Who’s seen the old Cecil B. De Mille movie The Ten Commandments? Did you like the 2019 version of Little Women? Which one of the ten-thousand different versions of Cinderella is your favorite?
Adaptations of classic stories are some of society’s most popular endeavors in writing and film, and my novels fall into the same category. My obsession with the story of David and Jonathan grew over decades until it had to spill out on paper, and I enjoyed adding drama and intrigue to flesh out the biblical characters and tie all the familiar plot points together.
Whether you’re interested in writing a classic adaptation yourself or just love experiencing them, here are a few do’s and don’ts I have learned from my own experience and from what I’ve seen of other efforts in print and on screen.
1. Don’t assume anything.
Unfortunately, not all great stories translate from generation to generation. Even if they did, assuming that your audiences already know things about this story will make the retelling boring. It’s important to give your audience context. You don’t have to overwhelm them with complex details, but don’t leave out important points because you think they’re “understood”. Even the people who know the story well are eager for you to remind them why it’s important. And there’s a whole lot of people out there who’ve never experienced this! You have the privilege of convincing them it’s worth it. Chances are, people care about this story (it’s lasted this long), so don’t rush through it.
2. Be creative.
Rather than copying what others have done, approach the story from a different angle, a fresh take. Ask questions no one’s asked before. Research what you like and don’t like about other attempts and make this one your own. Use your creative license with care and skill to present a finished product that tells the story in an appealing, exciting way.
3. Don’t hijack the story; learn from it.
Especially if you’re dealing with a historical figure, be careful not to make the story a manifesto of your own opinions. Ask yourself why this story speaks to you and make yourself a student of its meaning before you write your own version.
4. Be true to context and original intent.
This goes along with the previous point. Using creative license is one thing but adding irrelevant or opposing worldviews compromises the integrity of the story. Make sure you actually want to tell this story, not tear it apart to make it something else. If the latter is your plan, you probably need to write something completely new and not claim to be rewriting a classic
5. Get to know the characters
With a retold story, it’s easy to make the characters very one-dimensional, defined by what you know happens to them. However, remember these characters are supposed to be real people, and if they aren’t real to you, they won’t be real to the audience.
Once you have the bigger picture of the story, zoom in as close as possible to the main characters and make sure you understand them as people, outside of what happens to them.
Get answers to the questions you’ve always had about them. Experiment with exercises that can help you see them from a different angle (interviewing them, switching up the order of events, writing imaginary journal entries etc.) Most of this won’t make it into the final product, but it will help you to write with more confidence. You must be an expert on your characters and that requires hanging out with them.
Don’t expect the familiarity of a classic story to do all the work. Once you write an adaptation, the story’s clarity and the characters’ depth is your responsibility. And there's nothing quite like it.