Note: This posts focuses mostly on retellings of classic works rather than on fairy tale retellings.
When I think of a book retelling, my immediate thought is, of course, a book that follows the general plot structure of the original story and does something unique with it. Sometimes the new version follows the plot structure of the original very closely, with mostly superficial details changed–for instance, perhaps changing the time period the story is set in–and sometimes the plot diverges noticeably. Yet keeping recognizable plot elements from the source material is essential to a retelling; otherwise, it’s just a new story.
However, I also think it’s important for a retelling to engage with the thematic elements of its source material, not just the plot. Otherwise, the story ends up more on the “inspired” rather than the “retelling” end of the spectrum; it might have a whiff of the original, but in important ways it’s not related to the original at all. There’s a difference, I think, between a retelling of The Secret Garden that deals with the major themes of the book–family, the “Magic” of nature, the power of positive thinking, etc.–and a story “inspired” by The Secret Garden that takes the idea of an orphan who finds a hidden garden that changes her life but otherwise doesn’t engage with or even acknowledge the core themes and philosophy of the original book.
I think about this a lot when people want to adapt or retell classic literature for children, an issue perhaps slightly different than retelling a fairy tale like “Cinderella,” where the original story is short and there’s a lot of room to fill in, in terms of both plot and theme. For instance, a while ago someone found our blog by Googling “Jane Eyre retelling for middle schoolers,” and I found myself a bit stumped by the idea of such a book existing. I can imagine a book for children that takes a lot of the trappings of Jane Eyre. It would be set on the English moors in the 1800s, of course, and there would probably be a young governess. She might even be the protagonist and fall in love with a rich lord, though it would be more usual for a middle grade novel to feature the children tutored by such a governess as the protagonists. But, ultimately, a Jane Eyre for children wouldn’t be Jane Eyre at all because it wouldn’t deal with some of the core issues of the novel, such as sexuality, social position, and religion. (I include religion mostly because that’s simply not a focus of mainstream middle grade published today.) The setting and some of the characters and some of the plot of Jane Eyre might be there, but the heart of the story, the important questions and struggles that make it Jane Eyre and not just another book set on the English moors would not.
I’m all in favor of reading books for entertainment, but I do think that thoughtful retellings of other stories, particularly classic literature, should engage with the core questions of the original story, rather than merely borrowing elements of the plot. A character can find a hidden garden without the book being a retelling of The Secret Garden, or a character can be a governess on the English moors with the book being a retelling of Jane Eyre. Plot elements, as readers know, are never truly original. Usually we say it’s the details and the way the plot is filled out that add originality, and that’s true, but I would also add that the themes are what makes a book unique. So if you don’t deal with the themes of a story you’re retelling, are you really retelling it at all?