Retelling Classic Fiction in Modern Contexts
Retellings of stories in the public domain such as fairy tales like Cinderella, classical literature like Sherlock Holmes, and plays like Romeo and Juliet is a popular storytelling practice due to excitement for creativity and innovation to develop a story where the core concepts are already well-known. Modern contexts applied to classical stories gives the message, tropes, and storylines a more familiar understanding for modern audiences. Unfamiliar settings and old language styles are often challenging for modern readers to connect to or understand. Retelling stories in a modern context can communicate intended messages in a relatable way the source material could not. Altering the setting of a classic story allows for new interpretations and possibilities for symbolism to represent the overarching message.
Retelling stories captures interest because they present the familiar; recognition of the core themes of the original stories reimagined to suit the retelling’s plot. Knowing how a story goes and ends allows for excitement in watching puzzle pieces fall together in a creative way. Modern audiences recognize themselves in the rhythm of popular narratives embedded into relatable environments in modern retellings.
When classic stories are retold in modern contexts, they are not only relatable, but are directly reflective of modern and youthful culture. They represent current social and cultural dilemmas and narratives while abiding by the general themes of the original tale.
Retelling Greek Myths in Modern Contexts
Greek mythology is commonly favored in retelling, Myths portray the actions of mythological figures and shapes how they are interpreted by the audiences. This is demonstrated by variations in myths creating different perceptions of mythological figures, and the purpose of the narratives presented in their myths, such as viewing Medusa as a monster attacking innocents or an innocent victim of the Gods. In retellings, exploring myths to reimagine a prominent figure and their stories in new contexts or perspectives brings intrigue; especially when the context is modern and therefore even more relatable to modern readers.
Retellings of Greek myths adhere to the core concepts, core events of the story, and the ultimate conclusions; or else the retelling may be unrecognizable from the original myth. Retellings with new contexts draw interest to the creative narratives in the stories and characters. The characters’ actions can be recontextualized to modern cultural standards and circumstances, and therefore become understandable to modern audiences. This brings new interest to their stories, or even new widespread perceptions of those myths based on modern social standards.
The Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice
The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is simple in design. Orpheus, the son of the God of music, played the lyre so beautifully he soothed all who heard his songs. He and Eurydice fell in love and married happily. One day, Eurydice stepped on a snake that bit her, killing her instantly. Orpheus played his lyre and sang about his grief, which brought humans and deities alike to tears. He was told to travel to the Underworld to bring Eurydice back to life, and he went with divine protection.
Orpheus sang and played sweetly before the spirits, Cerberus, Hades and Persephone, the rulers of the Underworld. Hades then agreed that Eurydice could come back to life if she followed Orpheus out of the Underworld. However, Orpheus could never look behind to see her until they both reached the upper world. Unable to see or hear Eurydice, Orpheus began to doubt she was there, and that Hades had not deceived him. Upon reaching the upper world, Orpheus turned around, dooming Eurydice to the Underworld forever. Orpheus tried to go back to the Underworld but could not, as no living being could enter the realm twice.
Retelling Orpheus and Eurydice
In any retelling of this myth in modern contexts, the core concepts, events, and ultimate ending must match the original story. The core concepts would be the separation of two lovers, then one going to great lengths to reconcile only to fail at the last moment, and most likely the inclusion of music. The core events would be the lovers together, then the character representing Eurydice leaving for whatever reason, and the character representing Orpheus trying to reunite and then the choice that character makes to fail. The ultimate ending is that the lovers do not ultimately reunite, despite all the effort.
All of these factors make the story what it is; a tragedy, but still a series of events that hold great meaning to the characters’ hearts. How these core concepts, events, and endings are portrayed in modern retellings is directly reflective of the real cultural challenges and values in that context’s reality.
Retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice: Hadestown Summary
Hadestown is a Broadway musical written by Anais Mitchell that retells the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in the modern, American-esque setting of the Great Depression.
