her work in which we have an eight-hour long episode and this is a publicly funded program, so we're not trying to waste your money with that.
Although, go watch PBS's adaptation of Sanditon.
Arguably the most financially successful from this list is Helen Fielding's, "Bridget Jones's Diary" and it's sequel "The Edge of Reason" based on Austen's novels "Pride and Prejudice" and "Persuasion".
Though, the Bridget Jones character existed before the publication of both books as a reoccurring fictional columnist for the Independent, when writing her book, Fielding saw the parallels between Jones's obsession with modern femininity, fashion, and dating and the way Austen's Elizabeth Bennett finds herself constantly struggling with the social mores of Regency England.
Said Fielding rather cheekly when asked if she lifted the plot of her books from Austen, "I thought both plot and leading men had been well market-researched over a number of centuries, and that Jane Austen wouldn't mind.
Anyways, she's dead.
Austin wrote about the minutiae of women's lives in a way that is funny and dazzlingly accurate, giving you insights into what was going on in the social world without your even realizing you're getting an incredible history lesson."
But we reach a conundrum here.
Despite "Bridget Jones's Diary" success, there is an issue.
For all of the Austen retellings that exist in the market, almost all of them are relegated to the dreaded genre of chick lit or women's literature.
Because we don't just read.
Why is it that if we can peg down Shakespeare and James Joyce as artist artistically acceptable examples of literary recyclists, that we look at books like "British Jones's Diary" or Jenny Lee's best selling retelling of "Anna Karenina", "Anna K" as disposable or barely a step above fanfiction, which again, shouldn't be an insult anyway.
We've already done an episode in part on this, click on the link above, but to be succinct, retelling especially ones sold as retellings are a big part of genres that tends to skew towards marginalized audiences, audiences with women, with LGBTQ+ people, and BIPOC audiences.
And that's a whole basket of conceptually difficult apples to unpack.
We be picking through those and those dynamics for another 12 hours and again, this is a publicly funded video.
But I think these actually speak to a larger truth about why retellings exist and why we keep coming back to them.
Says Scholar/Professor Richa Nagar, "Stories shape our sense of self, who we believe we are, our sense of our own inherited privileges and misfortunes our affinities, identifications, and allegiances.
Stories also shape what we wish or hope to do in order to give our existence meaning, whom we wanna stand or fight with, whom or what we want to help or rescue in order to uphold what we think is ethical or just telling stories involves making decisions or moves, and each retelling of a familiar story may either give birth to new meanings, nuances, and affects or erase their possibility.
Thus, each storyteller can be seen as a translator of stories with the responsibility to retell stories in ways that can do justice to them."
That is that the saying there is nothing new under the sun is not an inherently negative statement.
Rather, that story is persevere because they have some universality to them that has their time and place as society moves away and towards them again.
The minutiae may change the trappings different but when we retell a story, we are asked to consider its power.
What does a story say about where we came from?
What does it mean about where we are are now and where we are going?
And while necessity might be the mother of invention, it is in repetition we find these truths.
All this to say, please pre-order my re-imagining of "Frog and Toad" titled "Gerbil and Hamster".