The Evolution of the Fairy Tale – Retellings in the Modern Age

*Where I ramble on about fairy tale retellings*

I think it’s been a really long time since I did a rambly thought post like this. Today, I just wanted to talk a bit about the modern fairy tale retelling.

grimm's fairy taleIn many ways, fairy tales are coming full circle. Retellings are getting darker and grittier- “back to the basics” of the horrific Grimm versions. Yes, Disney did pretty them up a bit, once upon a time, perhaps because of changing theories about the of the need to protect childhood innocence, but what I’ve noticed in recent years is that there is more of an appetite for “adult” retellings. Though I don’t think this is coming from the realisation that darker stories help people adjust to the real world, I do think that free markets are a huge influencer in this, because, even if the theorists don’t get behind this idea (and many do), the fact of the matter is the markets will provide what people are willing to pay for.

PrincessAuroraSleepsBUT this is not to say that they haven’t changed drastically at the same time. These modern day retellings are clear subversions of the originals. If it is true to say that the women are passive in early Disney versions, then this is nothing compared to the portrayal of “heroines” in the like of Grimm, Perrault or Basile. In fact, I am even reluctant to call them heroines, for the simple reason that sometimes all they do is lie there and get impregnated by random princes… Yeah that actually happens to Sleeping Beauty in the Italian version. The heroines now are so far removed from that they have taken on the role of an almost Greek goddess type figure- unstoppable, wildly powerful and sometimes a little unrelatable (hello Mary Sue).

This drive to the other extreme has had interesting consequences for fairy tales. Because before we put on the hat of superiority about our own time, we should probably note how it is flawed in different ways. One of the drawbacks to this approach that I have noticed is a tendency to turn male characters into the damsel in distress ie Kai in The Lunar Chronicles. Now, I don’t personally think it is such a problem to have a “damsel” character, be it male or female, because the need to save another human being, especially a loved one, is an incredibly powerful motivator. This role reversal is just an interesting phenomenon that I have noticed. The issue I often find with this is that it can end up emasculating the male characters to the point where they feel superfluous or uninteresting. Whether male or female, if a character constantly needs saving, they can be a bit of a bore. A healthy balance, where they save each other, while cheesy, often works best for me personally.

Cinderella_2015_official_posterYet those are just some of the drawbacks I’ve noticed in modern retellings. What really gets me is the loss of the central messages. Take Cinderella, where one of the core messages is that goodness will be rewarded. To my mind, it was never about being “saved” but to “have courage and be kind” (to coin the Disney live action maxim). But where are the morals in so many retellings? Sometimes they just seem to be about how kickass a character can be, which, don’t get me wrong, is a lot of fun- but hardly connected with a story about being kind. For instance, by making Celaena an assassin no less (not exactly the most “kind” profession) I fail to see any connection with the story it’s supposedly retelling. It’s no surprise to me (though a little disappointing) that it’s ended up going the Messianic route in terms of plot and seemingly abandoned all  hint of Cinderella. Thus we are back to the idea of subversion and, oddly enough, in some ways abandonment of the core messages altogether.

So I don’t really have any happy or comfortable conclusions to draw from this. Fairy tales have changed, they always will change. But do those changes work all the time? What do you think? Let me know in the comments below!


71 thoughts on “The Evolution of the Fairy Tale – Retellings in the Modern Age

  1. Nel says:

    You bring up some interesting points. I never really thought about looking at it in this light because with Disney it was always just mindless magic with cool songs and happy endings. I will say though that so far the only live action Disney movies I enjoyed were Malificent and Beauty and the Beast. Malificent, I felt like the moral was even the evilest of us all can have a heart. And then Beauty and the Beast was great because it was subtly touched upon realistic issues without making them glaring. The overall message *I think, imo* was love has many forms and colors and shapes and, again just me, that there’s someone for everyone out there in the crazy world, hahahaha. My comment is a little all over the place so sorry if it didn’t really address what you were trying to ask.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. vinnieh says:

