Realistic Fairy Tales And Why I’m Tired Of Them

It is unlikely you could have missed the numerous new and different interpretations and re-imaginings of classic fairy tales and myths. It’s in movies with “Snow White and the Huntsman” and the upcoming “Into the Woods,” it’s on TV with shows like “Grimm” and “Once Upon A Time,” and it’s in books like Meg Cabot’s “Abandon” series and “Alice in Tumblr-land: And Other Fairy Tales for a New Generation.” The things we love about these retellings is that it takes a story we know and love and makes it new and fresh and fun. Sometimes these re-imagined stories are good and sometimes they are terrible, but the ones I hate are those that take classic stories meant to spark imagination, inspire children, and teach them about life and love and turn them into a depressing picture that looks too much like real life.

Now before you get angry, let me say I know that most fairy tales, at least the Grimm ones, originally ended, well, badly. But even those weren’t accurate to real life, and while the endings lacked that Disney quality they were still meant to teach children about listening to their parents, the dangers of talking to strangers, etc. So, I do realize that many of the most well-known or favorite interpretations come from relatively recent sources, my argument is not as much with retelling classic tales, but turning them into strikingly depressing, pathetic versions of themselves. After all, the little mermaid may have originally died in her story, but at least she died for love.

There is a big difference between turning Snow White into a sword-wielding warrior and taking Cinderella and making her a divorcee because she was unhappy with Prince Charming. I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes these versions are funnier, and on particularly bitter (read: lonely, single) nights I might like to think that happily ever after wasn’t that great after all. However, there is a purpose to these stories. They exist in every culture, and despite the small differences they can cross cultures and teach us valuable lessons about life. They put people into extraordinary situations and tell us something about our ordinary lives. As G.K. Chesterton said, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

I don’t want to read or watch a story about a depressed King Arthur who is lost and too scrawny to lift Excalibur. What I love about fairy tales (and what you do too) is what they inspire: hope and the belief that there is something better waiting. This view might not be realistic or very adult, but it’s what I’m looking for when reading, especially when reading a fairy tale or myth. Real life is depressing enough (it’s everywhere, it’s pervasive, and you can’t get away from it), but a fairy tale, as archaic as some might be, teaches us that happiness is within our reach. The truth is that very few new versions of old tales and myths are improvements. They might have our favorite actresses portraying them or take out our least favorite characters, but in the end the story itself should rarely change. Occasionally, they can portray the princess or the villain in a way we didn’t see, but versions that increase our knowledge of our favorite stories are rarely changing them at their essence. Studio executives and publishing houses like to use fairy tales and myths because they are public domain, but that doesn’t mean we need to keep tweaking them.


Do you have a favorite reinterpretation of a fairy tale or myth? Let us know on Twitter at @litdarling 

View Comment (1)
  • I do agree that there is importance in the wonder andfantastical nature of fairy tales. However, I think the issue is more complex than you present. Fairy tales come from oral tradition and thus by definition are constantly in flux. The first chapter of Richard Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre is a fascinating attempt to compare the cultural values of peasants in England, Germany, and France based on their folk tales—these are the tales that coalesced into Grimm’s fairy tales. many of them were originally cautionary tales meant to scare the poor and starving away from eating corpses and other grim realities. These stories were based in the realities of the time, and made fantastical only to hone in on important ethical points.
    The problem with modern fairytales in the American ethos is they have been Disney whitewashed. No longer do we see the Little Mermaid as a cautionary tale telling us not to attempt to be what we’re not, but instead a vapid love story. In particular, historically in the Disney reimagining, stories that center around female characters deny the characters agency and depth. Disney has tried to sell us a morality that is historically sexist and racist, originally intended to push a return to a conservative, white viewpoint over what was developing in the ethnically and sexually “corrupt” urban landscape (there’s a great essay on how this was accomplished systematically by Walt Disney in the 30s in John Leland’s Hip: The History). Because of this complication in the American tradition of fairytales, I think this addition of “realistic” fairy tales is a welcome addition to the dialogue. Though I agree they may lack a sense of the marvelous, they help undermine archaic notions that have sadly dulled the complexity and beauty of these old stories and perhaps will make them more relevant for the current imagination.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll To Top