“Looky, look, look
at the shoe that she took.
There’s blood all over, the shoe’s too small.
She’s not the bride that you met at the ball.”—Jack Zipes, The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (2014).
Fairy tale adaptations have seen an insurgence in recent years; from Maleficent to Snow White, and the fairy tale soap opera, Once Upon a Time, our interests in the classic tales have yet to wane. The newest addition to this fairy tale renaissance is from director Kenneth Branagh. His live-action Cinderella is due out in theaters on March 13th. A renewed interest in “Cinderella” is hardly surprising, given its main themes of rags-to-riches glory for the pure of heart, come-uppances for the wicked, and “true love”, but depending on which tale you read or which film you watch, Cinderella is a dynamic story, altered in the hands of the storyteller.
Indeed, “Cinderella” has been reinvented time and time again, alongside the other “Disney Princesses”. Our earliest recorded text of the tale goes as far back as 9th century China, prior to the popularized German variant of the Brothers Grimm, or the French adaptation of Charles Perrault, from whom fairy tale enthusiast Walt Disney found the focus of his 1950 release. It is Perrault’s Cinderella alongside that of Disney’s that remain at the forefront of our cultural consciousness.
But how has the “Ash Girl” story changed throughout the ages, and how are those changes representative of the times and places in which those stories have taken shape?
The Earliest Known Cinderella
The meanings of fairy, folk, and mythic tales may change through periods of significant transitions. One such transition, for example, would be the shift from an oral to a written tradition. The successive alterations and adaptations of “Cinderella” also vary based on time and place; reinterpretations of such important stories could reflect what kind of Cinderella archetype was required or representative of a particular time and place. For example, many of the stories stress Cinderella’s tiny, childlike feet as a sign of her beauty. There is a parallel to be drawn between this and the significance of Yeh-hsien, which predates the trifecta of influence on our modern-day-Cinderellas: Grimm, Perrault, and Disney.
Though the “Cinderella” story has largely become associated with France, the earliest known written version of the tale was actually published in China in the 9th century. Yeh-hsien, or the Chinese Cinderella, stresses the intelligence and cunning of Cinderella, rather than her beauty and purity. Both of her parents die, leaving her with another of her father’s wives and her daughter, who resemble the story we know in their harsh treatment of Yeh-hsien. However, her “fairy godmother” is a magical fish (some variations of the tale say the fish held the spirit of Yeh-hsien’s dead mother, a theme seen throughout other versions of the story utilizing cows, birds, cats, and dogs) that is also taken away from her. When her step-mother discovers the fish to be of comfort to the girl, she kills the fish.
Yeh-hsien hides the bones of her magical fish in her room, allowing the fish to continue providing all of those things that her family denies her. She is left behind on a festival day, but instead of a gown, glass slippers, and an entourage of animals-turned-servants, the fish provides her with a cloak and tiny golden shoes. She does, in fact, lose a shoe, but not after a magical night of dancing with Prince Charming; instead, she loses it on her run home. When her shoe is discovered, it is later sold to a warlord, who searches to find the owner of the little shoe. When Yeh-hsien reveals herself, she weds the warlord, and her step-mother and step-sister are stoned to death.
The European Cinderella
Giambattista Basile published “La Gatta Cenerentola” or, “Cat Cinderella”, in Naples in 1634. Basile’s Cinderella, known as Zezolla, suffers the dead mother and mistreatment from her father’s new wife, but also suffers at the hands of her beloved governess. When Zezolla explains to her about the cruelty of her step-mother, her governess encourages her to break her step-mother’s neck. All advice from characters henceforth is taken seriously, for some reason. After the murder, Zezolla begs her father to marry the governess by the governess’ own instruction. Her father also does as he is told, and it is soon discovered that the governess had been hiding six daughters of her own – cue the wicked step-sisters – more cruel than the first step-mother Zezolla murdered. Relegated to sleeping in the hearth with the cat, Zezolla is stripped of her name like our other Ash Girls, becoming Cat Cinderella.
The fairy godmother is replaced by fairies who give her a magical date tree from which she receives the glorious clothes to attend a feast hosted by a king. She, too, loses a shoe, and her ‘happily ever after’ commences. Cat Cinderella deviates from the others, but more closely resembles at least the gore of Grimm’s, by painting Cinderella as a clever and deceitful woman, capable of great violence when deemed necessary.
