Why we love retellings: a new theory
Updated: Apr 30, 2018
As any agent or publisher will always tell you, themes in storytelling come in cycles, in trends. One year dystopia might be big while the next it’s all about small town murder mysteries or paranormal romances.
But one theme that comes up over and over again, at least once a generation, is that of fairy tale retellings.
This is especially true of YA. I can’t even count high enough to name all the retellings out there – and it’s only a slightly smaller list to count the ones I’ve devoured in one sitting.
I think that there are retellings and retellings – and it’s not always about what the anthropologists and other sundry geeks say it’s about. People such as academic and fairy-tale experts Jack Zipes and Marina Warner have argued that we love fairy tales (and especially their contemporary retellings) because they enable us to make meaning of our lives.
I think it’s the other way around, really. We love them, and because we love them, they become incorporated with our sense-making of the world and understanding of narratives in real life.
But that’s kids. What about adults? Why do I, a grown-ass woman of almost 30, still love reading some variation of The Little Mermaid again and again?
For me, I’m a sucker for retellings that are about context, another point of view and backstory. For this reason I love things like Wicked, The Wrath and the Dawn and Drown. But it’s the same reason I love stuff like The Wide Sargasso Sea, The Other Boleyn Girl and any fiction or narrative non-fic about the Titanic. There are others I’ve enjoyed, but not because they’re retellings. In fact, I usually only enjoy them if they significantly go beyond the tale – like Cinder does. Hell, the first time I read Ella Enchanted when I was still a kid I was like three quarters of the way though before I even put two and two together that this is about Cinderella…ohhhh! And I think that’s how it’s supposed to be.
The human brain wants to work out what happened in what it classifies as a notable event - and fairy tales are told to us so young and so often that they certainly count.
So that's the theory. Also, I read them because it's fun. So there.