I’ve recently recognized an incongruity in my tastes with regards to movies and books. I love retellings of fairy tales and classic literature, but rather despise the current remake culture of TV and film.
Now fairy tales and folklore already lend themselves to retellings, since they originated in an oral tradition and had to, by its very nature, go through different transformations as the story passed from teller to teller. Angela Carter, Tanith Lee, and Neil Gaiman may, at the outset, appear to be radically changing the stories they’re retelling, but on closer inspection they’re doing what storytellers in the oral tradition have always done: changing the story to fit the needs of the audience. These writers, among many more, look to older stories for possibilities. They ask “what if this had happened instead,” “what if we saw the story from another point of view,” or “what other things may have been going on behind the scenes?” Even films like Snow White: A Tale of Terror and the guilty pleasure Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters similarly explore the older material.
I enjoy when classic literature is similarly explored. Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea does a wonderful job of exploring the back-story of the mad wife that Rochester kept locked in his attic in Jane Eyre. Alan Moore in his graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (not to be confused with the abomination of the movie adaptation) does a wonderful job exploring the possibility of a world where all our favorite Victorian science fiction and horror stories simultaneously exist. I love Fred Saberhagen’s The Dracula Tape, a novel that retells Bram Stoker’s Dracula from the point of view of the titular character.
If you’ve read some of my poems, you’ll probably notice that I also retell older stories. For instance, my two poem, “Lucy’s Plea” and “Lucy’s Reunion with an Ex,” which have recently been published by the awesome Versus Literary Journal (didn’t I work that self-advertisement in smoothly), deal with Lucy Westenra’s point of view on the events of Dracula. As the more sexual woman who is quickly killed off, she is the character who is most often overlooked or written out of the story. I thought it would be fun to explore her thoughts, even if I had to change some things from the story for her to speak.
Considering how much I love these retellings, you wouldn’t think I’d be completely filled with rage at the NBC’s upcoming Dracula television series, but I am. Maybe I being a bit unfair, since I’ve yet to see the actual show and my opinion is based on the below ad.
This show seems to be expanding the Dracula universe in a “what if” direction, not something I normally oppose. Mainly what bothers me is if I didn’t recognize the names Renfield, Jonathan Harker, and Mina Murray, I would have never connected it to Dracula beyond “Oh it has vampires and takes place in Victorian England too.” What otherwise would have appeared to be an original story, now has the brand recognition of Dracula.
On the other hand, if we looked at The Dracula Tape, we see Saberhagen’s obvious love for the source material. While reading, and probably rereading, Dracula, Saberhagen noticed that a narrative structured as the characters’ letters and journals naturally has questionable reliability. He also noticed that blood transfusions before blood typing could be a little deadly, which makes how Dr. Van Helsing was treating Lucy not just questionable but possibly fatal. Saberhagen had to sit with the events of novel and wonder in what other ways they could be interpreted. He is asking us to read the original material more deeply.
Whereas this new Dracula TV show doesn’t ask us to look back at the source material, it doesn’t ask us to think critically about it and maybe realize that there are some problematic issues with it, and it doesn’t ask us to find patterns in the story that could connect it to a completely different tale. We just have sexy vampires, secret societies, and the same old conflicted love story involving a possibly reincarnated lover who looks exactly the same (that’s not how reincarnation works). It may be fun, but I can’t help feel it is trying to manipulate me by calling itself Dracula.
In some ways, this TV show seems to be doing the same thing that the all too infamous Catwoman movie did. Give the product a name that audiences will recognize, throw together a lot of plot elements that seem to sell well regardless of the original story, and look surprised when the already existing fan base doesn’t give you their money.
It is all right when an artist radically changes the story. Take Carter’s “Lady in a the House of Love,” where she turns Sleeping Beauty into a vampire. Carter seemed intrigued by the idea of how Sleeping Beauty is an unchanging figure in ever-changing time. She makes the natural connection from the fairy tale to vampires. She explores what happens when this figure is awakened to the changes of time by a young man on bicycle soon to serve in World War I (he is the very figure of the twentieth century). Carter takes an image of the perfect always youthful girl waiting in the tower and changes the story to explore new themes. Yet, we can still find the seeds of the older fairy tale.
Hell, I even have good will towards the Jane Austen monster mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. While I have yet to read the book (I will be so angry if it’s bad), the excerpts I have read suggest that the Seth Grahame-Smith loves both Austen’s fiction and movie monsters. One is the epitome of high culture, while the other the epitome of low. In trying to bring them together, Grahame-Smith, I hope, was trying to find a common ground for these two disparate things. Let the Austen fans have a little fun with zombies, and let the zombies fans have any entry point for a rather intimidating piece of fiction. However, I doubt the author could have pulled the book off, if he didn’t love both Austen and brain-eating corpses.
What I hate most about this remake culture is that just how cynical it is. So many of these movies are being made not because the director has something new to say about the story, but because of brand recognition. I don’t mind hearing story retold as long as each new storyteller wants to explore the parts that keep him or her up late at night wondering “what if.”