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The Retelling of Stories

With the holiday season upon us, it's that time of year when we enjoy consuming the same stories over and over again. From listening to repeats of our favorite family stories and lore, to watching the same claymation movies we ate up as children. It's been said there are only seven stories in all of existence–overcoming the monster, rage to riches, the hero's journey, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, and rebirth. This theory states that every story humanity has ever told can fit into one of these story types. I'm not going to try to prove or disprove that theory today, instead, I'm more curious about how we can keep retelling these same stories and yet find new ways to make them interesting and provide nuance.

There are about a hundred different versions of Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" in the world that will play on repeat from now until Dec 25th. I feel like everyone has their favorite version of this story that speaks to them in some new way. Personally, I have a lot of strong opinions about these different versions. (Who's surprised though, I have strong opinions on just about everything.) Even though it's the same story, I find myself wondering why I cannot stand to watch the 2009 version with Jim Carrey, but I absolutely love watching the Muppet's version year after year? They're the same story, even being told in the same way (traditional old Engand setting with a crankman in a night dress,) so shouldn't they draw my attention in the same way? Obviously, the Muppets hold a special place in my heart since childhood and maybe that's the draw, but I also think they put humor and heart into the story in a way the 2009 version doesn't. The animation that is used for the 2009 version is off-putting and the characters take everything a little too seriously for me to care about them. It feels more like an exhibition of technology than a retelling of this classic story. Whereas the Muppets version uses a tried and true method of real people and setting mixed with the fuzzy muppet characters we adore, and still managed to hold onto the spirit of the original story. This leads me to wonder though if these differences in medium are the only draw towards affection or distaste, or are there actually differences in the way the story is being told from a writing standpoint?

As writers, we don't have the advantage of using Muppets or animation (unless you're writing comic books I suppose.) We have to rely on the words, character dynamics, settings, and voice to make our stories stand out from all the others that feel similar. We can use similar plot points or tropes, connecting our readers to other stories they love, but if we don't make it original, they're going to lose interest. On the other hand, we don't want to drift too far from the base because it can feel ungrounded, and out of touch. 

Looking at "A Christmas Carol" again, there are plenty of modern takes using the same story outline, yet they update the setting, writing, characters, and general plot to give the viewer something new. Sometimes these changes even renew the meaning behind the story and highlight the moral in a modern setting. Some of these remakes feel like they match the spirit of the original story while giving us something new to admire, like the 2022 version "Spirited" with Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell. Then there are those versions that miss the mark and feel cheesy or wrong, like the 2009 film "Ghosts of Girlfriend's Past" with Matthew McConaughey. Why do these stories feel so different, with one being genuine and one being cheesy? Both involve good-looking men, and both have someone being led around by the ghosts of past, present, and future to help the main character understand where they've gone wrong in life. They follow the outline Dickens created back in 1843, yet one resonates better with audiences than the other.

I think when it comes to retelling the same stories, there's a certain amount of respecting the blueprint that audiences respond to. We want something that feels like the original without being an exact copy. The Jim Carrey movie is essentially a fancy copy and paste of the original. It doesn't give us anything new to reflect on, other than an advancement in technology. The Matthew McConaughey attempt at a moral rom-com feels too distant from the original text as if they only used the idea as a hook to get people to the movies. Like with all things in life, there's a middle ground we have to aim for as writers.

Obviously, we're not always going around rewriting classic stories, but I still think this lesson is worthwhile when studying writing. Each of us pulls inspiration from other stories or writers. We can't help it– that is the nature of art. We're influenced by what we're exposed to and then take all those influences and mix them with our personal experiences to try and make something new, hoping it will resonate just as strongly with audiences as the original. 

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