I had a conversation about this recently, and it got me thinking: why are fairy tale retellings so popular with YA readers?
First of all, I know that fairy tale retellings have an audience within all age groups. Some of the retellings for very young children tend to be the sanitized Disney type stuff we all grew up with. But there are many, many exceptions to that with fairy tales from around the world, retellings with unique illustrations, and even some scary stuff that might give some little ones nightmares. By the time they enter the middle grade reading group, kids have access to a wide variety of retellings from authors like Gail Carson Levine, Shannon Hale, Anne Ursu, Vivian Vande Velde and many others.
But fairy tales have really exploded in popularity with a teen audience. Let’s just look at the variety of genres that have fairy tale retellings:
These are just a few of many examples. And, of course, there’s plenty of crossover: books that encompass more than one of those genres. So it certainly seems like fairy tales are being aimed at teens regardless of the genres to which they gravitate. Why is that?
Well first of all, I think that fairy tales are universal. They’re made for people. That’s why we can find interesting fairy tale inspired work for all age groups. But since we’re looking specifically at teens, let’s think about it this way:
Teens are in a liminal space. They’re between childhood and adulthood. In some ways they’re expected to handle very adult burdens and responsibilities, but they still have a lot of the needs that they had when they were younger: security, consistency, a sense of safety. Obviously the extent to which these statements are true differs from one person to another, but I’m making a broad generalization here.
Fairy tales are about liminal spaces. Think about the action of fairy tales. The main character leaves home (a safe space) and goes on some kind of a quest. They journey will take them to dangerous places (the enchanted castle, the monster’s lair) but it will also take them through transitional spaces. The real growth takes place on the journey, of course.
The way we view fairy tales is also in transition. In their older versions many tales are dark and disturbing. Marguerite Johnson, Professor of Classics, University of Newcastle says: “Originally for adults (sometimes for children), fairy tales can be brutal, violent, sexual and laden with taboo.” They deal with fears and insecurities, as well as hopes and dreams. As different people have collected and compiled these stories for different reasons, they’ve made changes to suit their intended audience. In the 20th century, Disney’s animated films shaped how a lot of people saw these stories: as brightly colored, tuneful children’s tales. And they can be that. But they can also be very dark. People are starting to recognize that fairy tales are not always the friendly childhood tales that we think about. Retellings, in all forms, are starting to recognize and resurrect some of the complexity that fairy tales once had.
Yet in spite of this dark content, there is a lot of simplicity in fairy tales. Characters tend to be good or evil. They teach moral lessons. Those lessons are absolutely good for children to learn, yes. But as they venture into the world, teens are confronted (many for the first time) with ambiguity, with doubt, with ethical dilemmas. Psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim says:
The child needs ideas on how to put his inner house in order and, on this basis, to be able to establish an order to life in general. The child needs – and this hardly requires emphasis at this moment in our present history – a moral education that subtly conveys the advantages of moral conduct, not through abstract ethical concepts, but through what seems tangibly correct and, therefore, meaningful for the child.
This is just as true for teens as it is for young children, if not more so.
But despite the clear lines between good and evil that’s typical of the form, fairy tales also have a sense of moral ambiguity to them. That’s something that starts to emerge as our thinking matures. Sometimes we do sympathize with the wicked queen who is so afraid of aging and losing the beauty that defines her, that she lashes out at her innocent step-daughter. We can also find fault with the heroes. When the prince kisses the sleeping princess (usually a stranger to him) we might not think about it much as children. But as we grow and learn and mature, that can becoming very troubling.
Therefore fairy tales have an “in betweenness” to them that makes them great for people in a transitional point of life. Goddard Blythe, a child psychologist, says: “Fairy tales are important not because they show children how life is, but because they give form to deep fears and dreams about life through fantasy.“ Life is looming for teens even more than younger children. The transition from child to adult is more immediate, and it’s natural to have some anxiety about that. Fairy tales can act as a canvas on which that anxiety can play out. Naturally teens have a wide range of interests. Different kinds of settings and genres appeal to different people. Therefore YA fairy tale retellings are giving teens the stories they need in the styles (whatever those may be) that they enjoy.
What’s your opinion? Agree? Disagree?Have the fairy tales that appeal to you changed from childhood to adolescence to adulthood?
Well, the most recent fantasy book I read with fantasy creature on the cover, was Crown of Crystal Flame, by CL Wilson. It’s the final book in Wilson’s Tarien Soul series and it has a Tarien (sort of like a giant cat with wings) on the cover in the background. The first book in the series, Lord of the Fading Lands shows a Tarien a bit more clearly.
Fantasy in translation
Fridays are all about celebrating fantasy from around the world – this week focuses on books that weren’t originally written in English
Double-edged prophecies, irresistible destiny, a plot stick you just can’t dodge – let’s end the month on a classic
Well, this month these are the books I’ve read that use that trope: Crown of Crystal Flame by CL Wilson– This is the final book in the Tarien Soul series and the heroine, Elysetta, has every characteristic of a “chosen one.” She has a mysterious past, she was found in the woods as a baby, she has a supernatural/fantastic origin story, and she is destined to either save, or destroy, the fey. Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness-This is the second book in the All Souls series and I think that Diana has some “chosen one” characteristics too. She knows she’s a witch but she didn’t have any sense of connection to her heritage before the first book in the series. In this book, she starts her magic training, and it turns out she’s a “weaver,” a rare kind of witch that can make up spells. It’s been hinted that she might save supernatural creatures from extinction. She’s also married to a vampire, and there are prophesies about their offspring.
