Thursday, 16 February 2012

Reworking Fairy Tales

The park and ride bus into Cambridge yesterday made me think about that old writing prompt, the reworking of a fairy tale. The teenager next to me was reading a book where the heroine was called Ash and had a stepmother. Sounds familiar? I’m not sure if it was the book ‘Ash’ by Malinda Lo. If it was, the twist in the reworking has Ash ending up in a lesbian relationship, just one of endless takes made on this particular fairy tale over the centuries. With the current young adult interest in the supernatural, reworking of fairy tales is selling books, films and TV. A recent addition, proving to be very popular, is the American fantasy-drama, Grimm. I have not caught the series yet, but I like the premise of detectives investigating crimes based on fairy tales.

Reworking fairy tales is an idea I’ve always enjoyed, but then I have always loved the original fairy tales. One of the books I liked to read to classes of junior children was Kaye Umansky’s ‘The Fwog Pwince - the Twuth’, and I have used the reworking writing prompt in various guises with children and adults. The year 4 team I worked with in Leicestershire had great fun producing newspaper reports based on the events in nursery rhymes along the lines of ‘Fairytale News’ by Colin Hawkins, which has a mini-newspaper insert full of reports based on fairy tales.
Familiarity with the story is what makes this a good writing prompt and I have used it for a quick write, and for longer (homework) sessions with writing groups. What you are asking writers to work on is developing their
version of a famous story, short or long, but with the aim of making it different and there are many ways you might do this. If you fancy having a go, think about one of the variations below:

  1. Inject some local knowledge. Rework the fairy tale by setting it in a place you know well.
  2. Bring the story up-to-date. How will you have to change the plot to make it fit in a modern setting? I think ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ would make a great basis for something set in the current political climate. Of course, reworking does not have to just be about fairy tales. ‘Gods Behaving Badly’ by Marie Phillips is about the twelve gods of Olympus, who are alive and well in the twenty-first century, unhappily crammed together in a London townhouse and holding down jobs.
  3. Choosing to set the story in an easily recognisable time period also works well with reworking fairy tales. Victorian or Elzabethan London might make a good place for Cinderella to live, but then so would the Wild West. I’ve always wondered why the world around Sleeping Beauty never seemed to change much in the story. What would happen if she woke to the world of the 1920s, with flapper costumes and looser morals all around her?
  4. Rewriting the fairy tale in a particular genre could bring interesting results. Ali Baba and the Forty Theives as sci-fi - or has that been done in the film ‘The Time Bandits’? What about Goldilocks and Snow White teamed-up as Philip Marlowe style detectives? Am I getting carried away here? Maybe I should stop watching all the Shrek films!
  5. Rewriting a fairy tale as a poem can be fruitful. I stumbled across a website where the author has done just this (RewritingFairy-tales)  It’s certainly something which worked for Roald Dahl in ‘Revolting Rhymes’. If you haven’t read that, get down to your library straight away! 
  6. You could try to write the story from a different point of view – first person is currently very fashionable, or do what Kaye Umansky does in her poem ‘I’m sick of that Hansel and Gretal’ (‘Witches in Stitches) and write from the antagonist’s point of view.

There are endless variations on the theme of reworking an old tale and many bestsellers have been produced along these lines. A quick search will bring you up lots of original stories, but if your memory fails you and you can’t think of any off the top of your head, try some of the ones below. Above all, have fun. Right at the bottom of this post is a very short story I wrote after setting this writing prompt for a group.
Aesop's Fables
The Ass in the Lion's Skin
The North Wind and the Sun
The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse
The Sick Lion
The Tortoise and the Hare
The Boy Who Cried Wolf
Hans Christian Andersen
The Emperor's New Clothes
The Little Mermaid
The Princess and the Pea
The Snow Queen
The Ugly Duckling
Grimms Fairy Tales
Beauty and the Beast
Goldilocks And The Three Bears
Hansel and Gretel
Little Red Riding Hood
Sleeping Beauty
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
The Three Little Pigs
Nursery Rhymes
Baa Baa Black Sheep
Little Boy Blue
Little Miss Muffet
Mary Had A Little Lamb
There Was An Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe

 Trials of the Job

“Mirror, mirror, on the …”
“Get lost!”
          The mirror was entirely black. It wouldn’t even show Esmeralda her own reflection, let alone any magical revelations. Stamping her foot did nothing to galvanise the mirror either, though her broom began sweeping the kitchen floor, which was a small bonus.
“I need to see what she’s doing.” Esmeralda did not usually resort to begging.
          “Phone her.” The mirror replied in a flat, arms folded across the chest kind of voice.
          “Why are you being so awkward?” Strangely, Esmeralda felt tears pricking at her eyes and turned away from the mirror before it saw her weakness.
          “I don’t like being used.”
          “You’re a mirror for God’s sake. What are you for if not for using?”

          Esmeralda was feeling cross now and yet she knew that it was no use arguing. She just didn’t have any threats to hold over the mirror short of smashing it and that was the one thing she could never do.
          “She’s never been in this situation before.” Esmeralda tried appealing to the mirror’s better nature. “It’s not really sneaking. It’s just showing we care.”
          A small glimmer of light began to flicker in the furthest depths of the glass. That had sparked its conscience and Esmeralda quickly moved to press her point home.
          “What if she’s in danger? She could be lying in an alley, her life blood slowly seeping into the litter strewn gravel.”
          Suddenly the mirror flared into life, becoming a multifaceted diamond scattering beams of light in every direction, before settling down to a street scene where a small red devil was dragging a mini-witch by the hand towards a house. The windows were festooned with cobwebs and on the front step a particularly evil looking pumpkin sat grimacing at passers-by. Knocking on the door, the two cried in unison,
          “Trick or treat!”
          Sighing, Esmeralda returned to her cauldron. She allowed herself the smallest of smiles now that she knew her daughter’s first date was running smoothly.
In the background the mirror chuckled gently as it whispered,
          “Ah, the trials of motherhood!”

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