Writing Excuses 8.6: Retellings and Adaptations

Retellings are pretty popular right now. Game of Thrones is a retelling the War of the Roses. The Thirteenth Warrior is a retelling of Beowulf, and The Lion King is a retelling of Hamlet. Why do we write these? What do we like about them?

Familiar stories let us explore things in new ways, both because we know what’s coming, and because we don’t need to be brought up to speed on the story.

The line between retelling and adaptation is a blurry one, though. For writers, a good approach, especially early on, is to grab a great story, peel everything away to the plot and key characters, and start writing something new.

On This Date Five Years Ago: the very first episode of Writing Excuses appeared online. 260 weekly episodes later, here we are.

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Writing Prompt: Do a retelling of a Bible story in a science fiction space setting.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Cinder, by Marissa Meyer, narrated by Rebecca Soler

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32 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 8.6: Retellings and Adaptations”

  1. In case you didn’t figure this out, I only realized this was our five-years-to-the-day episode when, on an absolute lark, I decided to count weeks since our first episode to see how many we’d done.

    I looked at the date of the first episode, went to my day-date calculator, and entered that, then hit “today” to auto-fill the next fields, and realized that THEY WERE THE SAME DAY.

    Serious Serendipity. If this had happened next week I’d have missed it.

    When we recorded the episode we had no idea it would air on our five-year mark. Had we known, we’d have celebrated with something besides donkey noises.

  2. I just finished reading the book Wicked, and it does not end well for the witch. She gets killed by a bucket of water just like in the movie. Only less pleasant, because she reacts to it like it’s acid.

  3. I’m sort of already doing that, by retelling adam and eve, but from the perspective of the scientist that engineered them.

    Of course the novel is mainly about his life up to his point, but I think it could count as a retelling.

  4. Ah, this is perfect for me! I’m working on a retelling of Faust, -specifically- the 16th century Marlowe play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. It’s a story that gets told a lot, but all the elements which I love and latched onto about the Marlowe version always get lost in every single telling of it since, including the Goethe. Thanks for touching on that motivation to re-tell!

  5. For whatever it’s worth, The Lion King is not a retelling of Hamlet.

    It’s a retelling of William Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V (mostly the former, though the resolution is, of course, straight out of HV).

    You start off with Simba being a screw up — just like Prince Hal in HIV. He’s partying and shirking his responsibilities with Timon and Pumbaa. He’s a disappointment to his people.

    Then he learns responsibility. He learns what his absence has meant to his people. His time among the common people makes him a great king, for he can see with eyes that have seen more than a prince’s world. Ultimately, he leads his people in a war against their great enemy (hyenas / the French) and stands as a great king, as Henry the Fifth was in his time.

    The whole “uncle kills the father” thing is the only real connection to Hamlet (it’s sort of a red herring as that’s all anyone ever considers) — but the core of the story is Henry’s histories straight out of Shakespeare’s plays.

    The core of Hamlet is, of course, not his revenge against his uncle but his indecision. Is his revenge justified? Would killing his uncle when his soul is right with God be revenge or a reward, allowing him to go to heaven as his father walks purgatory? The Lion King has none of that indecision — when Simba learns his uncle’s played him for a fool he goes right to kicking his butt.

  6. The Greeks and Romans just loved retelling, so much so, that most of the classic plays we know today are actually retellings of older ones that were lost to history.

  7. I love spotting the retelling. Pixar’s A Bug’s Life is a retelling of The Seven Samauri, with adorable little insects. Two of my favorite Hamlet retellings are Strange Brew and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

    @David, I think there is still enough of Hamlet in the Lion King. It has Hamlet’s dad’s ghost make an appearance and I got the evil Uncle married Simba’s mom vibe out out of it (still queen of the lionesses). Where Disney strayed from the path was that it wasn’t a stage full of Dead people at the end and Ophelia never flipped her lid. That being said, I do see the Henry IV/V parallels too, now that you mention it.

  8. I love retellings and adaptations, for a lot of the reasons discussed in the episode. My current favorite is the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a modern version of Pride and Prejudice on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/user/LizzieBennet).

    And yes, I do listen at work, and I did laugh at the donkey brays, but my coworkers are used to it by now. Carry on. 🙂

  9. My son loved Muppet Treasure Island and then I introduced him to Disney’s Treasure Planet. He noticed the distinct similarities and I explained how both were retellings of an old pirate adventure novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. Now he’s got the source and plans to read it. I’m proud of him.

  10. I’m not sure if I could write it, but I always thought a clockpunk retelling of the life of Charlotte Corday might be interesting. Would the guillotine be powered by clock and gears? Who knows.:D

  11. Why yes, I was listening to this at work as my boss walked by. I also had a spit-take moment during the podcast. My boss laughed.

  12. Happy Birthday! and good cast – When you do a follow up to this, could you delve into how to adapt without copying? How close to the original can you get before its plagiarism? What techniques are there to taking a character or a scene from a story and putting it into your own story? Does it matter more if the author you are stealing from is still alive?

