Sometimes fan fiction writers get flack for being copycats. The truth is, though, that many successful books, movies, and TV shows are classics reworked. Here are a few examples I’ve noticed lately:
- The movie You’ve Got Mailis adapted from The Shop Around the Corner, a classic movie that starred Jimmy Stewart.
- Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca is very similar to Jane Eyre.
- The Hobbit started out as a retelling of Beowulf.
- Disney’s The Lion King is based on Hamlet.
- The TV show Castle’s 100thepisode is based on the movie Rear Window, also starring Jimmy Stewart.
- Anne of Green Gables is very similar to Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms, which happened to be one of L.M. Montgomery’s favorite books.
If you look up “Shakespeare sources” on Google, you will find that even the great bard copied from other authors.
In a day when writers can be sued for plagiarism, we can become so afraid of “copying” that we fail to let other authors influence our writing. A good writer should be reading the best books available. While doing so, she can take note of things to emulate or writing that inspires new ideas.
Lisa Wingate, a successful novelist, offers this advice on her website: “If there is a particular area of your writing that seems to be holding you back (action scenes, dialog, description, characterization, etc) devote extensive study to this area. . . . Study other authors’ techniques in this area. Don’t just read and admire—dissect, break down, make notes, keep a scrapbook of examples and notes-to-self. Read these notes-to-self when you’re stuck/struggling/editing something that isn’t working.”
Dr. Lance Larsen gave similar advice to writers in his BYU Forum address, “Coaxing the Muse—Thoughts on the Creative Process.” He tells the story of a student named Ethan, whose poems were stale and uninspired. When asked about his sources of inspiration, Ethan admitted that he didn’t read any poetry. He wanted his poems to be completely original. What Ethan didn’t understand, according to Dr. Larsen, was that “if we don’t consciously seek out the best models, we unwittingly put ourselves at the mercy of the worst.”
Writing an adapted classic may seem like a cop-out, but it’s not as easy as it looks. Since I’ve spent so much time adapting Jane Austen’s classics into contemporary fiction, I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned.
Here are six tips for adapting the classics:
- Keep the Emotions. The classics are still around because they touch people emotionally. We feel for Hamlet, Jane Eyre, and Elizabeth Bennett. Your goal in adapting the classic should be to create the same range of emotions with new characters and settings.
- Twist the Events. If you market your novel as an adaptation, as I do, you’ll need to mirror the events of the classic. However, you also have to avoid predictability. The events in your novel should seem natural to the setting you choose. When Scar kills Mufasa in The Lion King, he doesn’t pour poison in his ear as Hamlet’s uncle did; he kills him with a stampede.
- Remember the Movie too. Many of the people who like retellings are more familiar with the movie versions than the book. Therefore, you must create a twist on the events in both the book and the movie versions. Also, pay attention to the way movies portray the characters.
- Make the Characters Real.You want the reader to be so invested in your characters that they forget they’re reading an adaptation. To do this, you must give your character an original back-story, quirks, and traits. Make sure each chapter reveals something new about your main characters’ personalities.
- Watch the Dialogue.A common complaint I hear about contemporary adaptations of classic novels is that the dialogue seems old-fashioned. The author has spent so much time reading the classics that antiquated dialogue seems natural to her. An easy remedy for this problem is to read your dialogue out loud, asking yourself if it seems like something you’d actually say.
- Pick up the Pace.Not to be rude, but classic novels tend to be . . . well, a little slow. If you want your retelling to compete in the modern world, you have to write a modern story. That means that you’ll need a tighter plot that uses fewer words and has more action (even if it’s only emotional action.) In other words, skip over the boring parts.
That about sums up what I’ve learned over the years, but I’d love to hear your suggestions. What do you look for in a retelling?