“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.”
—Virginia Woolf

How Into the Woods Got it Wrong (And Why You Should Too)

This weekend, I finally got around to seeing Into the Woods. Years ago, I saw the play the film is based on with my high school drama club on Broadway. Of course, because Into the Woods is a Disney film, there were a few things from the original musical that didn’t make it to the big screen (the fate of Rapunzel, the Baker’s Wife’s encounter with Cinderella’s Prince, etc.). Despite those changes, the overall theme of the musical remained intact.

Into the Woods

Revisionism and Why Writers Should Rewrite Fairy Tales

Reimagining existing stories or genres of stories through a different lens is called revisionism, and it can be a great creative exercise.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who has been frustrated by the changes that have been made to modern fairy tales. Sure, everyone feels good when there’s a happy ending, but life doesn’t exist in a happy ending bubble.

Take the Disneyfied version of The Little Mermaid or Rapunzel, and bring it back down to earth.

Or take a modern “fairy tale”, like the Twilight series or Fifty Shades of Grey, and bring it back to the world of reality with a healthy dose of pragmatism and a female protagonist who is secure in who she is.

While we all enjoy a dose of escapism from time to time, sometimes it can be refreshing to bring the fantasy back into reality.

Into the Woods is a Fairy Tale Transformed

For those of you who have seen Into the Woods in either of its iterations, you’re well aware of the fact that wishes have consequences, and they come with a price.

The exploration of what comes after happily ever after is a welcome change from the fairy tales that we hear as children, where princesses need to be rescued, relationships progress from meeting to marriage in a matter of hours, and the story always ends happily (at least, it does for our heroes).

Into the Woods forces the characters to actually deal with the repercussions of their choices and wishes, and brings elements of what it’s actually like to be human into the second act.

Similarly, The Wicked Years book series explores the politics of Oz outside of the Wizard of Oz book and film world that most of us are familiar with, and it does so with a much darker and more cynical lens.

Reality is far different than the fairy tales we consume as children. Life continues beyond the happy ending. Fairy godmothers don’t swoop in at the first sign of tears and wave them away with their magic wands. And as a writer, it can be a fun exercise to bring a beloved fairy tale back down to earth.

What is your favorite “revised” fairy tale? Share in the comments section.

PRACTICE

Take a scene from an idealized fairy tale and reimagine it in a more realistic manner. Write for fifteen minutes and post your practice in the comments, and check out the work of your fellow writers.

About Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

  • C.M. Boers

    While I didn’t do your writing challenge, I wanted to comment on the post in general. I totally agree with you on how fairy tales are a bit far-fetched. And I too loved the fact that Into the Woods brought reality with it. (though I didn’t care for the musical part that I feel they could have done a little less of) I think it’s a great premise to try to do that more often, but yet at the same time I feel that there is still a lot of room for fairy tales. Are we not so very interested in reading and watching movies to escape from reality? I know for me entering new worlds created at the hands of someones imagination is one of my favorite things. If every book ended in a realistic tragedy, I wouldn’t be so keen on picking up another one. Though sometimes it can be grounding in the midst of make believe. I think I will make an effort to put a little bit more reality in at least some of what I write in the future! Thanks for the perspective!

    • At the core of reality lies nothing boring at all — that’s my opinion, C.M.B. I think the problem is that people live superficial lives, and most fiction delves beneath the surface, beyond our ability to control what happens, and that’s where magic happens. So perhaps the problem with boring fiction is that the writer didn’t go deep enough into reality. The problem is dwelling on the surface, don’t you think? Just thinking out loud, here. What do you think?

      • C.M. Boers

        Reality is far from boring, heartbreaking yes, but boring no. I have to say I liked they way they poked fun at reality, but without that dose of comedy what do you have? Drama, sadness, despair. Who would choose to subject themselves to negative all the time? The reality is, our world is sad these days, though I guess there are readers that enjoy that. I am certainly not one of them, to that edge of the sword I’m not one for horror movies either. To each his own.

  • Becki

    This was a fun post because I have spent several years revising the Cinderella story in various genres (horror, science fiction) and with different endings. So far, I have 9 or 10 different variations ranging from a one page flash fiction version to a novella length story. I need to get it finished since fairy tales seem to be “in” at the moment. My concern was finding an audience since most of the versions are NOT family-friendly (in one, the prince is shoe-fetish serial killer, for example.)

    • Helaine Grenova

      That last one certainly seems different and a little freaky to someone who loves the original story. But the sci-fy version could have an audience.

