We seem to be in a particularly vicious cultural cycle, right now, where our books and television shows and films busily retread familiar territory. If one comic book movie does well, then by all means, let’s make several more per year. A young adult series featuring a love triangle with a paranormal twist hits the bestseller lists? Then let’s publish more of those. And of course, we all know that if a stand-alone does well, a series will do that much better. Better still, let’s remake something that succeeded years ago, or in another format. Hit musical? Make it a film. Popular TV show? Get those tie-in novels out onto the shelves. Everything from titles to cover art to marketing campaigns play off of each other, trying to capitalize on a wave of success.
This isn’t a particularly new phenomenon. After all, we saw an awful lot of space adventures in the wake of Star Wars, and a huge rise in boarding school adventure stories following the success of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Artistic and entertainment industries struggle endlessly between commerce and creativity, the desire to succeed and sustain themselves warring with the need to be original and produce something fresh. At the end of the day, the corporate entities behind the entertainers — publishers, film studios, television and cable networks, etc. — need some measure of financial success in order to survive. And so, they revert to what has worked in the past, hoping to mine a trend for all it’s worth and to wring every possible dollar out of the public’s interest in the latest popular story. They believe they are serving two masters, giving the public what it obviously wants, while keeping an eye on their own bottom line.
But are they giving the public what they want? Do we really want to see new versions of the same old stories, or endless sequels of the biggest blockbusters? Our own behavior says we do. Not exclusively, of course. People enjoy surprises, after all, so new stories in whatever format can always catch our attention, assuming they are well done. But what is it with the repetition? Why are we so welcoming to the familiar, whether it’s new adventures with old friends in a serial or the same story delivered in a new way?
Some would say we have no choice, that there are only so many stories in the world, and each new book or film or television show simply finds a way to shine a new light on what has been there for centuries. I wrote early last year about this limited-plot idea, and there’s a great deal of truth in the theory that, when broken down, all stories fall into one of just a few categories. We gravitate toward the stories we know, looking to learn something new each time, to discover hidden depths or gain fresh insight into what appears to be familiar ground. There’s something visceral about encountering many of these stories, the best of which include archetypal characters recognized the world over. We want to travel with the hero or heroine on their impossible quest, fall in love with the romantic couple, sacrifice for the greater good. The trappings can change, to a greater or lesser extent, but the heart of the story will still focus on that emotional link to the audience.
How does this affect you as a writer? Should you write your own version of the latest popular story? And if so, how does this jive with the common warning not to write to the market?
There’s a vast difference between writing to the market and adapting or rejuvenating a classically popular story. Writing to the market involves analyzing current trends and producing something that slots in perfectly, and the trouble with this approach is that it is nearly impossible to write something good to trend in a short enough time span. Keep in mind that most books hitting the shelves have been in production for more than a year, and editors purchased those stories a good two years ago. To purchase similar works today, they would need to have faith in a trend continuing for another two years, and that’s assuming your manuscript is written and ready to shop. This makes writing to trend a risky proposition.
The reason you see so many similar books in the wake of a hit is that quite often, many people are already writing on a similar topic. There’s a weird sort of synchronicity in entertainment, as if the ideas are floating in the air and various writers have been infected all at the same time. This is how we get two asteroid movies in one year, or a lot of vampire books within months of each other. Yes, if the trend continues, there will be some people who produce similar works because of it, but there’s no predicting the staying power of a trend.
Writing your own adaptation or retelling of a popular story, however, offers much more room for creativity and can veer as close to or as far from a trend as you wish. Adapted fairy tales are the current rage, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid them as source material. How closely you stick to the original story framework or bury the bones, so to speak, is entirely up to you. A story can strongly resemble its inspiration or the original can all but vanish into your rejuvenated tale. Use the most basic plot points or embellish every detail you can squeeze from the classic. Delve into children’s stories, myths and fables, religious tales, or eighteenth century novels. We’ve seen a fair number of Jane Austen retreads in recent years, but what about the Brontes? Dickens? And of course there’s always Shakespeare.
Just for fun, come up with an idea for an adaptation of your own. Whether or not you follow through with the writing is up to you. But choose a story, and then determine what you’d change and what you’d keep. Would you modernize the setting? Alter the sex of the characters? Make a child’s story more adult? Or transform an adult tale into something suitable for younger readers? Maybe you want to come up with more than one way you could adapt the original. How different can you make it? How would you make it yours?
If you’re interested in more thoughts on adaptations and retellings, the folks at Writing Excuses have an excellent podcast on the subject.
What do you think about adaptations and retellings? Do they intrigue you as a reader? A writer? Or would you rather read something entirely new (in as much as that’s possible)?