Will We Ever See a Movie Version of Hans Christian Anderson’s “Little Mermaid?”

Discussion Post

Most adult audience goers are savvy enough to know that Disney’s versions of fairy tales tends to clean things up.  Happy ending are tacked on to originally tragic tales and excessive violence is often made comedic.  If the villains do die or receive punishment, it is often by accident (witness the Evil Queen falling in Snow White, Gaston falling in Beauty and the Beast, or Frollo falling to his death in Hunchback (admittedly not a fairy tale–but the principle holds)) rather than by the hands of the protagonist.  You won’t see Disney princesses dishing out sweet revenge to their former abusers.

However, the inspiration behind Disney’s Little Mermaid–Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid”–may be surprising even to viewers who know that adaptations change things.  Anderson’s tale is not really a romance–though the titular character does fall in love with a dashing young prince–as much as it is the story of an individual seeking immortality.  But not the kind Voldemort seeks.  “Immortality” might rather be read as “spiritual redemption” or “a place in heaven after death.”  It’s the story of the search for a soul.

In Anderson’s version, the little mermaid’s dilemma is that supernatural creatures do not possess souls and so cannot rise to a new, blissful realm after death.  Rather, after a long life of 300 years, mermaids turn to foam on the sea.  But the little mermaid yearns for more and so she seeks the aid of the sea witch.  She learns that if she can convince the land prince to fall in love with her and marry her, his soul will enter into her and somehow give her a soul, as well.  But if she fails to gain his love, she will die the morning after he marries someone else.  To gain her chance at redemption, the little mermaid allows the witch to cut out her tongue and she accepts a bargain.  She will have legs, but each step she takes will feel like a knife cutting through her.  Indeed, when she walks on land she sometimes trails blood.

This narrative presents an obvious problem.  Why does the mermaid’s soul and her state after death depend on someone else?  Shouldn’t her eternal state be a product of her own attitudes and efforts?  The ending of the story tries to solve this dilemma by allowing the mermaid a second chance to earn redemption through her own activity.   If she works for 300 years doing some good, she can have a soul.  The mermaid earns this opportunity by her initial willingness to endure agony for a chance to receive a soul through marrying the prince.

This is not the type of the story that I can easily imagine Hollywood wanting to film.  A mermaid who wants to get to heaven?  A character who finds redemption through suffering? It’s not the type of thing people in Hollywood usually imagine will sell.   Generally they seem to think that the general public would prefer a nice romance.  Anderson’s story is provocative, moving, and, yes, disturbing.  It’s a powerful tale.  But somehow I doubt it will turned into a mainstream film anytime soon.

What do you think?  Is Anderson’s story still worth telling?  Can we expect a faithful film adaptation sometime soon?

“Beauty and the Beast”: A Story of True Love or a Problematic Relationship?

Discussion Post

With the anticipated release of Disney’s live-remake of Beauty and the Beast, discussions have been renewed about the potentially problematic nature of the plot.  Critics worry that the story celebrates Stockholm Syndrome and that it teaches girls and women to forgive the men who hurt them, because the message is that if they only love a  man enough, the man will change.  Others however, bristle at the thought that a beloved classic should be read this way.  The story is, in their eyes, about the transformative nature of love.

To be fair to the critics who read Stockholm Syndrome into the plot, Disney’s version does make changes to the fairy tale that make Belle into more of a prisoner than a guest.  The version told by Andrew Lang in his Blue Fairy Book features a Belle who willingly goes to the Beast’s palace because it was her request for a rose that got her father into trouble there.  She is treated respectfully by the Beast, roams freely about the palace, and enjoys talking with the Beast.  She understands him as kind and argues that his ugly appearance is not his fault and does not reflect his personality.  When she requests a visit home, he immediately agrees, though sadly.  She returns willingly because she is worried about him and his well-being.

In contrast, Disney’s Belle is at first locked in a cell, then understood to be a prisoner of the palace with limited movement.  She does not initially like the Beast because he is angry and rude (though, to her credit, she does not put up with his behavior but rather calls him out on it.)  She seems, on the whole, to be more at the mercy of the Beast in terms of her physical agency, though she is not a passive character and makes small resistances throughout the film from refusing to dine with the Beast to arguing her way home.  In trying to make their story more dramatic, Disney does in fact introduce elements that viewers can find troubling and that complicate the narrative of the transformative power of love.