  • Elycar

    The original fairy tales, when written, were far from the Disney versions we all grew up with. Film makers and TV producers are getting closer to telling them the way they were devised. They were meant to be cautionary tales and that is what they are becoming again. We have grown up. Sad for our kids, though… they won’t be privy to the happy, sanitized versions the way we were. It was nice while it lasted.

    • Helaine Grenova

      I always thought that the ‘sanitized versions’ of fairy tales as you call them were boring and worthless. I don’t particularly care for the fake the guy gets the girl type stories. I think he has to work to win her or vice versa. I think if kids see that even at a young age they will be able to see that you can achieve your dreams, but it isn’t just going to happen.

      • elycar

        Depends how old you are when you hear them. In saying “sad for the kids”, I was thinking of young children who don’t really need to hear about adult conflicts just yet. They get exposed to that far too young, in my opinion.

        • Helaine Grenova

          Well I guess I can’t talk since I was reading Harry Potter in first and second grade and as many “big kids” books since I was tall enough to reach the shelves. I like the realism better than the happy ending.

    • Elycar… Methinks kids these days have plenty of happy sappy stories to keep them happy and sappy. Hey, I’m writing one myself, for the Kindle Store. Speaking of which, I think there’s about a million kids eBooks for sale, most of them happy and sappy ever after. Another thought, while I’m thinking — is it possible that the market fills with what readers want? Is there a subconscious need now for more gritty renderings of life. Dunno.

  • Jay Warner

    The best “revision” of a fairy tale I have ever read is “The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey, based on an 1857 Russian folktale called “Sneguruchka (the Snow Maiden). A young couple moves to Alaska to homestead in the 1920s and faces hardships in dealing with landscape, community, isolation, and the struggle for every day living. Still, they are in an incredibly beautiful place and they dream of having a child. One day in a snowstorm they make a child out of snow and the story is about what happens next. Ivey tells the tale so beautifully with a modern turn that immerses the reader in language, imagery, and deep emotion while weaving elements of fantasy that are so real you don’t question them at all. “The Snow Child” to me is essential reading for anyone interested in revisioned stories.

  • Helaine Grenova

    My favorite retell of a classic fairy tale is “Cinder & Ella” by Kelly Oram. It is a retelling of Cinderella without magic in modern times. Beyond a lucky (or unlucky) coincidence or two everything that happens it fairly logical and could actually happen. For example Cinder and Ella meet on a blog and don;t know who each other are. Cinder (in reality Brian Oliver) is a famous movie star while Ella (Ellamera) is actually a girl recovering from a very traumatic accident. It is beautifully written and I just love the logic and feasibility of it all.

  • Jack and
    Jill Today

    By Tony

    “Jack” Jill cried,
    “It’s time to rise and shine, we have to get going if we plan to climb the
    mountain and get to the mansion before dark”.

    Both Jack and Jill were on vacation in Idaho
    and had heard about the J.R. Simplot’s mansion.
    It seemed that this guy, Simplot was the man who started the whole Idaho
    potato business back in the day.

    “Alright
    Jill, we have plenty of time to get breakfast at the diner before the climb.” replied
    Jack exasperatingly. This vacation had been planned for the longest time, and would
    have gone swimmingly had Jack not stopped at that gas station when they got to
    Boise. The older gentleman in the
    station had started to regal them with the history of the mansion and how beautiful
    the place was and certainly very grand.
    He continued by adding that the State was trying to give it back to the
    family after it was gifted some years ago.

    “This is
    taking a lot longer than I thought it would and I’m getting tired of this climb”.
    Jack complained. “It seems that every time you hear about some
    strange site, you insist on seeking it out and getting me to follow you.

    Guess what’s going to happen now!

    • Helaine Grenova

      Is Jack going to fall down the mountain and break an arm or something? and then Jill tells her brother that it is all his darn fault for wanting to climb like a mountain goat?

      • Jack will eventually fall down and break his crown(pate). Why he falls is the mystery that will unfold. Jill, being the ingenue in this fable will follow Jack into the abyss. Why you might ask, and ask you will if I have done my job.

  • mysistersgarden

    Smart Women Don’t Wear Glass Slippers

    Beguiling, beautiful, and bewitching in her every manner, Prince Charming could not believe his luck meeting Cinderella, the fairy-tale princess who arrived unexplained at the ball. They danced through the night. She was light on her feet, and light with her wit.
    Charming and Cinderella spent hours dancing and had eyes for nobody else in the
    kingdom.

