I’m gearing up to see the Hollywood adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. I’m excited for this. I like musicals. I like that one in particular, ever since my college theater troupe put it on while I was living with half the cast. And even though I know they’ve made changes (they even announced a lot of the changes being made, unusual for Hollywood), I’m still going to enjoy it. I like a good fairy tale with a twist.
Given that this isn’t a movie I’m likely to see with a dozen friends in costume at midnight (ahem, Harry Potter, ahem, The Avengers, ahem, my friends are really nerdy), what does it mean to gear up to see a movie? For me, it’s all about those fairy tales. Because Into the Woods involves an array of fairy tale characters, with a few original inventions to move the story along, I’ve been focusing on just one—Cinderella. Sondheim’s Cinderella follows the Grimm version of the tale rather than the familiar Perrault/Disney, so she is aided by forest creatures and the spirit of her dead mother inhabiting a hazel tree rather than a fairy godmother. This Cinderella is more self-aware than most—even after catching the attention of the prince, she recognizes that escaping her life of drudgery by attaching her fate to a complete stranger won’t necessarily lead to a happily-ever-after ending.
Some of my favorite stories are these clever Cinderellas who direct their own lives. First and highest on my list is the children’s novel Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine. The character list is what you’d expect—Ella, dead mother, unattractive stepfamily, fairy godmother, charming prince. But Ella isn’t just a comfort-to-rags-to-riches girl. She has a knack for foreign languages, a sense of humor, and a tendency to trip over her own feet. Her prince is not a distant stranger, but a confidante and pen pal. The story elapses over years, allowing for real character development. As the title implies, Ella has been under a spell since birth, and her great moral struggle comes from understanding and fighting this spell. If you want a fast read with fairies, friendship, and banister-sliding, I’d recommend picking this up.*
The second recommendation is the film Ever After, starring Drew Barrymore. Our heroine is Danielle, living in an entirely non-magical 16th century France. She reads Thomas More and befriends Leonardo da Vinci. She is aggressive, crafty, and—like Ella—a defender of the weak and disenfranchised. The prince is an elitist, burdened by the demands of his station. The stepmother (played by Anjelica Huston) is conniving and self-serving, and gets some great dialogue. As a costume drama lacking in fight scenes and special effects, the movie ages well.
The final recommendation is Marissa Meyer’s Cinder. It’s more of a soft science fiction story than the usual fantasy, and our eponymous leading lady is actually a cyborg, who leaves an entire prosthetic leg behind at the prince’s ball. The setting is New Beijing, in a world with android servants, mysterious plagues, and hostile alien forces. Linh Cinder was adopted as a child after a hovercraft accident destroyed two of her limbs and all memories of her birth family. She works as a mechanic for hire, enslaved by her adoptive family and the limited rights granted to cyborgs. She is independent, sarcastic, and dreams of freedom rather than love. Cinder is actually the first book in an in-progress series, currently including Scarlet (Red Riding Hood) and Cress (Rapunzel), with Fairest due out next month.
If you’re interested in more non-traditional Cinderella stories, here are some worth looking up:
Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix, a children’s novel exploring life in the aftermath of the ball
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire gives us a kind stepfamily to a bratty girl who chooses the kitchen hearth, set in Holland during the tulip craze
Ash by Malinda Lo is a dark teen romance with a servant girl torn between the powerful magic she’s dreamed of saving her and the real world friendship/romance that allows her true freedom
Bella at Midnight is another teen adventure, with prince as childhood friend and heroine who refuses to be a damsel in distress
Fables is a graphic series wherein the stars of fairy tales are exiled from their magical world into modern day New York City, full of espionage, intrigue, and well-developed female characters.
Once Upon a Time is a television series with a suspiciously similar premise to Fables. Now in the middle of its fourth season, it borrows from not only the “Disney Princess” canon but also Mark Twain, L. Frank Baum, Lewis Carroll, and Mary Shelley.
*I don’t recommend the film version of Ella Enchanted, however. The plot has been changed enough to be almost unrecognizable, and it lacks most of the charm of the original.
– Bonnie T.