Twice-Told Tale

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
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The story you're about to see has been told before. A lot. And now we are going to tell it again. But different.

Red Goon Gnome, Gnomeo and Juliet

Lots of works are based on earlier works.

Sometimes a story is not only based on it, but really requires you to know the earlier story to fully appreciate it, or even appreciate it at all. A Sleeping Beauty story where the princess turns out to be a vampire, for instance, is missing something if you don't realize that it's Sleeping Beauty.

That is a Twice-Told Tale.

When the recognition of the original story is crucial, writers can work with only the most iconic stories for this. Usually public domain works for obvious reasons.

The Perspective Flip and External Retcon are subtropes. Fractured Fairy Tale may be, if it is fracturing a specific Fairy Tale rather than combining many fairy tales' characters, plots, and tropes. Many are parodies or satires, but it is not required. A twice told tale may or may not involve Grimmification, but rarely Disneyfication, since it requires knowledge of the original tale. Demythtification may involve a twice-told tale if a mostly-historic account is revealed to be the source of the legend.

This generally includes Fanfics. Fanficcers like to say that those other works on the example are critically acclaimed fanfics, too. Some fanfic authors recommend trying to avert this, actually, and make the story as clear as possible to the uninitiated.

The trope's name comes from Shakespeare's King John:

Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale
Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man.

Examples of Twice-Told Tales include:

Anime and Manga

  • Princess Tutu requires familiarity with dozens of ballets, fairy tales, and other classic works, and some classical music knowledge doesn't hurt either. Thankfully, the North American release has copious liner notes.
  • Monster is, among other things, a very elaborate retelling of Revelation 13.
  • Shin Shirayuki Densetsu Prétear is Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs as a Magical Girl Warrior.
  • No prizes for guessing which fairy tale Thumbelina: A Magical Story is based off of. It's about a bratty girl named Maya who gets trapped within her mother's dream after reading the Thumbelina storybook the friendly neighborhood witch had loaned her as part of a gambit to get Maya to become a better person. The friendly swallow and the frogs who try to force her to marry their son are familiar enough. The nightmare-controlling evil sorceress who wants to keep Maya trapped inside the dream world forever and who turns out to be helping give Maya her Secret Test of Character though, not so much.
  • Hohenheim's backstory in Fullmetal Alchemist has a certain similarity to the Sorcerer's Apprentice kind of story- beginning as a lowly slave and then learning magic- up until the point where the "Shadow in the Flask" tricks him into annihilating his civilization.
  • The movie Jack to Mame no Ki ("Jack And The Beanstalk") does have the basic plot of the original...and it also throws in Jack's dog as a faithful sidekick, a bunch of mice which happen to be transformed-royalty, a hypnotized princess, a cloud kingdom at the top of the beanstalk, and the giant's mother is an evil witch who plans to marry her giant-son to the hypnotized princess, turn them into mice, and rule the cloud kingdom herself.
  • Samurai 7 is a retelling of Seven Samurai(made with permission of the Akira Kurosawa estate) with mecha.
  • Tokyo Godfathers is a remake of John Ford's The Three Godfathers, set in modern-day Tokyo.
  • Pandora Hearts makes a LOT more sense when the reader has a pretty good knowledge of Alice in Wonderland.
  • Just about all Ludwig Revolution stories are Bloodier and Gorier, Darker and Edgier versions of popular fairytales given a twist ending.