All the feels
We all love an emotional rollercoaster – a book that gave your feelings a full on work out
I’m often an emotional wreck as I read, so this might be a long-ish list with major spoilers. Be warned…
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman- The end when Bod leaves the graveyard, and the ghosts who raised him, and goes out to pursue his future as a living person. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro– I’m counting this as a fantasy, even though you could make the argument for it being sci-fi. Really just the whole thing once we learned what the characters were and their inevitable fate. Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon- A lot of books in the Outlander series have given me all the feels on a semi regular basis, but this one totally destroyed me when Jamie sends Claire back through the stones, to the future (they both think forever), and goes off to die (they think) at the battle of Culloden… Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling– This was another series where I got emotional at many different points (the end of The Prisoner of Azkaban, the end of The Goblet of Fire, the end of The Half Blood Prince…) but if I had to pick one part of the series, it would be this book. When people we love die in battle, when Harry goes into the forest, Dobby, Snape, and really everything! The Keeping Place by Isobelle Carmody- Once again, the Obernewtyn series has given me all the feels at several points. But this one features the Misfits getting betrayed by people they thought were allies. Many important and beloved characters are murdered in an ambush I didn’t see coming. My friend, who recommended the series warned me that we’d lose some people in this one, so I was semi-prepared, but the scope and depth of the betrayal was what destroyed me.
What is your fantasy origin story? (The first fantasy you read)
I honesty don’t know which one I first read. I read fairy tales obsessively as a child. When I loved a story I’d seek out as many versions of it as I could find, and compare and contrast them. (Yes, I was like 5 at the time!)
If you could be the hero/heroine in a fantasy novel, who would be the author and what’s one trope you’d insist be in the story?
Hmm… That’s an interesting question. I’d want it to be someone who wouldn’t do anything too terrible to a hero or heroine, so that leaves out a lot of authors! Maybe I’d go with Eva Ibbotson. Her fantasy books are intended mostly for younger readers, and while enough happens to make them interesting to an older audience, it’s usually nothing terrible to characters we like! As for tropes, I’d like to be the “Lucky Novice” whose never done something before, or done something with minimal training, and can do it really well. I usually have to practice a lot to be even halfway decent at something!
What is a fantasy series you’ve read this year, that you want more people to read?
This year is still fairly young and I haven’t read that many fantasy series yet. I suppose I’ll highlight Fairy Godmothers Inc., which is the first in the Fairy Godmothers, Inc. series. But it’s got a major caveat: while I think the series has potential I didn’t like the first book. I found the two main characters to be awful, separately and together. I say the series has potential though because it seems like the kind of thing that follows different characters in each book. It’s about three fairy godmothers living in the magical town of Ever After, Missouri. Love is the source of the magic in their world, but it’s running low. They decided to help attract more love to the town of Ever After by making it a popular wedding destination. But they need some help promoting it. They ask their goddaughter Lucky (who tends to have terrible luck!) a popular artist, to fake-marry their godson (and her ex) Ransom Payne (a billionaire who runs a chocolate company) in a high profile ceremony. Lucky and Ransom both agree because they want to help their beloved godmothers, but they are both the most annoying characters I’ve read in a long time. But the book is clearly setting up for a series set in Ever After, revolving around Fairy Godmothers, Inc. The residents of Ever After include Red and her werewolf Grammy, a frog prince named “Charming”, a reformed evil queen, and more. I don’t recommend it yet, because as I said I didn’t like the first book. But I think it has the potential to be a feel good, fun series, so I’ll give it another chance.
What is your favourite fantasy subgenre?
Ummm, I can’t choose! I’ll say that fantasy inspired by fairy tales; even though that can fall into several different subgenres. After all, Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series which is sci-fi oriented, but is fairy tale inspired. Meanwhile Juliet Marillier’s work is also fairy tale/legend inspired but it tends have a strong historical setting. The Fairy Godmothers, Inc series I mention above seems like it also draws heavily from fairy tales, but it has a light, magical realist tone. So I guess “fairy tale inspired fantasy” allows me to cheat and pick lots of different subgenres!
What subgenre have you not read much from?
I don’t read much in the way of Sword and Sorcery. I’m not really into reading about straight out battles and violent conflicts most of the time. I prefer more subtle rivalries. But there are exceptions to every rule.
Who is one of your auto-buy fantasy authors?
Just one?! I’ll say Juliet Marillier. I’ve read some books of hers that I’ve liked more than others, but I don’t think I’ve ever read one that I disliked.
How do you typically find fantasy recommendations? (Goodreads, Youtube, Podcasts, Instagram..)
All of the above. There are some bloggers whose opinions I trust, and I look at what my friends are reading on Goodreads mostly though.
What is an upcoming fantasy release you’re excited for?
Skyward Inn by Aliya Whiteley is described as “Jamaica Inn by way of Jeff Vandermeer, Ursula Le Guin, Angela Carter and Michel Faber” so that’s a big “yes, please!” from me.
What is one misconception about fantasy you would like to lay to rest?
I suppose I’d have to differentiate between reading fantasy and writing fantasy for this one. For reading, I’d say the notion that it’s only for kids has to go. Yes, you can absolutely have fantasy intended for children. But the genre can often get dark, violent, subversive, and disturbing. In other words, not for children at all! In terms of writing, I’ll say that the idea that fantasy writing requires no research needs to die. There’s a lot of research involved. I rant about it a bit in this post.
If someone had never read a fantasy before and asked you to recommend the first 3 books that come to mind as places to start, what would those recommendations be?
This is a tough one!
I wouldn’t do series because that’s a commitment and some don’t get really good until quite a ways in. I also think some classics of the genre tend to be too dense for beginners. Plus those always come with high expectations. So I’ll go with
–The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern– I recommend this one because it’s a stand alone of reasonable length that introduces readers to a more magic realist variation on fantasy. Plus I think Morgenstern beautifully engages the reader’s senses.
