content by

Mari Ness

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

The OTHER Live-Action Beauty and the Beast

As we all—well, at least some of us—prepare to view Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast once it arrives on Netflix in just a few more days, I thought it might be fun to look at the other live action adaptation currently available on Netflix: the 2014 Beauty and the Beast, a French-German film starring Lea Seydoux and Vincent Cassel as Belle and the Beast, respectively.

[Extraordinary CGI. Less extraordinary story…]

Displacement and Poverty: The Town Musicians of Bremen

As I’ve noted in a few previous posts, the Grimm brothers collected their folk and fairy tales after a traumatic time of national crisis and displacement: the Napoleonic Wars. Thus, even some of their seemingly most cheerful tales reflect fears of displacement and loss. As in “The Town Musicians of Bremen,” on its surface a comedy about four elderly animals who manage to trick a few robbers out of a house—but only on the surface.

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Escaping Through Mundane Means: Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie’s Fairy Tale Retellings

The success of Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie’s first mundane fairy tale, “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood,” (1866) encouraged her to write more. A retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” appeared in 1867, followed by a retelling of “Cinderella” in 1868, followed by a steady progression of retellings of somewhat lesser known fairy tales, collected into two volumes: Bluebeard’s Keys and Other Tales in 1874, and Five Old Friends in 1875.

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A Rat With a Dream: Ratatouille

As Bob Iger later liked to tell the tale, the idea for buying Pixar came to him while he was watching one of the parades during the opening of Hong Kong Disneyland in September 2005. As he watched, he realized that none of the newer parade characters—that is, characters introduced in the past ten years—were Disney characters. They were all Pixar characters. (I can only conclude that Hong Kong Disneyland did not share my love for Lilo & Stitch.) If Disney was to continue, he thought, the company needed Pixar—and the chief creative genius behind Pixar, John Lasseter.

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Finding Fairy Tale in the Mundane: Anne Thackeray Ritchie’s “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood”

These days, Anne Thackeray Ritchie (1837-1919) may be best known as the woman who edited the correspondence of her novelist father William Makepiece Thackeray, not always to the satisfaction of later scholars. She was also, according to most sources, the first person to publish a version of the saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for the day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for life”—a recognition almost always followed by the caveat that she probably didn’t invent the saying herself. But as her step-niece Virginia Woolf noted, in her own day, Ritchie was known and loved for far more than merely being the daughter of the author of Vanity Fair and the scribe of wise sayings—including her fairy tales, early examples of fairy tales retold using realistic, contemporary settings.

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Oscar Wilde’s The Nightingale and the Rose

In fact, she is like most artists; she is all style, without any sincerity. She would not sacrifice herself for others. She thinks merely of music, and everybody knows that the arts are selfish.

Poet, dramatist and wit Oscar Wilde had a decided taste for fairy tales, even in some of his most mundane work. His play The Importance of Being Earnest, for instance, ends with a scene that could be lifted straight from any of a hundred stories of children lost at birth eventually found by parents, if with more than a touch of Wilde’s mockery: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” Take that, all of you abandoned and kidnapped fairy tale princes and princesses!

But his mockery could not hide his genuine love for the genre. He indulged this love in two collections of fairy tales: The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888) and The House of Pomegranates (1891). “The Nightingale and the Rose,” a response to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale,” is in the first. Wilde admired the way Andersen used his fairy tales to critique society—something Wilde himself would do in his own tales—but profoundly disagreed with Andersen’s depictions of sacrifice and with Anderson’s preference for the natural over the manufactured and artificial. His own tale takes a decidedly different approach.

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Music and Mechanics: Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale”

“Your imperial majesty,” said he, “cannot believe everything contained in books; sometimes they are only fiction, or what is called the black art.”

In the early 1840s, fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen had already published his first collections of short stories, as well as two popular, well reviewed novels. Emboldened by these early successes, he had begun to turn from creating delicate literary versions of the oral stories he had heard as a child, to creating his own stories. These new tales were part fairy tales, part social criticism. Among these was “The Nightingale,” first published in New Fairy Tales in 1843, a story of music, near death, and mechanics—one of the closest things Andersen ever wrote to a steampunk tale, and one that he wrote swiftly, assuredly, over just two days.

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Transforming a Fairy Tale into Court Politics: Kara Dalkey’s The Nightingale

Demons. Poetry contests. A cat that may not be exactly a cat. Not elements that exactly come to mind when thinking about Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale,” a story without demons or cats, but all blended into Kara Dalkey’s novel-length retelling of the story, The Nightingale, which transforms Andersen’s fable into a novel of palace intrigue, magic and poetry.

Dalkey wrote her novel as part of Terri Windling’s The Fairy Tale series, novel length fairy tale retellings intended for adults. She kept many elements of the original tale. As in the original story, for instance, the emperor learns of the music in his gardens from reading a book written by outsiders, not his own courtiers, and as in the original story, the courtiers are led to that musician by a kitchen maid. As in the story, his own courtiers are frequently none too perceptive—or alternatively, so focused on their own ambitions and problems that they forget to notice little things like the way a certain courtesan keeps herself very carefully away from mirrors and still pools of water. And as in the original story, both of the “nightingales” try to perform together, and fail, and most members of the court find themselves on the side of the courtesan—who, as in the original tale, is not entirely natural.

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Driving Without Wonder: Pixar’s Cars

Disney executives watched the success of the Pixar films with mingled joy and alarm. On the one hand, the Pixar films—particularly Finding Nemo and the two Toy Story films—were bringing quite a bit of money into their coffers, both in box office receipts and ancillary merchandise revenue. On the other hand—well, after the late 1990s, most of the Disney produced animated films were losing money, and only Lilo & Stitch was bringing in anything close to the ancillary revenue generated through sales of little Woodys, Buzz Lightyears, Monsters and Nemos.

