Play it again, Frodo: why I love a remake

There are too many purists in the world. Too many folks who cling to original books, movies, songs, rallying for the acknowledgement that their beloved version is The Best That Ever Was. Hollywood is “out of ideas”, books are “recycled”. Like this is a bad thing?

The thing is, we’re always telling the same story. It might be a different medium, the genders might be switched, the religions and locations different, but from the Dawn of Humanity, we’ve been obsessed with the same stories: stories of love, hate, revenge, honor, sacrifice.

And quite often, we get it wrong the first time. And even more often, we get it worse the second, third, fourth time.

See, the reason I love remakes–movies, books, etc–is that I think they can be better. Oh sure, half the time the product is crap, but it’s always been like that. I remember reading “Otuel and Roland” in Graduate School, which is a take on “The Song of Roland” by a 15th century Englishman. The poetry is awful, the story clunky. Literarily it’s pretty darned awful. But you know what’s awesome? Seeing what the story became, taking it apart and examining it from a historical perspective. What was done with the tale, the choices the writer made, were as fascinating as any “innovation” in the text.

Of course, in this day and age we don’t have that kind of distance when movie remakes are done a few decades, or even half-decades, apart from one another. But shows like Battlestar Galactica and Dr. Who are a part of a long tradition of re-inventing our own mythologies. The original BSG series missed the mark, mostly because it was trying too hard to be Star Wars Jr. But Ron Moore saw the potential for a true space epic that, in my honest opinion, is the best TV series I have ever watched.

In fact, more movies and television shows are remakes than you think. So many start as books. And I used to be really bad about watching movies and picking apart where they diverged from the novels, but I’ve changed since I saw Peter Jackson’s Rings films. You know why? I started to look at the medium and the story, not just the story. I learned that film-makers have to diverge in order to translate to the screen, just as William Morris or T.H. White chose to omit different aspects of the Arthurian cannon in their tellings, so they are time and medium appropriate.

What gets me about remakes are when they work. When the movie “Ten Things I Hate About You” came out, I was at the height of my Shakespeare fandom. I couldn’t imagine that the film could even begin to graze the surface of immortal work of the Bard. But the funny thing is, after seeing it the first time, I saw what a great movie it was. Because it took the most important kernels of the story, and made them applicable to an entirely new audience. Sure, it was a little cuter than the original, but don’t forget “The Taming of the Shrew” is a comedy. I’m not sure the film “O” fared so well, but alas, that’s the game

Why am I on about this? Well, my current WIP is an Arthurian retelling called Queen of None. And when I embarked, I wanted to piece together Arthuriana and make a pretty little inlaid box that my story would fit in. (Outside of books, I’ve yet to find an Arthur retelling that I actually like, save “Camelot” and only because Richard Harris is in it). I soon realized that it was impossible, and if I were to make the story worth telling, I had to tell it my own way. So, I’ve decided to mess with everything. I got rid of Christianty. It’s first-person, told by Anna, Arthur’s sister (from a very old tradition that is no longer in play). The Lady of the Lake is a 50 year old blacksmith. It’s not modern, but it’s fantasy. Fantasy with a vague similarity to our own world, but not the England any of us know. Basically, I’ve been taking my favorite myths and stories from all across the board–early Welsh, middle French, and late Victorian–and telling Anna’s story first and foremost. I’m not worrying about history.

Friends of ours visited this weekend, and one said, “I need to read Malory to get the whole story of Arthur.” The thing is: there is no whole story of Arthur! It is what you make it. Or, remake it. Sure, this might work. It might not. But it’s a tremendous amount of fun to write, and something I’ve wanted to do for years. In the last month I’ve written 55K in Queen of None and am currently sitting about halfway through. At this point it’s the fastest I’ve ever written a book.

So! Enjoy your remakes. If they’re terrible, find out why. If they’re great: celebrate. It’s all part of the longest story ever told.

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  1. I think there are two ways to go about a “remake” or re-telling. There’s the Peter Jacksons and the Ron Moores of the world who play a given hand with finesse. Keep the name, the characters, the themes, but deliver it in your own way. Then, there are those folks who adapt a story or myth, breaking the bones of a skeleton to make it work for their purposes, in order to get the story told. To use an example from Arthuriana, something like Mists of Avalon by Marian Zimmer-Bradley.

    And you’re right. We’re all re-telling stories. Even with the films I know the endings of, having read the novel or understood the myth, it is the unfolding of the story that keeps me coming back, the finesse.

  2. I know it’s a bit stretched from the original myth – and I’m hardly an Arthurian aficionado – but if you’re looking for an interesting retelling, I really enjoyed A. A. Attanasio’s The Dragon and the Unicorn. Strange at times, but epic on a far grander scale than pretty much anything I’ve ever read.

    1. @Jenn Definitely. I think that’s sort of what I was getting at, however un-eloquently. I had a child chasing cars under my legs while writing that earlier today. I guess my point is that we have to take the good with the bad, and even sometimes we can learn a heck of a lot with the bad.

      @thejinx I will check that out! I can’t say I’ve heard of it before, but books usually have to leap of the shelves at me in order for me to notice them. I spend far too much time in my own, and my last few reads have been due to insisting individuals or shrewd commenters, like yourself. 🙂

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