Monday, 5 August 2019

Exploring Genre: Fairy Tale Retellings

by Amanda Deed & Jeanette O'Hagan

The remake of the Lion King is currently screening in the cinemas, while the casting for the new Little Mermaid is causing a small furore on the interweb. Hollywood is addicted to remakes and retellings of old classic tales (how many times can you redo Robin Hood?) - and the literary world isn't that far behind with countless retellings of Pride and Prejudice or the other Austen books, or the many Shakespearean Plays.

What is a retelling and why do need another one?

In a retelling an old and usually popular story is 'retold' or adapted to a new audience - perhaps in a new media, or with changes in focus or settings. Fractured retellings give a new twist to the old tale (for instance, Jack and the Beanstalk from the giant's perspective). While they can be overdone or done badly, retellings breath fresh life into old stories for new generations of readers (and viewers).  Sometimes they steer close to the original. In other cases the correspondences are much looser. The best retellings show us something new while breathing the soul of the original tale.

Fairy tale retellings are a sub-set of retellings - they adapt classic fairy tales and present them in a multitude of different ways. Examples abound. Just about every classic Disney movie is a fairy tale retelling. In the general market we haave Kate Forsyth's books, for instance, Bitter Greens, which retells the Rapunzel story against the backdrop of seventeenth century France and sixteenth century Venice. Jane Yolen's Briar Rose uses extermination camps of Nazi germany as the gripping setting for her retelling of Sleeping Beauty. While Marissa Meyer in the Lunar Chronicles intertwines retellings of Cinderella (Cinder), Little Red Riding Hood (Scarlet), Rapunzel (Cress) and Snow White (Winter) in a gripping four book epic sci-fi with a cyberpunk setting.

Then there are the Charming books by Kristine Grayson (aka Kathryn Kristen Rusch) are based on fairytale characters living in our world e.g. Rapunzel, Bluebeard, and Prince Charming (after his divorce from Cinderella). The books are clean romance and are more fairy tale extensions than retellings.

Amanda Deed's Retellings

Australian Christian author, Amanda Deed has recently released some fairy tale retellings set in colonial (nineteenth century) Australia. She is working on a third. This is what Amanda says:

"I must make a confession. I love fairy tales. I love happy-ever-afters, and all the magic that goes with them. I love princes and princesses and true love. Nothing appeals to my romance-loving heart more. Something within me says “this is how it’s meant to be” even if the reality of our world looks a lot different. Eternal optimist? Maybe.

Anyway, my favourite fairy tales on the screen are Beauty and the Beast (Disney), Cinderella (the Ever After version), and now Rapunzel (the Tangled version).

Several years ago I began to grow some ideas to write some of these fairy tales, twisting them a little to fit with my usual genre – historical romance in an Australian setting. And so, Unnoticed (Cinderella) and Unhinged (Beauty and the Beast) came into being.

For me, usually, an idea for a novel comes along with a theme. For Unnoticed, it was essentially about self-esteem. A lovely girl who suffers rejection so much she believes she is worthless, and how that self-belief has to be turned around. So many teenage girls suffer these issues and need to know how precious they really are, so I wanted to put this culturally relevant theme into an age-old fairy tale. For Unhinged, mental health weighed heavily, again an issue that is prevalent in our society but is also as old as time. What if the beast wasn’t an animal transformation, or a physical defect, but what if mental illness made him ‘beastly’? And how does one learn to really love a beast?

Both of these novels were close to home. I have my own story of self-esteem struggles as a teen that I drew from, and there are several people in my life who live with mental illness that also helped give insight to these situations. All that was left was the challenge of making an interesting story that could shine light on these issues and bring hope to people. Hopefully I have done them justice!

Currently, I am working on a third fairy tale, a Rapunzel story, tentatively called Unravelled. This one will be about true freedom. Olivia is a teen convict in Van Diemen’s Land, both longing for and afraid of freedom at the same time. Can you be free even while locked in a prison? Sometimes circumstances can feel like prison walls, but there is a freedom that surpasses every situation."