The retelling begins with Eurydice singing about extreme weather and hard times. Orpheus approaches her with a romantic serenade, claiming that his song will end the intense weather. Persephone arrives from Hadestown, the Underworld, bringing summer. Eurydice falls in love with Orpheus, but Hades soon comes to bring Persephone back to Hadestown. The harsh winter and famine then returned. Eurydice struggles to provide, while Orpheus struggles to complete his song because of Hades and Persephone’s dissonance. Hades seeks out the starving Eurydice and offers her security in Hadestown. Barely surviving, Eurydice sings her farewell and follows Hades.
Orpheus embarks on his journey to Hadestown. Eurydice realizes that she will be turned into a mindless laborer forever. As Eurydice sings her lament, Orpheus arrives. He promises to take her home, but Hades reveals that Eurydice can never leave. Orpheus vows to defy Hadestown’s injustice. Persephone implores Hades to release Eurydice, while the workers begin to protest their lack of freedom. Hades, angered, tells Orpheus to sing.
Orpheus sings a love song, bringing Hades and Persephone to dance together. Hades is unsure of his decision. The Fates mock Hades, because having them go or stay could both damage his reputation. He agrees to let them go if Orpheus leads and does not turn around until they are outside Hadestown. If he turns, she will be doomed to stay forever. Orpheus and Eurydice begin their journey, singing of love and hope. As Orpheus reaches the end, he is overwhelmed by doubt and turns around, forcing Eurydice back to Hadestown. At the play’s end, Hermes sings about singing tragedies in the hope of how things could be.
Retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice: The Girl From The Song Summary
The Girl From The Song is a film that retells Orpheus and Eurydice in modern British and American contexts. The myth is not exactly followed, but is used loosely alongside mythological symbolism to achieve an overarching story.
The film begins with Eric, a college student in London, practicing his guitar. Jo approaches Eric frequently and has him perform at a club. Eric learns that Jo will go to the Nevada Burning Man music festival with her friend Penelope and ex-boyfriend Alex. Eric and Jo share their passions and fall in love. Jo later tells Eric she’s not going to Burning Man. After she talks to Penelope, however, Eric learns that she left for Burning Man without telling him. He flies to Nevada to follow her. A cab driver drives Eric to the festival, giving him a ticket and guitar. He finds Alex, who mocks him but lets him come to their camp to have him play for them.
Eric initially blames Alex for Jo’s leaving, but realizes that Jo loved him. Eric proclaims that Jo left because she was scared of commitment. He confesses his own fears, and promises not to leave her. They reconcile and enjoy their time together. Penelople and Alex often flirt with Jo, and Eric learns that Jo plans to go to Tijuana with them. Eric sings the song he wrote for Jo, and she promises not to go to Tijuana.
That night, Penelope implores Jo to drink with them while Eric goes to sleep. Overcome with doubt, Eric searches for Jo, and fights Alex. Eric confesses his doubts about her fidelity, and says he thought she’d leave. Jo cries that she was coming back with him, but their relationship won’t work without trust. Jo leaves with Penelope and Alex, and Eric leaves with the driver.
Reflections of Modern Culture – Significance of Constants and Changes
The modern retelling of this classic myth follows the original storyline to different extents. This is to communicate messages relevant to the newer plots, and more accurately reflective of modern cultural and social challenges. The modern contexts and changes in these retellings invoke familiarity and portray struggles in a recognizable way to modern audiences. Overall, these retellings bring a more personal understanding and a deeper resonance of the characters, their emotions, choices, and tragedy.
The play follows the storyline closely in a uniquely modern context, imagining an American setting during the Great Depression. Yet in this world, the Greek Gods also naturally exist and control the weather, the harvest and the possibility of famine. The humans’ struggles are caused by dissonant Gods, and that hardship is only eliminated when Hades and Persephone reconcile. Hadestown’s challenges of the endless labor of building walls and sacrificing freedom happen in the Underworld to the dead.
These fantastical elements still flow naturally into the more modern context through metaphors. Hadestown is reflective of the burdens of capitalism and poverty. The masses sacrifice personhood to provide for the wealthy few and reap no benefits for themselves. Hades refers to himself as king and employer of the souls, again connecting the laboring souls to real world intensive labor done by the poor at the expense of their freedom.
