Classic Literature

Retelling Other Writer’s Stories

???????????????Some of my favorite posts come out of Sunday morning conversations with my husband.  Yes, we do sit around on Sunday mornings reading the paper, drinking coffee, and discussing world events.  It’s old-school but I love it.

I saw a Tweet from writer John Scalzi about Ryk Spoor, who’s raising money on Quickstarter to publish a book called Polychrome, based on the original Oz series.  I went to the site, and my first thought was, hmmm, this guy sounds interesting.  He’s an already-published fantasy and science fiction writer, and he seems to love the 14 original Oz books as much as I do.  These books were important to his childhood, so he’s approaching the world with the reverence I would.

My second thought was this: I hate books that re-interpret other people’s creations.  I don’t want to read Wicked, and I don’t care for fan fiction. The world of Oz is – yes – sacred to me.  So thinking about anyone’s adaptation of it makes me cringe.

On the other hand, Polychrome is a great character to write about.  She’s peripheral to the Oz stories, so it’s not like he’s trying to rewrite major characters like Ozma or Dorothy.  Her world (she’s the daughter of the rainbow) was never explored in the books.  So maybe I’ll support this guy’s book.  Maybe.

When I first looked at Spoor’s page, I thought, this guy only needs $5 bucks.  I can swing that, and I’d even get a copy of the book.  I’m glad he’s doing something he cares about, even if publishers aren’t interested.  Since I let this blog post sit for a week, he’s raised 85% of what he needs.  He’s filled the cheap slots and is now looking for $35 and up.  I’ve never supported a Kickstarter campaign but I do like the concept.

I feel like this subject comes up a lot for me, whether it’s reading about fan fiction in Fangirl, reviewing The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, or ranting about the movie Oz, The Great and Powerful. So many books and movies involve taking someone else’s creation and re-envisioning it.  Is that a good thing?  Who should own these ideas?  I’m not talking about copyright law – the Oz books are in the public domain – just valuing the work of others.  Is a writer deserving of more respect if they create their own characters?

As the husband and I discussed this, it came down to two competing ideas.  On the one hand, these re-imaginings mean you get more of something you loved.  Like the Veronica Mars movie, also funded on Kickstarter, you get something new long after the beloved book/movie/TV show is over.

On the other hand, and this is where I usually come down, what you get is a pale or at best, different, version of what you loved.  I’d usually rather re-read or re-watch my favorites than see them remade in a weaker form.

I’m intrigued by what Spoor is working on, and I appreciate that he’s honoring the original Baum books.  Will I put in?  It depends, ultimately, on whether I want to read someone else’s vision of a character and world I love.  I’m definitely curious.

What do you think?  Do you have a favorite retelling of an older work, or one you love to hate?

3 thoughts on “Retelling Other Writer’s Stories

  1. I know exactly what you mean. Part of me instinctively feels that it is cheating to use other people’s characters and worlds, yet re-imaginings or additions onto pieces of existing literature can be really great. I love The Wide Sargasso Sea, for example. I suppose it is not too different to historical literature written about real people. I try to remember that so long as the writing is good and the story is worth telling, it is ok! I do have to continually remind myself though…

  2. I ran across this again looking for another article on Polychrome, and I was wondering what your thoughts were now that the book came out? (I was also a bit puzzled by the “filled up the cheap seats” bit — the Kickstarter had no limits on most of the contribution levels and certainly not on the $5 slot). If you didn’t end up contributing but are still interested, I could send you a copy; I only would ask then that you post a review. 🙂

    In the more general discussion, that’s the point of the public domain; to give us stuff we can build on. The building can be subtle (taking pointers on writing tragedy from Shakespeare) or simple and direct (writing your own take on a given classic) but it’s all the same thing; we steal (or, er, I mean, am inspired by) stuff we read and use it in our works. Without that ability, we wouldn’t have most of the books we do. And without the ability to build *directly* on and reference those works, we wouldn’t have masterpieces like _Silverlock_ (John Meyers Meyers).

    That’s actually one of the sad elements of our current “nothing goes out of copyright” situation; the ability to make use of the stuff we grew up with doesn’t exist in the same way (original copyright length when the US was founded was 28 years — 14 renewable to another 14 — so people literally would grow up with stuff and then, when they got to full adulthoood and started writing themselves, were able to build on what most inspired them as children. Now you have to tapdance around such things which can make it harder to get the intended effect, if “reference to what we know” is one of the key effects.

  3. Looking at the title of the blog, I suddenly realized that I may be talking to Annie’s Book Stop/Patricia Cryan, in which case of course you know everything about Polychrome you could ever want.

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