I have always loved fairy tales and I take note when I see them crop up in literature, movies, television, and other art forms. Lately, I am noticing a plethora of fairy tale literature and movies. I have also been hearing more about fractured fairy tales. Hence, I thought I would take a moment to ponder what constitutes a fractured fairy tale.
From what I find, a fractured fairy tale seems to be commonly defined as taking an established fairy tale and re-writing it with a twist or changing it in some way in order to make it funny. (Although, I myself, might argue that funny part. More later.)
So I guess we need to establish just what a classic fairy tale is, then. According to Merriam-Webster, a fairy tale is “a story involving fantastic forces and beings, as fairies, wizards, and goblins, and in which improbable events lead to a happy ending.” (Personally, I would argue that happy ending requirement, too.)
Hmn, so when I stop to think about it, Disney really is the master of fractured fairy tales. I love all those old, classic Disney movies of fairy tales. Let’s establish that before I delve into how Disney has fractured those same beloved tales. Let’s maybe take “Cinderella” as an example. I believe we can all agree that Cinderella fits the classic fairy tale definition.
Let’s take a look at how Cinderella has changed over time. The first recorded version of a “Cinderella” story is that of Rhodopis, a Greek slave living in Egypt, which is given to us by way of Strabo in the 1st Century BCE. In this version, Rhodopis’ Egyptian master is kind and gives her a pair of slippers; her fellow servants are the mean ones who pester Rhodopis. While washing her slippers, the falcon god Horus swoops down and steals one, then drops it in the Pharaoh’s lap. Seeing it as a sign, the Pharaoh searches for the owner, finds Rhodopis, who produces the matching slipper, and they are married. The happily ever after ending certainly applies here.
But let’s move forward in time. Let’s go to 1857 and look at the Grimm brothers’ telling of Cinderella, or Aschenputtel. In this version, it is the stepsisters and stepmother that are the meanies. And Aschenputtel’s kind pigeon friends help her out with the gowns and slippers she will need, for she goes to three balls. The prince puts pitch on the steps at the last one, so one slipper sticks to it and is left behind. Here the story takes a bit of a gruesome twist as the stepmother encourages the stepsisters to cut off parts of their feet in order to make the slipper fit. But the prince knows “the bride is not right” because “the shoe is too tight”, as he can tell from all the blood. But of course, the shoe fits Aschenputtel. However, there is more. When Aschenputtel and the prince are married, those helpful pigeons peck out the eyes of the stepsisters, leaving them blind. Definitely not a happy ending for them.
So how does Disney go about fracturing this fairy tale? Depending on your view of which story they start with, either they add an evil stepmother and stepsisters along with magic in the form of a fairy godmother to the Rhodopis version or, if they start with the Grimm version, they add the fairy godmother and her magic in addition to giving the stepsisters a happier ending. Oh, and Disney also takes out the violence, making it rather funny when the stepsisters try to force their feet into Cinderella’s glass slipper. Hmn, funny, fractured… Wasn’t that in our definition? So if you go by the common definition of fractured fairy tales used above, then I would argue that Disney is a master at fracturing fairy tales.
Ah, but sometimes I like arguing with myself. You could say it is what Debeys do best. So allow me to quickly discredit my theories a bit.
First, when I gave you the definition of a classic fairy tale, I noted that I disagreed with the notion that they are required to have happy endings. Take my favorite example of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”. There are even two versions to choose from. In one, Goldilocks does not escape, but instead gets eaten by the bears. In the other, Goldilocks is actually an old hag who jumps out a window either to her death or is arrested and locked up or running away into the forest. Take your choice. She did break into the Bears’ house, after all.
Or how about “Little Red Riding Hood”? In the original French fairy tale by Perrault, Red Riding Hood is eaten by the wolf. End of story. No nice woodsman. No happily ever after.
So, yeah, I have a bit of a problem in defining a fairy tale as a story that has to have a happy ending.
And that funny requirement for fracturing a fairy tale. I have a problem with that, too. I can agree with the first part of the definition that fracturing a fairy tale should involve twisting or changing it in some way, but I don’t believe the result has to be funny. Take the Cinderella example above. If anything, the Grimms took Rhodopis and fractured it toward the grim side. (Tee Hee! Pun fully intended.) I really don’t find the humor in the stepsisters cutting off bits of their feet, then later having their eyes pecked out by pigeons.
Or maybe consider a more modern telling of a classic fairy tale in the 2012 movie “Snow White and the Huntsman”. This version definitely has twists and turns and changes galore, but humor? No, not really.
And to top it all off, I have written this entire blog thus far without even mentioning the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. I believe they were the ones to actually invent fractured fairy tales. If so, everything I’ve said is bull (wink, wink).