Summary of this month’s movie:
Here come the spoilers! I mean, not really–this is very much like every Robin Hood story in terms of plot points. Robin of Loxley is captured during the Crusades but escapes and, upon returning to England, finds Prince John has assumed control and is abusing his power while King Richard is away fighting in the Crusades.
Robin's family home, Loxley Hall, is repossessed by John's men, his family is dead, and his father left him a key which opens "the greatest treasure in all the land." He recruits others to help regain his father's land and oust Prince John from the throne, and on his quest, attracts the attention of Maid Marian, who wears a chastity belt. (Side note: there’s no historical evidence of chastity belts actually existing in medieval England. I don’t wanna get sidetracked but felt compelled to point that out haha)
Meanwhile, the Sheriff of Rottingham plans to hold an archery tournament to attract Robin and have him assassinated. Maid Marian hears of the plot and, accompanied by her lady-in-waiting, sneaks out of her castle to warn Robin. With much poking fun at politics and pop culture, a disguised Robin wins the tournament, thwarts the assassination, and is arrested anyway. Marian bargains for his life by promising to marry the sheriff.
But Robin interrupts the wedding and duels the sheriff, during which his key falls into the lock of the chastity belt. Robin wins the fight and spares the sheriff's life, only to miss his sheath and accidentally run the sheriff through. Before Robin and Marian can attempt to open the lock, her lady-in-waiting arrives, insisting they get married first. But they are interrupted by King Richard, recently returned from the Crusades, who orders Prince John to be taken away to the Tower of London.
Robin and Marian are married. That night, Robin and Maid Marian attempt to open the chastity belt, only to discover that even with the key, the lock won't open. The film ends with Robin calling for a locksmith.
Carly: Okay so first of all, as some of you may remember, we were supposed to watch Young Frankenstein. And yet, we ended up with a different Mel Brooks movie. Why you may ask? Because when I sent a list of movies to our Patreon supporters to see what they wanted us to watch, I did not think to check if it was available to stream. I just assumed that we’d be able to rent it or find it somewhere online. And then it was nowhere! Completely my fault, so instead I picked another amazing Mel Brooks film. And here we are. Anyway, I love this movie. But Ido have a lot of nostalgia for it and really any Mel Brooks film. I will say, for the most part it definitely holds up. Sometimes, it holds up too well when they make jokes about universal healthcare. And there are definitely some things that haven’t aged well. Besides that though, I think it is such a fun movie. Plus, we’ve got Cary Elwes in it, and it makes my Princess Bride heart happy. What’d you think?
Jeni: I love parodies that are intentionally campy and absurd and subversive. I have a thing with Robin Hood because I grew up on legends, myths, and folklore, and Robin Hood and King Arthur were a big part of that. I was always more drawn to Robin Hood though, which actually explains a lot about me. It doesn’t hurt that my first crush was on Disney’s animated Robin Hood. And then to have Cary Elwes as the star… The Princess Bride came out 5 or so years before, and of course, this was sort of the height of his career at the time. He was and honestly still is so charming. I did not watch the Christmas movie with him and Brooke Shields, but I was tempted haha So, all in all, this was a fun movie, and now I wanna rewatch The Princess Bride and Disney’s Robin Hood. It also made me think about how many good retellings I’ve read and edited. It seems like a few years ago, everyone was saying retellings were dying, but they’re still going strong, which makes me super happy. I’m especially loving all the retellings that focus on groups that aren’t seen as much in the market, like characters who are LGBT, Black, or members of a diaspora. So what’s something this movie does well that writers can use in their own work?
Carly: Well, after that lovely introduction, it is definitely retellings. So obviously, this is a retelling of the classic legend of Robin Hood. Now the legend goes back centuries and has evolved and changed over time. There are many old verses that reference him and many of them would be unrecognizable to the current myth that we know and love today. I one-hundred percent went down a rabbit hole of Robin Hood research to learn more about this, but I won’t bore you all. I do however highly recommend looking into it! Anyway, back to this thoroughly accurate retelling. This movie touches on the old Robin Hood tropes we all have learned about, his band of Merry Men, Little Jon, Maid Marian, Prince John, etc. We see the classic Robin Hood face off against the corrupt powers that be. He fights for the little guy and wins the girl in the process.
