Alright, have the kids gone to bed? Good. Let’s talk about this: Authors who came of age in a postmodern zeitgeist can’t seem to resist the delicious irony of transforming stories meant for children into something decidedly non-kid-friendly.
Of course, the irony of this irony is that this irony really isn’t ironic. The stories we heard as kids were teeming with terror and gore. Remember, Hansel and Gretel almost get eaten, and they have to kill someone to defend themselves. That sounds pretty traumatizing. Remember, also, that Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother actually does get eaten. In 1819, the Brothers Grimm (who absolutely lived up to their name) published their version of the Cinderella story, which ends at Cinderella’s wedding (How nice!) where the step-sisters have their eyes gouged out (How horrible!) by doves. Fans of Disney’s relatively sanitized (yet somehow still troublingly sexist) adaptation of The Little Mermaid might have followed their curiosity to the Hans Christian Andersen original, only to discover a much darker ending (three hundred years of purgatory—yikes).
So fairy tales, folklore, and legends have always been macabre. This, along with the public-domain status of these tales, makes them a goldmine of raw material for authors with an inclination toward darker subject matter. Of course, if these hard-PG-13 reworkings were only about shock, there would be no point; most of the non-Disney Snow Whites are pretty shocking already.
Instead, these reworkings often aim at something much more thoughtful. Fairy tales—either through explicit moralizing or through unacknowledged norms that reveal the cultural values of whoever did the telling—convey messages. Many of these messages are pretty troubling to contemporary audiences less inclined to root for bloodthirsty vengeance, the subjugation of women, and all the other nasty things implicitly endorsed by these tales. (Post)Modern adaptations often push back on the values in these stories, challenging the worldviews that informed them, or raising questions about why the children of previous generations were exposed to such stomach-churning cruelty.
For example, when Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West offered a kid-unfriendly take on Frank L. Baum’s Wizard of Oz, readers willing to look past the clever point-of-view switching found a scathing feminist critique of gendered conceptions of “evil.”
Similarly, Michael Cunningham’s 2016 A Wild Swan offers surprising takes on Rumplestiltskin, Snow White, and that Jack guy (you know, the one who climbed a beanstalk to rob and kill some poor giant), exploiting narrative gaps to shake up our familiarity with these characters and their motives. In 2018, when Mallory Ortberg found fresh and surprising ways to adapt fairy tales, folklore, and the Bible in The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror, the values inherent in these tales were challenged with the same bold cleverness that went into twisting the narratives themselves. (Incidentally, if you’d like to have nightmares about The Velveteen Rabbit, Ortberg’s book is right up your alley.)
Meanwhile, some authors use the familiar settings and characters from these stories to offer a take on contemporary social situations. From 2002 to 2015, for instance, Bill Willingham’s gritty comic Fables relocated characters like Goldilocks and Pinocchio to modern-day New York. It’s easy to subvert a tale when no canonical version exists, and if that tale is widely familiar, it requires little introduction. Is there better paint to mix on a satirist’s canvas?
To leap into the grim world of Children’s Stories for Grown-Ups, why not start with a few of the suggestions below?
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