  13. I’ve had some sucess with re-telling. Though I’m new to novel-writing, my Sherlock Holmes retelling is currently being reviewed by Eddie from JABberwocky (for the second time) and he’s got Zeno to agree to hear me out, as well.

    I’m hoping to tip them both into saying yes, by having my next retelling (Romeo and Juliet) ready in a few months.

    I’ve got original material as well, but am saving it for my second or third publish. Why? Because new material from unproven authors is risky. Publishers already know Shakespeare sells. They already know Sherlock does. It’s a safer bet for them and for me if I establish myself this way, before becoming yet another epic fantasy writer, lost in the sea of dubiously-marketable hopefuls.

  14. Is it generally considered bad form to retell one of your own stories if your not already published. I thought of doing this briefly.

  15. WE Cast – I think there has been some confusion in the writing world for those aspiring writers out there as to what a retelling is and what an adaption is. It’s always nice to see listen to the WE Quartet have so much fun together. Thanks.

  16. @Moth? You might want to take a look at or listen to these:

    Season 4, Episode 3: How to manage your influences
    Season 4, Episode 18: How to steal for fun and profit
    Season 5, Episode 25: Writing on other people’s universes
    Season 7, Episode 27: The problem of originality

    The transcripts indexes will let you find them (and others!) pretty quickly.

  17. @Sarah, Orson Scott Card did it as the WE team mentioned… but then again, he’s Orson Scott Card, with decades of publishing behind him. I see nothing wrong with retelling the story from a different point of view character, perspective, or thematic focus. However, is the retelling merely an excuse to avoid having to come up with and craft a different story? Perhaps a better story?

    The more different stories you finish, the better you get at understanding story structure and storytelling in general. Don’t get fixated on “the one and only idea” and write and rewrite it to death for your whole life. Complete the story, then let it go while you craft another, and another, and another. Then circle back and decide whether to expend the effort retelling that earlier tale.

    If you have already done this, I apologize and you can carry on as you wish.

    I retold one of my stories by framing it in a different setting and it came out much better. However, in between, the first and the second telling, I had written other things which had helped me improve my craft and see where the flaws in the original were and the second story actually only bears a minimal resemblance to the first. The magically induced continental nuclear holocaust, complete with radiation sickness and subsequent slow cancerous death, was a cool but poorly executed idea in the first telling that was axed in the second.

  18. Of course not, in fact I just wrote a flash fiction. I found almost a tip for making profiles less grinding, instead of saying “They make 20,000 dollars a year.” write a story about how said poverty effects them. Thats roughly a flash fiction per character aspect.:3

  19. @Sarah, that is a great idea. The flash fiction gives you a better feel for the voice and nature of the characters than just the bland bio approach. I did something similar once, writing up an interview between an unnamed host and a main character for one of my stories. It was fun and helped explore the character for the main story. At the time, I’d never heard of flash fiction. I guess that’s what I did. Nifty!

  20. Shakespeare had one entirely original plot, to the best of our knowledge, and that was The Merry Wives of Windsor. Fun, but not even his tenth best work. If you like Shakespeare or at least think he has offered some contribution to World Literature or the English language then you can recognize the value of retelling a story.

  21. Thats actually what I did for my otherwise inhuman monster in my survival horror, creating an odd, “I feel sorry for these zombies.” sort of feeling.

  22. Timely episode for me – thanks, guys (and gal)! I’ve been considering retelling the Iliad just because I love the story and its themes so much. I’ve been struggling to figure out whether I’d prefer to make it an ‘obvious’ retelling or ‘hide it’ some.

    Also, for Wicked – the musical ends happily, the books ends badly (ala the original story). It’s one of the reasons I, personally, think the musical works better than the book in this case.

    And, for what it’s worth, I really laughed at Howard’s “I guess I’ll have to keep the donkey” line. 🙂

  23. I actually have a particularly bad weakness for showing, not telling. So I ended decided to experiment with a different medium to practice it. Do to the structure of a haiku, your almost forced to highlight one moment in lots of detail.

  24. Also, its absolutely insane how many how to write books are out there specifically for the second draft, but there is only like two that specifically help you nail the first draft. A title of a book is not going to win many buyers if its insulting them with “Your screenplay sucks,”

    Gee I never a story never written would earn two stars already.

  25. As Robin indicated, Pride and Prejudice is a great work for seeing the differences. There are the straight adaptations for live action, both in the form of the old miniseries, as well as the more recent movie. Then we have retellings, like the movie, Bride and Prejudice, or the webseries, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. And finally, as Team Writing Excuses indicated, we can compare Pride and Prejudice with Beauty and the Beast to see howsimilar inspiration can lead to vastly different outcomes.

  26. @David
    Erm, actually, the Lion King is a retelling of Macbeth. The hyenas are the Weird Sisters. 🙂

  27. Sometimes a retelling goes so far and draws on enough things that it’s harder to know which source it was meant to come from. I’m pretty sure Lion King started as Hamlet, but they have thrown other things into the mix as well. I think it may be crossing the OTHER blurred line of going down the the bones rather than the muscle – they used some of hamlet for inspiration but it’s different enough to maybe not be strictly a retelling.

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