-The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker- This gets into the mythical creates of two different traditions and draws them together in a historical setting. It’s a great example of how fantasy can draw on different sources, and set itself in the “real” world. I actually see now that there’s a sequel that’s coming out in June, but I think it works as a stand alone, if someone chooses to read it that way.
The one that jumps to my mind is War and Peace. I read it in college in a freshman seminar that explored the themes of war and peace in general. It wasn’t the worst book I read in that class (Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, I’m looking at you!) but after some really dense stuff, I was sort of looking forward to getting into a novel. Besides which, I actually enjoy big, sweeping, epic stories,. But nothing about the narrative or the characters grabbed me. My professor said that Tolstoy was “a great writer, who needed a great editor.” While I think that’s true, I think some of his writing is more compelling in other work. Here he gets to bogged down in extraneous stuff.
Favorite time period to read about
I’m a fan of the Victorian era, which is a pretty long era, spanning Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837-1901. A lot of my favorite writers of days past (the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Elliot, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins) were of this time period.
To be honest I think Beauty and the Beast has always been a favorite. I love almost every version I’ve read/seen (yes, including Disney!) It’s strange that one of the elements that always appealed to me was the forgotten, enchanted, castle where the Beast lives, but that’s an element that I didn’t include in my retelling at all!
I go on to talk about some pitfalls I wanted to avoid in my own work, so read the interview if that interests you. But I do think that the “gothicness” of the story always appealed to me. The brooding hero, who seems like a villain at first, the abandoned, enchanted castle…
What is the classic you are most embarrassed you haven’t read yet
I try not to be too embarrassed about not having read certain books yet. I mean, having new books to read (even when they’re not technically “new”) is one of life’s great joys, isn’t it? I consider myself pretty well read, but I’ve only been on earth so long, and there are other things I’ve had to do!
There are a few books I feel like I should have gotten to by now though. One of them is Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. I think what’s stopped me so far from reading it, is the fact that it’s considered depressing, even by Hardy’s standards! I think he’s a beautiful writer, but he can be kind of a downer, and lately I haven’t felt up to tackling anything like that.
I was in a recent book club discussion where someone mentioned Moby Dick and I realized I’ve never read that before either. I’m not sure if I want to. Part of me wants to read it, if only to say I did, but another part figures “why bother? There so much out there I actually want to read!” Any advice from anyone who’s read it?
Top 5 classics you would like to read soon
Well there are many, many classics that I’d like to reread. But in addition to those I’d like to get to these for the first time:
Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay- I really like the film adaptation and I’ve always found the story to be very intriguing.
The Lark by E. Nesbit- I’ve enjoyed E. Nesbit’s books for children and I’d like to read some of her work for adults as well.
Armadale by Wilkie Collins- I’ve really enjoyed Wilkie Collins’ other work that I’ve read. The is the only one of his “major” novels that I haven’t read yet.
Maggie-Now by Betty Smith- Again this is a case of me having liked the author’s other work, and wanting to read more of it.
The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf- I’ve always liked Virginia Woolf best as an essayist so I definitely want to get to this at some point.
Favorite modern book/series based on a classic
So many wonderful choices… Can’t decide on just one…
I’ll go with two books by one author: Circe and Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. It’s strange that I loved these books even though I’m not a big fan of the Greek classics on which they were based! I discuss them in this post for anyone interested.
Favorite movie version/tv-series based on a classic
Again, I feel almost like my head is about to explode from so many choices! I’m going to cheat and pick one movie and one tv series.
For film, I’m going with an adaptation of Little Women. I know the Greta Gerwig adaptation was really popular recently, but I actually prefer the 1994 adaptation. Not only is it a beautifully made film with an excellent cast, but it focuses on the story and characters, and not some of the more pedantic aspects that Louisa May Alcott got bogged down with at times. It emphasizes some of the politics and philosophy in which Louisa May Alcott (and her father, Amos Bronson Alcott) strongly believed, but it never espouses these ideas at the expense of the narrative. Rather, it highlights the moments that the narrative espouses these ideas.
For a TV series, I’m going to go with the 2005 BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. It’s an eight episode miniseries, that manages to convey the epic scope of the novel, without getting bogged down in the minutia. Some of Dickens’ work easily lends itself to adaptation. This book isn’t one of them. I’m very fond of it. In fact, I might call it a favorite, but the plot, surrounding a chancery court case doesn’t lend itself to big, dramatic scenes or spectacle. Some of the twists and turns may even seem contrived to 21st century readers/viewers. However this series manages to make it compelling drama with a strong cast. It also manages to recreate the dark, well, bleak, atmosphere of Dickens’ novel in a way that works cinematically.
Worst classic to movie adaptation
The one that comes to mind first is the 1995 adaptation of The Scarlet Letter. The book was about the cruelty of public shaming and punishment, guilt, and pain. The movie features a Hollywoodized romance that changes the ending and in the process ends up contradicting the message of the book. It also features a very miscast (IMO) Demi Moore.
Favorite edition(s) you’d like to collect more classics from
I think that Virago Modern Classics are very pretty, and they include a lot of lesser known, underrated classic works. Ditto for Persephone Books. I don’t want to replace all my classics with fancy elaborate editions tough. I like the mishmash of classics that line my walls, with my notes in them, and places I’ve dog-eared still creased a bit. It always annoys me a bit when people have classic editions that look like they haven’t been opened!