The German, “Aschenputtel”, begins with the death of the mother, the introduction of the wicked step-mother and her two horrible daughters. This Cinderella becomes the house slave we most commonly recognize with the tale. Her fairy godmother is another magic tree, grown on her mother’s grave, the link between her mother’s spirit and magic more blatant here. She asks for aid with her chores from the birds outside, and wishes on the tree for a golden dress. There’s the ball, the prince, the common and stunning lack of dialogue between Cinderella and her future husband, a lost silver slipper this time, and the search for the identity of the owner of the shoe. But when the prince gets to Cinderella’s home, the step-mother hacks off one daughter’s big toe so that the slipper will fit, correctly assuming that the prince is dim-witted and terribly unperceptive. Cinderella’s birds have to alert the prince to the blood in the shoe as he has already declared the step-sister his bride, being a man seemingly desperate to leave this particular house with a bride, any bride, as soon as possible. Realizing she’s about to lose her chance to be mother to a queen, the step-mother then hacks off the second daughter’s heel, and the prince, again, somehow needs the birds to tell him the shoe is full of blood. Cinderella is discovered, her feet mercifully intact, they marry, and as a kind of wedding entertainment, the helpful little birds peck out the step-sister’s eyes. The sadistic step-mother goes unpunished.
It is when we get to France, with Perrault’s “Cendrillon” (1697), that we discard many of the spiritual and violent acts of the previous stories. Perrault gives us what we, as an audience, crave when it comes to the Cinderella: the fairy godmother, the glorious pumpkin coach, and the animals-turned-servants, though he did not introduce the glass slippers – as their appearance has been recorded in earlier versions of the tale. Perrault sanitizes and simplifies the tale for us: Cinderella becomes purely kind and virtuous, generous to a fault; the step-mother and step-sisters, while still cruel, are not wholly sadistic, but self-centered and spiteful. The ending remains the same, but the step-mother and the step-sisters go unscathed; kind and benevolent Cinderella forgives them and finds them suitable matches at court.
Hopes for Branagh’s Adaptation
So what will the adaptation of 2015 say? What kind of Cinderella will Branagh provide us with and how can we compare her to the Cinderellas of the past? Modern reinterpretations of “Snow White,” like Snow White and the Huntsman, have demonstrated a desire to restore some of the darkness of the earliest known written versions. But the Cinderella witnessed in Branagh’s trailer shows instead a desire to further preserve the already immortal 1950s princess, rather than an intellectual makeover of stereotypical gender roles, or a throwback to the blood soaked silk stockings and gold slippers of Aschenputtel in the 19th century. Prior to Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, and Disney, the older “Ash Girl” stories are long forgotten, but their influence on the framework of the more popularized tales is apparent.
Though the specific details vary, certain themes in Cinderella remain the same: this is very much a story about relationships between women, rather than a direct love story. The male characters are either dead, merely absent, or in the background, waiting to be told what to do, or used as catalysts to further the plot. The father, as novelist Angela Carter explains, is “the unmoved mover, the unseen organizing principle. Without the absence of the father there would have been no story because there would have been no conflict.” And the Prince is only moved by the singular desire to find a wife, and, unable to do so himself, a royal ball is arranged on his behalf. In the space of a dance, the Prince expects to fall in love, and he is successful, insofar as fairy stories go, but this is not his story.
This is the dynamic between Cinderella and the loss of her mother, which Branagh’s first trailer focuses on, and of her relationship with her step-mother and step-sisters, and of the fairy godmother. None of these women is given much depth, either, but their attributes and actions are extreme: The step-sisters and step-mother, portrayed as very wicked, and very ugly because of it, create the hatred, jealousy, and sabotage that the very good and very beautiful Cinderella must overcome.
This is where Branagh’s adaptation seems strongest. He has assembled a brilliant cast of strong female actresses who are more than able to make the relationships amongst one another more complex than meets the eye. And I, for one, am excited to see both what parts of the stories Branagh preserves and what he makes his own come March. Not only do I hope Branagh will intellectualize his princess and her counterparts, but I also hope he brings his prince to life, rather than use him to display the glory of Cinderella’s superficial transformation from dirty household slave to the resplendent and beautiful queen she becomes merely by virtue of his declaration of love because an unusual little shoe fit her unusually small foot.