Writing a Looking-Glass World (Part I)

I love a good retelling of a familiar story.  It's like meeting an old friend all over again.  My bookshelf is cluttered with different versions of Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty. Telling an old tale in a new way is a powerful device.  A writer doesn't have to work to make their readers love a new Snow White.  The readers already love Snow White.  They spent their childhood watching, singing, and reading Snow White.   Their mind is already soaked in affection for the story.

Or say that a writer needs good villains for a TV show.   Why not use the Nazis?  The Third Reich is still in the memories of our parents and grandparents.  The horror of the Holocaust is near to us.  Write a Nazi in your script and you don't need to bother working to make the audience afraid of your villain.   They already are.

This isn't a creative retelling of an old story.  This is lazy writing.

An example of this is Captain Hook, that much maligned villain, that pirate of pirates.   He has been the subject of countless adaptations: movies, books, comics, and stage plays.


Here is Hook, as described by James Barrie in the original Peter Pan:

In person he was cadaverous and blackavized, and his hair was dressed in long curls, which at a little distance looked like black candles, and gave a singularly threatening expression to his handsome countenance. His eyes were of the blue of the forget-me-not, and of a profound melancholy, save when he was plunging his hook into you, at which time two red spots appeared in them and lit them up horribly.

At its root, the tale of Peter Pan is not about a pirate who hates a boy, but about an aging man who hates eternal youth.  Hook is always fleeing the Crocodile (Tick Tock), trying to outrun Time and Death.  He can't, of course, and the Crocodile gets him in the end.

More than anything, Hook is obsessed with Peter Pan.  Peter, who describes himself thus:

"I'm youth, I'm joy...I'm a little bird that has broken out of the egg."

Hook hates Pan and is secretly jealous of him-- because Pan has no fear of age, time, or death.

At the beginning of its second season, the show Once Upon a Time has portrayed its own version of Captain Hook.   This Hook is young.  His hair is short.  He's a womanizer.   He's got rings of eyeliner borrowed from Captain Jack Sparrow.


The heart of Hook's character has been cut out: this Hook does not fear Time or Death.  He is not obsessed with Peter Pan.   In short, he is not Hook.   He's a new character that the writers of Once Upon a Time have called "Hook."  The writers have scrapped everything that makes Hook who he is.  This isn't a new adaptation of an old story.  It's a lazy way to market a character.


Illustration of Hook by F.D. Bedford for the 1911 edition of Peter and Wendy. Photograph of Hook from Once Upon a Time Wiki.