8 revisionist fairy tales and why you should love them

Written by Cheryl Cottrell-Smith

I recently went to see Wicked: The Musical at the Jubilee Theatre and, despite a great performance and amazing vocals, I couldnt help but be a little disappointed. The musical must and should leave out many elements of Gregory Maguires original novel, but its these elements that made the book so powerful for me—that really led me to buy-in to Maguires vision for a revisioned fantasy story.

Fairy tales and fantasy are so pervasive throughout our culture that, for many, an adaptation is just one in a string of cultural revisions throughout history.

Which, in turn, made me think about the adaptation of fairy and fantasy tales. I adore reading books like Wicked, or Maguires Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, or Neil Gaimans Neverwhere, and I used to think that they were brilliant adaptations of The Wizard of Oz, Cinderella, and Alice in Wonderland, respectively. And yes, they are adaptations in every sense of the word. Reworkings. Modernizations (in some cases).

What Ive come to realize, though, is that fairy tales and fantasy are so pervasive throughout our culture that, for many, an adaptation is just one in a string of cultural revisions throughout history. A great fairy tale or fantasy story never has just one adaptation: each reworking changes depending on the cultural whims of the writer.

For example, L. Frank Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900. It was adapted as a film many times, with the most popular being the 1939 version starring Judy Garland. While the books were for children, the 1939 adaptation tended to be a sugar-coated revision of the book, hence the cult following that came from 1985s Return to Oz. This film was darker (imagine Dorothy hooked up to an electrical machine at a mental institution) and, as fans will attest, much more faithful to Baums original series.

In 1995, Maguire wrote Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, a revisionist account of what Oz was like before Dorothy. As the title suggests, it looks directly into the life of Elphaba (whose name is made from L. Frank Baums initials) and her growth into the “Wicked” Witch of the West. Wicked is followed by Son of a Witch, A Lion Among Men, and Out of Oz (combined: The Wicked Years)—all of which deal very much in Oz politics, ethics, repression, and conformity.

In 2003, Wicked: The Musical premiered at the Gershwin Theatre in New York City and has since become so popular that its still on tour today, 11 years later. It, too, has changed with the times. Even the ending from Maguire’s novel has been changed in the musical.

We see it in pop culture everywhere we turn: the modern fairy tale. The adapted fantasy story. From NBCs Grimm, to the Snow White and the Huntsman film, through to high fantasy books inspired by Tolkien, and everything else under the sun. Theres something titillating about taking a traditional story and making it new again; if done well, the revision can sometimes surpass the original (i.e. Robert Carlyle’s chillingly omnipresent representation of Rumpelstiltskin in ABC’s Once Upon a Time). And, sometimes, revisionist fantasy can fail. Cough. Twilight.

(Of course, there’s also the far more cynical view that all literature ever is just a rewrite of things that have been written before, but we don’t need to dwell on the idea of writers as the masters of paraphrase.)

Below are a list of my favourite revisionist novels, short stories, television shows, and comics for your reading and viewing pleasure, but please note that this is far from a comprehensive (or, to be honest, diverse) list. You might notice that its a little Maguire/Gaiman-heavy—in my opinion, they’re the masters of the genre, but there are hundreds of other revisionist fairy tale collections and novels out there. Which one is your favourite?

Fables – Bill Willingham (graphic novel)

Fables is a comic book series centred on a large group of fairy tale characters who have been uprooted from their Homelands by the invasion of the “Adversary” and have come to live in our world. A thrice-divorced prince charming, a secret agent Rapunzel, and a bestiality-pursuing Goldilocks are all characters in this openly-realistic account of Fables and their attempt to live normal lives in a world with very little magic.

Wicked Years – Gregory Maguire (novel series)

Four novels comprise the Wicked Years series, all of which cover a land of Oz as we’ve never seen it before. From the childhood of Elphaba, the “Wicked” Witch of the West, to the social oppression of talking Animals, through to the trials and tribulations of Elphaba’s son and granddaughter, Maguire covers as many ambiguous political and ethical issues as possible. Fans of Wicked: The Musical might be surprised at just how dark and queer this version of Oz can be.

Troll Bridge (from Smoke and Mirrors) – Neil Gaiman (short story)

Smoke and Mirrors is one of the best collection of Gaiman’s work and all of the stories have an edge to them akin to many of his longer pieces. This story, in my opinion, has much more meaning that the original, with an extremely interesting look at life, death, and growing old. Is the troll an enemy, or is he the old friend that everyone meets when it’s their time?

Once Upon a Time – ABC (television show)

An all-star cast fills out this revisionist look at fairy tale characters that casts a similar shadow to the Fables comic books. It’s always interesting to imagine what fairy tale characters would do if placed in our world, especially without their memories, and this show ties in some magnificent acting with a number of beautifully incestuous story arcs. Both Robert Carlyle and Lana Parrilla made this a must-watch for me.

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister – Gregory Maguire (novel)

Maguire, proving himself one of the kings of revisionist fairy tales, offers up one of my all-time favourite novels with this reworking of Cinderella. Told through the eyes of mute Ruth, it details her family’s struggle against poverty in the Netherlands during (we can assume) the Renaissance, her mother’s marriage to a trader, and Ruth’s, her sister Iris’, and her stepsister Clara’s dealings with society as a haphazard trio of awkward young women. Introduce a painter of the grotesque, his effeminate apprentice, and a rapey prince, and you’ve got yourself a revisionist story that lingers well after the last page.

Snow, Glass, Apples (from Smoke and Mirrors) – Neil Gaiman (short story)

Told through the eyes of a fearful stepmother, this short story details the birth and growth of an unnatural, frightening child with vampiric tendencies and a blatant, freakish sexuality. There are a lot of moving pieces to this story, but it’s worth a read for fans of the genre. And of Gaiman.

Mirror, Mirror – Gregory Maguire (novel)

Again, Maguire knocks it out of the park with a revisionist retelling of Snow White, where the heroine (Bianca) is under threat from the beautiful Lucrezia Borgia and her lusty brother, Cesare. The dwarfs are not cartoonish in this version, but rather compared quite often to rocks and boulders—they move slowly, but are much more grotto, nome, and—indeed—dwarf-like than Disney’s version. The mirror, fashioned out of mercury, is a wonderful addition to the tale, and its connection to Lucrezia’s hallucinations explains everything away.

Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman (novel)

This novel, which is also a comic book and a TV series because Gaiman has his hands in many pots, comes to the top of every search engine the second you even think the term “revisionist fairy tale.” It originally began as a BBC Two miniseries before Gaiman adapted it to the book and graphic novel form. There’s “London Below,” a Wonderland-esque version of the city rife with weird and wonderful markets, a family with the ability to open things (any things), angels, rat-speakers, and lusty, vampire-style, blood-sucking women. It’s a smorgasbord of the magical and fantastical, held together with Gaiman’s trademark matter-of-fact writing style.

CC photo credit: Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean, Disney, BBC, ABC, and Bill Willingham.

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