Source Material Matters!

Why do people re-tell stories? To flesh out otherwise bare-bones, moralistic fairytales? To add a new perspective? To put beloved characters in a new setting and see what they’ll do? And so on, and so on… There can be any number of ways and reasons to write a retelling, and the results can be spectacular. One good way not to write a retelling, however, is to ignore your source material altogether.

I recently read (and reviewed!) a book called The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty by Anne Rice, which is nominally an erotic retelling of Sleeping Beauty that “probes the unspoken implications of [the] lush, suggestive tale by exploring its undeniable connection to sexual desire”[1]. What it actually is is an utter travesty of a novel, for a variety of reasons… but one of its worst offences is that it claims to be a retelling at all. In the very first scene, the Prince wakes Sleeping Beauty not with a kiss, but by having sex with her – which is not an unexpected way for such a book to begin. Afterwards, however, the retelling aspect of the story is thrown away entirely. The world seems not to have changed at all in the hundred years that Beauty has been asleep (or, if it has, it’s never mentioned), and it is made quite clear that nothing that happens to Beauty in the book is unique; hundreds of other princes and princesses have gone through exactly the same thing, curse or no. In short, there is no reason to include Sleeping Beauty in the narrative at all, and Rice has done the book a huge disservice by even mentioning the fairytale. I’m not saying that this is a book that shouldn’t exist (I know it has its fans), just that it should not exist as a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, as the original source material has no bearing on Rice’s story whatsoever.

And the source material really should matter! After all, if you’re not going to do something with whatever tale your story is based on, then what’s the point of bringing it up at all? Why not write something completely original instead? For example, Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass was, in its pre-publication form, a retelling of Cinderella, but at some point during the editing and re-writing process, almost all the Cinderella aspects of the story were removed[2]. How is that any different from The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, you might ask? Because Throne of Glass doesn’t claim to be a fairytale retelling. Sure, you can find hints of Cinderella if you’re looking hard for them, but no more so than in any other rags-to-riches story. In its current form, Throne of Glass exists as an entirely separate entity from Cinderella.

But we’re not done with Sarah J. Maas quite yet, as the other book I wanted to talk about in this post is A Court of Mist and Fury, the second book in her A Court of Thorns and Roses series, which is (or at least starts off as) a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. In the first book, Feyre kills a faerie who is disguised as a wolf, and as punishment she is taken away to the Spring Court, whose people and Lord are bound by a terrible curse – which can only be broken if a mortal woman and the High Lord Tamlin fall in love. So far, so conventional. And A Court of Thorns and Roses – though I wasn’t as in love with it as I’d hoped I would be – is actually quite an interesting retelling of Beauty and the Beast; the way that Maas blends together the fairytale with traditional Faerie lore is really original, as it the way she is able to expand the plot from a simple, romance-driven retelling to an exciting, intrigue-ridden fantasy… And then the sequel happened.

I personally consider A Court of Mist and Fury (you can find my review here) to be a far superior novel to A Court of Thorns and Roses… it just doesn’t make sense that it’s the continuation of a Beauty and the Beast retelling. The message of Beauty and the Beast is, after all, that we shouldn’t judge people by their appearances, and this is illustrated by the monstrous Beast turning out to be not-so-monstrous after all. The way that Tamlin’s character develops in this book, however, completely undermines that message; why set him up to be the misunderstood “Beast” in book one, if he’s just going to turn out in the sequel to be an awful person after all? And I could understand wanting to do this with a fairytale that has a completely outdated message, or moral, but I’m of the opinion that Beauty and the Beast‘s message continues to be as valid and important as it has ever been…

To end on a more positive note, I thought I’d recommend some really great, interesting retellings that I’ve come across, because there are a plethora of them out there, all with a lot to love about them. The Lunar Chronicles is a series of incredibly inventive retellings of several different fairytales; my favourite in the main series was Cress (which draws mainly on Rapunzel), though I found the spin-off novella The Little Android (a retelling of The Little Mermaid) particularly compelling. Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle is a dark, clever take on Sleeping Beauty, with some Snow White elements in the mix as well, and there are also short stories in The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski[3] that do the same for The Little MermaidSnow WhiteBeauty and the Beast and The Snow Queen… Tiger Lily offers a fascinating new perspective on Peter Pan (as I Was a Rat! does for Cinderella); and GeekerellaNora and Kettle and Boy, Snow, Bird bring their respective fairytales beautifully into the real world. I could go on, but I expect it’d get boring fast.

CITATIONs:

[1] A quote from the back of the 1990 Plume edition of The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty by Anne Rice (ISBN 0-452-26656-4).

[2] “… it started off as a Cinderella retelling and later it became it’s own original fantasy.” Maas, in conversation with Valerie Tejeda for the Huffington Post.

[3] These two short story anthologies are the first two books in the Witcher series.

Books i talked about in this post (in order of appearance):
  1. The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty by Anne Rice
  2. Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
  3. A Court of Thorns and RosesA Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas
  4. The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer
  5. The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman
  6. The Last WishSword of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski
  7. Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson
  8. I Was a Rat! by Philip Pullman
  9. Geekerella by Ashley Poston
  10. Nora and Kettle by Lauren Nicolle Taylor
  11. Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

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