Type ‘untold story’ into an Amazon and the search engine returns more than 8,000 results. The phrase is frequently coupled with a title to create a marketing hook: ‘Read this book and you’ll get another angle on the story.’ Marketers know that the ‘untold story’ subtitle sells books, and so they apply them to books.With true stories, the results are mixed: sometimes you get an important new slant on affairs; sometimes the untold story is merely gossip and exploitation. But occasionally, an author explores an untold story in fiction – and that can result in an exceptional story indeed.
To consider how we, as the audience, engage with the untold story, consider two very innovative retellings of popular stories: Wicked and Pan.
In Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (1995) author Gregory Maguire used the classic L. Frank Baum novel of 1900, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and its sequels, to explore political, social and ethical facets of the nature of good and evil. The book sparked imagination of lyricist and composer Stephen Lawrence Schwartz, who brought the story to the musical theatre stage, and since them millions of people worldwide have experienced an entirely different take on the well-known story. Through the retelling, you see the witches of Oz in an entirely new light. Two unlikely friends, Elphaba and Glinda, fall in love with the same man. The rivalry that ensues and their differing take on the Wizard’s corruption see their friendship disintegrate and the two stand at polar opposites: Glinda as ‘the Good’ and Elphaba as ‘the Wicked Witch of the West’. But as the story shows, Glinda isn’t as good as her name suggests, and as for Elphaba – well, there are powerful, moving reasons for all she does. The context of the story makes it impossible to ever watch the original film or read the original books again and interpret her as you once did – as purely, one-dimensionally wicked.
There have been several movie based on the classic book PeterPan. An early 1990s one, Hook, had fun playing with the archetypal roles of Peter and Hook. But a new film, Pan, set to release in 2015, is delving deeper to tell the untold story of the two characters, and how they came to be sworn enemies. Judging by the trailer, like Glinda and Elphaba, there was once more than enmity between this pair.
So what is it that entices us to engage with a retelling? I think it’s several factors:
- We love to solve puzzles. Authors leave plenty of unanswered questions in their books – because that’s good fiction! You follow the golden rule of writing to include only that information that is essential for developing the story and the main characters. So many little facts are unwritten; especially about minor characters.
- We love to be surprised by clever twists. When I first saw Wicked, I clapped heartily at the curtain call – not just for the cast and the orchestra, but for the writers. How clever! I kept thinking. The twists delighted me.
- We love to find the good in the evil.It’s natural to want to find the best in people, and caricatures of pure evil like Captain Hook and the Wicked Witch of the West are unsettling. The untold story helps you separate the act from the person – a character may do evil things, but the reason for his or her action is what’s really important. The extra dimension humanises the demon. In reading or watching the untold story, we find realism in the fiction.
The untold story fascinates me, especially when I’m writing my own fiction. There are always characters that I wish I could explore more. Morgana, the exotic dancer in Burning Embers, is a good example – she’s ‘the other woman’, but I know she’s so much more than that!
What do you think? Do you enjoy new versions of stories? New perspectives and angles? To see a character subverted?