Comic Books



  • Robin McKinley has written several retellings of classic fairytales—most notably two different versions of Beauty and The Beast, Beauty a Retelling of Beauty And The Beast and Rose Daughter. Her retellings also include Deerskin (a version of "Donkeyskin"), The Outlaws of Sherwood, Spindle's End, and The Door in the Hedge, a collection of short stories including "The Golden Hind", "The Frog Prince", and "The Twelve Dancing Princesses".
  • Ulysses on the The Odyssey
  • Tanith Lee's "Red As Blood" on "Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs".
  • Wicked, on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
    • Gregory Maguire loves this trope. Memoirs of a Wicked Stepsister retells "Cinderella", shifting the focus to one of the stepsisters, while Mirror Mirror recasts "Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs" in the Renaissance, with Lucrecia Borgia as the Wicked Queen.
  • Lavinia on The Aeneid.
  • A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth Bunce, based off Rumpelstiltskin.
  • Ophelia by Lisa Klein, based on Hamlet.
  • Alice Randall wrote a version of Gone with the Wind, as told from the slaves' point of view. It was titled The Wind Done Gone. The book portrays Scarlett as a spoiled, self-centered brat by retelling her story through the eyes of a newly invented character: a slave who is her illegitimate half-sister.
  • Anne Rice wrote a bondage-themed version of Sleeping Beauty.
  • The Twist Ending of Neil Gaiman's "A Study in Emerald" can be difficult to decipher if you're not rather familiar with the Sherlock Holmes canon.
  • Likewise, Neil Gaiman's short story "Snow, Glass, Apples" is a retelling of "Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs" from the perspective of the queen; Snow-White herself is some kind of vampiric monstrosity, and the queen is a benevolent ruler who's only doing what's best for the kingdom. It would be an effective horror story without the original, but would still most likely lose a lot of its punch, due to the way it sets up the original story as a piece of propaganda invented by evil usurpers.
  • Terri Windling's Fairy Tale Series challenged modern authors to re-write fairy tales from a new perspective. [1] Jane Yolen's Briar Rose, which entwines the Sleeping Beauty story with the Holocaust, is the best-known. Windling's also edited, often with Eileen Datlow, several short story collections of fairy tale rewrites.
  • Fantastic Alice is a collection of short stories based on Alice in Wonderland, most of which would be pointless if you don't know the references.
  • Wide Sargasso Sea, on Jane Eyre
  • Andrzej Sapkowski, a Polish fantasy writer, wrote a novel about Alice in Wonderland, but from the perspective of... the Cheshire Cat. And Lewis Carroll. And made it a Fetish Fuel. The novel was called "Golden Afternoon".
  • Frank Beddor's The Looking Glass Wars series is another one based on Alice in Wonderland, which not only draws a lot from the books themselves, but also from the real people behind them (Alice Liddell is "revealed" to have actually been Princess Alyss of Wonderland, exiled to the real world after her aunt Redd staged a coup and slaughtered her family.)
  • Several works written by Gail Carson Levine, such as Ella Enchanted for "Cinderella" and Fairest for "Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs".
  • Orson Scott Card did this to himself. His book Ender's Shadow followed a rather tertiary character in his One-Hit Wonder, Ender's Game, as he accidentally becomes just as important as Ender all while keeping it hidden from aforementioned protagonist. Also a bit of a Poorly-Disguised Pilot, since it spawned an entire secondary series.
  • Nicholas Meyer's The Canary Trainer on The Phantom of the Opera.
    • Nicholas Meyer also wrote The Seven Percent Solution, a retelling of The Final Problem, Arthur Conan Doyle's first attempt at a last Sherlock Holmes novel. In Meyer's novel, Moriarty was only a criminal mastermind in Holmes' drugged imaginings. Watson conned Holmes into following Moriarty to Vienna, where he met Sigmund Freud, who helped cure him of his cocaine addiction. Instead of dying at Reichenbach Falls, Holmes chose to take a leave of absence, leaving Watson to write out whatever ending he wanted and have it published in the Strand.
  • The Witch's Boy by Michael Gruber plays off many, many, many fairy tales, some of which are less known and thus make the book slightly confusing.
  • Many Discworld novels. The Lancre Witches books are mostly examples of this story type: Wyrd Sisters riffs on Macbeth, except that the witches are the Macbeth Captain Ersatz's enemies; Witches Abroad is about the witches' quest to stop "Ember" Ella from marrying the prince; and Maskerade follows Andrew Lloyd Weber's Phantom of the Opera with some added twists and metacommentary on opera. Lords and Ladies takes a much looser approach to A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Carpe Jugulum draws on Hammer Horror movies and vampire literature in general. Outside of the Witches, Night Watch mirrors Les Misérables, notably switching the evil/good dynamic of the book, and Eric plays with the tale of Faust.
  • Paradise Lost is the fall of mankind told as a classical epic.
  • Seven Ancient Wonders and its sequels by Matthew Reilly require the exact same suspension of disbelief as Indiana Jones, being realistic action adventure for most of the story until the supernatural comes in at the end. In addition, most if not all characters and locations can be matched to those in The Lord of the Rings, including the Great Pyramid standing in for Mount Doom.
  • John Gardner's novel Grendel is a deconstruction of Beowulf told from the monster's point of view. In this version, Grendel is a sympathetic antihero who explores a number of philosophical topics through his battle against the Danes.
  • Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead is a twofer Twice Told Tale, combining Ahmad ibn Fadlan's travelogue amongst the Vikings with a reworking of Beowulf, replacing all the monsters with a tribe of Neanderthals.
