If there's one thing we learned this past week at Comic-Con, it's that Hollywood is obsessed with fairy tales. They're magical, they've got instant recognition... and they're public domain. But Hollywood keeps hitting on the same five stories.
With all due respect to both Emma Watson and Guillermo del Toro, the absolute last thing we need is yet another take on Beauty and the Beast. We also don't need a Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, and god forbid someone try again with Cinderella or Little Red Riding Hood. Rather than returning to the same well-worn stories, here are ten slightly lesser-known fairy stories worthy of Hermoine and the Hellboy director, as well as anyone else in Hollywood.
This story doesn't lack for kids' versions, up to and including the recent Tangled. But the original is full of dark details much more suited to adults than kiddos. For example, you'll probably remember that the witch traps the prince and then tosses him out of the tower, blinding the poor lovestruck fool. But you might not know about the twins. The Grimms' sanitized version makes Rapunzel look dumb, making a stray comment to the witch about how much heavier she is than the prince. But in several variants of the tale (including Charlotte-Rose De La Force's Persinette and Friedrich Schulz's Rapunzel), it's actually the swelling of Rapunzel's belly that tips off the witch, and it's not because she's been lingering over the bon bons. She wanders for ages, struggling to feed her babies, before finally reuniting with her prince. Image via Sousakuteki on DeviantArt.
Vasilisa the Beautiful
Like Cinderella, Vasilisa's father makes a poor choice for his second wife. She comes with two wretched daughters, and the whole lot of them put Vasilia to work on the most awful chores available. Apparently too spiteful to be content with free labor, the villainous stepmother sends Vasilia to borrow fire from Baba Yaga's hut, hoping the old witch will finish the girl off. So this is where the wise, kindly grandmother helps the sweet young lady, right? Perhaps she offers a pretty dress to help catch the eye of a prince? Not quite. Vasilia returns with a glowing skull that catches fire and burns the woman and her daughters to death. The girl moves to Moscow and marries a Tsar.
Alternatively, someone could simply option Catherynne Valente's excellent Deathless, about Marya Morevna, the beautiful and terrible Queen Across the Sea, and her immortal husband Koshchei, the Tsar of Life. Image of Vasilia the Beautiful by Ivan Bilibin, 1899.
E.T.A. Hoffman's Nutcracker and the Mouse King
It's hard to reach adulthood in America without at least one trip to the local production of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. While a beloved, family-friendly holiday tradition, it's also saccharine and very clearly written for children. Much stranger is the original Hoffman story, which offers a detailed back story for the Nutcracker's bespelled condition. A Mouse Queen, furious at the murder of her rodent children, bites the beautiful Princess Pirlipat and turns her into a monster. Godfather Drosselmeyer recruits his nephew to break the enchantment, but it's just transferred to the dashing young man and makes him a hideous nutcracker. If the ballet is marzipan, the source material is marzipan gnawed over by rats.
This Scottish ballad opens with a warning to maidens not to come or go by Carterhaugh, for young Tam Lin is there — and none leave without giving him a ring, a mantle, or a maidenhead. Janet disregards the warning and, of course, winds up pregnant. She returns to Carterhaugh and starts picking roses, but not for their decorative value. She's picking them for an abortion. Tam Lin stops her and explains he's not a fairy but the captive of a wicked fairy queen, who plans to sacrifice him to the Devil on Halloween night. To save him, Janet has to wait at the crossroads, yank him off his horse, and hang on as he turns into an asp, a lion, and hot lump of iron. Heroines don't much more stubborn than Janet. Image by Alla J. Lanevska.
Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves
This story is so ingrained in popular culture that "open sesame!" is the first thought when standing at a locked door. But it hasn't really received its due from Hollywood. The story did appear in the 2000 miniseries Arabian Nights, but there's plenty of material for a full-length version. The impoverished Ali Baba discovers a robbers' cave filled with magnificent riches and begins smuggling bits out for himself. Then he has to fill in his greedy brother Cassim, who gets trapped in the cave and murdered by the thieves. That's when we meet Morgiana, a brilliant slave-girl in Cassim's house and the best character in the whole story. Again and again, she foils the thieves in their quest to retrieve their treasure. At the end, Ali Baba (who, in the original, is already married) weds her to one of his sons as a reward, but some simple rearranging of the plot would create a vehicle for a couple who can bicker winningly. Image of Ali Baba by Maxfield Parrish, 1909
Cupid and Psyche
If you absolutely must adapt Beauty and the Beast, at least go with a variant that skips the rose and the mysterious castle and, for the love of god, the singing dinnerware. This Roman version first appeared in Lucius Apuleius's Golden Ass and is likely familiar to most American high schoolers from Edith Hamilton's Mythology. Psyche is married off to a man she's forbidden to see, and he turns out to be completely wonderful (if invisible). Unfortunately, her vile, envious sisters insist he must be repulsive monster and talk her into taking a midnight peek at his face. He wakes up and flies off and Psyche's stuck doing wretched chores for Aphrodite until she can get him back. It's the perfect project for an exceptionally pretty young man and a nubile starlet.
Bonus: You'll recognize the narrative bones of this story if you've seen The Polar Bear King, which itself is an adaptation of a Blue Fairy Book classic, "East of the Sun and West of the Moon" and equally compelling source material.
The Wild Swans
In this Hans Christian Andersen tale, a villainous queen turns eleven princes into swans and runs them off. Their little sister Elisa follows them into exile and undertakes heroic efforts to free them. She starts knitting shirts for them from nettles, tearing up her hands and keeping a vow of silence all the while. Because she is — let's face it — a bit weird, she's very nearly burned at the stake as a witch, before she finally, quickly clothes her brothers and returns them to their human form. It's a touching tale of sibling love, but also much sadder than it should be considering the relatively happy ending.
Also, use this song in the trailer and it'll be an instant hit.
Oisín and Tir na nÓg
Oisin, son of Fingal, is a hero from Ireland's Fenian cycle, a series of legends about a heroic band of warriors. This particular character stands out because while he was skilled in battle, he was also a legendarily famous bard. He's also got a deeply romantic love story with a tragic end: He follows a fairy woman across the sea to Tir na nÓg. After what he thinks is just a few years, he returns home for a brief visit. When he steps off his horse (against his wife's advice), Oisin rapidly and immediately ages.
This one even comes with an intriguing 19th century framing device: In 1760, at the height of a vogue for romantic relics, a poet named James Macpherson published Fragments of ancient poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Gaelic or Erse language. He claimed to have discovered them, though their authenticity has been in doubt ever since. But what if they were the real deal?
Ever told a fib that just got way, way out of hand? An impoverished miller informs the king that his lovely daughter can spin straw into gold. His highness loves the sound of this, so the poor girl is locked in a room with a spinning wheel and a heap of hay and told to make it work. That's when a funny little man comes to her rescue, but he demands payment. The king requests more and more gold; Rumpelstiltzkin wants increasingly elaborate payoffs, culminating with her firstborn once she's queen. But she outwits him in the end, discovers his name, and the nasty little man either rips himself in two or falls in a hole in the ground, depending on your variant. If only she could dump her royal husband into the same pit...
A rich man (maybe even a king) with a great blue beard begins courting a young woman. Despite some creepy vibes, she finally accedes to her parents' wishes and marries him. He takes her to his castle, gives her keys to his storerooms, forbids her from a particular closet, and takes off on a business trip. Obviously, because she's curious as a cat, she investigates the off-limits room — only to discover it's caked in blood and filled with the skeletons of Bluebeard's previous wives. She seems to be caught, until her brothers appear in the nick of time. While it's been adapted several times, including a 2009 French version by Catherine Breillat, the story has never had the kind of full-scale treatment it richly deserves. Image of Bluebeard by Gustave Doré, 1862.
In preparing this post, I relied heavily on Jack Zipes' The Great Fairy Tale Tradition, as well as Google Books' versions of Andrew Lang's various fairy books. For more on the subject, check out The Classic Fairy Tales, edited by Maria Tatar.