I love fairy tales. I love reading them. I love reading and watching adaptations of them. I love writing adaptations of them. As a reader/movie & television watcher I have yet to come across a fairy tale adaptation concept that I was completely unwilling to try. Of course there are ones that end up working better than others and some that could have worked and didn’t for various reasons. But I’ve never heard a fairy tale adaptation idea and thought “Nope, no way.” My usual response is more along the lines of “Say what now? Veeerrry interrrreeesting…tell me more.”
Why? Because fairy tales are infinitely adaptable. The themes and characters are often a part of our broader culture consciousness—and not just because we all watched Disney movies as kids, but because these stories have been told over and over in so many ways for centuries and they tap into how humans think and feel.
Because I love fairy tales so much and was fed a steady diet of them as a kid, my writing naturally tends toward fairy tale adaptations. In my first novel Awake: A Fairytale, I set Sleeping Beauty in modern day Los Angeles. My most recent book, Atone: A Fairytale centers around characters from Awake and is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. I’ve also written a collection of short stories that are different takes on popular tales.
As I’ve spent times with these stories, looking to adapt and/or “modernize” (or really, “post-modernize”) them, the first question is always: what is the essence of the story? In the case of Sleeping Beauty is it just the idea of a “long sleep” that makes it recognizable? Sometimes what we culturally accept as the most important parts of the story might not even be in the oldest versions of the tale—like a kiss of true love breaking the curse. These elements act as sign posts for the audience and I’ve found that as an audience member I’m more than willing to travel down new paths as long as I’m given these guides. In Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, for example, we are given a lot of the traditional elements of Cinderella: step-sisters and a step-mother, a fancy dress ball, even a more *wink wink* element like an orange car to serve as a pumpkin. Even though the setting is new we feel like we are oriented within a story we know.
I cannot stress enough how important I think these sign posts are. Of course, every author and every reader will place a different value on elements of the story. In my case, it wasn’t just the long sleep that was important to me in retelling Sleeping Beauty. I wanted the sleep to be magical in nature and I wanted the curse to have originated from jealousy. I also thought the true love and kiss elements, though not really a part of the oldest versions of the story, have become a part of the audience’s understanding of the tale and could be played with in fun ways.
So once you’ve got your basic elements, what are some fun ways to modernize / re-imagine fairy tales? Here are my top three!
*Disclaimer* Obviously there are more than three ways, and all of these can be used in conjunction with each other in new and creative retellings. This is not necessarily a “create a kick butt fairy tale adaptation in three easy steps” list, but it’s a good place to start!
I honestly do not believe there is a setting that you couldn’t use. Of course it depends on the tale and what you want to highlight in it. I mentioned earlier Marissa Meyer’s Cinder which is set in a dystopian almost Firefly-esque world. I’ve set The Frog Prince in Regency England, Sleeping Beauty in modern day L.A., Snow White and Rose Red in the mountains of Montana during the gold rush…what’s important is that the setting works for your retelling and that whatever your setting you stick with the elements you believe embody that tale.
Role or plot reversals.
Maybe the bad guy is the good guy. The children’s picture book, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A. Wolf is still one of my favorite examples of this.
Maybe it’s the princess riding in on a white horse and saving the day. I’m a huge fan of gender role reversal. Fan doesn’t even cover it, I’m a total sucker for it.
Maybe a main point in the traditional plot is turned on its head or exploited for fun. In Awake I chose to focus on the spell being broken by true love—when Sleeping Beauty was kissed by a guy that wasn’t her true love she woke up—but the curse transferred to him. (Two-for-one special on gender role and plot reversal!)
Mash-ups or mixing of character roles/plots.
Once Upon a Time is, of course, a great example of this. Even within a show that is one big mash-up the Rumplestiltskin and Belle relationship is a frankly genius example of two tales being mixed in a way that changes how you look at both stories.
While all of these are fun ways to play on the audience’s conception of a traditional fairy tale, with any story the most important aspect is the characters and their story. It doesn’t matter if the setting is interesting and the concept is clever if we don’t care about the characters. While writing Awake I realized the fairy tale elements had to support the modern love story between Alexandra and Luke. The same is true for the second in the series, Atone. Yes, it’s a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, but more importantly it’s about the relationship between Becca and Nicholas. Even the most interesting re-imagining can fall flat if we can’t connect with the characters.
While there’s no magic formula for re-writing a fairy tale, both readers and authors have devices we like best. I’ve already admitted to being a huge fan of gender role reversal. What do you like to see in your fairy tale re-imaginings?