This is one of my French books, La louve, fabulously illustrated by Antoine Déprez:
When I say 'fabulously', I mean it in both senses of the term: they're brilliant illustrations, but they also reproduce very well the fable-like feel and texture of the story. La louve is an original story, but it is what is generally called a literary fairy tale - a new story made to feel like it's a classic folk or fairy tale.
This might be why, when La louve recently appeared in the White Ravens list at the Munich International Youth Library, it was described as 'a retelling of a Russian folkale'. To my knowledge (and that of my Russian friends), it isn't. There are many folk and fairy tales around the world that involve transformation, wolves and curses, but this one isn't a retelling of any one in particular.
After La louve, however, the publisher, Alice Editions, has asked us to work on a second opus which would be an adaptation or reinterpretation of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. I immediately agreed, because I've been fascinated by that weird tale for a long time. So I started to think about how to do it. The idea was not to retell the tale, but rather to write an original story inspired from, or reactivating or reimagining, the tale.
I soon realised it was an enterprise fraught with interesting peril. First I thought I’d focus on the rats, perhaps make the main character one of the rats. But immediately, a problem emerged: the glacial contemporary political and ideological connotations of a narrative that involves hordes ("swarms"?) of rats "invading" a village, spreading an illness, being thrown out, and drowning. The portrayal of a population identified as parasitic, swarming the streets of a nice little traditional village and taken away to die - in the water - in exchange for money, has a very unpleasant ring to it; or at least, it should, to anyone who’s even vaguely concerned with what’s happening in the world today. You'd have to be the most candid person on Earth not to realise.
A simple retelling of the story just about gets away with those connotations, because the literal explanation proposed by the story - the plague - works sort of fine, and you can sort of turn off the metaphorical reading. But with an entirely new story, you can’t claim innocently that you don't mind that extra layer of meaning. It just invites itself, whatever you do.
So of course you can play with these political connotations, and turn the story on its head, getting the rats to be the good guys in the story; the misunderstood, the oppressed and the silenced. You can even write an interesting story where the plague is an invention of the humans to create suspicion against the rats. You'd turn the story into a politically committed tale, preaching compassion towards a marginalised group.
Yeah. But it's a really tricky thing to pull off, because in this roman à clefs you're still identifying a group of people as rats - whether or not you're arguing that it's someone else's vision, that's pretty dangerous.
I know Art Spiegelman's done it. I'm not Art Spiegelman though.
In other words, I couldn't see a way of adapting the Pied Piper of Hamelin story without grappling with the metaphorical political implications. And while I'd be happy to do that in another context, it absolutely wasn't what I wanted this particular book to be. It was supposed to be like La louve: intemporal, slightly frightening, low-key and poetic. Not political.
So I took the story differently. I decided to get rid, so to speak, of the original tale, by putting it in its entirety on the first page. The story begins with a young girl whose grandfather tells her the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. And then the story starts, seemingly unconnected to the tale. But it loops back onto itself... and connects, at the very, very end, with the very, very first page.
Dealing with this adaptation, I felt like I'd spent quite a while, at least a month or two, thinking about how to catch it, a bit like you would observe a scorpion thinking of the best way to pick it up without getting stung, and getting it to do what you want it to do. Coincidentally, the YA book in French I'm currently working on is also an adaptation. And there again, I spent many train rides looking out of the window, thinking of how to catch that particular scorpion.
I'd be curious to hear your stories of adaptations, retellings or reimaginings of classical tales or novels - I'm sure there are many around, as it's quite a common thing to do. Do tell!
Clementine Beauvais writes in French and
English. She blogs here about children's literature and academia.