Jeni: So one question I get a lot is what’s the difference between a retelling, a reimagining, and a reboot. I’m not 100% sure if there is any official way to distinguish between these, but this is how I suggest my clients think about it. All three are similar in that they use existing source material as a reference point for a new story. A retelling tries to stay pretty close to that source material. It will likely have the same or very similar plot points, but there will probably be some thematic or other big elements that have changed. So, for example, a fairy tale where the genders of the main characters are swapped but the plot otherwise remains mostly unchanged. A reimagining will start with the same basic premise but then might diverge wildly from there. My classic example of this is Cinder by Marissa Meyer. This is loosely based on the Cinderella story, but it takes place in space. With cyborgs. And it goes way deeper into worldbuilding and has a much deeper plot than most versions of Cinderella. Then a reboot is often the same story told in a more modern way. So, we can see this with the Spider-Man comics and movies. They’ve actually rebooted Spider-Man so many times that they have the whole Spider-Verse now, where all the different Spider-Mans (Spider-Men?) are real but exist in parallel universes.
Carly: So what makes a good retelling? I think the keys to a good retelling is what you do change and what you honor about the original. You want to stay true to the original source material, but you want to change elements to update it, to make it fresh and new. The original story is usually the hook you use to get readers on board. They know they love the original source material or the plot points of an old story, and they are drawn to your new version of it. You can’t throw everything about the original out, because you’ll disappoint fans. They came for the elements of the original, you must deliver on that promise. You need to draw people into your new version of the story and get them to stick around. And at the same time, you need to update the story. Change some element to make it new and different. A retelling is not a duplicate. You must find ways to make it interesting again, make it your own. Like Jeni said, you can gender-swap the lead characters. You can bring an old story to a new location or culture. Next you want to listen to the thing we say constantly on this podcast: “be intentional with tropes”. Retellings are the epitome of reusing and subverting tropes. The original material is likely a trope in its own right. The stories we tend to pick are the prime examples of tropes. Readers come because they love those tropes. So you want to utilize them with intention. Subvert them in ways that are delightful, exciting, and engaging, while also honoring the original. And keep around some of the tried and true tropes. If you upend all of them, you are telling a different story. You don’t want to subvert them all, you want to play with certain ones. So again, intention. How many times do you think we’ve said that word on this podcast? And finally, and again as always, keep age category and genre in mind. Age category is always important because it can inform on the elements you keep, the expectations of your audience, and even if a story will translate to a different age category at all. Macbeth probably wouldn’t translate to middle grade, but now I’m interested in how that could be done… Moving on from that dark thought, often taking a story and retelling it in a different genre can be a great way to freshen up the old story. You have to meld the original with the tropes and genre conventions. How would you transition Robin Hood into a scifi story? What would change and what would stay the same?
Jeni: Follows the basic plot of most Robin Hood stories, including the one with my animated boyfriend. We’ve got Robin coming back from the Crusades, Prince John taking over and abusing his power, Robin and Marian falling in love, even the archery tournament. The movie really depends on the viewer having some knowledge of this, and because of that, it draws on a lot of the sort of cultural consciousness when it comes to this character.For example, the Kevin Kostner Robin Hood came out a couple years before this movie so it draws heavily on that. Robin’s look is very Errol Flynn from the 1930s’ version. The archery tournament is straight out of the Disney version. Robin Hood in general is often thought of as a children’s story, but this movie is definitely intended for an older audience. A lot of the humor relies on more mature themes. At best, these would go over most kids’ heads, and at worst, these could be inappropriate. Basically, there’s a lot of sex jokes. And in terms of genre, this isn’t a classic retelling in the sense of just adding a new spin. This takes Robin Hood out of the adventure category and moves it into parody. It pokes fun at the story’s tropes, as well as a lot of social and political stuff that was happening in the 90s. That gave it a contemporary feel, despite the historical setting. So, we have the dashing hero who gets very self-referential at times, the love interest who takes the stereotype of a princess who just wants any man to an absurd extreme, and sidekicks who call attention to their only being used to further the main character’s story. It’s clear the screenwriters pulled in a lot of elements to make sure this movie would fit as an adult parody but overall still feel like Robin Hood.
Carly: Getting started with a retelling is easy, you play the “What if” game. Well maybe that’s not easy. It is easy and simple to say, but actually doing is probably very hard. It must be easy if I can boil it down to a single phrase right? Anyway, You want to play the “what if” game with the original story. What if Robin Hood was a satire? What if the original story focused on a different character? What if it took place in my old neighborhood? Find that “what if” question that defines your retelling and use it to inform on the elements you maintain and the ones you change. What thematic or big elements can you change? What question can you ask yourself that you are looking to answer? As Jeni got into already, you want to find a way to tell this story in a way that hasn’t been done before. You are taking the original and using it to explore something new. What spin can you give it that can only come from you? Research what HAS been done and remember to check not only books but also movies and TV. If you are retelling a classic fairy tale, odds are that there are thousands of retellings. But there are so many spins that haven’t been done already. Cultures that haven’t had their version of a classic. Or letting underrepresented people see themselves in a classic story. I know I eat up every version of Beauty and the Beast where Beauty has a disability. Stories can be retold in many different ways, through genre, representation, gender-swapping, setting, theme, etc. So find your “what if”, that question that excites you and gets you invested in the old story. Then use that question to help you shape the new version. Ask yourself how it will impact all the elements of your story and of the original. And do lots and lots of research to make sure you aren’t retelling another retelling that has already been done a thousand times.
