what do you look for in fairytale retellings?

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what do you look for in fairytale retellings?

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feb 23, 2009, 12:59 pm

I thought it would be interesting to see what people look for in fairytale retellings:
Do you like them to be completely faithful to original stories?
How do you feel about happy endings where there never used to be(e.g the little mermaid)
How do you feel about modernising fairytales(high school settings, etc)
What time period do you think fairytales are set best in?

...and anything else you can think of:)

feb 23, 2009, 1:35 pm

Oh, this is a good question!

I'm not particular about things being faithful to the original stories, usually because the stories varied widely from place to place. Also the originals tended to be quite gruesome. Plus, I like happy endings.

What I'm most looking for in a fairy-tale retelling, though, is a sense of a fairy-tale setting. It doesn't need to SAY once upon a time, but I want it to FEEL 'once-upon-a-time' like. As if anything could happen. Perhaps more of a tone thing than anything else. But I want that with more focus on characters and emotions. Some examples that really nailed it for me are Robin McKinley's Beauty and Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine.

That said, I'm all for modernizations and trying things out in different settings and times if it works!

mar 1, 2009, 7:27 am

Yes, an excellent question. I've not read too many and have a goal to read more this year, including the two Caramellunacy mentioned. The only romantic one I've read is Ever After by Wendy Loggia. I loved the way it starts off with someone telling the true story of Cinderella, which is a completely different take of the tale, and goes on to say something like, "Now how does this start. Oh yes. Once upon a time." That beginning was how I heard fairytales as a child so it reminded me of how much I loved them then too.

Most of the retellings I've read have had humor added, which have inspired me to look for more of the same. I love fairytales with a twist and am always interested in unique ones. Faves include The Sisters Grimm series by Michael Buckley, which does have romance in the later ones; Roald Dahl's Revolting Nursery Rhymes, which don't necessarily have a happy ending, but are very funny; The Big Bad Wolf and Me by Delphine Perret; The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka; and The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig by Eugene Trivizas. Seem to keep finding versions of The Three Little Pigs as you can see. :D

All those mentioned are retellings except The Sisters Grimm series, which is about two sisters who discover they're descendents of the Brothers Grimm and that Everafters (fairy tale characters) are alive and well, and living in the same town as the grandmother. Their parents have been put to sleep so the sisters are trying to find a way of reviving them from it, plus go off on adventures that involve a whole range of fairytale characters with new ones revealed in each book in the series, all with a really fun take.

Another one is The Worst Fairy Godmother by Bruce Colville, which takes a fairy godmother, who we known from Cinderella, yet spins a completely different tale with this character, which holds high appeal to me as well.

The Great Good Thing by Roderick Townley has no known fairytale characters, but has an original spin that involves the reader so adds to the uniqueness also.

So for me, I love a variety. I enjoy the original stories, especially if I'm reading a classic fairytale I've not read before, but also love a modern retelling with differences within the story and possibly a different ending, plus I enjoy new tales, but with known fairytale characters.

As far as the time period, I love Beastly by Alex Flinn, which is set in current times, which is also the same with The Sisters Grimm series, but also love them to be set in the past as well.

mar 1, 2009, 8:01 am


If you like twisted fairy tales, you might want to look into Dealing with Dragons and the other Enchanted Forest Chronicles and Jasper Fforde's Nursery Crime books which start with the Big Over Easy - investigating Humpty-Dumpty's demise!

mar 1, 2009, 8:18 am

Oh I love the sound of Big Over Easy. Can't wait to read that one. Sounds like a riot. Haven't read any humorous takes on Humpty Dumpty to date and he's a great character to have fun with so I have a feeling this will end up being a fave.

Enjoy books by dragons as well and am intrigued by the fact that Dealing With Dragons has a tomboy princess as the heroine.

Have added both to my must reads. Thanks for the recommendations, Rubbah. If you come across anymore you think I'll like, please let me know.

To spin this around a bit, how would you answer your questions up above?

Redigeret: okt 12, 2011, 2:35 pm

I like these questions.

Do you like them to be completely faithful to original stories?
I prefer them to be very faithful to the original stories. When the auther starts tossing out events/characters and replacing them with their own ideas, I feel that they are cheating. If you're truly talented, and you really want to retell the story, flesh out the characters. Give them depth. Show us what you saw when you first read the story, and flesh it out!

How do you feel about happy endings where there never used to be (e.g the little mermaid)
I'm divided. I prefer retellings stay as close to the original as possible, but The Little Mermaid would have been very grim if Ariel'd had her tongue cut out and silently screamed in agony every time she walked. Not to mention how children would feel after she turned into sea foam.