These changes illustrate the challenge inherent in determining what kind of story Beauty and the Beast is, and whether it is productive to think of the story in terms of frames such as Stockholm Syndrome.  The source text for Disney’s version focuses on Belle’s learning to recognize how kind the Beast is, despite his appearance.  Because it is shorter and somewhat sparser (and because Lang’s version at least contains a good amount of dialogue about learning to see past appearances, just in case readers missed the memo), it lends itself  much more readily to the somewhat allegorical interpretation favored by those who defend it.  (An attitude that mirrors that of G. K. Chesterton, who writes in Orthodoxy that: “There is the great lesson of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, that a thing must be loved before it is lovable.”)  But that message can be lost in translation once Disney makes changes to the story.

In a way, the debate about the possible ramifications of romanticizing Stockholm Syndrome seems to be about two distinctly different texts–one argument is focusing on Disney’s very specific adaptation and the other argument is recognizing the embedded message that is carried over into Disney’s version from the source text.  However, I would go farther and suggest that Disney’s version ultimately does not romanticize Stockholm Syndrome for the simple reason that Belle does not begin to love the Beast until he begins to show he is capable of change.  That is, she does not commit herself emotionally or begin to fall in love until he stops throwing tantrums and shouting and generally being awful and uncouth.

Yes, she is still a prisoner in his castle and, yes, that is a problem.  However, she does not fall in love with the Beast simply because he is there or because she sympathizes with him or his reasons for doing what he does.  She does not  make excuses for his actions or wave aside his anger management issues because he is just “misunderstood” or had a hard childhood or just has some things going on emotionally because it’s difficult being a hideous monster.  She falls in love because he shows himself capable of gentleness and heroism, and because he is willing to learn and to grow.

It’s not a perfect story and if I were to retell it, I would hesitate to make the Beast imprison Belle as he does in the Disney version–not without a more in-depth exploration of how this could impact Belle as she tries to decipher her feelings towards the Beast.  However, I do not think fairy tales are really meant to be taken literally.  They operate on an allegorical level through their sparsity--and the short run time of Disney films mimics that sparsity to an extent.  These movies are not psychological explorations.  They assume that their viewers will take away, in good faith, the idea that qualities such as kindness, caring, and sacrifice are noble things that can make positive impacts on the world.  That’s a message I still believe–and so I can still love Beauty and the Beast after all these years.

What do you think?  Is Disney’s Beauty and the Beast dangerous for children or a positive story about the power of love and looking beyond appearances?

Disenchanted: The Trials of Cinderella by Megan Morrison

disenchantedINFORMATION

Goodreads: Disenchanted
Series: Tyme #2
Source: Library
Published: Oct. 2016

SUMMARY

Ella Coach’s mother died while working in a factory and now she wants reform for the labor class.  Unfortunately, her father has remarried and their family is trying to climb the social ladder.  But Ella doesn’t want to be a quint and moon over Prince Dash like every other girl at her new fancy prep school.  Dash is a bit strange, anyway, since the Witch’s curse was removed from him.  He is no longer sure what he wants, now that he is no longer cursed to break hearts.  But it’s probably not social revolution.  Meanwhile, Serge,  a jaded Blue fairy godfather, wonders what it would be like to be able to help the kids who need him, not just the ones who can pay.  And his new apprentice Jasper just might show him the way.

Review

Disenchanted is the modern fairy tale retelling I am pretty sure everyone wants, and it’s strange I have not seen anyone else talking about it.  From it’s protagonist of color to its focus on working conditions and a living wage, it encourages its readers to empathize with others and to think critically about their own world.  And let’s not forget it’s also an engrossing story.

Megan Morrison immediately sets the tone of the story by alluding to Cinderella’s dark skin and bronze curls, but otherwise not making a big deal out of it.  Cinderella is not looked down upon in this world because of her skin color, but rather because her family is “new money.”  Similarly, it’s well-known that a few of the guys are crushing on Prince Dash Charming and hope to marry him.  No one sees this as a problem (except for the fact that Dash is straight) and instead they talk with each other about other romantic prospects that might be more realistic for the boys to attain.  Acceptance is the norm in this world, if you’re not talking about class.

The bulk of the story then focuses on Ella’s desire to reform the working conditions for those who labor in the factories that keep the owners of the Garment District prosperous.  She explains the concept of sick leave to another character, explores the exploitation of cheap child labor, and advocates for doing business only with ethical companies.  She explains in simple terms why poor people remain poor, even when there are two working adults in the home, and the devastating consequences when one member of the household becomes ill–lower income but more bills.

