The Whys and What Ifs of Adaptations

It’s no secret that I love fairy tales, both in their “original” form and adaptations. Whether it’s a modern adaptation that takes place in a big city like Los Angeles, or a more traditional retelling, I love reading – and writing – them all.  One of the main reasons is that it’s both fun and challenging to really delve into a story and ask two super important and magical questions: Why? and What if?


The great thing about so many of the earliest versions of these tales is that there is hardly ever a character motivation stated for anything.  Every now and again a villain hates a heroine because of their great beauty, but usually the reader is just left wondering why in the heck someone did what they did.  That is, if the reader takes the time to wonder…we accept most of these stories at face value because we’ve heard them so often.

Twelve Dancing PrincessesAn example of this is the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses.  I recently decided to do a short story adaptation of it and went back and read the original convinced those princesses were dancing because they were enchanted.  I finished re-reading and thought “What in the holy hell is wrong with these chicks? They enslave these poor princes and keep them underground just because they like to rave all night?”

Creating a motivation, delving into the characters and trying to figure out why they tick they way they do, is such a fun challenge.  And it’s more challenging, I think, than creating character motivation for characters you’ve created out of whole cloth because when it’s a character of your own making you can change their actions.  With adaptations you have a certain set of actions and you have to tailor the motivation to meet the pre-existing criteria…

Unless you then also ask…

What if?

What if you took these same characters and put them in different situations, time periods, or settings?  Does it change their motivation, does it change their actions?  What will make this plot work with a new twist?  What if, for example, Sleeping Beauty had never woken up?  What if characters from two different stories met?  What if all the fairy tales were actually historical fact and not just stories we were told at bedtime?

Here again the challenge is to work within the existing framework, to analyze the story and decide what core elements make it “it.”  If you stripped everything else away would the story still be recognizable?

The Little MermaidReally digging in and finding the whys and what ifs can change the way you think about a story.  It’s thought provoking to see different authors take completely different paths to the same story.  Adaptation is a great writing exercise, whether it’s of fairy tales, classic novels, or a piece of fan fiction, because of the way it stretches your brain, the way it forces creativity within parameters.  So if you ever find yourself in a writing funk or in need of strengthening those characterization muscles try putting your own twist on a tale!

I’m working on a series of fairy tale retellings that involve first person narration from multiple characters in each story.  This is requiring a lot of exploring the motivations of each character as well as getting to add in my own what ifs.  As an example, I thought I’d share the first section of my The Little Mermaid adaptation which features the “Sea Witch” as the narrator.

The Little Mermaid: The Ice Witch

I stared at her, at the long dark hair swirling around her waist, the fathomless eyes, the features so perfect they looked as if they could have been cut out of the ice that created the walls of my palace.  A Mer.  Why had one of the deadly sirens come to me? And she was not just any Mer, oh no, she was royalty.  On of the three sisters.  One of the family that kept me from conquering the sea with my frozen power.  One with whom I was at war.

She’d crossed her bare arms.  I knew she was cold, here in my caverns.  I reached out and trailed a sharp nail over the armrest of my icy throne, letting its stillness seep into my racing mind.  I loved the ice.  I wanted nothing more than to see the tentacles of my power twist through the ocean, cooling the too warm water until it froze in beautiful, painful, sacred arcs.

“What do you seek?” I finally asked.  If she would speak to me, if I could wrap my power around the vibrations of her voice, I could understand…even if she didn’t want me to.

I saw fear flicker in her deep eyes, replaced quickly by determination.  Open your mouth, Mer! Give me the power of your voice.

Her lips parted, almost as if she’d heard my silent command. I didn’t fool myself that I would have that much power over a royal of her kind, even here in my own palace.  Even I could see that the ice closest to her was slowly melting. If she hadn’t been alone, I might have been concerned.

“I wish to be human.”

Her words shocked me so much that I almost let the vibration of her voice escape.  It had already begun to dispel through the water before I reached out with my mind and drew it into me.  I felt it – too weak for me to see everything in her mind, I’d let it get too far away – but I could see images…a warm sun. I shuddered. I hated the sun, even the image of it in her mind made me want to run my hand across the comforting coolness of my throne.

“Why?” I could make out a shadowy figure in her mind, but it was flickering, insubstantial.

Her gaze slid away from mine, as if she could hide from the probing of my magic by staring into the semi-transparent walls.  “Does it matter?”

“Yes,” I answered.  But she didn’t have to tell me.  I already knew.  I pulled the vibration of her musical words into my mind and I saw everything.

“You’ve fallen in love with a man.” I couldn’t keep the harsh laughter out of my voice.  Sunlight filtered through light hair, laugh lines in a handsome face.  At least I supposed it was handsome. I had even less respect for humans than the Mer did, and none of the use for them that they did.

“My reasons are my own.” Her eyes flashed back to mine, there was a fire there that I had never seen in a Mer.

I smiled, my cold lips twisting cruelly.  “No. You’ve let me hear your voice, and so your reasons – your mind – is mine.”

She crossed her arms, rage evident in every line of her body.  She was very still, except for the occasional agitated flicking of her iridescent tail.  “Will you make me human?” she finally demanded.

“I haven’t decided yet.” I rose from my throne and floated toward her.  “You love this man enough to give up the sea?”

She flinched as I ran my finger along her arm.  But she nodded.

“And yet you’ve killed thousands of men just like him. Do you even know how many souls you’ve given to the sea?” My voice was a whisper now.  She shook her head.  Tentacles of ice snaked around her hair, her waist, but she didn’t flinch. “No need to stay silent, darling.  I am already in your head.”

She stared at me mutinously and I laughed in unrestrained glee.  I had her.  And she knew it.  If she was willing to leave her sisters – leave them weaker in their defense against my encroaching power – there was nothing she would not give up.

“There will be pain,” I told her.

“That is fine. I can handle the pain.”

“You know nothing of pain,” I hissed.  “I will relieve you of your tail and give you human legs, but every step will feel like knives piercing your flesh.  Have you ever felt a knife’s blade? Have you ever felt the jagged edge of the ice?”

Her gaze flickered over the the pale blue scars that crisscrossed my arms.

“I will do it.  Is your only price?  My pain?”

“Hardly. That is merely a consequence.  There are always consequences…and rules.”  A thin, twisting coil of ice circled her wrist.  She had to feel the frozen bite but she remained motionless.

“My, my, my…what does this man have to hold you in such thrall?”  I searched through her memories.  She had been watching him.  She felt something for him…but I was as unfamiliar with love as she was.  Lust we both understood.  She lusted for the souls of men.  I lusted for the cold.  We both lusted for power.  This was different, this foreign emotion inside her.  I shied away from it as if from the sun itself.

“There is only one rule.  You must make him love you as you love him or you shall die.” I could see a smile play at the edges of her full lips.  She knew her own beauty, knew how men lusted after her.  Enough to sink to the depths to catch even a glimpse of her.

Fool.  Stupid, love-sick fool.  For I’d seen more in her memories than she realized were there.  And I knew that the human already loved another.  He looked at her, this human girl, the way the Mer watched him.  Not even the powerful lust he would feel for the Mer would drive him away from her love.

“And your price?”

“Your voice.”

She arched away from my fingers trailing through her long, dark hair, the tendrils of ice around her melting and snapping as she drove back with her powerful tail.

“That would give you power.”

“Oh yes, it would. But not over you.  If you want, you can give me your name instead.”

The Mer gasped.  Her name would give me an unbreakable hold on her, she would be slave to me forever.  I could feel her rifling through her memories, calling up his face.  The strength of the longing inside her almost doubled me over.  I remained impassive, arching a brow.  “What’s it to be?  Do we have a bargain?”

Her longing for him overcame everything else – her loyalty to her sisters, her hate of me, her own self-preservation.

“Yes, we have a bargain.”

The feeling of victory I felt was fleeting – replaced almost immediately with the heady sensation of the power of her voice.  It raced through me, strengthening me.  I laughed in delight as her tail split a part and human legs appeared.  The Mer had signed her own death warrant and given me everything I desired.  The ocean would be mine.



3 thoughts on “The Whys and What Ifs of Adaptations

  1. Pingback: Introducing…Views from the Depths | Jessica Grey

    • In many instances I prefer the originals, but with many fairy tales our “originals” aren’t really the earliest versions of the stories, just the ones that got written down! It’s also fascinating to me how so many tales have different versions in different cultures. Thanks for tweeting!

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