    Charming was jolted out of his dismay at having to attend yet another ball in search of
    a match for him. He had danced with, spoken with, and been bored out of his
    mind with every available lass within a fortnight’s ride of the kingdom.
    Beauties they were, light on their feet they were, rich and well bred they
    were, but when it came to brains, each of them fell short. Several couldn’t
    even read. Most could not converse beyond the insipid gossip that hovered like
    flies from kingdom to kingdom.

    Charming was surprised that not only was Cinderella beautiful, but she also was
    articulate, well-read, and interested in the social concerns of residents of
    the realm. Cinderella had a particular interest in the practice of near-slavery
    under which most servants were held. She and the prince shared stories they had
    heard and discussed ways to ensure fair working conditions for all servants in
    the kingdom, especially those who were poor relations with no other home except
    the one in which they were kept in conditions similar to prisons.

    Charming kept his rapt attention on Cinderella’s every word. The two of them discussed
    social reforms regarding servants and poor relations. They also discussed the
    current state of agriculture and how best to tend the land so that all members
    of the kingdom would be fed.

    The clock struck midnight and aghast, Cinderella ran to the door. Charming had no
    idea why she felt the need to escape so suddenly. The ball would last long past
    midnight. As Cinderella disappeared down the palace’s marble steps, one of her
    shoes slipped off her foot. In moments she was gone. Charming was beyond
    disappointed, because he had no way to contact her. As he glanced down the
    steps, he saw Cinderella’s shoe. He ran down the stairs, knowing he wouldn’t be
    able to catch her but nonetheless wanting to have a memento of the evening and
    perhaps a way to find her by matching her shoe to the one she still had.

    Charming knelt down, picked up the tiny shoe, and held it in his palm. He had a puzzled
    look on his face. “This is made of glass,” he said. “Why would any sensible,
    intelligent woman ever wear shoes made of glass? I guess she wasn’t so bright
    after all.” He tossed the shoe into the shrubbery, turned, and walked back up
    the stairs.

    • I reckon Charming lacked imagination, and Cindy is probably better off without him!

    • Helaine Grenova

      I love the way you totally turned the classic story of Cinderella on it’s head. Props for creativity and the epic surprise factor. Props for Cinderella and her wit and knowledge. Though I am disappointed that the Prince couldn’t look past appearances. But I guess you can’t have it all. I bet you could lengthen it into a short story and fill out both of the characters a little bit.

    • Cool.
      Cinders and Charming destined to be leaders in social and economic reform only to be brought down by a silly fashion choice. Is a glass slipper recyclable? Surely a clever Charming could have seen the wisdom in Cinder’s fashion faux par and recognised her commitment to a world beyond synthetic footwear. And what kind of person throws glass in a bush. It seems that Charming may not have been as sharp witted or well heeled as the slipper he judged and tossed.

      Ha ha.
      Great story
      Regards Dawn

  • Helaine Grenova

    This is the beginning of my version of The Goose Girl.

    The Goose Girl – modern remix

    Life is ironic. It just has a way of biting you on the butt
    and turning your fortune around. One minute you have the world in you palm, the
    next…well getting a goose egg is perhaps a too literal explanation of my fall
    from glory, not that it take much to see the irony of my situation. I started
    out life as the cream of the crop. My parents were prominent business men and
    women, dad was a lawyer on Wall Street and mom was a doctor at Bellevue. I had
    it well, better than many of my friends. However going to school in the country
    was not my thing. I got used to it, eventually, all the stares of people
    generally get less noticeable after seeing it for a while.

    Unfortunately my junior year took a turn for worse. In a
    string of truly unfortunate events my dad went bankrupt, my mother died a in a
    flu outbreak, and I was left to pick up the pieces. My dad lived out to
    Kentucky where I was struggling to get through school. Suddenly all the people
    that have been my friend just disappear. The rich popular girl that I was
    disappeared forever once the word got out. To pay my way at the school I am now
    tending the geese, the horses and the cows.

    Geese stink. They are violent, greedy, while birds. They
    have no sense of personal hygiene and they do not care about anyone who takes
    care of them. I have been bitten more times than I can count and have more
    areas of bruised skin than unbruised. It’s crazy. And all the farmer’s
    daughters and sons treat me like an idiot every time I complain. It’s not my
    fault that I’ve never dealt with a goose before. Seriously, I can help with
    anything medical related. Especially since mom is teaching me the basics of the
    practice of medicine. I can deal with Wall Street lawyers and other people of
    the socially class. I can deal of backstabbing. But I cannot in NO circumstance
    deal with geese.

