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!