Famous, Retold Stories in Literature


Besides being an accomplished pediatrician, Chris Adrian was named one of the New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40” fiction writers last summer, and is also is pursuing a master’s degree at Harvard’s Divinity School, in case you thought he was a slouch. An excerpt from his novel is available here. We’re celebrating today’s release of The Great Night with ten of our favorite retold stories. Some of the following plots are lifted from ancient myths, while others come from relatively new novels. All have put a new spin on familiar tales, but have been able to make them their own. So read on, readers, and tell us what we’ve missed.

The Great Night by Chris Adrian

Chris Adrian’s retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is set in modern day San Francisco, and begins with three lonely souls who each cut through different parts of Buena Vista Park on their way to a party. Along the way, they all become horribly lost and are eventually stuck in an ever-expanding park with some very bizarre looking fairies, who tell them that the end is near. Titania, Oberon, and Puck all make appearances, though the focus of the novel is the many screwed up ways we deal with grief and loss.

Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick

Cynthia Ozick lifts the plot from Henry James’s 1903 novel, The Ambassadors, and makes it her own. In Ozick’s sixth book, Beatrice “Bea” Nightingale is Lambert Strether’s character — a middle-aged American sent to Paris to retrieve a wayward son from the clutches of an older woman. In Foreign Bodies, Bea enters a very different Europe than the one found in James’ turn of the century tale. In the early 1950s, France is war-scarred and populated by refugees, anti-Semites, and world-weary Parisians, which puts Bea’s misadventures and slip-ups into a much darker setting.

Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith

The story begins: “Let me tell you about when I was a girl, our grandfather says.” This novel is a modern retelling of the myth of Iphis, found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Iphis’s mother, Telethusa, hides the fact that she gave birth to a girl from her abusive husband and raises her as a boy. Isis eventually transforms Iphis into a man so that she can marry. Ali Smith’s modern retelling features two sisters, Anthea and Imogen (AKA “Midge”), who live in a small Scottish town. Anthea falls for an androgynous upstart, Robin, who concisely explains the myth halfway through the book so that Anthea knows where Robin is coming from.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

David Wroblewski’s 2008 debut about a Wisconsin family with a mute son who raises dogs during the latter half of the 20th century is a modern take on Hamlet. Edgar’s mother, Trudy, is Gertrude, his uncle, Claude, is Claudius, and his beloved dog Almondine, may very well be Ophelia, though Wroblewski explains in New York that “Edgar being mute is the exact opposite of Hamlet’s hyperverbal nature.”

This Vacant Paradise by Victoria Patterson

This contemporary take on Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth involves an attractive, drifting 33-year-old college dropout in southern California who works at a posh clothing boutique and lives with her wealthy grandmother, who acts as her patron. In the novel, Esther Wilson, the protagonist, realizes that “she needed to look out for herself, before it was too late, since no one else would. Yet she couldn’t follow through, . . . as if a leaden weight inside her kept her at the couch — when she should be impressing potential husbands with her sad beauty.”

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley retells the Shakespearean tragedy of King Lear through the character of Larry Cook and his three daughters, who live on a large farm in Iowa. Cook is getting older and wants to divide the family farm between his daughters, but cuts out the youngest (and most levelheaded) when she objects. As his drinking gets worse, he begins to accuse them of transgressions, and dark truths begin to surface as the novel progresses.

Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis

This is C.S. Lewis’s 1956 version of the myth of Cupid and Psyche (from the golden ass of Apuleius, no less). The point of view is from Psyche’s homely elder sister, Orual, who reveals to the reader in the first few pages that she will tell the true story between the gods because she has nothing left to lose. If you are the type of person who is interested in reading more about the eldest daughter of Trom, King of Glome (who lives on the left side of the river Shennit), then you are a fantasy geek and need to pick up this book immediately.

Grendel by John Gardner

We read this in British Literature class in high school and remembered it was pretty funny, since you don’t often get stories retold from the villain’s point of view. Beowulf, the Scandinavian upstart, comes in near the end of the story, since so many things of note happened before he entered the picture (like the rise of the Danes, with their demands of knowing one’s lineage and insistence on wearing chain mail and carrying battle axes). From Grendel’s perspective, there’s a lot of manly spear-shaking and grotesque displays of muscles from these conquering tribes. The only way to correct the situation is to devour them whole.

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

We concede that this is somewhat of a stretch, but go with it. In The Hours, Virginia Woolf is shown writing Mrs. Dalloway, while Mrs. Brown reads Woolf’s famous novel after WWII, and forty years later, Clarissa Vaughan, a modern Clarissa Dalloway, plans a party for a close friend who is dying of AIDS. There are a lot of narrative jumps in the novel which is similar to the style in Mrs. Dalloway, making this Pulitzer prize-winning novel a proper homage to Woolf’s masterpiece.

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

Antoinette Fremont, AKA Tony, asks, “Who do you want [the Robber Bride] to murder? Men victims, or women victims? Or maybe an assortment?” The girls respond by “[opting] for women, in every single role.” Margaret Atwood subverts the Brother Grimm’s tale of “The Robber Bridegroom” by switching the gender of the killer, though everyone is in some way a victim in this disturbing novel about exploitation.