Modern retellings of fairy tales – How can the symbolism in fairy tales be adapted to different genres in the film and TV industry within our modern era?
This was a research project whereby I looked at four retellings of Donkey Skin set in very different places and time periods. These four retellings each belonged to one particular genre: the fantasy genre, historical fiction, Film Noir and science fiction. The designs that are illustrated in the finished book are possible solutions for designing Donkey Skin for each of these genres. The decisions taken regarding the designs are justified in the book and in the reflective journal. To analyse if this tale could be adapted to a story set in the real world, either in the 40s or in the future, I imagined new retellings with redefined characters and a more elaborate plot. The magical aspects of the tale have sometimes been slightly altered to fit the era in which the story is set, however they have not been dismissed, even for a story set in the real world.
The designs shown here are not the only solutions for newer adaptations of this fairy tale. On the contrary, the retellings of a fairy tale are endless. A fairy tale can be embellished and retold in thousands of ways while staying true to the fact that they deal with human fears and anxieties. It has been this way since they were first told orally and it will remain so in years to come. While there are other solutions concerning the designs of a film adaptation of Donkey Skin, the work recorded in the book show that there are possibilities when adapting a fairy tale to a genre that, at first look, is very different from the setting of these stories.
Fairy tales deal with universal issues that we all face in our lives. Most deal with growing up: the metaphorical journey by which we go through and gain our independence. Some fairy tales have deeper morals and lessons. The tale of Snow White teaches us that vanity is wrong. Cinderella or Toads and Diamonds, urge us to be kind and to work hard. Little Red Riding Hood warns children not to stray from the path and to listen to the wise advice of their elders. In Donkey Skin, one of the lessons relates to the myth of Oedipus and the idea in psychology that, as children, all little girls want to marry their fathers and all little boys want to marry their mothers. However it warns us that this sort of love is wrong and that a child needs to grow up and gain his independence if he wants to live a pleasant life. It denounces incest as wrong and unnatural (the Fairy Godmother is the voice of reason). Staying in the comfort of home tended to by our parents is the easy way, but it is not necessarily the right way. There comes a time when we all need to grow up. The tale includes the metaphorical journey that most heroines go through in fairy stories: like Rapunzel and Snow White, Donkey Skin leaves her home and travels on her own in search of work and a place in which to settle. In fairy tales, the metaphorical journey is usually linked to the woods. Crossing the deserted and seemingly dangerous forest is a rite of passage. The forest represents the unknown – although we may fear it, we need to go through it; otherwise, we will never get anywhere in life. Far from the comfort of home, we need to face the trials of life in order to find our happy ending. The notion that hard work always pays off is also frequently dealt with in fairy tales. The Princess endures many hardships and is usually ill treated by the other villagers that do not accept her as being different. Through it all, she perseveres and stays concentrated on her work. Even after she is seen by the Prince, and that he throws a ball in order to formally meet her, she is patient and waits for him to dismiss all of the other women in the kingdom. Patience is a virtue.
But most of all, fairy tales are about hope. While nothing will ever change the fact that we are easily subjected to fear, fairy tales are a way to give us hope and to help us deal with our anxieties. They show that while things may seem desperate, we need to believe that everything will eventually be all right. We need to hang on to the fact that by working through a hard situation, we will find a solution. Perhaps our fairy godmother isn’t the one who is going to solve our problems, but the individuals that we hold dearly in our hearts and on whom we know we can count, are the source of comfort that she represents. The fairy godmother never appears to those who do not deserve her help – the same goes for friendship. To come to depend on someone and rely on them is hard work that eventually always pays off.
These are universal concepts that can be adapted to any story. Film Noir by definition is about disillusionment. These films made in the late 1940s and 1950s reflected the constant state of fear and insecurity that people were in. Not only had the world been through a global war, tensions had also risen between two powerful nations threatening it with Mutually Assured Destruction. In this dark time, Hollywood directors came to reflect these fears in their films where bleakness, melancholy and pessimism were usually the main subjects. Film Noir seldom have happy endings. Film Noir and fairy tales are opposites. Opposites attract. This project gave me the opportunity to try and adapt Donkey Skin to Film Noir. Although it was a daunting experiment at first, I believe that the two completed each other. Film Noir are about fear, and fairy tales are a way to deal with it. Magical elements in fairy tales are usually a way to illustrate situations or ideas. The gold producing donkey represents the King’s fortune; the Fairy Godmother gives advice; by donning the donkey’s fur (which represents the carnal nature) the Princess is basically donning the disguise of the thing she is trying to escape – people rarely notice what’s right under their noses. These can all find a non-magical equivalent: a priceless artwork worth a fortune, a trustworthy companion and a daring disguise. If carefully analysed, the tale of Donkey Skin can be adapted to Film Noir.
A European fairy tale set in the Middle East is unusual. It was a way to investigate if it was possible to adapt a fairy tale not only to the historical genre, but also to a very different cultural setting. The set of tales that compose the Arabian Nights can be compared to fairy tales as they often have similar origins. They have their own versions of magical symbols and meaningful metaphors that can help in adapting a fairy tale to this setting. The white donkey of Egypt can replace our own European donkey, the Fairy Godmother can be changed into a Genie, and the dangers and uncertainty of war is similar to a life of hardships and the trials that forge our personalities. Hence, Donkey Skin was successfully adapted to the historical genre set in the 11th century at the start of the First Crusade. The elements of Perrault’s original text are still present, although the theme of hope is predominant. In a world of war and chaos, there is something to root for: Donkey Skin’s search for a new life; the unlikely love that this Byzantine heroine shares with her European Crusader. Dealing with a subject at the forefront of today’s issues – war of religion – the tale is given a new dimension, treating a current controversy.
In my opinion, there is always a solution to deal with the magical elements present in fairy tales that may seem like an issue when adapting to genres set in the real world, past or future. While the historical adaptation should be referred to as historical fiction – indeed, the presence of a magical genie and donkey makes the story unrealistic to be classified as truthful – it could have been possible to realistically set the tale in the past. There is something mystical about the things in which people used to believe in the past and that they illustrated in their art (Greek mythology, Egyptian gods, Yggdrasil and the Nidhogg). Alternatively, in science fiction settings, the seemingly impossible elements present can be explained through a scientific reasoning that make them viable in a distant future. Mystic is a solution for magic for stories set in the past. Science is a solution for magic for stories set in the future.
Generally, modern retellings of fairy tales work because the essence of the stories is unchanged despite the newer twists and embellishments added by today’s modern storytellers. The symbolism and universal concepts dealt with in these stories can be adapted to any genre or setting. Furthermore, this trend appeals to people because it enables us to rediscover well-known stories and the characters that we have all grown to love since we were children.
Slay your dragons and you’ll live happily ever after.