Scarlet and the Art of Retellings

The nitty gritty about the first scene in Scarlet:

I have wanted to talk about retellings for some time.

What makes a good retelling?

  • Do we want to stay in that world longer, and so as a reader we look for new characters in the same world?
  • Or do we love the characters so much we wish to go on more adventures with them?
  • Did we love the premise so much that we want another plot like the first but with all new people or in a new place?
  • Or do we want a clever twist on the original, with elements we recognize and feel comfortable with and other pieces that are new to us?

A retelling could be all these things. I’ve even read retellings where the dialogue was almost exactly the same as the original but the characters and setting were different. (I didn’t enjoy that one)

So, let’s get into the nitty gritty of my retelling of The Scarlet Pimpernel.

The first scenes.

Many have seen the movies, the old ones and the newer Jane Seymour rendition. And the first scene in the movie reminds them of the second scene in my book. (once she gets away from the guillotine which in my book, it is a totally unique story).

How did I write that first scene? Is it a play by play of the movie?

No. I read the book, loved the first line,

“A surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate.” The Scarlet Pimpernel pp 1-7. Baroness Orczy

I know it sounds awful. You can almost see the bloodlust, the depravity of the people. And when I read that line, I knew, that my romance, my light, fun romance, a story of heroism and courage, would be told against the back drop of a people who had lost their humanity.

So I started there in my book. I wanted to set that up right away, saying: We are in France and it’s an awful time to be alive. OK, at the guillotine, bloodlust all around, got it.

BUT amidst terror, heroes always rise. I have seen this firsthand and I wanted to establish hope amongst the depravity. Yes, humans forgot they were supposed to be human, BUT some were good. Some were so incredibly good that their light shone through the darkness all around. And just like in my book, if you look, you will always find heroes in our day. So in Scarlet, there is a woman who cares, a boy who follows her around, a young man who helps.

Then. I wanted to establish early on, that we are retelling the Pimpernel. I wanted the reader to instantly recognize a familiar tale. So I followed similarly to the first disguise the Pimpernel uses in the book. He drives a cart. He is an old hag. He has coffins with him. (he has coffins many times and I tried to only use coffins once.) He has a boy with him who has the plague. They leave through the west gate where the infamous Bibot watches over. I wanted some costumes to be similar, some disguises to be recognizable but I also wanted to create my own rescues, costumes and disguises. But before I deviated from a much loved tale, I grounded us all in the original.

The movie follows this whole opening in the book pretty much play for play as the book addresses it. Hag, coffins, plague, heads, Bibot.

I didn’t.

I include Simon who does not have the plague and he is not a boy but a mentally challenged young man. She is a hag and she has a bag of heads. In the book and movie, the Pimpernel uses the plague of his son to distract and disgust the guard. I use the bag of heads in my book. I also use it for humor. I tried to write the scene in such a melodramatic manner that people laughed instead of cringed, but my mother was pretty upset by the gruesome nature of the scene.

In these first scenes and throughout my book, I wrote a retelling with a twist. Several of the characters are gender bent. I told the story in a similar setting. I include disguise, heroic characters, a fashion conscious heroine, a Prince who feeds on it all. A true hero who is willing to sacrifice all, a league of helpers. The French Revolution and accurate bits of history. The VILLAINS. One day I’d like to talk about what I did with Chauvlin/Eleonore Duplay. and so on.

Baroness Orczy created a wonderful tale and fabulous characters, and since then, many have created their own tales inspired by her genius so that we could linger a little longer in her world, enjoy her characters, and in this case be educated by her setting. And though I don’t claim to have mastered like the master herself, I do feel I have added something of value to the ever growing world of The Pimpernel.

As seen particularly in The women: Exploring how the tale would have worked if a woman were in charge was a fascinating exercise and brought to light some of the stronger qualities that make up the feminine side of our humanity. I felt like the best parts of why women are heroic were shown through this story. I used the gender twist as an opportunity to highlight some of the many women who were involved in the French Revolution, the huge numbers that asked for a constitution, that asked for their rights to be protected in the document. They were brave, outspoken and educated.

And as seen in the historical details: I tried to stay true to the original tale as written in the books, AND to history. I included real to life events and people as much as possible.

And can we not have a bit of fun? Because I have to admit, playing around in this world, with a fascinating and brilliant, brave woman, a handsome passionate frenchman and a league of brave men was one of the most entertaining projects I have ever endeavored.

Thank you for being here on the journey. Thank you for enabling me to add my mark to the growing retellings of such a clever and beautiful story.


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An award winning author and mother of six. Check out my news and published historical romances. Whether in Regency England, the French Revolution, or Colonial America, her romance novels are much like life is supposed to be: full of adventure. She is a member of the RWA, the SCBWI, and LDStorymakers. She is also the chair of the Lonestar.Ink writing conference. Twitter—@authorjen Instagram—@authorlyjen

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