How do you feel about modernising fairytales (high school settings, etc)
Seeing as a lot of fairytales' primary characters are teenagers, a high school setting seems fitting. How would these characters get along if they had parents and modern laws to live by? Unfortunately, these would turn into teen dramas. I strongly dislike those. I don't care if he is Superman, I doubt the Kents would let Clark wander the streets with his friends on a school night.

What time period do you think fairytales are set best in?
I like the tale to be set in the time in which it was written. Looking into history (without rose-tinted glasses, please) and supposing how the characters would have behaved strikes me as very interesting.

feb 11, 2011, 7:07 am

Marking the thread - it's a really interesting one and I plan to come back later.

feb 11, 2011, 7:26 am

I'd forgotten about this thread, I realised I never really put my own thoughts about the questions:) Personally I tend to dislike retellings in modern settings, I agree that they become teen dramas. I like fairytale retellings to keep some elements of their darkness but am not too fussed when stories are changed dramatically, if it's done well. I dont have many issues with changing time periods and settings around either, because I think it's intersting looking at a story from another perspective- which is the point of a good fairytale retelling after all:)

oooh another question idea- what about fairytale mash ups? when characters from different stories meet, like in the fables comics, or the sisters grimm series. I quite like it, though sometimes different stories from different tradition dont work so well together.

feb 11, 2011, 8:07 am

So how did this group manage to hide away for all these years? I swear I didn't even know it existed. I'm doing an English Lit MA at the moment that concentrates on all kinds of intertextuality (links between books, influences of older books on newer ones, retellings of old stories etc) and although there isn't a block on fairytales I am fascinated by the genre. Not that I know a lot about rewrites in the way other members of this group probably do - I'm fond of Angela Carter and only just really starting to branch out to look at other authors who do this kind of thing. I'm so interested that I've even got the subject quite near the top of my list of 'possibles' when it coems to writing my dissertation next year.

I'm now about to go back through the history of the group checking out what I've missed and I'm definitely up for any suggestions for further reading - especially of authors who are considered pretty much 'required reading' in the genre, rather than the occasional 'one-off'.

To get back to the OP's question (and speaking from the position of an amateur) - I just love good books. I'm not that interested in a straight retelling of the old story where I might as well just read the original but if a new author has a new twist on an old story and they write well, then I'm happy. Not a big fan of happy endings unless it takes quite a bit of unpleasantness to get there - to me, one of the biggest charms of fairytales in their original form is that they are so gruesome.

As for time settings, to me there is always something old-world about fairytales and they are probably most effective when set at some point in the past that is usually undefined - a good fairytale is part of its own world and time - but the emphasis is on 'good', so if a good writer can write a good fairytale in a modern setting then that's fine too. I'm also very much into myths and legends from many different countries and I sometimes find it quite hard to know where the line is to be drawn between fairytale and myth (and religion, but that's another kettle of fish).

feb 11, 2011, 10:18 am

Do you like them to be completely faithful to original stories?

Not necessarily. I like very faithful retellings which have good motivation and character development and I like retellings which are twisted or updated, but which still make clever reference to the original story.

How do you feel about happy endings where there never used to be(e.g the little mermaid)

I can take them or leave them. I went through a period where I was reading retellings of Romeo and Juliet, and most of the ones that ended happily weren't as good as the ones that ended sadly, but a couple of the ones that ended happily pulled it off. A good story foreshadows or sets up its ending all along the way, so I don't think you can just switch out an ending without doing some serious rewriting of the entire story.

How do you feel about modernising fairytales(high school settings, etc)

As mentioned above, I like them if they're cleverly done. I love reading adaptations of a story and picking out the references to the original.

What time period do you think fairytales are set best in?

I don't have a preference, so long as it's done well. (I'm also interested in the whole range of retellings, from very faithful retellings to stories with only slight references to another story, so there's a lot of room in there.)

feb 18, 2011, 4:35 am

Like others, I was just recently 'suggested' this group. I'm glad I joined~! Looks fun.

Anyway, these are really good questions. Personally, for me, the best fairy tale retellings are ones where the original tale is simply fleshed out - basically the framing of the story is the same, but all these wonderful details are added! As someone mentioned before, a great example would be Beauty by Robin McKinley. That being said, I still need to read a faithful translation of Villeneuve's. I can still appreciate a fairy tale retelling that isn't 100% faithful though. I really liked The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale and Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. What I don't like is a 'retold' fairy tale that keeps only a couple of details of the original story, but then has the story end in a totally different way. At that point, I wonder why they even chose to 'retell' that particular story in the first place. Some examples of that are Just Ella (I hated it) and Spindle's End.