  • You can quite easily read Mercedes Lackey's Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms books without knowing a thing about, respectively, English folklore, the standard Grimm/Anderson fairy tales, and a touch of Russian folklore; Greek and English mythology; Russian folklore and the Arabian Nights; and Russian folklore and those Grimm/Anderson fairy tales. It does, however make a lot more sense if you have that background information, especially when it comes to one-off background mentions of "Stuff the Tradition likes to make happen".
    • Likewise, The Black Swan is more interesting if you know the plot of Swan Lake (and since Swan Lake has no fixed ending, you don't know how this adaptation is going to end).
    • Her Elemental Masters novels are loosely based on the plots of known fairy tales, but usually with a twist that distinguishes them from the source material.
  • Larry Niven's Juggler of Worlds loses a lot unless you've read a lot of older Known Space short stories, particularly The Soft Weapon and the Beowulf Shaffeur stories. Much of the book is retelling parts of those stories from the perspective of Sigmund Ausfaller or Nessus the Puppetter, and trying to read it without knowing those stories is rather hard.
    • On the other hand, Destroyer of Worlds does a pretty good job of introducing the Pak to anyone that didn't read Protector or the later Ringworld books, making it a lot smoother to read.
  • There is a German children's book which reverses the Grimm folktale "The Frog King" (a.k.a. "The Frog Prince" in English). Instead of a princess losing a ball in the well, the handsome and green king of frogs loses his ball on dry land, and a very ugly human girl retrieves it in exchange for a marriage promise. He immediately swims away as soon as she gives the ball back, but the girl follows him into his underwater kingdom, and the king's father demands that he honour his promise. He pretends to be leading her to his quarters and drowns her, at which point she transforms into a beautiful frog princess, and explains that she was kidnapped as a tadpole and transformed into a human (but such an ugly one that no human man would marry her). The frog king marries her and they live happily. (There seems to be no frog analogue to True Heinrich, though.)
  • Poul Anderson's Goat Song retells the tale of Orpheus as science fiction. Indeed, the narrator, hunting through ancient myths, finds his own story—and we aren't told what it is, because it's obvious.
  • The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood is a perspective flip and deconstruction of The Odyssey. It's told from the point of view of Penelope, Odysseus's wife, and the twelve maids who were hanged at the end of the poem.
  • Josepha Sherman's The Shining Falcon retells "The Feather of Finist the Falcon".
  • Adele Geras's novels Troy (it has nothing to do with the movie) and Ithaka are a subversion in that she retells The Iliad and The Odyssey through the eyes of servants, so they have a more domestic feel, but still cover the major events of both stories. Characters still believe in the gods, who still play a role, but no one except for the readers remembers meeting them after they have an encounter with one of them, except for one servant girl in the first novel.
  • Helen Fielding's seminal chick-lit novel Bridget Jones' Diary has shades of this, as the backstory of the title character's two suitors recreates the feud between Darcy and Wickham from Pride and Prejudice. Also applies to The Film of the Book, obviously.
  • Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Club Dumas, a novel in which fanatical Alexandre Dumas enthusiasts play an important part, intertwines elements of numerous Dumas novels, making its intended audience the kind of Dumas geek that is depicted in the book.
  • The Once Upon a Time series is set up for this, having various retellings of fairytales.
  • In The Quest for Saint Aquin, the priest is beaten and left for dead. A couple of characters see him and pass by despite the obvious clues that they are Catholic. A Jew helps him, causing the priest to comment on the parable of the Good Samaritan. (The Jew calmly assures him that he is not a Samaritan.)
  • Dexter Palmer's Steampunk novel The Dream of Perpetual Motion. Luckily, familiarity with The Tempest isn't really necessary to enjoy it.
  • The Mists of Avalon are a retelling of Autherian legend from the point of view of the women, including those are generally portrayed as the villains such as Morgain and Nimue.
  • David Foster Wallace's Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko is a re-telling of the myth of Narcissus. And in-universe, Another Pioneer.
  • The Red Tent by Anita Diamant is a retelling and continuation of the story of Dinah in The Old Testament. While it is possible to enjoy the story without knowing the Biblical version, it makes more sense if you do.
  • The works of Alex Flynn - Beastly, A Kiss in Time, and Cloaked - are respectively retellings of "Beauty and The Beast", "Sleeping Beauty", and a variety of fairytales including "The Frog Prince", "The Valiant Little Tailor", and "The Cobbler and The Elves". Some characters in the stories are more Genre Savvy about this than others.
  • The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. The wolf tells us what really happened.
  • Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin is a retelling of The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from the point of view of one of Jekyll's servant girls.

Live-Action TV

  • Tin Man, of the Oz series. Most everyone in America knows about the first book, but the mini makes a lot more sense if you've read other entries of the Famous Forty and supplemented with Wicked.
  • Sherlock is Sherlock Holmes in the 21st century. The first episode "A Study in Pink," is an update of the first Holmes tale "A Study in Scarlet," and the two other stories take lots of plot threads and references from several more of the original stories



Video Games

Web Comics

  • Concerned on Half-Life 2: Loveable Butt Monkey Gordon Frohman bumbles through City 17, inadvertently setting up many of the game's events and setpieces before and after Dr. Freeman's arrival.
  • A lot of video game based webcomics turn out like this, such as Bob and George. In addition to the actual retellings of the games, there's offhand mentions of, for example, "That time Bass ransacked the lab" (Mega Man 7).

Web Original

Western Animation