Despite constant iterations and reiterations to the contrary, humans have proven themselves not very unique. Obviously we all vary biologically and the details of our individual lives are particular to us. However, there is also an undeniable similarity between our lives and the narratives we tell. It is virtually impossible to recount a story that has not, in some form or other, already been told. However, as I have grown more exposed to literature and to its many, many forms and adaptations, I find myself discovering that a story’s originality is not what makes it good.
We are inundated daily with media of every imaginable kind, relating tales we have heard a hundred times before. Each telling is just different enough to hold our interest. Even in ages past, before internet or television, even before books, traveling bards and storytellers roamed their lands trading tales and putting their own embellishments on well-established narratives. Interestingly, it is within the genres of fiction and fantasy, where we have the most license to create new and wondrous plots, that core tales are most repeated and revived. There are hundreds of Cinderella stories, the earliest of which is not, in fact, the Grimm Brothers’ version. It’s not even English. It’s Greek. And it’s not confined to Europe, either. Many, many cultures tell tales that bear remarkable similarities to the Cinderella that Disney recreated and made popular with their animated 1950 version. There is little enough about the Cinderella stories of today that is unique, yet audiences the world over flock to cinemas to see the newest adaptation. These fantasies are almost universally relatable which also makes them almost universally adaptable. We place ourselves in these tales and impress our own details and imaginations onto their story lines, making them our own, making them unique–in however small or large a way.
Critics often hail freshness and originality and condemn the re-imagination of old plots and characters. This mindset shuts out a whole world of adaptation that has captivated audiences throughout history. Had Arthur Laurents and Leonard Bernstien not been inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet there would never have been a West Side Story. Several of Stephen King’s works are heavily influenced by Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, including the acclaimed novel-turned-movie The Green Mile. As a young child, I remember being exceptionally disappointed that the characters of the Robin Hood I watched on a theme park stage were not brought to life by talking wildlife as the Disney version had been. I remember reading the Wishbone abridgment of Moby Dick and The Man in the Iron Mask and feeling enthralled, though I could not have appreciated or understood the original works at such an age. And these revisions provide their own pieces of originality. Though the core plot may remain the same, adaptations offer aspects and interpretations of works that we may never have otherwise considered. They welcome new readers into the fold by providing more accessible versions. They bring characters into different lights, like Gregory Maguire’s Elphaba (the wicked witch of Oz) in Wicked. They examine motives both of the author and of his characters. They turn elements of the plot on their heads, taking them in completely different directions and opening up whole new worlds of interpretation. From adaptations to fanfiction, the literary and entertainment world need to be able to bring old tales back to life.
I am a firm believer that a story is only as good as its telling. But we must learn to appreciate that while a particular retelling may not be original, that does not mean it is without a skill and brilliance of its own. Appreciate the retellings, the adaptations, the editions. They offer a uniqueness that may be found in the smallest details. Appreciate that while we may not be as fundamentally unique as we would like to believe, our stories and the stories we tell are all in the details.