An under-hyped classic you would recommend to someone
I’m going to push for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte. She’s often overlooked in favor of her sisters (which is easy to happen when your sisters are Emily and Charlotte Bronte!) and even Lucasta Miller’s book, The Bronte Myth, dismissed her in a few sentences. But her work was just as strong in it’s own way, as that of either of her sisters. I love how angry she looks in the family portrait that’s on the book cover next to this text. I always imagine her saying “How dare you overlook me! I’m brilliant!”
Loving Book Riot’s gothic horror cheat sheet. It’s wonderfully seasonal. Though I would argue that the difference between the Gothic horror and Gothic romance categories is largely artificial. Yes, there are romantic relationships in the books they classify as romance, but the relationship is not all that is in peril. Often it’s the sanity and/or life of a character. Jane Eyre focuses on personal demons just as much Frankenstein. In Rebecca, our unnamed narrator is taunted by both internal demons that threaten her sanity, and external threats to her home, her marriage and her life. The presence of a romantic relationship in the plot doesn’t keep it from being horror. This video about Netflix’s Haunting anthology series discusses the Gothic romance genre and makes an interesting point about the connections between love stories and ghost stories.
Writing letters to voters in swing states to get them to vote in the upcoming election. It’s an easy way to help, from home on your own time. I’m sooo nervous about this election, but I want to do what I can to help! I encourage anyone who can to join in. If writing letters isn’t your jam, and you’re more of a phone person, go here. If you prefer to do something to make sure that voters are able to vote, check this out. This year’s election is too important for anyone to sit out!
My book club has been meeting weekly via zoom, and it’s wonderful. We each read a book based on a theme and go around and share what we read, and what we thought about it. It’s a way to be social but still COVID safe.
Loving this guest post from Gypsy Thornton at Carterhaugh School on how fairy tales can help us through this crazy time. Fairy tales offer us strategies for harnessing our strength and fighting the odds. Often characters in fairy tales are abused, voiceless, powerless, or disenfranchised in some way. But they don’t stay that way. From Cinderella, to Red Riding Hood, to Snow White and Rose Red, to the Goose Girl, fairy tales teach us to be brave. They teach us that no act of kindness, however small, is wasted. They teach us to fight back.
Watching waaay too much TV since March. I think it’s partially just that there’s less to do that’s COVID safe outside the house, but it’s also due to the fact that it’s an escape from some of the terrible stuff that’s been going on in the real word. I feel guilty taking that escape sometimes, but my sanity might not survive if I didn’t. Here’s a rundown of what I’ve watched.
Cursed- I would say that this is a very imperfect show that’s worth watching in spite of its faults. It’s based on the graphic novel of the name (which I haven’t read) by Frank Miller and Tom Wheeler. It actually recalls those roots with animation in the opening and some transitions between scenes. I thought that was a nice touch, but I wished they’d done more with it from a storytelling perspective. The storytelling is messy. The show can’t quite decide whether it wants to be a Game of Thrones style political fantasy, or a feminist coming of age tale, or a teen romantic fantasy, so it bounces back and forth among the options without fully committing to any one. But it’s worth watching in spite of it’s faults.
Ratched– I first took note of this show because I always had a bit of sympathy for Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Yes, I was aware that she was supposed to represent all that is impersonal and dehumanizing in the medical and psychiatric establishments. But she was also a woman who was responsible for a ward full of psychologically vulnerable men who need order and constancy. Having someone in that ward, constantly upsetting that, creates instability for the very people she’s responsible for protecting. So I wasn’t happy that the first trailer portrayed her a villain. But the show doesn’t make a villain exactly- not that she’s a hero either. Actually it has little to do with Cuckoo’s Nest at all. It tells a story that’s independent of that, and really just uses the character name and a timeframe that would make it a prequel (so far at least). There’s some interesting, dramatically compelling stuff in there. Unfortunately there are also entire characters and subplots that just felt thrown in for the sake of being shocking and unpleasant. So while there was a lot to like about this (great performances, stunning visuals, compelling character) there’s also a lot that would keep me from recommending it wholeheartedly.
Lucifer– I’m currently watching this in between other things. I’ve about 1/4 of the way through the third season, so no spoilers please! I’m enjoying the characters and the dynamics. In small doses it’s smart, fun and engaging. In larger doses it starts to feel a bit repetitive, but that’s why I’m spreading it out as I watch other things.
Emily in Paris– I wanted to like this. I wanted this to be a fun, escapist, fantasy. But it didn’t land. I found it vapid and insipid. The main character wandered around Paris (speaking no French), and imposing her point of view on everyone she met. I finished it for the sake of completion, but I didn’t really like it.
Enola Holmes– This is actually a film, not a series, but I’m including it because I really enjoyed it. Plus, I could see it becoming a series of films based on the novels of Nancy Springer. It’s really no surprise that I enjoyed this, because it’s right up my ally. A feminist, YA adaptation based on Sherlock Holmes stories, set in Victoria, England. It pretty much ticks all my boxes! It’s not perfect by any means, but it doesn’t really try to be. It’s fun. It’s a historical mystery adventure with a bit of humor thrown in. My one question when watching it, was “why is absolutely everyone in this film ridiculously good looking?” Yes, I know it’s a film and they tend to cast attractive people. But even side characters who could have been average/normal looking were absurdly attractive here. It was almost like it was an AU Victorian England in which only beautiful people were allowed.
4. They can give us new looks at old worlds: Example Mercedes Lackey’s Elemental Masters series is set in an alternate version of the history we know, similar to what we know in many ways with a bit of extra magic thrown in. These don’t need to be read in any order, but I recommend the early books in the series, which are much better than the later ones. My favorites are The Fire Rose, The Serpent’s Shadow, The Gates of Sleep, and Phoenix and Ashes.
