Why a Phantom Retelling?
by Estella Mirai
One of the most common questions I’ve been asked since The Stars May Rise and Fall was announced is, “Why a Phantom retelling?”
Oddly enough, though, that’s the one aspect of this story that was never a question for me at all. This is actually the third Phantom retelling I’ve attempted to write. The first was set on a space station, was aesthetically inspired by that opera scene from The Fifth Element, and took what was probably non-so-subtle inspiration from late-20th-century music-inspired science fiction like Orson Scott Card’s Songmaster or Anne McCaffrey’s Crystal Singer series. I was maybe 15 or 16, and I definitely never showed it to anyone.
The second was a fairly typical modern-day M/F AU, which I started writing after I got into Phantom fanfiction after the release of the movie version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in 2005. There wasn’t anything very special about it—Christine was a college student, the Phantom was a reclusive genius who saw how special she was when her teachers couldn’t, etc. I didn’t get very far into it before I just got tired of it, partly because there wasn’t anything to really set it apart from dozens of other fanfics that had been written before, and partly because that was around the time I started working on what would become The Stars May Rise and Fall, and that quickly took all of my creative attention!
But even though it’s always been a question of when, and what kind, rather than whether I was going to write a Phantom retelling, I still think I can answer that why question.
Various incarnations of the Phantom story have always resonated with me. Like a lot of people, my first introduction to the story came from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical—although, because I lived in the middle of nowhere, and the nearest auditorium where SOME touring musicals would occasionally come wasn’t big enough to handle the Phantom sets, I didn’t get to see it live for years. So I had the London cast recording with Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman, and I had to sort of fill in the details and the visuals on my own, since the Internet at the time was all dial-up and we definitely didn’t have bootlegs on YouTube. I got some things wrong, but I actually think that’s kind of cool… now I have my own “headcanon” version and the actual stage version to act as inspiration.
Like a lot of readers and writers, I was an awkward kid, and my heart ached for the Phantom—not that I’d been shunned by society and forced to live under a opera house or anything, but I knew how it felt to be so sure that people wouldn’t like me that I never really gave them a chance to, or to try so hard to win someone’s affection in all the wrong ways. I also longed to be Christine, to find someone who DID see something special in me. Of course, Christine and the Phantom aren’t exactly the picture of a healthy relationship, and while it’s sad, it also feels right that they don’t end up together. Still, there are a lot of universal themes in that story that are probably the biggest reason it remains so popular, in so many different incarnations, more than a hundred years after the publication of the original novel.
I also wanted to write a retelling, in part, because there are so many existing versions of the story. The original novel by Gaston Leroux is itself a kind of retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story, and most of the subsequent versions don’t follow the novel (which is more of a mystery than a romance) very closely to begin with. As a young teen, I started seeking out as many different versions of the story as I could, and I loved the way there were so many different takes on it. The 1962 film starring Herbert Lom moved the setting from Paris to London, and was the first instance of a Phantom who had been disfigured through injury, rather than at birth. The 1990 film starring Charles Dance gives the Phantom a different backstory and a father. The Lloyd Webber musical gives Meg Giry a bigger role, makes Christine a dancer (which she was not in the original), and introduces the half-mask. One of my very favorite retellings, though, is the 1974 Brian dePalma film, Phantom of the Paradise. It reuses the “genius composer whose music is stolen” storyline from the Lom film, and introduces paranormal elements inspired by Faust and The Picture of Dorian Grey, while also being a sharp satirical commentary on the commercialization of art and the blurred line between entertainment and reality. It deviates significantly from the original novel (and from the musical, which didn’t even exist when it was made), but that’s a part of what I love about it. That film, more than any other, was probably what really inspired me to retell the Phantom story in a very different place and time, with different characters and additional themes.
One of the most fascinating things about releasing this book and doing guest posts like this has been the opportunity to look back and think about all of the influences that have—consciously or otherwise—gone into my writing over the years. I enjoy retellings because they take the themes and basic premise of the original story and bring to them new elements that only the author of the new could have provided. I hope readers will enjoy my take on the Phantom story, colored by a very different setting and time, and by my own connection to all variations of the source material—from the novel to the musical, and beyond.