My Problem With Fairytale Retellings

This was going to be a review for The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg, but I’ll confess I only got two stories in before I gave up trying to struggle my way through. It’s not that it’s a horrible collection of stories; it’s just bad fairytale retellings.

And it got me thinking about why I have this reaction to so many fairytale retellings when other people loved the same books. Don’t get me wrong: I love fairytale retellings. And I read a lot of them. However, it’s rare I find one that I can say is a good book and a good retelling.

I feel like this article will be more similar to a rant than a logical, coherent analysis of retellings. For that, I apologize in advance. And don’t think I am picking on Ortberg’s collection of short stories in the least. In fact, they were well-written and contained the workings of good short stories (rising action, clear conflict, interesting endings, etc.). It just emphasizes all the things I dislike in fairytale retellings.

Sticking Too Close/Too Far

There are things we all love in fairytales. First is the familiarity. I grew up loving stories like Beauty and the Beast and Little Red Riding Hood. Because of that, it has a nostalgic feel to me. When I read fairytale retellings, I want to be reminded of that familiarity I had with the original. However, I also want something new.

These are two things that are incredibly hard to achieve for writers. How does one keep the essence of what people loved about original fairytales, while still making the story feel different? The honest answer is: they rarely do.

Let’s take two examples: one that I believe is a good retelling and the other one I don’t. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine is a retelling of Cinderella, but save for a few common plot points (like a scene at the ball when Ella is in disguise and sees the prince), it is almost unrecognizable from the original fairytale. However, I absolutely loved this book.

Now let’s look at a book I just finished recently: Heart of Iron by Ashley Poston, which is supposed to be a retelling of Anastasia (while technically not a fairytale, it has taken on a fairytale quality in recent years). Like Ella Enchanted, this book has little resemblance to its source inspiration. And, for the record, I really disliked this book.

So what was the difference that made one book good and one book bad? I think it has to do with the things the author chooses to take from the original. No, I’m not talking about scenes; I’m talking about a feel.

A Feel of a Fairytale

Fairytales have a certain feel. They are often light, but also have powerful messages. Despite Disney’s belief, they do not need a happy ending. Let’s compare what most people love about Cinderella and Anastasia.

Cinderella is about a poor girl, abused by her stepmother and stepsisters, whose fairy godmother grants her wish to go to the ball. There, the prince fall for her and marries her. The whole point is that Cinderella—a good person—ends up with a good life, while her stepmother and stepsisters—who are bad people—get a bad ending (in certain versions, the stepsisters get their eyes plucked out be birds…so…). It’s not the fact that Cinderella gets a pretty dress, goes to a ball, and falls in love with a prince that makes me love this story. Instead, it is the fact that she overcomes obstacles to find happiness, and that those who do evil things are punished for their actions.

Anastasia is all about a girl who finds out she is, in fact, the daughter of the Tzar of Russia. She is a princess. In the 1997 cartoon version, she finds her grandmother, but decides to marry her sweetheart and not accept all her wealth. Again, this isn’t a proper fairytale, but we still see fairytale qualities. Anastasia gives up wealth for happiness. She discovers her past, but realizes that it is still in her past and she controls her future. Like Cinderella, she gets a happy ending.

Now let’s look at the two adaptations. Ella Enchanted still has powerful fairytale themes. It is all about her finding happiness with the prince and her stepmother and stepsisters having a sad ending. In Heart of Iron, there are none of the themes from Anastasia. In fact, the only connection with Anastasia is that fact that Ana is secretly a princess.

So you see. It is not the stories that make fairytales so powerful, but instead the themes.

Only a Story

But what about when a fairytale ends up badly? Let’s take The Little Mermaid. In the original, the mermaid dies—well technically, she becomes foam in the sea. Yes, but she learns an important lesson. She gives up her sea world in order to join the mysterious world on land—and hopefully gain her prince—but she never thinks of what she will give up until it is too late. It is a story of alienation. That the paths you choose in life decides your fate.

Going back to The Merry Spinster, the first short story is called “The Daughter Calls” and is a retelling of The Little Mermaid. In it, the mermaid princess goes up to the land, steals the souls of the prince and his new bride (killing them) and returns to the sea. It is horrific, yes, but it doesn’t make you think anything deeper than, “that mermaid is a horrible person.”

What some retellings miss is that the stories aren’t what is fascinating, but the meanings behind them.

To Conclude

I’ll admit I could be entirely wrong. For me, I don’t want any book to be simply enjoyable. I want it to also make me think. And one of the things I love about fairytales is that they do make you question reality. Am I really good like Cinderella? Or am I bad like her stepsisters? It makes us question our decisions. Are we really happy with the life we’ve chosen?

Let me just finish this off with saying I think fairytale retellings can be great, but like most adaptations, they have to capture what people loved about the fairytales to begin with.

If you disagree with me, let me know down in the comments. I’d love to know what your opinion on retellings is. What do you love about fairytales? Is it simply the story itself? Or the themes? What do you look for in retellings? Let me know down in the comments and, as always,

Best wishes in your life full of adventures,

Madame Writer

12 thoughts on “My Problem With Fairytale Retellings

  1. “Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”
    — GK Chesterton, from his essay, THE RED ANGEL found in his TREMENDOUS TRIFLES (which can be downloaded for free from Kindle!)

    If the re-teller of fairy tales will stay true to the spirit of fairy tales then good on him or her. If they can’t or, worse still, try to subvert the form, may they end their cursed and shortened days in a witch’s hell-hot cauldron!

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  2. Yeah, I agree that for fairy tales, the moral is absolutely key. When I was writing a retelling, one of the things I did in my first draft was figure out what I wanted it to “say.”

    Some novels just take the fairy tale tropes without the morals, and I can sometimes find that enjoyable, too, but less often. I’m not familiar with that collection, but I know Ortberg is a funny writer –was she more focused on the absurd aspects of fairy tales maybe?

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    1. Funny writer? I didn’t get to the later stories, so I don’t know about humor, but her first few stories were horror retellings. As for focus, yes, they were absurd, but they also showed that evil is wins in the end which is a horrible message. And yes, I agree with that. I’m do that in my writing too.

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