5. They can be romantic: Example I found Juliet Marillier’s Beauty and the Beast retelling Heart’s Blood to be beautifully romantic in addition to having great historical and fantasy elements.
7. They can be tearjerking and heartbreaking: Example: Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan is a beautifully written but harrowing tale (trigger warnings here) with an ending that is ultimately bittersweet but in the moment may seem more bitter to some readers. Not all stories have happily ever afters, and even in the ones that do, those happy endings don’t apply to all.
8. They can be innovative: Example: I first discovered Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber in a college class I took called “Innovative Contemporary Fiction.” I’m glad I read this for the first time in an academic setting because it gave me a chance to really dig into the text and notice things I would have otherwise missed. There’s a lot happening between the lines of these stories!
10. They’re what I do: Example: Once again it seems I’m not above promoting my own book. My first novel, Beautiful: A Tale of Beauties and Beasts is a Beauty and the Beast retelling. It’s my first published novel. I’m working on a follow up right now, that’s based on The Snow Queen.
A while ago, when our lockdown/isolation/shelter in place/quarantine began I wrote a post of some of my favorite non-Disney fairy tale films for all ages. Since we’re still spending a lot of time alone/indoors I decided to make a sequel. Like the first post, I make no guarantees that these movies are safe for the kiddos. I put a * next to the ones that I think are kid friendly and ! next to the ones that are alright for kids above 12.
! Penelope– This fantasy features a gender reversed Beauty and the Beast with a great sense of fun and fantasy. Penelope Wilhern is born under a family curse; she’s got a pig nose until she earns the love of “one of her own kind” (the reasoning for the curse is explained in the movie). So he mother tries to find ways to fix her up with blue blooded men. Enter Max, who hits it off with Penelope until he sees her face, and promptly refuses to marry her. This sets Penelope off on a journey of self discovery. The move is one of my “happy” movies: things I watch when I need a mood boost. [trailer]
Rebecca– This classic novel by Daphne DuMaurier has been adapted for the screen several times. But I think the best bet is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film. Yes, plotwise there are some significant changes from the novel, but the film still follows the Bluebeard template (a woman married a widower and finds herself haunted by her predecessor) and most importantly, it gets the atmosphere of DuMaurier’s atmosphere heavy novel right. If you want some more Hitchcock films with Bluebeard echoes you can also take a look at Suspicion and Notorious, but I find this one has the strongest ties to the original tale. [trailer]
Image Credit: Randompicturesblog.net
The Secret Beyond The Door– Celia marries Mark while on vacation in Mexico after a whirlwind romance. When she joins him in his New York home, she learns some things about her new husband that he left out during their courtship. For example he’s been married before. He also has a son. Celia’s predecessor died under mysterious circumstances, and she start to suspect that she might be next. [trailer]
Image Credit: Thestar.com
Gaslight-Paula and Gregory get married abroad after a whirlwind romance (notice a pattern here?!) When they return to London and settle into their new home, strange things start to happen. Paula notices missing pictures, strange footsteps at night, and gaslights that dim without being touched. Gregory claims to notice nothing. Is Paula losing her mind, or is Gregory up to something? Or both? [trailer]
Image Credit: filmlinc.org
Dragonwyck– Bluebeard inspired movies were apparently very big in the 1940’s! This one is based on Anya Seton’s novel of the same name about a young girl whose new marriage is threatened by her husband’s streak of madness. [trailer]
Hansel and Gretel
Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? This 1972 film is sort of a campy horror classic starring Shelly Winters. It’s about Mrs. Forrest (also known as “Auntie Roo”), a lovely old lady with a Christmas tradition of inviting orphans to her mansion for a party. But Auntie Roo has a dark side, and when Katie Coombs and her brother sneak into the party they must fight to get out alive. There’s a lot of camp in this one, especially by today’s standards, but that can be fun – and funny. And once you get past it there’s actually an interesting, dark take on the fairy tale. [trailer]
Image Credit: 366weirdmovies.com
Hansel and Gretel (2007 Korean) This is sort of a horror- fantasy that may appeal to fans of films like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Orphanage. It’s about a traveler who gets lost in the woods. He’s rescued by a young girl and brought to her house. It’s a beautiful house, like something out of a storybook. But, as he discovers, it’s a house that hides horrible secrets, and possibly no way to escape. [trailer]
Image Credit: Film School Rejects
Black Swan- I was hesitant to include this one because it’s based on the ballet, Swan Lake, rather than a single tale. The ballet’s plot is based on a number of folk tales. Possible sources include “The White Duck” and “The Stolen Veil” by Johann Karl August Mursaus. But it could have been inspired by a number of animal bride/swan maiden tales. Regardless I decided it was fairy tale enough to count! The plot of the film follows a dancer whose upcoming starring role in Swan Lake pushes her to the brink of madness. In some ways the “fairy tale ballerina on the edge” story is very similar to The Red Shoes, which I featured on my last list. So if you like one, check out the other. [trailer]
Fairy Tale Mash-up (Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk and more)
Image Credit: Theatermania
!Into the Woods (original Broadway cast) Yes, Disney did eventually get to this one in the 2014 film. While that film has it’s good points, I (and many others) felt that it removed the musical’s teeth. And part of the point of the musical is that fairy tales have teeth. And claws. They’re dark, subversive, and not everyone makes it to happily ever after. But they (and Stephelan Sondheim’s beautiful music and brilliant lyrics) also teach us to see complexity. They show us that “witches can be right/ giants can be good/ you decide what’s right/ you decide what’s good.” Here we see a Red Riding Hood and Wolf dripping with innuendo, a Cinderella who finds married life somewhat lacking, and witch who does the wrong things for the right reasons, and the right things for the wrong reasons. It’s been said that The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim was a source of inspiration. If you dig into the lyrics you can analyze them like poetry. The level of sophistication doesn’t take away from the magic of these stories at all. Rather it adds to them, because there’s a sense of danger. We’re left with a caution “Careful the wish you make/ Wishes are children/ Careful the path they take/ Wishes come true/Not free”
Other Non Fairy Tale Fantasy Films
These aren’t based on a specific tale or tales but will probably appeal to fairy tale fans nonetheless.
