Whenever I visit a school, I always ask the students "Who wrote fairytales?" Most frequent answer: Disney. This is not surprising, though perhaps a little disheartening. Despite my love of Disney, I feel myself charged with a sacred duty to set the record straight. I find shock to be a useful method in this case.
At some point, I tell the kids about Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish author and poet renowned for his fairy tales, one of the most popular being "The Little Mermaid." I ask the kids to tell me the story of "The Little Mermaid." Without a beat, they recite the Disney movie, ending with Ariel permanently transformed into a human so she can marry her prince. This is when I drop the bomb. This is not how the tale really ends, I tell them. (Spoiler Alert: The prince marries someone else, and the Little Mermaid turns to sea foam.)
After the shock wears off and jaws are raised off the floor, we delve into an insightful discussion about why Andersen decided to end this story in such tragedy, instead of the happy way Disney chose to end it. We like happy endings. It's obviously better from a marketing standpoint. What was this guy's problem?
"Maybe he was depressed," some say. Possible.
"Maybe he was just trying to be different," others say. Could be.
Once a boy raised his hand and said, "I like that ending better. We don't always get what we want in real life. It's not always happy." Kids are way more insightful than we give them credit.
"Life itself is the most wonderful fairy tale," said Hans Christian Andersen. Life is not always happy, and neither are fairy tales. Aside from plenty of unhappy endings in classic tales, there was also cannibalism, murder, rape, incest, and all manner of brutality and gore. It wasn't until later that the fairy tale collectors such as Charles Perrault, the Grimms Brothers and others, altered the tales of "Cinderella" and "Little Red Riding Hood" to make them more palatable and moralistic for children and families. We continue to do this today. Fairy tales have survived for generations, not just because of their symbolic nature, but because they are flexible. We can shift point-of-view, draw different conclusions, and even change the events of the tale to make them more meaningful to our current social, political, and moral points-of-view. Here are nine tales that were changed for just those purposes.
The <em>Lost</em> writers behind ABC’s <em>Once Upon a Time</em> make the risky choice to mesh classic tales with the modern world. The weaving of the plots is masterful, with detailed world and character histories to fill in all those blanks. Though it can be a little corny at times with many fairy tale characters and costumes distinctly Disney, the show makes meaningful connections between those classic stories and our everyday lives.
Princess tales are always a favorite, but the original tales struggle in today’s culture of female empowerment. Sleeping princesses and submissive maidens just don’t make the best role models. That’s where Newbery Honor-winner Gail Carson Levine's <em>Ella Enchanted </em>shines. In this Cinderella retelling, the leading lady is Ella, a spunky, strong heroine afflicted by a curse of obedience that she resists at every turn.
These days, right and wrong is all about perspective. Case in point: "The Three Little Pigs." Those little porkers aren’t as innocent as they seem, according to Mr. Wolf.
When it comes to Rapunzel retellings, most people are probably more familiar with Disney’s <em>Tangled</em>, but I think the fabulous weapon-hair concept originated with Shannon Hale’s <em>Rapunzel’s Revenge</em>, a hair-raising graphic novel illustrated by Dean Hale.
This 2006 film loosely based on "Beauty and the Beast" and "Cyrano de Bergerac" is a story of a privileged girl (Penelope) cursed with the nose of a pig. But instead of true love’s kiss breaking the curse, the power to do so lies within Penelope herself. Like<em> Ella Enchanted</em>, this conveys timely messages of self-esteem, individuality, and female empowerment.
Did LGBT fairy tales exist back in the day? If they did, they were kept in the closet. <em>Ash</em> by Malinda Lo is a unique retelling of "Cinderella," for while a prince pursues Ash, her heart is healed and woken by a woman.
<em>Enchanted</em> pokes fun at the unrealistic fairy tale fluff some people can’t seem to ignore by shoving a fairy tale princess into modern day New York. Upon arrival the princess promptly gets robbed, her massive petticoats stuck in doorways, and instead of adorable squirrels and mice coming to her aid, she makes new friends with the city rats and roaches, set to a musical score that would make Walt Disney himself blush.
Mini Grey recounts Hans Christian Anderson’s "The Princess and the Pea" in a way no one thought possible—from the point-of-view of the pea! Perfect for our increasingly eco-conscious society.
These days it’s not enough to have an evil villain; we want to know the why and how they got to be so nasty. <em>Wicked</em> delves into the history of the witches of Oz, not only making the Wicked Witch of the West sympathetic, but showing how politics can play a powerful role in the making of a “villain.”