Ivy Roberts has taught undergraduate-level film studies for over 9 years. She has a PhD in Media, Art and Text from Virginia Commonwealth University and a BA in film production from Marlboro College. She also has a certificate in teaching online from UMGC and non-profit marketing and fundraising from UC Davis.
From The Clash of the Titans (Greek Legend) and The Mists of Avalon (Arthurian Legend), to Jesus Christ Superstar (The Bible) and Into the Woods (Brothers Grimm fairy tales), modern works look to historical texts for inspiration and guidance. We are drawn to ancient texts because they tell universal, timeless stories. Humans survive. We struggle against adversity. People fall in love. Young heroes set out to right a wrong. A noble warrior saves a beautiful ingénue from danger. These are the backbones of stories that have stood the test of time: Homer's Odyssey, Arthurian legends, Greek mythology, and Grimm's fairy tales. Modern authors draw on historical texts for all sorts of reasons. We continue to tell stories such as these because they get at the heart of what it means to be human.
Countless films and works of literature retell myths, legends, and fairy tales without adding new interpretations. But truly innovative and creative works aim to do more than simply adapt the earlier work. For example, Gregory Maguire's novels retell fairy tales from the perspective of the bad guy: Mirror, Mirror (2003), based on Snow White and Confessions of an Evil Stepsister (1999), based on Cinderella. Similarly, John Gardner imagined the epic poem of Beowulf from the perspective of the monster in Grendel (1971). Angela Carter's collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber (1979), applies a feminist perspective to fairy tales.
This lesson explores three main ways that modern works of fiction draw on historical texts: adaptation of theme or story, structure, and archetypal characters.
The genre of historical fiction defines novels set in a period prior to the time they were written. Works such as Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (1980), Number The Stars by Lois Lowry (1989), and Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (1991) fall into this category. Historical novels draw on events, characters and stories from history, embroidering these tales with dramatic climaxes and epic journeys. They do not aim to be true to life and should not be used as evidence to support an understanding of real world history. Modern novels based in the past differ from classic literature, such as works by classic authors including Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and John Steinbeck. Pride and Prejudice (1813) Oliver Twist (1838) and Of Mice and Men (1937) are therefore not considered to be historical fiction.
Homer's Odyssey, written in the 8th century BC, for example, is hands down an epic journey about the enduring themes of loyalty, temptation, and folly. The poem has been adapted many times, which testifies to the remarkable longevity of the story. Whether set in outer space in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or during the Great Depression in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, (2000) it holds up in different time periods and geographical settings. Zachary Mason's The Lost Books (2010) shows how authors today need to infuse older works with innovative new material while also contending with the now modern classic adaptations in order to be original. James Joyce set the bar for all of these works when he wrote Ulysses, (1922) the epic modern novel about a day in the life of Leonard Bloom in Dublin.
Mythic Structures and Archetypal Characters
Modern works also rely on tried and true literary structures set down by old texts. Apart from familiar content to a story, readers also come to expect a certain progression of events in their favorite stories. We all know that novels and movies have a beginning, a middle and an end. Authors today draw from mythic structure to tell epic stories.
For example, film critic Peter Wollen shows how mainstream films conform to the classical structures of fairy tales in his study of Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest. Wollen bases his analysis on the work of Vladimir Propp, a Russian folklorist whose major work, Morphology of the Folktale (1968) outlines 31 'Functions', or common plot elements. Propp shows how European folktales, such as Cinderella and Snow White, consist of a limited number of stock events. A hero leaves home, becomes embroiled in an adventure, has his courage tested, and then returns home. Sometimes the hero saves a damsel or battles a monster. The tales often end in a wedding.
Star Wars fans enjoy finding parallels with biblical stories such as that of David or Jesus, Greek myths such as Oedipus, and ancient tales like the Seven Samurai. Aspects of all these old stories are encapsulated in some way in Lucas' space adventure. When writing Star Wars, George Lucas learned about mythic structure from Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). Myths and legends also present archetypes in the form of memorable stock characters who portray essential aspects of human behavior. Joseph Campbell appropriated the concept from Karl Jung's archetypal psychology when outlining mythic character types. Some of these archetypes include the hero, the villain, the mentor, and the trickster.
Works of historical fiction draw on past events and times to tell stories that grip the human imagination. Folktale structure and mythic archetypes remind writers of the enduring traits of human kind. But at the same time, authors are challenged to make mythic stories new again in modern times. Retelling an old story is one thing. But making it into sometime original requires a leap of creativity. The many modern works based on Homer's Odyssey, such as Ulysses and O Brother, Where Art Thou? show the delicate balance authors need to strike between universal theme and originality.
Modern works like Star Wars and North by Northwest take advantage of the well-known structures of fairy tales, as shown in Vladimir Propp's 31 'functions'. Joseph Cambell's Hero with a Thousand Faces examines mythic archetypes that also appear in modern literature and Jungian psychology.
To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account
Register to view this lesson
Unlock Your Education
See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com
Become a Study.com member and start learning now.Become a Member
Already a member? Log InBack
Resources created by teachers for teachers
I would definitely recommend Study.com to my colleagues. It’s like a teacher waved a magic wand and did the work for me. I feel like it’s a lifeline.