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.
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.
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.
Because they come from diverse sources, fairy tales can be told for many reasons. In an essay called Wearing Tiaras: On Fairy Tales, Community and Happiness, Ruth Daniell argues that:
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?
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:
Cinderfella (1960) retold a gender reversed Cinderella for the purpose of highlighting the comedy of star Jerry Lewis.
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.
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.