YA Authors Recast Their Problematic Faves

New books inspired by The Princess Bride, Grease, Empire Records, and The Phantom of the Opera correct the sexism, homophobia, and racial privilege in their source material.

Films like Grease and The Princess Bride, on near-constant rotation on cable during the 1990s, are favorites among millennials. But many thirtysomethings have complex relationships with these works, which reflected sexist attitudes, had no queer representation, and rarely acknowledged racial privilege. YA fiction has given authors an opportunity to unpack these beloved works.

Author Sarah Henning notes, “When you’re an adult, you can look at things that you love very much and figure out how you can make them better and more interesting.”

Sarah Henning
Sarah Henning. Photo by Fally Afani.

Henning grew up watching The Princess Bride, the 1987 movie about farm boy–turned–pirate Wesley’s journey to save his love, Buttercup. Though Henning still adores the film, she finds some elements troubling. At a recent virtual live reading of the Princess Bride script, Robin Wright, who played the titular character, “almost literally never says anything,” notes Henning. And in one scene, Buttercup, believing Wesley dead, prepares to stab herself—a moment Henning found out of character. “The Buttercup at the beginning would have taken that dagger and fought her way out.”

Henning’s heroine does just that—in The Princess Will Save You (Tor Teen), it’s Princess Amarande who rescues the stable boy she loves. The novel also unpacks how women negotiate power in a patriarchal society. After Amarande’s father, the king, dies, she is horrified to learn that according to the law she must marry before she can assume the throne. But women in this world discover loopholes; Inès, a queen from another country who seizes power when her husband dies and her son is too young to rule, schemes to preserve her authority when the prince comes of age. Rebellious Amarande, on the other hand, wants to rewrite the rules.

“You have to figure out if you’re going to work within the framework or if you’re going to try to change it,” says Henning. “I wanted a story where you could peel back layers and see ways women were working throughout the kingdom.”

Sophie Gonzales has similarly complicated

Sophie Gonzales
Sophie Gonzales. Photo by Melbourne Actor's Headshots. 

feelings about the ending to Grease, which sees clean-cut Sandy Olsson swapping her poodle skirts for skin-tight leather pants to impress greaser Danny Zuko. Uncomfortable with the takeaway that teens should adopt a new identity to please a romantic interest, Gonzales made some changes in her novel Only Mostly Devastated (St. Martin’s/Wednesday Bks.).

“I thought, well, what’s the kindness beneath that message? Compromise, showing interest in what other people are interested in, meeting someone halfway, and figuring out when it is and isn’t appropriate to make sacrifices for someone you love.”

Inspired by Grease, her novel focuses on a romance between teenage boys Ollie and Will. Though Will privately shows Ollie affection, in public he lets his friends make homophobic jokes at Ollie’s expense. Unlike Sandy and Danny, however, the boys discover they both must change—Will fights for their relationship, and Ollie realizes he has failed to support Will’s passions or see the obstacles Will is facing.

“For me, neither Ollie nor Will was completely in the right or in the wrong,” Gonzales says. “They were just two kids who both had a point and who both messed up sometimes, muddling their way through and learning what they did wrong and how to fix it.”

Aminah Mae Safi
Aminah Mae Safi. Photo by Steve Mieczkowski.

Other adaptations explore racial, gender, and socioeconomic privilege. With This Is All Your Fault (Feiwel & Friends), Aminah Mae Safi drew from the 1995 cult classic Empire Records, in which the teenage employees of a record store rally to keep its profit-obsessed owner from selling it to a chain. Safi’s novel switches the setting to an indie bookstore with a more diverse cast.

Both works start with characters from rough upbringings (Lucas in Empire Records, Eli in This Is All Your Fault) making well-meaning but misguided attempts to save the day. While Lucas sees himself as an underdog standing up to corporate greed (“Damn the man!” is one of the film’s most quoted lines), Safi’s Eli knows that “he kind of was the man. Or at least he very easily could become the man in, like, twenty years.”

“As Americans, we don’t always talk about class privilege,” Safi says. “I think it’s very difficult. It was kind of a relief to me to write this straight white cisgender able-bodied boy who doesn’t have class privilege but is aware of these other things he has been given in life.”

Safi also sought a more nuanced view of female sexuality than Empire Records. In the film, teenager Gina has sex with Rex Manning, a washed-up, middle-aged singer visiting the store for a signing. When the other employees discover what happened, they send Rex packing but also heap scorn on Gina. Though Gina is depicted as the sexual aggressor, Safi stresses, “She’s 17. She has an idea of what she thinks she’s doing.”

“Young women should be allowed to find their sexual selves without jumping into the role of sexual object for an older man and without the narrative punishing them for that,” she adds. In her book, an author visiting the store for a signing assaults teenage Daniella; Safi makes it clear the experience is traumatic, and though Daniella’s friends don’t always know the best way to respond, they support her.

An emphasis on female friendship is another key change in Safi’s book. Empire Records portrays girls as lacking in camaraderie—after Rex leaves, a screaming match ensues between Gina and Corey, her friend who also has feelings for Rex. Safi noticed female competitiveness cropping up often in 1990s films. “We were taught that there were only so many slots at the table, that we couldn’t trust one another,” she says. Her book is an opportunity to explore what it means for young women to bond despite differences. “I wanted to see girls really respecting each other.”

Jessica S. Olson also examines gender—and

Jessica S. Olson
Jessica S. Olson

beauty—in her reworking of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. In Sing Me Forgotten (Inkyard, Mar. 2021), gravoirs like Isda are born with gnarled faces and can alter people’s memories. Feared for these abilities, gravoirs are killed at birth, but Cyril rescues Isda, and she grows up at his opera house, manipulating audiences into remembering flawed performances as stellar. She remains hidden from the world until she meets Emeric, a janitor with a mesmerizing voice.

As Cyril compels Isda to use her abilities for his own gain, she wonders if she is the monster the world believes her to be, but Emeric’s love starts to persuade her otherwise. By recasting the grotesque Phantom as a teenage girl, Olson wanted to write the kind of female protagonist we don’t often see. “We have unlikable male characters all the time, but unlikable female characters are criticized,” she says, which “reflects the inherently patriarchal society we live in.”

Not just homages, these adaptations are laced with powerful lessons. “We don’t have to be pretty in order to have value,” Olson says. “We don’t have to be nice in order to have stories worth telling.”

Author Image
Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Reference and Professional Reading Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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