Christian Retellings

Thanks, Amanda. I've read Unnoticed and loved the intertwining of Cinderella themes in a unique Australian setting and I appreciated the strong themes of God's love throughout the story. Unhinged is sitting at the top of my To-Be-Read pile.

A few Australian Christian authors have ventured into this fertile field.  Melissa Gijsbers has been part of a story in the fractured fairy tell retellings Teapot Tales: A Collection of Unusual Fairy Tales.  Charis Joy Jackson has written a wonderful fantasy and allegorical retelling of beauty and the beast in Rose of Admirias. I had fun with a flash fiction based on Blue Beard with a twist at the end.

Popular American Christian author, Melanie Dickerson, has written several historical fairy tale retellings set in mostly in Europe and with strong Christian themes, such as The Healer's Apprentice (Sleeping Beauty), The Merchant's Daughter (Beauty and the Beast), The Fairest Beauty (Snow White), etc.

Biblical stories can also be retold. A genre we covered earlier here.

Writing Retellings

Often an exact replica can be lifeless.

  • In a good retelling, the writer captures the essence of the story with creative insertion of recognisable and pertinent details (the glass slipper or the poisoned apple). 
  • The transformation/transmutation to a new setting and props feels a natural fit, rather than forced. (I once attended a performance of the Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor at Windsor, Brisbane and with costume, props and stages sets all from1960s Australia and it worked brilliantly.) 
  • The reteller needs to make creative choices about what to include, what to transmute and what to leave out. (For example, including the slipper for Cinderella but leaving out the stepsisters chopping off their toes to fit in the earliest versions.)
  • Retellings of more recent classics may run into copyright issues and permissions (with satire as a possible exception). Fairy tales, Jane Austen novels and Shakespeare plays are popular choices for retellings not only because they are classic stories that resonate down the years, but also because they are in the public domain.
Jeanette O'Hagan

Have you written /attempted a retelling? Have you read any? Which are your favourites and why?

Amanda Deed is an award-wining author residing in Melbourne with her husband (AKA Mr Funny Man), her three zany teens, three cockatiels, three budgies, three bunnies and an elderly hound called Princess. Outside of her family, her life revolves around words and numbers (writing and accounting) with a splash of music here and there.

Her first novel, The Game, won the 2010 CALEB Prize for Fiction, and she has since had several novels final in the same prize. Amanda loves to write about her favourite things: her faith, Australia, romance and Australian history. As such, her novels explore themes involving spiritual convictions, relationships and historical events.

For more information, go to


  1. Wow. Thanks for highlighting 'retellings' as being a genre - I hadn't thought about it like that before - and thanks for providing some new book suggestions to add to my 'to read list'. ;) I have fun memories of revamping a Cinderella story with a group of friends in grade five. We were forever creating plays and begging our teacher to let us perform them for the class. She finally said yes to our penultimate creation: Cinderella and the Case of the Missing Bow. A slippery sleuthing mystery with the predictable HEA at the end. We had a blast coming up with our twisted plot line and our teacher loved it so much she encouraged all the other year five teachers to have us perform for their classes too. I've long since forgotten the details of the plot but, as the short-haired girl in the group, I had to play the 'male' characters including The Postman, The Salvation Army Officer and The Prince. Haha - one of the very few happy memories I have from my primary school years, so thanks for reminding me of it.

    1. What a great memory, Mazzy :) I used to play the prince in the impromtu plays with my two brothers (go figure - I was the oldest), that is about Grade 7 and my figure began to change. Retellings are a lot fun, usudally. Enjoy the new discoveries.

    2. Wow, Mazzy. That sounds like so much fun. What great memories.

  2. Thanks Jenny and Amanda. Retellings are a great way of bringing the truth of a classic story to a new audience. I loved the Lunar Chroncicles. Amanada, it's great that you've been able to weave those still very current themes into your books. In older days, mental illness was often portrayed as something horrible and mentally ill people were to be feared (e.g. the mad wife in the attic in Jane Eyre), so it's great to see a more modern insight into that. Another to add to my to-read pile.

    1. Hi Nola. One of my kids loved the Lunar Chronicles. Hope you enjoy Unhinged when you get to it.

    2. Thanks, Nola - so many great books out there just waiting to be discovered :)