Image Credit: EmpireOnline.com
! Ladyhawke– This is an 80’s film in many ways but it’s a good one. I’ve wanted to rewatch it again ever since I read this incredible analysis. It gets into the folkloric roots behind the film and I highly recommend it to anyone interested. As for the film itself, in a nutshell the film is set in the 13th century and is about two lovers who are cursed to be together and apart: she is a hawk by day and he is a human. By night, she is a human and he is a wolf. They can’t really be in one another’s presence except for a brief moment at twilight and dawn. Unless a young thief can help them break the curse. [trailer]
Image Credit: Tor.com
! Stardust– This is based on the novel of the same name by Neil Gaiman but tonally it’s more in line with The Princess Bride (see below) and old Hollywood screwball romantic comedies like It Happened One Night. But it still works. The story is about a star who falls from the sky and is observed by several parties. One is a trio of witches who believe that eating the heart of a star will restore their youth. One is a prince who needs her power to secure the throne. One is a love-struck young lad whose beloved asks for a fallen star as a token of his esteem. But when he finds her, he finds, not a piece of celestial rock, but Yvaine, a young woman fallen from the sky with an injured leg and a sarcastic tongue. He must get her to his beloved, while keeping her from the others who want her for less noble means. [trailer]
Image Credit: NBC News
! The Princess Bride– I expect that most of us have seen this movie and so it needs no introduction, but if you haven’t seen this yet, do so immediately. Otherwise you’ll never know the meaning of phrases like “Hello, my name is Indigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die,” “Inconceivable!” and of course “As you wish.” Since you might have more free time on your hands than usual I would also recommend reading the book (even if you’ve seen the movie). If nothing else it will help you appreciate the artful use of the frame story in the film version as a way to incorporate the annotations in the book. [trailer]
Image Credit: rogerebert.com
Pan’s Labyrinth– This film makes me think about the purpose of fairy tales. They’re an escape, an enchantment, an education, a warning. They serve all of those purposes in this tale of a young girl in Spain circa 1944. Ofelia’s new stepfather is sent to a remote forest to flush out rebels. He brings Ofelia and her mother. As she witnesses her stepfather’s sadism, brutality and abuse, Ofelia is drawn into Pan’s labyrinth, a magical world of legendary beings. [trailer]
Image Credit: Parkcircus.com
The City of Lost Children– A mad scientist named Krank has lost his ability to dream. He is attempting to fight off death by stealing children’s dreams. The storyline of the film itself follows Krank’s henchman, Scratch, who kidnaps a 5 year old boy. The boy’s father, (a strongman with a travelling circus) and his 9 year old friend Miette, team up to save him. At times this movie is dark and creepy enough to make you think it’s only intended for adults. But at times it allows its heart to show enough to make you think the intended audience might be slightly younger. The result is a visually arresting, sentimental, provocative, nightmare fantasy ride. [trailer]
Image Credit: baltimoresun.com
Beasts of the Southern Wild– Early fairy tales served less as entertainment and enchantment than as warnings. I think that’s how to take this film. In fact, I think watching it at this point in time might be frightening for that reason. 6 year old Hushpuppy lives with her father, Wink in a remote Delta community. When Wink gets sick, nature seems to respond in kind: temperatures rise, ice caps melt, and prehistoric beasts run loose. When the rising waters threaten her community, Hushpuppy goes on a search for her long lost mother. Though this film was made in 2012, the tale of humanity’s seeming inability to live in harmony with nature taking a toll of people’s physical health, seems very apt for today’s world. [trailer]
A lot of us are stuck indoors for the near future. We’re isolated. We’re anxious. So we need fairy tales. As much as I love Disney, I decided to highlight some of my favorite films based on fairy tales that are not Disney-made or styled. Be warned, some of these are kid friendly but some aren’t. I put a * next to the ones that are OK for most kiddos, and a ! next to the ones that should be fine for kids above 12, but you might use caution with younger ones. If I don’t put a symbol next to it, I’d suggest sticking to adults audiences.