    Dad keeps saying that
    I should marry anyone in this stupid small town that would take me away from
    the geeks. I totally agree with him. Except that there’s no one in this small
    town that doesn’t have a farm. And all of farms contain one thing: geese. We
    don’t have enough money to move to a different town, a town with wealth and
    influence that I could use my family’s previous connections to find a good husband.
    At this rate I’m destined to be stuck as a farmer for life.

  • EndlessExposition

    This practice prompted me to start a short story that combines Snow White, Rapunzel and Cinderella. Here’s the intro. As always reviews are much appreciated.

    Once upon a time, in a far away land…

    A beautiful queen at long last has everything she thought she wanted – and loses it all to become a mother.

    A young girl is locked away in a tower, kept company only by dreams of forbidden love.

    A princess bride escapes the life she never wanted to find true happiness, and in the process breaks the heart of her only friend.

    These are the trials behind the tales. And all of them have very unhappy endings.

    • Fabulous.
      And do they all meet up in some uncanny way?
      This could be a very cool tale.
      Regards
      Dawn

    • Helaine Grenova

      That sounds like it could be really really cool!

  • Original fairy tales were rather Grimm, whoops – grim, weren’t they.

    Disney repackaging grabbed morals and reinforced stereotypes.

    Revisionism (a new word I’ve learned today – thanks) brings cause and effect and real life back to the fore.

    And flash fiction sexy’s it up with horror and smut.

    Then Twitter takes over with 140 characters and no substance or plot.

    And Snow White laments about how good Cinderella had it and that Rapunzel was lucky to get so much sleep and that know one understands what it’s like to have a wicked step mother who gets all of Daddy’s attention and that snow doesn’t stay white for all that long in the city and that Grumpy, Sleepy, Sneezey house mates are a real friggin’ challenge and that living in the woods is hard work because there’s so many leaves to rake and that she’d rather live in the city but she doesn’t want t be called Snow Grey-Slush because she hates double barrel names because they don’t make for good story titles and that real life is just so unfairy-tale.

    The End

    • Debbie

      hashtag lolz
      hashtag perfect

  • I was just wondering how Fifty Shades got into the fairytale discussion. Never read it and never will. Is it a fairytale?
    I read the original Pinocchio as a child, but the Disney version didn’t carry the oomph of the original, at least not in my imagination.

  • On the one hand, I thought Into The Woods was clever. On the other, I wasn’t necessarily a fan of the screen adaptation of the musical. However, I like the idea that the Woods creates a sort of vortex. I like reading through the classic Grimm tales – I have a volume that has all the original stories, translated from German to English. There are some in there that would be fun to retell.

  • Cinderella let out a breathless laugh, “Well…..Hello, Your Majesty.”

    The Prince smiled, “Hello.”

    “Ummm…….” Her eyes flitted around, noticing many courtiers looking their way.

    “Do you not talk?”

    “Hugh?” Cinderella blinked. “No…I mean, ofcourse I do.”

    The prince studied her dress absently. “Wonderfully. And you are?”

    “C-Cinderella.”

    “Nice to meet you Cinderella.”

    “Yes?” Cinderella asked, confused by the expectant look on the Prince’s face.

    The prince frowned. “Lady Cinderella, are you mocking me?”

    “W-what! No!” Panicking, she tugged at her dress. Oh for christ’s sake!

    The prince signaled at his steward. “Weren’t you taught that it’s basic manners to introduce yourself with your place and title?”

    “Sorry,” Cinderella muttered as the steward approached them.

    “How man I be of held, sire?”

    “Yes, John. In a moment.” He turned towards the peculiar girl next to him. “Steward, do you know Lady Cinderella.”

    The steward bowed to her, “Yes, sire. She is the daughter of one of the local barons.I believe she arrived separately from her mother and sisters.”

    Cinderella tensed, she had better excuse herself before someone called her mother to attention.

    “My sire,” Cinderella interrupted, “I believe my mother will be looking for me. If you’ll excuse me.”

    The prince nodded, his face set in apprehension. “Alright, but please do learn to make a proper introduction.”

    “Of course sire.”

    Stepping away, Cinderella heard the steward say, “Sire, Duchess Marlene. She’s quite beautiful and she’s quite in favor with Ladon’s King.” Possible future queen? Cinderella smiled gleefully at the gossip she’d collected. And thankfully, the rest of the night went perfectly without her running into her mothers or sisters. By midnight her dancing shoes were properly worn and she gladly exited the party and the castle.

    – Please le t me know what you think! And I love revisionism of classic fairy tales. Listing to the same story can get pretty boring.