Why I Think Retellings Should Focus on Themes As Well As Plot

Retellings Should Focus on Themes, Not Just Plot-min

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?


12 thoughts on “Why I Think Retellings Should Focus on Themes As Well As Plot

  1. Krysta says:

    I agree! To me, the themes are a fundamental part of a story. Retelling something like The Secret Garden simply by having a girl discover a hidden garden would make me think of Burnett’s story, but it would not necessarily strike me as a retelling. I think a good retelling expands upon, plays upon, or somehow comments upon the themes of the work on which it is based. So, I might expect a retelling of The Secret Garden to discuss the healing power of nature or to address the apparent mysticism of the “Magic,” but also to comment on aspects of the original such as how class, gender, and disability/illness are portrayed.

    If you just have a girl finding a hidden garden, meh. It’s not particularly interesting to me if there’s no commentary happening. In fact, if there’s no commentary happening, I sometimes have to wonder why a retelling was attempted at all. I don’t necessarily need the same story just with a different setting.


  2. Miri ♪ Book Dragoness ♪ says:

    I definitely agree with you Briana! To me, retellings are where the author chooses to explore the original story more, offer a different interpretation or spin, and expand on the theme by making it more complicated or adding their own ideas! I think if the author doesn’t, (like you said) the story becomes more like a book inspired by that original tale. While we readers can recognize the plot points/setting/character, retellings usually link our emotions back to the original story by way of theme and feelings. I know Pride by Ibi Zoboi did a great job with it (retelling of Pride & Prejudice) While reading it, I was like “This is such a great retelling!”

    This is an especially interesting topic to me because I’m writing my own retelling though it’s a Rapunzel one and not a Jane Eyre one. Fairytales are really cool to work with given that there’re very much like a skeleton unlike the fully fleshed classic stories like The Secret Garden.


  3. Lila @ Hardcover Haven says:

    this is an interesting point and one i think i’ve mulled over myself a few times, albeit in a roundabout way. recently i saw a couple of YA books billed as a “joan of arc retelling.” as a catholic (although a *very* liberal one) and someone who spent 8 years in catholic school, this struck me as very odd, and i think you’ve hit on exactly why. when publishers say “joan of arc retelling”, they seem to me to mean a story with a fierce, warrior heroine standing up to authority. but to me, as a catholic, *yes* there is that aspect of joan of arc’s life, but the point for us as catholics telling her story is the themes and messages we can learn from her story—themes like the call to divinity of the laypeople and devotion to your faith despite derision (even that of your peers) and fear of death. if you remove those elements from a “retelling” of joan of arc then you might as well be writing about any other brave girl sticking it to the man because it is the themes of joan’s story that give it meaning, purpose, weight, and individuality. so i guess what i’m trying to say is i agree with you wholeheartedly!


  4. Grab the Lapels says:

    Just today I shared my book review of Mechanica by Betsy Cornwell, a retelling of Cinderella. The same themes are there: love at first sight, loneliness, help from your non-human friends. But Cornwell takes the story and adds science, which is typically left in the dust when it comes to princess stories. Love at first sight becomes problematic when the main character feels that her intelligence, which she puts into her inventions, is more important that being noticed as the lady who danced with the prince. Here is my review: https://grabthelapels.com/2019/05/28/mechanica/


  5. Gayathri Lakshminarayanan says:

    Wow that is something to ponder upon. I for one, do not read many of these retelling, and I would rather read the original if you ask me> But I do understand its allure.


  6. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Brilliant post! I think you make amazing points here. The heart of a story is often so much more important than plot- so I couldn’t agree more that removing those elements changes it entirely. I think your post also explains why we sometimes can’t quite put a finger on why a plot doesn’t totally work for us, cos something is just missing.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Kaleena @ Reader Voracious says:

    This is an amazing post, and I totally agree with you! I love the classics and enjoy a good retelling, but the themes of those works are just as important to me as the overall plot structure. I think it is so interesting to be able to examine those themes under different lenses: whether it is through gender-flipping the characters or modernizing the story.


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