As for making the ending happier - well, I like it in Disney movies and maybe just movies in general, but not in novels. It also really depends on how close the story is supposed to be to the original fairy tale anyway. People have mentioned The Little Mermaid. I guess if you made a modern mermaid story, a la Aquamarine (though that's not exactly a TLM adaptation, just an example of a modern mermaid story) I wouldn't expect the author to make it end in death. And really, when you think about it, The Little Mermaid was supposed to have a happy ending (in an odd way). Unlike other soul-less mermaids, the Little Mermaid gets to go to heaven. So on the flip side, if someone made an adaptation but left that part out, I'd probably like that better. Having her die and that be *the end* makes it a more tragic & interesting story for me (I don't like how Andersen can get overly preachy in some of his stories).

Modern fairy tales aren't my favorite thing, to be honest. I can't think of a good example right now (except for movies!) though. I guess a sort of example would be Avalon High which was cute, but rather silly. I guess my problem with most modern retellings of fairy tales is that they're light-weight fluff. And if the it's advertised heavily as a fairy tale, that just sort of bugs me. If it's a much more subtle retelling (say, how Clueless is a 'retelling' of Emma - not that Clueless is a book nor Emma a fairytale) I'd like that better.

Concerning a time period, I like it when it's ambiguous. Even better if it also has an ambiguous setting. Most fairy tales are like this, so I like it when retellings do it as well. Sometimes if the fairy tale is explicitly set in a real time and place, it can get too intertwined with historical fiction. I like historical fiction, but I think it's hard to make historical fiction seem *magical* and have it work. That's my problem with some of Gregory Maguire's works like Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister or Mirror Mirror. I liked them, but somehow I feel I would have liked them better if they weren't supposed to be fairy tales.
And then on the other side, some fairy tale retellers are fond of creating their own fantasy worlds. This can work, but if they flesh out their worlds too much, it comes to be too much like a fantasy story. To me, fairy tale and fantasy are very separate genres, and while it'd be easy to mix them, I prefer if that's not done. I generally see this happening in fairy tale series. Like, with Gail Carson Levine's 'Enchanted' series. Since writing Ella Enchanted, she has set three more books in the same 'world' (The Two Princesses of Bamarre, Fairest, and Ever). By the time I got to Fairest, I thought it was sort of annoying. I guess I'm not a fan of metaphors for prejudice or racism or what not (what TV Tropes calls 'fantastic racism'). Don't get me wrong, it's nice to explore real-world problems with metaphor, but it just doesn't quite work for me when it's taking place in a YA retelling of Snow White. Another example is Shannon Hale's 'Books of Bayern'. Her original 'Goose Girl' was turned into a series. So definitely by the third book, her world was becoming, in my opinion, overly detailed. I loved the first book, but was much less a fan of the second and third. I haven't even bothered with the fourth one yet.

Anyway, enough of that! Like some others above have mentioned, I adore fairy tale books that use common fairy tale themes but aren't necessarily retellings. And because they're novel-length, it wouldn't be quite correct either to just call them 'fairy tales' (at least, not in my definition). Someone already mentioned The Great Good Thing by Roderick Townley which I really like! I also really like Goose Chase by Patrice Kindl, Once Upon a Marigold by Jean Ferris, and The Frog Princess by E. D. Baker (in fact, that's part of a whole series now called 'Tales of the Frog Princess). I think these types of books are fun because they use the fairy tale themes which I love, but they're not actually retelling a fairy tale, so I won't judge them too harshly or anything like that.

Gosh, I think I just wrote a lot! Sorry for that!

jul 12, 2011, 4:51 am

I guess I'm a bit different, but ideally I like retellings of fairy tales that are really subtle. I like not realising I'm reading a retelling until I'm most of the way through the book, and then everything falling into place. Fire and Hemlock is a really good example of this. I don't mind the setting or endings changed either. I do read all kinds of retellings, but this sort is my favourite.

aug 3, 2011, 3:36 pm

I'm with you on this, zilliah. I'm just now also re=reading Fire and Hemlock for just this reason.

aug 8, 2011, 2:59 am

I am with Caramellunacy- it has to have a fairy-tale 'feel' to it. That's hard to define, but I think a sense of magic that's a bit more mysterious or nebulous than other fantasy novels. Some (really different!) ones I've read recently and enjoyed were Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier. They're very different- Wildwood Dancing is novel length, YA and not very closely based on the original fairytale while Angela Carter writes short stories for adults that explore different versions of fairy tales (but follow the versions quite closely in many cases). Both of them capture something different of that fairy tale feeling, but I think Angela Carter is more successful overall.

okt 11, 2011, 7:29 am

Part of the question seems to be whether people are looking for stories that are readily identifiable w/ their original, even if the thematic emphasis or settings are allowed to be mutable (Beauty, Fire & Hemlock). Or stories taking familiar characters w/ behavioral and personality characteristics that are more or less true but reset in radically different locales (The Fables comics series); or stories that take classic tropes/characters and create new "fairy" stories using "types." Patricia McKillip, in Ombria in Shadow for instance. I'm fine with any variation/modulation.

okt 11, 2011, 10:21 am

I would agree with Bob. I am reading In the Forests of Serre right now. McKillip clearly pulls on a number of fairy tales in putting this one together - although thus far the dominant strand seems to be from Russian stock. I like fairy tales that focus on atmosphere, where one does feel as if one is immersed in a world of enchantment as opposed to fairy tales that focus predominantly on the love affair.