Beauty and the Beast
! La Belle et La Bete (1946) Jean Cocteau begins this film by imploring his audience to watch it with the eyes of a child- to regain that sense of wonder and imagination. He then plunges the audience into a magical world full of stunning practical effects, mystery and magic. There are allusions to other tales, and you can read into it from different perspectives and make a lot of arguments about subtext. Or you can do as Cocteau asks, and watch it from the a child’s point of view, and be enchanted. [trailer]
! Edward Scissorhands (1990) This is a movie takes place in a world that is in some ways very like our own. But the town in the film is overshadowed by a mysterious, seemingly abandoned fairy tale castle. When make-up saleslady, Peg, knocks on the door she finds Edward, a naive fellow with scissors instead of hands, she takes pity on him and brings him home to stay with her and her family. Her daughter, Kim is initially not happy that her mom has brought home this strange young man. But Edward unwittingly finds a place in her heart. The fairy tale feel here is very stylized, and once again there’s lots of metaphor, but there’s not need to go there unless you want to. There’s plenty to enjoy on a surface level. [trailer]
*Cinderella (1957 Television Production) – In 1957 this Rodgers and Hammerstein musical was televised live with the incomparable Julie Andrews in the title role. The telefilm was remade in 1965 with Leslie Ann Warren and in 1997 with Brandy. It also did a stint on Broadway in 2013. But if you can deal with black and white picture, this is the best for my money. [trailer -fanmade]
*The Slipper and the Rose(1976) This lavish musical film adds depth the Cinderella story while still maintaining a kid-friendly fairy tale feel. We still have a fairy godmother, the stroke of midnight, and step families. But we also see the royals worried about outside attack, and some of the challenges that face Cinderella and her prince after he identifies her by her glass slipper. It’s also got some great tunes from the Sherman Brothers, beautiful costumes, and settings. [trailer]
! Ever After (1999) This Cinderella story eschews the magic in favor of a historical setting. But it still manages to include the ball, the glass slipper and Leonardo DaVinci in the fairy godmother role. We also see a more rebellious Cinderella who works hard for her own reasons (not because her stepmother demands it) and isn’t afraid to tell her stepmother to shove it. [trailer]
The Little Mermaid
!Splash (1984) Some may argue that this 80’s fish out of water (literally) comedy has little in common with Hans Christian Anderson’s tale. On the surface they’d be right. But there’s a mermaid in love with a human. She can’t speak (until she leans how in this), and gives up the sea to be with her beloved on land. Or you could just enjoy this funny, sexy, 80’s rom com for exactly what it is. [trailer]
Ondine (2009) This actually has more in common with several other water spirit/selkie tales than it does with The Little Mermaid, but I’m including it here for the sake of ease. Syracuse is a fisherman in Ireland. One day he catches a beautiful woman in his net. His daughter believes that she’s a selkie, and as he and the woman fall in love, he starts to think that the fantastical might just be true. But the woman, whom they call Ondine, had a life before she turned up in Syracuse’s nets. And that life might threaten everything she’s built with Syracuse and Annie. [trailer]
The Red Shoes
! The Red Shoes (1948) This movie retells Hans Christian Anderson’s story of The Red Shoes. Here we have a ballerina who is thrust into a backstage drama, when she’s torn between a handsome composer and the ruthless ballet instructor who demands her total dedication to her craft. The film features stunning technicolor visuals and a gorgeous ballet within a film, that tells Anderson’s tale against the backdrop of this tragic romantic triangle. [trailer]
Red Riding Hood
The Company of Wolves (1984) If you read my blog, you probably have a sense of how much I admire Angela Carter. This film is based on several of her Red Riding Hood stories as well as themes that pervade her fiction. The film deals with a teenage girl who has vivid dreams about werewolves. The movie weaves in and out of dreamscapes and stories. It’s lurid, stylized and has some (intentionally?) cringe-worthy effects, but also some interesting elements and a perfectly cast Angela Lansbury as Grandmother. [trailer]
Freeway (1996) This film features a teen delinquent on the run from social services. She travels to her grandmother’s house while being stalked by a serial killer. It’s campy and darkly humorous, but also features some satirical criticism of our justice system and a the racial and class dynamics in the United States. [trailer]
!Ball of Fire (1941) Snow White gets an old Hollywood screwball comedy treatment in this film starring Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper. Betram Potts is one of seven professors living and working together on a dictionary. When they realize that they’re unfamiliar with contemporary slang, they head to a nightclub to expose themselves to it. There they meet Sugarpuss O’Shea, the girlfriend of a gangster. She needs to hide out, and the seven professors live far enough from the realm of normal people to give her the perfect place to hide. She might just make it out alive, if she doesn’t fall for Bertram… [trailer]
Elvis and Anabelle (2007)- Anabelle is a small town beauty queen who dies. Elvis runs the town mortuary with his dad, the mortician. When Anabelle ends up on the table in the morgue, Elvis sneaks a quick kiss before he begins his work, and is really surprised when Anabelle suddenly wakes up! Anabelle convinces Elvis to keep quiet about her resurrection for a few days, and they start to fall in love. But their real world issues could keep them apart. [trailer]
Does anyone else have any other recommendations for fairy tale movies that aren’t necessarily for kids?
I read earlier that actor Billy Porter will be playing a genderless fairy god-person in a new film version of Cinderella. My response to the news was mild curiosity. It’s an interesting idea, that has the potential to be done well. Whether or not it is done well depends on a lot of factors. But then I read several comments bemoaning yet another film adaptation of Cinderella. People were asking why we can’t have fewer reboots and more original stories. For the record, I think that fewer film reboots is a great idea. But I don’t consider retelling a fairy tale to be an unoriginal remake, unless the filmmakers don’t think outside the box. There are a lot of original unique ideas that stem from fairy tales.
Disney’s 2015 film adaptation of Cinderella, based on their 1950 animated film (photo: vanityfair.com)
I suppose that because my own creative work is based on fairy tales this is an issue that’s close to my heart. But truly believe that fairy tales make rich artistic source material because they’re both flexible and powerful. Various critics have attempted to identify precisely why fairy tales endure. In Why Fairy Tales Stick(2006) Jack Zipes says: “we respond to these classical stories almost as if we were born with them, and yet we know full well that they have been socially produced and induced and continue to be generated this way through different forms of the mass media.” While that’s true certain images call to mind a fairy tale in ways that transcend media. Show someone pictures of a fancy shoe, a clock and a pumpkin and it’ll call to mind Cinderella. The images may have nothing to do with the story itself but they’ll call the story to mind because these stories are so much a part of us. Some may say that’s because we’ve been bombarded with the fairy tale nonstop. And there may be an element of truth to that.
