Halloween brings out the usual suspects of ghosts, vampires, and witches. Take Dracula, for example. The 1897 novel by Bram Stoker has been told, retold, watered down, and spiced up dozens of times over the last hundred years. Here at the Grammarly offices, we wanted to take a break from our horror movie marathon and candy corn binge to explore the ways that writers and other artists re-imagine myths and legends.
Some stories grab our collective imagination and never let go. They are timeless—and best of all, they’re usually in the public domain. That means the characters, settings, plots, and themes are fair game for contemporary writers.
There are countless variations on this idea, from Disney’s long history of adapting fairytales (and cutting out the really dark, disturbing parts) to the current run of the TV shows Once Upon a Time and Grimm, as well as the ongoing comic book series Fables. These modern examples continue to recycle the same old stories, breathing new life into them.
So how can you use myths and legends in your writing? Here are five common ways to turn an old tale on its head.
The Percy Jackson books are one of the most popular series for young readers in recent years. Author Rick Riordan brought Greek gods and heroes to the modern world, skillfully creating new legends from ancient tales. Riordan explored the same idea with his companion series The Kane Chronicles, which focuses on the Egyptian pantheon of gods and goddesses. Recently, the TV show Sleepy Hollow literally brought Ichabod Crane and the headless horseman to the present day.
America has a long history of immigration from people all over globe. In addition to their languages and cuisine, these immigrants also brought their mythology. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is one of the greatest takes on this trope, weaving together Norse mythology, Native American legends, and dozens of others to create a rich, uniquely American tapestry. Similarly, Sarah Zettel’s Dust Girl brings European fairy courts to Jazz Age America, while Daniel Pinkwater’s The Neddiad re-imagines the Iliad as a road trip in the 1940s.
The popular book (and even more popular musical) Wicked by Gregory Maguire tells the story of Wizard of Oz from the perspective of the Wicked Witch of the West. Similarly, Maleficent shows the “real” story of Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of the original animated film’s villain. Perspective shifts aren’t limited to making the villains the main characters; Alex Flinn’s YA novel Beastly retells “Beauty and the Beast” from the beast’s point of view.
Books for young readers, in particular, like to renew interest in old tales by bringing in a female character as the protagonist. Often, this is a relative of a familiar hero, such as Rowan Hood by Nancy Springer, which follows Robin Hood’s daughter. The same author also wrote the Enola Holmes series of mysteries about the great detective’s little sister.
Shifting genres is a great way to shake things up. For the last two decades or so, dark re-imaginings of familiar childhood stories have been popular. Alice in Wonderland, for example, has enjoyed a renaissance. From the spooky video game American McGee’s Alice to Tim Burton’s off-putting big screen version, these modern adaptations show the enduring power of Lewis Carroll’s story. Frank Beddor’s The Looking Glass Wars books take even greater creative license, while A.G. Howard’s Splintered uses elements of the original story to create a twisted tale of madness and obsession.
There are hundreds of other examples (you can find lots more here and here) and an almost limitless supply of gods and monsters, heroes and heroines, myths and legends. Do you have a favorite retelling, or have you retold a tale yourself? Share your story in the comments!