Intertwined with these heavy concerns are the stories of Ella, Dash, and Serge.  Ella is struggling to accept that her money  now has money and she is part of a new social class.  She wants to be with her old friends, but may find that she has new power with which to do good.  Dash, meanwhile, might be falling in love with Ella, but the crown is at risk if he does not placate political forces by courting a more suitable match.  And Serge remembers the days when he thought fairies could make a difference.  Now they work only for clients with money and they often do things that trouble his conscience.  Is reform possible for the Blue Fairies?

In some ways, the book seems inspired by the early 20th century and the Triangle Factory in particular, but it’s impossible not to notice that the story also comments on relevant issues today, such as a living wage.  If you’re looking for a bit of social commentary mixed in with your fairy tale romance, look no farther than Disenchanted.

5 starsKrysta 64

Kingdom of Ash and Briars by Hannah West

kingdom-of-ash-and-briarsInformation

Goodreads: Kingdom of Ash and Briars
Series: None
Source: City Book Review
Published: September 2016

Summary

When teenager Bristal is tossed into the cursed Water in the Woods, she expects to die. Instead, she emerges as an elicromancer, one of the most powerful magic workers to live in centuries. Yet power comes with a price, and Bristal is soon caught up in a plot of dark elicromancy that could lay waste to an entire kingdom if she fails to make all the right choices.  Threads of Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and other classic tales emerge as Bristal fights for her people.

Review

Kingdom of Ash and Briars is one of those books I really, really wanted to like but just couldn’t.  The jacket copy promises Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Mulan, all wrapped up in an overarching “gritty fairy tale gone wrong.”  This sounds excellent, but the way West goes about it is immeasurably disappointing, as none of the fairy tales in the book are given the time they really deserve.

West tries to cram a lot of action into a small space, and the result is extremely bad pacing.  Conflicts are all resolved within pages of being introduced.  There is no development, no suspense.  It’s all quite episodic and choppy.  This applies to some of the fairy tales,  as well.  The Cinderella aspect is a side note of about two chapters.  And, of course, that means characters are not developed either.  There is a of telling and very little showing because there simply is no time for it.  Instalove is a common issue.

[Minor Spoilers Next Paragraph]

Because of this, I was simply never really invested in Bristal or her issues. Of course, Bristal often seems barely invested in her own problems.  For instance, she is whisked away from her home to study magic once she becomes an elicromancer–and home never comes up again.  Apparently she wasn’t really attached to anyone she used to know.  I know she’s an orphan, but she was adopted and ought to have felt some responsibility towards her adoptive mother and any friends she had.  Even weirder, roughly 16 years pass between the start of the novel when Bristal gains her powers and the story proper.  This means Bristal must be roughly 30 years old, yet the book never drops the YA tone or the teenage voice for Bristal herself.  There was a huge disconnect for me here.

Finally, a lot of the story was simply cliche.  This was not because of the references to fairy tales, which could make any retelling “predictable” in some way.  It was simply that everything fit into a neat little pattern of perfection, in ways that are overused in fantasy in particular.  There are times cliches are satisfying, but I found this book just exhausting.

I was really looking forward to Kingdom of Ash and Briars.  I wish I had more good things to say.  Unfortunately, I wanted to DNF about 10 pages in and only finished because I was required to, having agreed to review the book for another site. I have to recommend passing on this one.

2 stars Briana

Beastly by Alex Flinn

beastlyInformation

Goodreads: Beastly
Series: Beastly #1
Source: Library
Published: 2007

Official Summary

I am a beast.

A beast. Not quite wolf or bear, gorilla or dog but a horrible new creature who walks upright—a creature with fangs and claws and hair springing from every pore. I am a monster.

You think I’m talking fairy tales? No way. The place is New York City. The time is now. It’s no deformity, no disease. And I’ll stay this way forever—ruined—unless I can break the spell.

Yes, the spell, the one the witch in my English class cast on me. Why did she turn me into a beast who hides by day and prowls by night? I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you how I used to be Kyle Kingsbury, the guy you wished you were, with money, perfect looks, and the perfect life. And then, I’ll tell you how I became perfectly . . . beastly.

Review

I’m a huge fan of retold fairy tales, and Alex Flinn is a well-known name in retellings, so I was excited to finally get around to Beastly and check out what “Beauty and the Beast” would look like set in modern-day New York.  While the book does have some good moments, I was ultimately disappointed.  The story has one main theme it harps on, to the detriment of character development, engaging romance, and so forth. Add awkwardly choppy prose, and there just isn’t much for me to love here.

