What is it about some stories that we want to hear them again and again? When looking at the realm of modern storytelling, a good amount of content, whether written, filmed, or otherwise, has been adapted from somewhere else. Book to movie adaptations have become more and more popular lately, but that is a conversation all its own. Instead, I’m talking about the stories that have existed for longer, sometimes for hundreds of years. I want to know what it is about them that not only have people coming back for more, but also what invites those people to put their own spin on it.
Looking at the types of stories that get adapted over and over, they seem to fall into a few categories. You’ve got your fairy tales, like the classic Brothers Grimm stories that have been imagined and re-imagined six ways from Sunday (not to mention Disney-ified). You’ve got your monsters, like Frankenstein or Dracula. And you’ve got your classic literature, the most adapted of which is Shakespeare.
Starting with the fairy tales, I can see why they are adapted so often. They use the same framework most of the time: they feature a young, naïve protagonist that goes on a journey or faces a trial, who exists just to learn a lesson at the end of the story and meets different archetypal characters along the way. This basic formula is easy to inscribe upon and take in any number of directions. A book to be reviewed on this blog soon is an adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood in a virus-ridden, post-apocalyptic wasteland. That these stories were geared towards children, even before they were retold and sanitized by Disney, means that most people recognize them and may even have their own memories associated with them. Therefore, when they see those tales retold it may spark interest; nostalgia is a very powerful thing. And when people get tired of seeing these stories? They put a twist on them, like telling it from the perspective of the villain, as is done in Disney’s Maleficent, or putting all the fairy tales together and having them interact; two very different examples of this are Into the Woods and Shrek.
Monsters are also understandable. Aside from being recognizable, different monsters reflect the societal fears of whatever is happening at the time. Plague, war, death, the unknown; these things can and have manifested themselves in stories for years as creatures of all types. Like fairy tales, monsters fall into tropes that can be manipulated for narrative and have meaning thrust upon them. While this category can be said to be more of a reusing of characters than of stories, I think it still applies. A lot of these characters existed in ancient folklore, but were popularized by literature and then adopted by popular culture. Current iterations have taken on many characteristics, but stay the same at their core.
Compared to the two latter categories, Shakespeare seems out-of-place. He is probably the most well-known playwright of all time, some would also say the greatest, but that doesn’t answer why the bard’s stories are so interesting to see played out in a high school setting. To me, the answer is that it is our way of making the stories accessible. Whatever their reputation now, Shakespeare wrote his plays for the rich and poor alike; they were stories that everyone could have found engaging, regardless of social status. When broken down, his plays were about humanity, emotions that anyone could experience. While people today may find they original plays inaccessible, when setting or the language is changed, those original sentiments come through loud and clear. So, while people update the fairy tales to appeal to nostalgia, and reuse monsters to hold a mirror up to our culture, they adapt Shakespeare to make his plays more approachable.
Using stories that someone already knows the framework of allows the writer to go other places with the story; it’s almost a safe place in writing. When the audience knows that Cinderella will find her prince in the end, why not make it interesting and make her a cyborg that becomes a fugitive, like in Cinder by Marissa Meyer; or why not make Romeo and Juliet zombies, like in Warm Bodies by Issac Marion. Adapting stories like this lets the audience have it both ways: they can feel comforted by a well-known story while also having something they’ve never seen before.
These stories withstand the test of time because they can be broken down to their bare essentials then built back up again. Something about them resonates with people; the strong emotional responses they can evoke, whether that emotion is fear or sadness or joy, stay present no matter how the setting or the names change because they are fundamental to the story. The key to being adaptable is being simultaneously old and new, familiar and unexplored.