Retellings Can Also Be Original

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Billy Porter (photo: Broadwayworld.com)

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.

 

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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.

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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.

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The Slipper and the Rose (1976)  (photo: thehunchblog.com)

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?

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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:

The Glass Slipper (1955) was made as a vehicle for star Leslie Caron who had a background as a ballerina. It features a score from Bronislaw Kaper and three ballets choreographed by Roland Petit.

Cinderfella (1960) retold a gender reversed Cinderella for the purpose of highlighting the comedy of star Jerry Lewis.

The Slipper and the Rose (1976) was a high profile musical adaption of Cinderella starring Richard Chamberlin and featuring the songs of the Sherman Brothers.

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.

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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.

Fairy Tale Heroines: The Good, the Bad and the Sleepy

Like many young girls I once wanted to be a Disney princess. Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Cinderella…. I wasn’t really fussy. I suppose the idea of being totally gorgeous, with a beautiful singing voice, and a handsome prince, still appeals to some degree. But as I got older, I started to gravitate toward different kinds of stories. I found myself liking heroines who weren’t perfect. I also started to want them to *gasp* do stuff!

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The old school Disney princesses were largely reactive. Snow White runs away because it’s that or be killed. Sleeping Beauty just sleeps while the prince does all the hard work. While Cinderella is a little more proactive, she still sits around crying until her fairy godmother shows up to help. This passiveness isn’t just Disney’s fault. The heroines in the stories on which the films were based were really just… there.  That was largely reflective of the the way an ideal woman was expected to behave.

But that changed. In my early childhood, I saw Ariel decide to leave everything she’s ever known and venture into a new world, in The Little Mermaid. I saw Belle give up her own life to save her father in Beauty and the Beast. I liked these heroines more because they actually made choices.

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Is that only because society’s expectations of women changed? I don’t think so. The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast both feature female characters who make active decisions that shape their lives. That much is the same in the original stories.

Those are the stories that I gravitate to more now. They’re the ones that I’m most interested in re-imagining in my own work. In Beauty and the Beast, Hansel and Gretel, The Snow Queen, The Wild Swans, East of the Sun, West of the Moon,  and many more, the heroine drives the action of the story.  Actually my current work in progress is based on one of these stories, so stay tuned for that!

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I know a lot of people are critical of fairy tales because of the gender roles that they reinforce. And yes, even in some of the more modern Disney films we see some disturbing stereotypes. But try to reframe it. Point out that these characters show tremendous courage at different points. Make it explicit that it isn’t brave if you’re not scared.

We can even look at some of the more passive heroines through that lens. Yes, Cinderella sobs until her fairy godmother comes along. But before that she survives in an abusive environment day after day (it’s not like she could just leave with no money and nowhere to go) without losing her characteristic kindness. When she hears about the ball, she decides to make a dress and go herself. Yes, she cries when it’s ruined (who wouldn’t, after all that work?) and accepts outside help. But that doesn’t make her weak. It just means she seized an opportunity when one showed up. As for goals, really she just wanted to take a night off and go to a party. She didn’t want the prince until she met him.  In the Twelve Dancing Princesses, the daughters of a controlling father rebel in one of the few ways available to them; by sneaking out of the house and doing what they want at night. They even drug the men who are supposed to be watching them, so that they can sneak away.

I always get frustrated when people assume that fairy tales are simple. Because they’re anything but.  Gender roles are just one example of this. Their complexity is part of why the speak to people on a universal level. It’s why I love them, and why they inspire me creatively.

Why Beauty and the Beast?

It’s a fair question. There are plenty of fairy tales to re-imagine, so why choose something that’s been retold as often as Beauty and the Beast? I suppose the answer would be “because I had something to say about it.”

As a fairy tale obsessed child I saw the Disney film, having already been familiar with many other adaptations and variations of the tale. I still love that movie. There’s a video of me dressed as Belle singing “Something There” that will never (and I mean NEVER) see the light of day. I suppose that I could  always identify with the book loving, brunette heroine. But the idea of “something there that wasn’t there before” always made me wonder. Was it really that something kind suddenly appeared in the Beast one day? Or was it always there, but hidden well enough that Belle, and others couldn’t see it?

I related to the idea that you can get to know people better in isolated circumstances. I remember that when I was having trouble with another kid in school, our parents had us play together at one of our houses, and we became friends. Away from groups, artifice fades, and you can be yourself more easily. Others are able to do the same.

What I love about Beauty and the Beast isn’t the “true beauty lies within” message, or the  brave heroine sacrificing her life for her father’s life (what kind of parent sends his daughter to live with what he thinks is a murderous beast anyway?!). It’s the idea that something beautiful can be hidden in plain sight. We aren’t able to see it as beautiful unless we’re ready to.