Jeni: It’s really important to consider how the changes you make in your version of the story will impact the other elements. So, for example, if you change the setting of the story so it’s, say, in a city in the 1920s instead of a medieval village, the reader needs to see that reflected in the plot arc as well as the character arc. But we also need to see it in the theme. I feel like one of the things we mention on this podcast a lot is how the various storytelling elements all need to work together, and this is no exception. Ideally, changing one or two major elements will require other changes to make the whole story work together. So really brainstorm how those changes will impact all the other elements. In the setting example, how does the setting for this version of the story affect how the main characters are treated? What rights do they have or not have? How does society view them, and how does that impact how they view themselves? How is the culture different, and how will that influence the choices the character has available to them? In this movie, the biggest storytelling element that’s been changed is the tone. Most Robin Hood stories focus on romance and adventure. In this story, that takes a backseat to the humor. Because of the difference in tone, the writers made changes to some of the staples of most Robin Hood stories. For example–and this is getting a little into writing humor, which isn’t really one of my areas of expertise but I do know some about it–Friar Tuck was changed to Rabbi Tuckman. This adds an element of surprise, which is a fundamental aspect of humor. The Sheriff is from Rottingham instead of Nottingham. The pun adds a sense of silliness to a normally very dark character, and we are reminded of it every time someone says his name. So if you’re writing a retelling, make sure you’re using every tool at your disposal to create the link between the source material and your version and use them to show the similarities but also enhance the sense of reality and depth in the changes you’ve made.
Carly: So that reminds me, I never noticed a pun before, they took Robin of Loxley and gave Marian the name of Bagel, and then talked about how good of a match they were. I love bagels and lox, so no idea how I missed that pun before. Okay so what are the problems with retellings? Honestly, it is the obvious: retellings risk being trite and overdone. If you aren’t bringing something new to the story, it feels like it has been done, because it literally has been. People love retellings because they can be comfortable, but they can walk the line of being boring. If you stick to the original too much or aren’t creative enough with your “what if” then your story will fall flat. If readers wanted the original, they would read the original. On the other hand, if you divert too much from the original that it becomes unrecognizable, you won’t fulfill your promise to the reader. If Robin Hood instead takes the throne and becomes and evil dictator and burns villages, is it Robin Hood anymore? I mean, maybe. There is definitely a way to make that work. But then it definitely veers into reimagining territory. And finally, as Jeni has already said: if you don’t apply your changes to the story fully enough. You can’t just transplant Robin Hood into the modern day without figuring out how that will affect the characters. Maid Marian would have more autonomy, how would that affect the story?
Carly: This month our query is a YA contemporary fantasy, and omg it’s a retelling! How does this always happen? Jeni, what are your thoughts on this query?
Jeni: In terms of a retelling, I think this author is nailing it. We can see some elements that are from the source material, but there are also clear differences. I see some places where we aren’t quite making the connections between elements. For example, halfway through the second paragraph, there’s this shift that feels too abrupt to me. I’m not sure how the curse connects to what you’ve told us about these characters. So I felt a little lost there. Another concern I see is the potential here of some inadvertent harmful stereotypes. It looks like this author might be employing an ableist stereotype, and that might need some reworking. If you get this kind of feedback on your writing at any point, it’s really important to do more research and consider working with a trained authenticity reader. This is someone who will have experience in the particular area you’re addressing in the story and will have knowledge of how that group has been negatively represented and stereotyped. It’s increasingly common in the industry, and it’s really important to make sure you aren’t accidentally including something in your story that creates trauma for groups that are already struggling to get realistic representation in books. It doesn’t look like this particular issue is something that couldn’t be changed without messing up the overall story though. What’d you think, Carly?
Carly: I’m really glad you brought that up. The moment I read that part I got concerned. I do think there is a way to still have the story make sense without the disfigurement, like giving the character a Cassandra type curse where no one believes her instead of having people fear her disfigurement. But that is of course up to the author and how the story actually plays out. Other than that, I do think this query is nailing the intro, but it does seem to fall apart midway through. We’re missing the connective tissue of what they are fighting against and what brought them to this new world in the first place. Why are they here and what are they trying to solve? There is a focus on telling us that they solve things, but lacking the why. I think it is the main conflict that is missing, it is focusing on the personal conflicts but not the plot conflict.