Redigeret: okt 11, 2011, 12:41 pm

There is a really interesting collection from Penguin called My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me in which about forty modern writers re-tell, re-imagine, re-invent fairytales. Each story has a postscript from the writer musing about what fairy tales are, why they chose a particular story to re-tell, or what fairytales have meant to them. Neil Gaiman calls fairytales "things we aren't meant to know stories." I think of them as the primary colors in a writer's paintbox.

(I reivewed the collection here if anyone is interested.

okt 11, 2011, 3:20 pm

>17 southernbooklady:

I really enjoyed the introduction and writer musings about the particular stories they chose to retell. Overall, I found the collection uneven. Kate Bernheimer is well educated on the subject, so I won't give her any slack for the bad stories she chose to include in this anthology

okt 11, 2011, 5:24 pm

i'm going to try to answer this by listing my favorite retellings and then what makes them so successful for me.

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire: this was the first retelling i remember reading and i was just completely floored. it was so amazing. i loved the new viewpoint, the fact that Cinderella wasn't at all what you expected (but still not really "bad"- that would have been too easy), and all the intricacies of layered plot that Maguire added in- the history of the tulip trade, Iris's love of painting, and the spooky concept of changelings. i appreciated that the story wasn't lifted into a modern setting, but rather used the distance of history to maintain a sense of mystery and magic.

Matchless by Gregory Maguire: this one i loved because it used The Little Match Girl as a jumping off place and captures some of the themes of the original, but Maguire creates a new story all his own that is still slightly disturbing yet somehow beautiful.

Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall and Peter & Max by Bill Willingham: i'm a HUGE fan of the entire Fables comic series, but Willingham's companions are the best in the sense of retellings. whereas the Fables comics focus on the current goings-on of the Fables, Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall goes back to their origins, but none of the stories are exactly what you would expect. the very best are the connected stories of Snow White, from her brutal rape by the 7 dwarfs and her intriguing search for revenge, to her complicated relationship with her sister Rose Red and her husband Prince Charming. plus, that artwork is AMAZING.

Peter & Max ditches the comic form altogether and tells the story of Peter and Max Piper, brothers long separated. this one starts in the traditional fairytale past but moves all the way into the present, with amazing twists and turns along the way. one of the things Willingham does really well is to make all these stories fresh and intriguing while never losing the dark, creepy quality of the originals.

The Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde: i'm a big fan of Fforde, so i was really excited to see he was doing a fairytale/nursery rhyme series. after reading The Big Over Easy i wasn't sure this was going to work out. it just didn't hold my attention like i'd hoped. The Fourth Bear, however, was totally what i wanted. it was a great complete overhaul of The Story of the Three Bears- funny, modern, and twisted.

so, i guess i don't really look for any ONE particular thing in retellings. i just love them when they are done well.

Redigeret: okt 12, 2011, 7:18 am

We could, of course, view many stories as fairy-tale retellings, whether they are explicit or not.

For example (and I've only recently read this, so it comes easily to mind) Marquez' Of Love and Other Demons could be seen as a Sleeping Beauty/Snow White retelling, couldn't it, with a hint of Rapunzel. The striking young girl with extraordinary long hair, bitten by a rabid dog, incarcerated in a cell in a Colombian convent and violently assaulted, visited in secret by an infatuated young priest (though no overt suggestion of the rape found in early versions of the Grimm Sleeping Beauty story), whose hair continues to grow even when she is dead and buried: all this may have been an unconscious (or possibly conscious) re-working of the motifs of the spinning wheel spindle, Snow White being cloistered in the dwarfs' house, the visits by the witch and the prince, and the attraction of female hair for predatory males. All reset in South America and reportedly based on a news item the young Marquez was sent to report on.

Or possibly I'm just over-analysing it and looking for clues where there are none.

dec 30, 2012, 6:09 pm

I don't care what goes on in a retelling as long as it's told well. All I care about is a good story, and I think retellings can be fun. In middle school I bought a book of a collection of Rumpelstilstkin retellings as well two novels retelling Goose Girl and I have loved retellings ever since.