    You pose a very interesting point of view. As you said, fairy tales change through society, time periods and countries. I think changes can work as long as the essence of it is kept.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. PoojaG says:

    I had to read The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter and it was just really disturbing to read about fairytale characters in that way however it did get Carter’s point across. If you haven’t read it you should give it a try because it shows how warped the original message of fairytales were (that women can’t take care of themselves and need men to take care of them at least that’s what I’ve learnt!)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Never Not Reading says:

    First of all: Throne of Glass was supposed to be a Cinderella re-telling?
    Second of all: I loved your point about lacking a “moral”. I love love love fairy tale retellings, but this is something that was (almost) always missing for me but I couldn’t coin. I don’t feel like there MUST be one for the story to have meaning, but a lot of times those morals were the entire point of the original tale, and when you take them away you’re not really telling the same story anymore.

    OOooooo, I just had a great idea for a book. Because nobody has done a “Boy Who Cried Wolf” as far as I know, and that has so much potential! Too bad I don’t write!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Matthew Wright says:

    Great post – you’re right, fairy tale retellings have definitely evolved to fit current sensibilities. It’s intriguing how the way they get re-written is such a litmus test of the way society thinks in general. It’s been great to see female characters reach centre stage too, I suspect Xena had something to do with the general cultural shift.

    I’ve looked into re-writing fairy stories myself in some detail lately as I’ve had to do just that for an Australian anthology. The publisher brief was to write a young-adult oriented dark faerie story (faerie not fairy) – ideally with inspiration from an older tale. Being a Tolkien fan I picked the Volsung saga. It was a fair challenge because I wanted to bring my own characters and world setting into it – I’ve been tinkering with a fantasy world for years. I actually finished it last year but these things take a while to be published – it’s currently a few weeks off appearing and I’m quite excited (in a bit of shameless self-promo, jump across to my blog for details).

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Thanks very much!! Yes I definitely agree with you there. And that’s true for sure.

      That would be really, really cool and right up my street. Ahh brilliant- thank you for letting me know- I would love to check that out 😀 (any mention of Tolkein and I’m there 😉 )


  6. daleydowning says:

    This is all a very good point. The way fairytales are now portrayed concern me. Back when they were morality tales (about 18th century onwards), people understood that, and there wasn’t this whole culture of, “Even the chambermaid can become queen!” surrounding them. The idea that women “need” men to rescue them (otherwise they aren’t a real princess, apparently) is not good for the feminist movement. Never has been. We can all agree the original stories were quite sexist (as was the cultures that developed them).

    It’s why I’m not a fan of fairytales in general, unless they show a more balanced view — for example, in Swan Lake and The Firebird (both based on traditional tales), the princess in each puts up a fight against the evil wizard. And Beauty of Beauty and the Beast is a great role model, I feel, as she has to be the one to save the prince. Rapunzel was one of my least favorite, so I love what Tangled did with it.

    Since so many women now feel that Disney princesses are role models and something they aspire to (SO dangerous), I think that’s why the current re-tellings are aimed at adults, and all that might entail…

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Thank you!!! I agree with you one hundred percent!! Yes, yes and yes- I think (and I might get in trouble for saying this) there is often an assault on girly women in stories- because every single heroine nowadays has to fight off hoards of orcs. Maybe that’s just me, but I actually appreciate girls in stories that don’t always have awesome fighting skills that bests even the male characters. Don’t get me wrong, it was fun the first 100 times, cos it was a bit different, but… Yeah I could live without it at this point.

      Yeah I get that. I do think there were elements of sexism in the original stories- but I don’t get bogged down with that cos there’s often a *lot* more going on in these stories. So many of them are the living survivors of ancient myths (so obviously change is natural) but the core messages of these stories are still poignant. (And that’s why I, in contrast, keep going back to them 😉 )

      Gotta love Beauty and the Beast and Tangled was great- definitely agree that’s always been one of my least favourites (and the Grimm version is weird!!)