Pixar arguably was overtaking Disney on what had been their exclusive, lucrative domain. (Arguably, since other studios had also produced financially successful full length animated movies, and the Disney issues had more to do with the quality of their films than with their rivals.) And, far more alarmingly, relationships between the two companies were slowly but surely disintegrating, even as Pixar animators showed Disney executives concept art of talking cars.

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Two Visions of Transformation: Riquet with the Tuft

For the most part, the French salon fairy tale writers all knew each other, at least casually, and all worked from more or less the same sources: oral tales heard in childhood, classical mythology, and collections of Italian fairy tales, in particular Giambattista Basile’s Il Pentameron and Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. So it is not surprising that many of their tales end up sharing some, shall we say, strong similarities, and in some cases nearly identical plots—or even, as with Beauty and the Beast, abridgements of another author’s original tale. What can be surprising is how and why these tales differ—as a look at two French versions of “Riquet with the Tuft” show.

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Fairy Tales and Trauma: Kate Forsyth’s The Wild Girl

No story was just a story, though. It was a suitcase stuffed with secrets.

One of the more enigmatic figures in the history of fairy tales is Dortchen Wild, the woman who told Wilhelm Grimm many of the most brutal tales he collected in Household Tales, and who later—much later—married him. In her novel The Wild Girl, Kate Forsyth pulls from history and fairy tale to try to reconstruct Dorchen’s life.

Most of the novel is told in a lengthy flashback, explaining exactly how lovers Dortchen and Wilhelm found themselves desperately in love but unable to be together as the novel started, in 1814—right after her father’s death, and shortly after Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm had published their first, scholarly edition of Household Tales. Forsyth’s answer can be more or less summed up by “money” and “trauma,” though, as in so many fairy tales, the answer is more complicated than this.

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Hubris and Poetry: The Fisherman and His Wife

Sometimes, you’re just trying to fish a little to get by and bring home some food to your hovel. And sometimes, you pull up a magic fish, and find your life transformed—for a little while, anyway.

The Grimm brothers published The Fisherman and His Wife in 1812, in their first volume of their first edition of Household Tales. They noted that the tale was particularly popular in Hesse, told with several variations, sometimes with doggerel rhymes, and sometimes in prose, without any rhymes—versions, they sniffed, that were rather lesser as a result. Their version, therefore, included the rhymes, which has led to numerous differences in translations. Some translators decided to leave out the rhymes entirely; some decided to go for a straightforward, non-rhyming English translation, and some decided to try for English rhymes. This leads to something like this:

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An Animated Superfamily: The Incredibles

After five massively successful films, John Lasseter thought it was about time to try something different. First, for once Pixar would create a film that would focus on humans instead of toys, bugs, monsters or fish. Superpowered humans, to keep things interesting. And second, instead of hiring a director from within Pixar’s ranks, he would hire an outsider, one of his former classmates, Brad Bird.

By 2000, director Brad Bird could have served as the poster child for broken dreams in Hollywood. Again and again he had seen projects approved by Hollywood executives, only to have those approvals rescinded by Hollywood executives—often the exact same Hollywood executives. In 1995 he thought he finally had his break, when Warner Bros hired him to direct the animated feature The Iron Giant. The film, released in 1999, received nearly universal critical praise, but bombed at the box office, earning only $31.3 million against a reported $80 million budget (less than the rival Disney, Pixar and upcoming Dreamworks pictures produced at the same time). Bird figured his career was over.

Until he reconnected with John Lasseter.

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Enchantment and Distrust: Marie-Jeanne L’Heritier’s The Discreet Princess

It perhaps says something that one of the most remarkable aspects of the life of Mademoiselle Marie-Jeanne L’Heritier de Villandon (1664-1734), at least on the surface, was just how unremarkable it was. While most of her fellow French salon writers of fairy tales and novels alike were busy conducting scandalous affairs, travelling throughout Europe, dabbling in intrigue, entering and escaping dire marriages, and finding themselves exiled from the court of the none-too-tolerant Louis XIV, and often Paris itself, L’Heritier lived a comparatively quiet and, apparently, chaste life—if one that still had a touch of magic.

The niece of fairy tale writer Charles Perrault, daughter of a historian, and sister of a poet, she met and befriended several fairy tale writers in the salons of Paris, and was inspired to write tales of her own. Her talent and erudition eventually earned her a patron, the wealthy Marie d’Orleans-Longueville, Duchess of Nemours, which eventually turned into a small annuity after the Duchess’ death. Equally important was a friendship with the formidable and controversial Madeleine de Scudery, these days renowned as the probable writer of Artamene ou le Grand Cyrus, one of the longest novels ever published, but at the time noted for her scholarship and fierce defense of women’s education. De Scudery not only befriended the considerably younger woman (De Scudery was born in 1607) but left the fairy tale writer her salon at her death in 1701.

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Enchantment, Death, and Footwear: The Twelve Dancing Princesses

Imagine, for a moment, that night after night you are doomed to trace a long spiraling staircase deep within the earth. Once at its base, your travels are still not done: you must walk though glittering “woods”—not living trees, but creations of bright gems and metals—and sail across an underground lake, where, on the other side, you must dance and dance and dance, until near dawn, when you can finally return to your own bedchamber and collapse next to your sisters, your shoes in tatters. Fortunately, you are a princess, with seemingly no responsibilities, who can sleep until noon if not later, and equally fortunately you have the money to buy new shoes every day—and cobblers apparently eager to make them. Still, this never varies, night after night.

Would you try to fight this enchantment, or casually arrange for the deaths of the princes who came to save you?

In the version collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in their 1812 Household Tales, the princesses choose the second.

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