The prose irritated me from the start, but I decided to stick out the book and see if the plot would redeem it. The book opens in a chat room, with our protagonist the Beast talking to others who have gotten on the bad side of a witch’s transformation. Parts of this are actually clever. The characters here have distinct voices, and the frog is terrible at typing due to his webbed feet. However, chat speak isn’t my thing, and I was happy to see the whole book isn’t written this way.  However, the prose of the “regular” narration is still short and choppy, the sort of thing I imagine adults write when they think “I need to write in a simple style that will appeal to teens.”    I tried to ignore it, as I’m afraid to say I think most contemporary literature isn’t interested in beautiful prose anyway.

Unfortunately, I never got on board with the story either.  There’s having a theme and then there’s repeatedly throwing the theme in reader’s faces.  In Beastly,  we learn that outer beauty is meaningless; inner beauty counts.  Fair enough, but the Beast (before transformation) talks about nothing but outer beauty.  I understand. He’s shallow. He’s vain.  It’s why he gets cursed.  But even someone obsessed with his looks and who judges other people based on their looks must have other interests, right?  Maybe sports? Or expensive cheeses? Or networking for future career opportunities?  There are a million ways a character can be “a shallow rich kid,” but the Beast only talks about how ugly or beautiful people are.  It gets old really fast.  And then, of course, the theme continues to come up throughout the novel.

I might have dealt with all of this if the romance were able to save it.  After all, romance is a main draw of the fairy tale, right?  However, I felt that the pacing was off, and I never became invested in the relationship.  The girl who plays Belle in this retelling is nice, but I didn’t feel sparks between her and Beast.  And there were not a lot of cute moments of their budding romance.  I simply wasn’t interested in any of it.

Flinn does a good job of imagining how it would be possible for “Beauty and the Beast” to occur in modern-day New York, but that isn’t enough for me to buy into the story.  With flat characters, rushed romance, and irritating prose, the book just doesn’t appeal to me.  I don’t think I’ll be reading anything else by Alex Flinn in the near future.

2 stars Briana

Nameless by Lili St. Crow

NamelessGoodreads: Nameless 
Series: Tales of Beauty and Madness #1
Source: Gift
Published: 2013

Summary

Found in the snow at six years of age and adopted by a powerful branch of the Family, Camille has no memory of her past.  She only knows that she is human, not a true member of the Family, even if they treat her as one of their own.  And her past is about to catch up with her.

Review

You can read Briana’s review here.

Nameless puts an original spin on the story of “Snow White”, replacing the dwarfs with branches of a powerful Mafia-like family and shrouding the past of the protagonist in shadow.  The result is a compelling paranormal romance set in an alternate universe where magic entered history sometime after the Industrial Revolution.  The world building can sometimes be confusing and the protagonist bafflingly oversensitive, but, overall, Nameless is an engrossing read.

Initially I found myself somewhat overwhelmed by the world of Nameless, which is never explained in-depth.  The protagonist Camille simply names creatures, historical events, etc. when they occur and does not provide much background.  Eventually one may surmise that the Family are vampiric, that something bad called Twisting can happen to people with something called Potential (which seems to be magic), that things can be charmed, and that names here are somewhat randomly based on our own names–the Renaissance, for instance, is now the Renascence, or something like that.  But it takes time to build up this knowledge and even now I am not entirely sure what a jack is or why Twisting occurs.

Eventually I just accepted that the book was not going to explain anything, which left me with the dilemma of the narration.  Camille does not speak much as she has a stutter and worries about people becoming impatient with her.  This means that much of the narration is her thoughts.  The other narration could be her thoughts or could be the third-person narrator.  The line is blurry, which is all the more confusing because it curses so much.  Camille herself curses verbally once, I believe.  And she seems pretty demure in general, a quiet girl who goes along with whatever her bolder friends say and whose main desire seems to be to avoid any trouble.  So the narration calling everything g—d can be jarring.

Camille herself is a sweet and engaging protagonist, though oddly concerned with “not fitting in.”  The narration suggests that the Family girls might bully her, but Camille never interacts with them so we’ll never know.  She also implies that her school mates don’t like her or think her odd.  She only interacts with her two friends Ruby and Ellie, so, again, we’ll never know.  But one suspects no one really cares about her, other than the run-of-the-mill gossip you might expect when you’re a member of a prominent vampiric-immortal-Mafia Family.  After all, she’s always moping about how she’s not Family and they plan to cast her out, even though she’s accepted as Papa’s daughter and having a years-long flirtation with the Family heir Nico.  But, sure, Nico’s going to cast her out one day when he suddenly remembers that she’s adopted.  Oh wait.  He’s known that since they met.