      Oh yes definitely agree with you there! (interestingly enough- it’s not like readers of traditional fairytales were supposed to idolise the characters- especially given the fact a lot of them were cautionary tales!)


      • daleydowning says:

        Cautionary tales – exactly! It was the 17th century version of. “If all your friends were jumping off a bridge, would you?” Hardly the romances Walt Disney made them out to be. (Except for Cinderella – “good behavior gets rewards” – and Beauty and the Beast – “those who are pure of heart”).

        Personally, I don’t keep going back to fairytales after discovering how dark the originals were – it’s just a personal preference.

        And I TOTALLY agree with you about women don’t NEED to be complete karate experts to be “as good” as the men. It’s one of the reasons I loved the female characters in “Harry Potter” – Hermione always won by using her brain, Ginny and Mrs. Weasley were very nurturing but not at all afraid to fight, Professor McGongall was very traditional and yet don’t you dare cross her. None of these women saw it necessary to be *like* the men in order to announce they were the men’s equals. Sirius and Lupin even indicated in conversations they had with Harry that part of what James loved about Lily *was* her softer side, and yet he definitely didn’t consider himself “better” than her just because she was his wife. These are very important messages for modern readers!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Dani @ Perspective of a Writer says:

    I LOVE this discussion! I feel like past versions of fairy tales were imbalanced in gender roles, much like the time period they came from. Not that woman in the past were horrible creatures because they accepted a woman’s role but that the stories portrayed woman as being the lesser. So I enjoy the fact that gender roles are more balanced today. I totally agree though that it should be a saving of each other… I don’t enjoy only the female character having ALL the answers and the male character just a yes man. The problem is we really aren’t much different from the fairy tale writers in the past, the imbalance is just swinging the other way… hopefully writers will see this happening and seek out more balanced roles. Great thoughts! ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  8. mudpilewood says:

    The fairy tales you were focusing on in your post were all tv/film orientated, I feel that they are changing to draw the mass market. After all life today is all about the money trail. However there are still morals to be found in many adaptations we just have to look a little deeper? Or so I believe.


    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Hmm well I was referring to books more (like Throne of Glass and Lunar Chronicles) but I hear your point. I wasn’t saying they were devoid of morals- they are just lacking the morals found in the originals- which makes them very different stories. For instance, as I said in the post, by making “Cinderella” an assassin, you take the “be a kind person and you’ll be rewarded” element out of the story. I’m not saying this means there are no morals- but the story has gone in the direction of making her a “saviour” figure instead (which is a different story structure to the one it was retelling). So I guess the real question is, are these fairy tale retellings at all if there is no resemblance to fairy tales? I hope that clears things up.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Books, Vertigo and Tea says:

    I am a huge fan of all things fairy tales and retellings! I was excited to see this post ❤ I am will first admit that I am a fan of Lunar Chronicles and ToG, but I agree about Kai. However, I had no idea at that ToG was a retelling of any sort?! How have I never encountered it in this light? Maybe that is why it works for me. But enough of that. I agree with you and fully endorse the valid points here 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Oh me too!! And yes I’m a fan too- don’t get me wrong- I loved those books! And yes- I was *so* shocked when I found out it was supposed to be a retelling of Cinderella- tbh I think it veered away from that a long time ago- I think it was only mentioned over the first book and then never again (understandably- it’s not really connected anymore). Aww thank you!!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Meggy | Chocolate'n'Waffles says:

    ” the need to protect childhood innocence” DON’T YOU REMEMBER BAMBI’S MOTHER?????????
    I love this post! I don’t read many retellings… Okay, I don’t do it at all, but I do have Cinder waiting! I love the analysis you made, and I am sad to see the message at the core of fairy tales has disappeared.

