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What is a Fairy Tale Retelling?

S.R. Beaston
Crafty with words, wit, and wisdom, just add caffeine to make it more interesting.
The first fairy tales took the form of oral folklore, crafted as moral and cautionary guides. Children were scared into obeying them under duress of being eaten by a witch, or eaten by a bear, or eaten by their own father after their stepmother cooked them into revenge soup (I'm so serious).
Rumpelstiltskin was one of the first documented tales, told in many countries, with various iterations of his peculiar name. The story paints a ripple effect of what a daughter must do to perpetuate her father's lie to save herself from certain death. The gnome-like Rumpelstiltskin makes a deal to spin straw to gold for her in exchange for her first-born child.
The moral beneath the tale is that lying will only do more harm than good, and will hurt others along the way.
The same moral with the same outrageous name has been retold to conform to the societal expectations at the time.

The first iterations of Beauty and the Beast were crafted to illustrate a young woman obediently marrying a beast, and through treating him with kindness and respect, she reveals his true princely nature.
Moral: Girls should obediently marry whomever they are sold to, because even if your betrothed is an old, ugly, mean man, your submission might turn him kind.
Beauty and the Beast (1991) teaches children to value a person's character over superficial qualities like appearances.
And I can't really tell you the moral of this one, but I'm open to suggestions.

Fairy tale retellings conform to the societal expectations of their own time.
Leave out Cinderella's stepsisters cutting off their own toes and toss in a couple signing mice, and you've got the Disneyfied retelling about being kind and following your dreams.
If Little Red Riding Hood used her wit to slow a wolf rather than being eaten alive, we have the Grimm’s version.
Whether the moral is to tell the truth, follow your heart, or marry whoever your dad tells you to, fairytales act as a thermometer for what society thought was important through generations. A fairytale retelling is taking trusted mouths and giving them a new song to sing.
After all, a tale as old as time can still be told in new ways.


So what is a fairy tale retelling?

A fairy tale retelling is a story of any medium that takes an existing fairy tale (or elements of it) to twist into a new story. Sometimes it is a different version of the same story (like from another character's perspective—think Maleficent 2014), and other times it's a completely different story that just borrows elements from the original (think Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters).
It’s Ariel from The Little Mermaid (1989) marrying the prince instead of being turned into sea foam, like she did in the original story.
Love them or hate them, fairy tales have been retold for centuries, some so far removed that it’s hard to even recognize the original source material. In the past decade alone, retellings have been a hot market in the literature world, creating a hefty library of this, now considered, genre.

The legalities of rewriting a fairy tale

The original fairy tales (as in, the hundreds-of-years-old ones) fall under public domain universally, but be careful. There is a difference between using Rapunzel as your protagonist and taking her Disney sidekick, Pascal, along for your story.
Ensure you know what is public domain as original fairy tales and what falls under copyright.
Using fairy tale stories and characters in books, movies, and video games can give us a sense of novelty, familiarity, and nostalgia, which enhances a retelling. But it’s important to differentiate between what is free use, and what elements are under a separate active copyright.

Examples of fairy tale retellings

We’ve glanced at the spearhead for fairy tale retellings through Disney cartoons, but books have stepped in close behind with their own takes on these classics and have only grown in popularity. 

Even the more select and picky readers will recognize some of these books that have littered every YA corner of bookstores for years.
Cinder by Marissa Meyer
The Glass Casket by McCormick Templeman
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
Sweetly by Jackson Pearce
The influence of these tales has bled into many facets of the literature we read, whether they are direct retellings or not. It’s fun to go in blind only to slowly see the similarities. A good retelling is sometimes unrecognizable at first.

How to start writing a fairy tale retelling

Once you’ve determined your favorite fairy tale or tales, maybe rewriting one yourself is appealing to you. Here’s some suggestions of ways you can go about it. 

1. Know the original

Nothing can be changed without first knowing the original. Study that story inside and out, and study the retellings that came from it. It might be a good idea to note elements you'd like to use that fall under the public domain, and a list of elements that are under a separate copyright.

2. Think outside all the boxes

It’s no longer considered a twist for the hero to be the villain. It’s not enough to tell the story from a side character's point of view. Feel the freedom of a true retelling. Strip the story to its bones and dress it your way.

3. Subvert the most general expectations

Does this story generally take place in Medieval Europe? Take it to the streets of Southern California. Does the tale have a witch? Make the witch a speaking tree. Tie in new elements and ask "how would this change and enhance the bones of this story?" and create something magical. 

4. Combine and remove!

No one says you have to stick to one story. The Once Upon a Time TV series is a great example of what a retelling and reimagining can do together. Two (or more) tales can share the same space.
Another example of a fairy tale retelling mishmash is the Shrek franchise. That story incorporates many classic characters, like the three blind mice, Pinnochio, and the classic princesses. If you recall, the princesses included in Shrek have the same names as the Disney princesses–Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty are all there–but they don’t use Disney’s actual characters.
Here is the Shrek reimagining of Snow White: