The Power Of Fairytales
I’ve recently been involved in a new project to ‘redesign’ fairytales by deconstructing them and returning them to something dark and adult.
The resulting book, ‘Feary Tales’, is out later this month, edited by Steven Jones, and contrasts the new stories with the originals. The result, from Neil Gaiman, Joanne Harris, Reggie Oliver, me and others, is rather strange and fascinating. Some authors chose not to stick to the form but honour it in spirit, but I aimed at developing a cruel alternative draft to ‘Cinderella’, a story which always fascinated me because of its over-familiarity – for many, it’s the only Grimm tale they may ever have read.
‘The Ash-Boy’ supposes that Cinderella had a brother, and his presence complicates her tale, darkening it considerably. Angela Slatter interviewed me about the tale, and you can find that here. The story of ‘Cinderella’ has been tackled many times over in film and on stage because it is so cinematic and has a through-line that can be simplified to make a certain amount of sense. There’s the tragedy, the villain (in this case two, ‘fair of face and foul of temper’), the magic, the rule that must not be broken, the midnight flight, the search, and the resolve.
Surprisingly one of the best reboots is Jerry Lewis’s ‘Cinderfella’, which understands that one of the most powerful elements of the story is not the flight but the arrival at the ball, so it stages a bravura sequence of Lewis walking down the endless staircase to a jazzy piece from the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. There was a black stage version, ‘Cindy-Ella’, and the execrable Bryan Forbes-directed bore that was ‘The Slipper and the Rose’. Rodgers & Hammerstein’s fresh take was remodelled by Disney with Whitney Houston in a multi-ethnic reboot, and is good enough to make up for their deeply conservative animated 1950s version.
But the best of these was the tale woven into Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Into The Woods’, which restores many elements usually left out, including the tree belonging to Cinderella’s dead mother, the ravens that peck out the eyes of the ugly sisters, the prince spreading pitch on the steps to trap his fleeing love, and of course, the ghastly toe-and-heel hacking performed by the sisters in an effort to fit the (non-glass) slipper. In Cinderella’s lament she suggests a smart new reason for the lost slipper, in a song packed with Sondheim’s clever wordplay – you can see it here.
I remember avidly watching the now unbearably dull-looking ‘Tales From Europe’ as a child on TV, gaudy German versions of Grimm which were cheaply dubbed by having an English voice talk over the original voices. I doubt that today’s children ever get much beyond ‘Cinderella’ to the darker, stranger tales.
With three darker new screen versions of fairy tales soon on the screen, ‘Angelina Jolie’s ‘Malificent’, Rob Marshall’s ‘Into The Woods’ and Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Cinderella’, it seems the power of fairytales remains fascinating.