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Retellings That Work, and Ones That Don’t: Pride and Prejudice Edition

As you likely know if you’ve read this blog for any length of time, I’m a huge Jane Austen fan, and my particular love is for Pride and Prejudice.  Consequently, I’ve read a LOT of retellings that run the gamut from books reframing the story within the novel’s time period to ones set in modern times.  And, of course, there are the ones that transport the characters and plot into a fantasy setting.  Probably the most well-known of these is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  I’ll be honest, though–there are much better books out there that use fantasy elements.  One of my current favorites is Pemberley: Mr. Darcy’s Dragon.

What makes dragons work and zombies flop?  Over time, I’ve realized that one of the things that determines whether or not a retelling works is whether or not it can adhere to the original story and yet still bring something to it that is fresh and different.  Authors need to make sure that they don’t deviate too far from the tale’s events.  Once you do that, your claim to be retelling the original falls apart, and in my opinion, that’s the fatal flaw in P&P&Z.   I remember reading an article about the book when it first came out.  In it, author Seth Grahame-Smith said that the idea behind the book came when he noticed how often characters in the original novel would be “off-stage” for long periods without a good explanation.  (They were traveling by carriage over rough roads, which took time, but okay…)  He started imagining explanations, and one of the things he dreamed up was that travel was often interrupted by zombies.  And thus was born his book.

Now, I’m not saying that idea can’t work.  I’m sure that it can.  However, as far as I’m concerned, Grahame-Smith completely botched the execution.  In the original, fancy dress balls were not interrupted for any reason, much less for zombie attacks, just to pick an example.  In the end, the book was little more than large chunks of Austen’s original text lifted wholesale and interspersed with random zombie elements.  It means that the book lacks coherence, and it also lacks the delicate touch that would be required to weave a zombie narrative into the existing plot.

A far better book is Pemberley, which I recently found after a recommendation in a Jane Austen Facebook group.  Author Maria Grace takes pains to make sure that the original story is not changed, but she is also able to use dragons as motivation for many of the novel’s events.  For example, the reason Darcy is with Bingley at Netherfield is because he’s using Bingley’s renting of a house in Hertfordshire as a cover to allow him to search for a stolen dragon’s egg.  The parts of this new story that wouldn’t easily fit with the original, such as searching for that egg, take place at times when the characters in Austen’s story are “off-screen” (what Grahame-Smith was trying to do) and therefore don’t disrupt anything.  The story progresses as expected, characters are in the places that they should be in, and the author is free to play in the spaces in between.

So, in conclusion, I don’t think that you can’t be wildly creative with a classic retelling, but you need to honor the original work instead of just using it for your own ends.

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