Camille’s desire to learn her past makes sense, but her insistence that she “doesn’t belong” and “isn’t wanted” does not when you consider how lovingly her Family treats her, how she is an integral part of the household, how she attends important functions for the Family, how she is finally indisputably and publicly announced as a member of the Family.  This insistence could make her annoying, but somehow I only found Camille a bit odd and maybe a tad wearying.  Her weird decision to “make everything right” by doing the dumbest thing imaginable was more frustrating to me in the end and I was willing to overlook whatever emotional hang-ups she had.

These issues plagued me throughout the novel, but the plot itself is so compelling that I chose to wave them aside while reading.  Plot-wise, the only things that bothered me were an extraneous shirtless scene with Camille (because she just forgot a guy was in her room when she decided she didn’t need a shirt anymore?) and, again, the weird decision to “help” all her friends and family by getting herself killed.  But, hey, the premise of this retold tale was original and I liked the characters.  So I’m willing to pick up the sequel.

4 starsKrysta 64

The Fairy-Tale Matchmaker by E. D. Baker

Fairy Tale MatchmakerINFORMATION

Goodreads: The Fairy-Tale Matchmaker
Series: Fairy-Tale Matchmaker #1
Source: Gift
Published: October 7, 2014

SUMMARY

Cory Feathering has tried her best to be a Tooth Fairy, the way her mother wants.  But after another terrible night with a low tooth yield and a near encounter with a dog, Cory decides to quit!  Unsure what her true calling is, she begins a series of odd jobs around town.  But the Tooth Fairy Guild does not allow resignations and soon Cory finds herself the victim of a series of escalating crimes.

Review

E. D. Baker writes a light-hearted fantasy that manages to feel low-stakes even as its protagonist Cory Feathering faces a series of crimes from vandalism to kidnapping after she attempts to leave her job at the Tooth Fairy Guild.  She lives in a world populated by fairy tale characters, so as she searches for her new calling, she travels from Miss Muffet’s spider-filled home to the houses of the Three Little Pigs, and even finds herself babysitting Humpty Dumpty and the children of the Old Woman Who Lived a Shoe.  The delight of recognizing old faces in domestic situations makes the book fun and humorous, despite the main narrative of thuggery.  Still, it seems strange that this book was written as a middle-grade.

The political implications of this book should be complicated.  The guilds are clearly corrupt and frequently band together to harass, kidnap, and otherwise injure their former members.  This seems both to be well-known and to be a surprise, for whatever obscure reasons.  Meanwhile, the police force is also clearly corrupt and allows the guilds to do whatever they want; when Cory becomes the victim of a heinous crime the police force can no longer ignore, they refuse to investigate it on the grounds that they have no power over the guilds–but this is glossed over at the end of the book with an unbelievable “Oh dear!  If only we had known we would have stopped it!”  attitude.  The judge in the city also allows the guilds to do whatever they want–but Cory also “fixes” this at the end by telling him that the guilds are no more than gangs.  As if he must not have known!  A lot is going here, but it becomes over-simplified because it’s in a middle-grade book, and apparently we need an easy solution to make everyone feel better about their judicial system at the end.  (There’s also a literal deus ex machina that I won’t delve into, so as not to spoil anyone.)

The concept itself of job hunting also seems unusual for a middle-grade novel.  Yes, Barbie, for example, is a toy with a career who is meant to inspire children to dream big, but somehow the concept of a career…girl? does not quite work here.  Cory must be around eighteen or nineteen if we assume she has recently graduated from high school and has been interning and then training as a tooth fairy.  She has a swinging band that plays in what seem to be exclusive clubs and she works to set up her friends and other career women with eligible men; one of the first things we learn about every new character is their job, from model to successful entrepreneur, so clearly these characters are meant to be adults.  But most of them don’t act it!

Cory, for example, talks and acts like a teenager–a young one.  When replying to a help-wanted ad, she writes simply “Who are you?” to one agency.  When reporting crimes she writes unhelpful notes like “A tooth has been thrown through our window!  Come quick!” or even simply “More vandalism.”  She has the independence of an adult, but the attitude of a child.  Perhaps this is not so unusual in an eighteen-year-old, one who is still living with her mother but saving up to move out, one who has not yet settled on a career.  But the childish tone juxtaposed with the world of famous writers and successful businessmen sits oddly in the book.

Aside from these quibbles, however, the book is an enjoyable middle-grade.  It’s light and predictable, but that’s what one expects from E. D. Baker’s stories.  It’s a nice book–the kind you read at night when you’re tired and don’t want anything too taxing, but do want something fun and amusing.

3 starsKrysta 64