Eurydice’s death was framed as a choice in which she rode a train and signed a contract to become a laborer. Her death resembled a metaphor of selling her freedom in exchange for supposed security more than a literal death. Orpheus literally travels to the Underworld to rescue Eurydice, and he sings before the Gods, the Fates, and deceased souls, but everything is presented in alignment with the realistic, modern world of railroad cars and struggles with poverty and employment.
Orpheus and Eurydice’s story becomes less about persuading the Gods, and more about choice and unjust systems caused by greater powers. Those challenges are highly relatable to modern audiences living in a majorly capitalistic world. The couples’ struggles to survive together against their environment, politics, and economy, and their coping with losing their ideals present familiarity to modern American audiences.
The Girl From The Song
The film follows the storyline loosely in entirely new modern contexts, altering the stakes and challenges but having the overall thematic message of the original myth remain. Instead of dying, Jo leaves the country for a vacation and then breaks up with Eric when he turns back in the form of doubting her love for him. There are no fantastical elements of Gods and divine trials, nor epic quests for overcoming death. Instead, the concept of a musician who loses his lover and journeys to take her home only to fail at the last moment due to doubt is what guides the story, without any of the impersonal contexts of ancient times and mythological stakes.
The only stakes present in the film are that of love and trust between two individuals and the relationship they may share depending on their choices, not depending on death or the laws of deities. The modern context of this retelling allows for connections to broader audiences and modern challenges of struggling with new relationships and challenges of distance and doubt.
Modern Reflections of Agency
The play and the film alter Eurydice’s death by giving the reimagined character much greater levels of agency. Greek myths often assign female characters to passive roles, or to motivations for male characters. In the myth, Eurydice has no control over her death, Orpheus’s decision to revive her, or his turning around.
Yet in the play, Eurydice chooses to die to work in Hadestown because she doubts her and Orpheus’s abilities to survive in hardship. In the film, Jo chooses to leave Eric for Burning Man with her friends because of her own struggles with commitment. When he arrives, Jo rejects Eric’s affections, and Eurydice rejects Orpheus in fear of Hades’s wrath. Eurydice had no control over Orpheus turning around but actively sang to him to have hope before he does so. Jo had no control over Eric coming back and fighting Alex, but she chose to break up with him because of it.
The increased agency granted to Eurydice in these modern retellings is reflective of the increased expectation for female agency in modern culture, in relationships and major life decisions. The retellings then gain intrigue and make the story more familiar to the modern audiences that recognize the true weight of women’s agency and active roles in their stories, whether the challenges are caused by political systems or trust issues in romance.
Modern Reflections of Doubt
Both retellings also shift the narrative of doubt being one’s downfall from the original myth. In the film, Eric’s major moment of doubt that brings their story to tragedy is when he doubts that Jo will not choose to leave him or cheat on him. It is his doubt of her that drives her to end their relationship entirely, just as her doubts and fears of commitment drove her to leave him for Burning Man to begin with. This twist on the narrative of doubt in modern contexts is more relatable and familiar as the film focuses on tragic endings in relationships caused not by doubt in fantastical powers like the Greek Gods, but in each other as they struggle to maintain a healthy relationship.
In the play, Orpheus’s great moment of doubt is in the system that he lives in. Over the course of the play, he learns the pains of struggling to survive, losing his optimism. Having finally seen the worst of the world, he doubts that Hades would actually let him leave with Eurydice, or that Eurydice would willingly live in hardship again, and turns. Similarly, Eurydice doubts the systems of the world they live in, with her struggling with a lifetime of potential betrayal and unbearable poverty, and her doubt that she can live satisfied with Orpheus is why she chooses to go to Hadestown.
Doubt and trust are crucial components of the challenges and successes of any romantic relationship, especially those of young people like Orpheus and Eurydice, and Eric and Jo. They are often the factors that solidify or ruin relationships. Portraying these struggles very humanly in these retellings, rather than the struggles of doubting a God, are much more reflective of challenges modern audiences desire to see and feelings they personally can understand.