The Glass Slipper (1955) (Photo: moirareviews.com)
But fairy tales have never been simple stories. Many people associate fairy tales with their Disney adaptions. If they’re aware that the Disney films are, in fact, adaptions, they’ll often refer to “the original story.” As if such a thing exists. But most fairy tales have diverse sources. Often Disney will draw from predominantly one version over another, but that’s not to say that’s the “original.” Most of these stories are drawn from oral tradition and mythologies.
The Slipper and the Rose (1976) (photo: thehunchblog.com)
If fairy tales can grab our attention more quickly than other forms of storytelling—and certainly they grab our attention soonest, as they make up so much of what children first encounter—then don’t we need them, as much or more as other media, to tell us that violence is wrong, that everyone should be able to be happy?…Sometimes it’s easier to deal with trauma in less direct ways. Sometimes it’s easier to imagine a happy ending for a princess than for yourself. Sometimes it’s easier to become the princess than waiting for the world to right itself.
She goes on to say that:
Children of all genders—not just girls—can and should, if they want to, enjoy fairy tales. We can aspire to a variety of ideals and receive reassurance from a wide range of characters. Yes, a patriarchal society chose its canon of fairy tales, but many of them are—despite their problems—wonderful stories, and, too, there exists beyond the (popularly) known canon even more stories, some of them wilder, stranger. Some have deeply feminist themes. I believe there are responsible ways to share fairy tales—by sharing a diverse range of them, by talking critically about the ways in which gender, class, violence, love, et cetera is depicted in them—and I think it’s worth doing that work to do so. The stories make us, but we make the stories. We can make the stories. We can reclaim the old stories. We can make new ones. We can disrupt the gender roles, we can normalize new kinds of love stories, we can imagine new kinds of ways of being happy.
In other words, if fairy tales are stories that can be enjoyed and shared among a diverse audience for many reasons, then isn’t there room for many tellings?
Cinderfella (1960) (photo: alchetron.com)
Since I started this by talking about Cinderella, I’ll continue discussing that. There have been many films based on Cinderella made for many reasons. I’m going to highlight a few:
Ever After (1998) is often seen as a modernist, post-feminist reinterpretation of the story with the magical elements removed. It’s set in Renaissance-era France.
Cinderella(2015) is a live action adaptation of Disney’s 1950 animated film.
The target audiences for these films were largely different: fans of Jerry Lewis’ comedy might not also like Leslie Caron’s dance heavy adaptation or the Sherman Brother’s tunes in The Slipper and the Rose. Similarly, fans of Ever After might not take to the magic in the 2015 Disney film. All of these films purposed the story for their own target audience.
Ever After (1998) (Photo: bustle.com)
In literature, Cinderella has been retold or recalled in worlds that range from Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister to Carolyn Turgeon’s Godmother: The Secret Cinderella Story to Stephen King’s Carrie (I explain a bit about this here)! All of these books have different tones, aim to do different things and use the conventions of different genres. Marissa Meyer’s Cinder uses sci-fi tropes and conventions and makes her Cinder a futuristic cyborg. In Bound, Donna Jo Napoli roots her retelling in historical fiction and Chinese Cinderella tales. In Ash, Melinda Lo writes a LGBT friendly retelling. Yes all off these authors retell the Cinderella story we all know. But more than that, they use the story to highlight different ideas. They bring originality to it, in turning it around and looking at it from different angles.
I consider fairy tales to be powerful narratives precisely because they are open to so many interpretations. So maybe, when one is announced, we can be welcoming rather than roll our eyes. What matters is the execution, not the source material.
In honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d do a list of my favorite romantic fairy tale retellings,
1. Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley- This Beauty and the Beast retelling features a twist at the end that some readers don’t like, but I found romantic and very true to the themes in then fairy tale. I won’t say anymore to avoid spoilers.
2. The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth– I’m hesitant to call this “romantic” because this actually has some fairly disturbing content. But it also has a beautiful love story that takes place over many years. Some might argue it’s not a “retelling” but rather historical fiction about Dortchen Wild, wife of Wilhelm Grimm, who helped him and his brother compile their collection. But I would argue that her tale parallels Many-Furs, one of the darker stories in the Grimm’s collection.
3. The Mermaid’s Daughter by Ann Claycomb- This Little Mermaid retelling actually features two romances. One is a LGBT romance, and one is a romance featuring a middle aged couple (both are groups without a lot of representation in popular fiction). It takes place in contemporary times in the world of opera.
4. Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier – All of Marillier’s Sevenwaters novels have at least a dash of romance, but I really like how it was handled in this book, the first in the series, based on The Six Swans. It’s a slow building romance that seems to sneak up on the characters, but not the reader.
5. The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine– This retelling of the 12 Dancing Princesses is set in NYC during the roaring twenties. One thing that impressed me here was that there were a lot of characters (twelve heroines!) but I was still invested in the romance relationship of the main character, the oldest sister, Jo.
6. The Blue Castle by LM Montgomery– Again it’s debatable as to whether or not this is a retelling or a story that strongly references Bluebeard. Regardless it’s a story of a new marriage with secrets and a locked room (though the contents are significantly different than in the fairy tale).
7.Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier– This is one of my favorite Beauty and the Beast retellings, from one of my favorite authors in the genre. It also features a beautiful romance where you really root for the central couple.
8.The Fire Rose by Mercedes Lackey- I think that this Beauty and the Beast retelling (set in the same world as Lackey’s elemental masters series) has some interesting parallels to Heart’s Blood. But to me the fantasy elements are more prominent in this one.
9. Phoenix and Ashes by Mercedes Lackey – I like Lackey’s elemental master’s envisioning of Cinderella because it’s got more grit and less Disney (not that that I don’t also love Disney!) and the Prince is as wounded as Cinderella in his own way.