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      hahaha very true!! I should have probably put a star there saying something like: *mostly the sex stuff 😉
      aww thank you so much!! Ah brilliant- I really enjoyed that series 😀 Hope you do too!! Thank you- yes me too- there are some great things about modern fairytales, and some disappointing aspects too :/


  11. LizScanlon says:

    If you hadn’t of brought this up, I never would have even thought of it! I can’t really take a stance on this as I don’t really read retellings.. I don’t know why.. they might be really well written, etc, but it’s like I don’t want to ruin the original for myself ! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Lashaan (Bookidote) says:

    Can’t say I can contribute to this since I haven’t read many fairy-tale retellings, but the tendency that you notice is definitely fascinating. The loss of overall message is something that should maybe be revised by authors who take inspiration of the original story. It’be nice to play on that, and not just the characters or the premise. Fantastic post!! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Nicola @ Thoughts on Fantasy says:

    Love this post!! I’ve also noticed that all these recent fairy tale retellings do tend to go the darker, more adult route. It’s a direction I appreciate, though I still often like my Disney versions too 🙂

    That’s really interesting what you said about the morals getting lost in all the subversion… There really often is so much kicking-ass and action going on that those core messages get lost. I suppose they get replaced with new ones, but it doesn’t capture the original feel. I guess the other issue with any modern retelling is that you’re taking something that’s originally a short, simple, oral story and trying to spin it into a feature or book-length tale… which is maybe another reason why lots of kickass character stuff gets added in 🙂 I generally like retellings (esp. if they subvert the damsel in distress trope), but if the basis is so loose that it feels like it’s barely connected and is just being used as an advertising gimmick then I resent it.

    Btw I didn’t even know Throne of Glass was supposed to be based on Cinderella… I have to say, that is an incredibly far stretch!!


  14. FranL says:

    I’ve written a few posts on this in the past that might interest you.

    I’m often wary of people saying that the “original” fairy tale was any single thing- dark, moralistic, pretty… For one thing, it’s often hard to say what the original version is. How many different cultures have variations on the Cinderella story, or the Red Riding Hood story? Often the values and morals that comes through in these stories reflect those of the culture that is doing the telling. That’s true of our culture too. As what we consider “good”, “bad”, “brave”, etc changes, the details of these stories change as well.

    Also what we call a “retelling” isn’t clear. I’ve seen several “rags to riches” stories called “Cinderella stories” but are they? I don’t know. It’s hard to know where that line is drawn. I think that because fairy tales are so universal they inspire narratives, even if the author isn’t conscious of it.

    No real big conclusion here, but food for thought!


    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Oh cool I’ll check them out. Sorry for taking so long to reply, it was stuck in my spam.
      Hmm well I think there’s the point when it was written down from the oral tradition (ie Basile, Grimm, Perrault etc), which is what I meant here, but I take your point- it’s in no way a monolith and there were always several versions across cultures.
      And yes, that’s very true. I find it hard to simply see all rags to riches stories as “Cinderella”- because it could be more of a tale akin to, say, Macbeth- a story of hubris, rise and fall, that kind of thing. Hence why I think that when you change it to being someone decidedly not virtuous (ie an anti-hero) the central premise is often changed, because now it has a different story structure (as I mentioned with the example I gave, it actually became a messianic narrative).
      And yes, there are always underlying themes that may inspire authors (which is true for any story)
      Thanks- it was excellent food for thought! Great comment!!

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Zezee says:

    Some great points there and I certainly agree about morals getting lost amid the protagonist’s skill at being a bad-ass. Your post reminded me of another great discussion I found yesterday called “5 Things I Hate About YA Books Response,” which I found on Francina Simone’s Youtube channe because losing the point of the story amidst all the fun is a peeve of mine.


  16. David Corder says:

    There has been such a rise in female heroines over the past couple of years…Rey from Star Wars, Wonder Woman, most recently, the new Doctor. Girl protagonists are popping up left and right, and they kick butt! In a way, I guess these women are featured in modern fairy tales and are as reflective of our culture now as the Grimm fairy tales were for the culture in which they were composed hundreds of years ago. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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