How to Adapt a Fairy Tale

20th April 2018
6 min read
8th October 2020

I was walking into school one day and happened to notice a girl’s dress shoe lying on the side of the road. 

Everywhere you want to be book cover

It didn’t strike me as odd, being the Monday morning after the Homecoming dance, but something else stuck me instead—inspiration.  I knew immediately I was meant to write a Cinderella story.  I began reflecting on the familiar elements of the original story and figuring out ways to make them modern and non-magical.  Eventually, those ideas turned into a book and that book got me my agent, my book deal, and is now available to readers everywhere. It Started With Goodbye began as a familiar, timeless story about a girl in terrible circumstances, which is something we can all relate to on some level. And because I enjoyed it so much, I kept going.  I was lucky enough to get to write two companions, Everywhere You Want To Be (Little Red Riding Hood - May 1, 2018) and No Place Like Here (Hansel and Gretl, 2019).

I think this is why there are so many fairy tale retellings and fairy tale-inspired stories on the shelves, and why we keep devouring them – we can see ourselves in them, either through our own experiences or as children, reading them with our parents, our friends, our teachers. As every culture around the globe has storytelling in some form, connecting with the tales that are passed down from generation to generation is something everyone can do. Fairy tales comfort, they make us feel nostalgic, and they often stir up a host of feelings. What’s not to love?

So you’re thinking about writing your own fairy tale-inspired novel? Because the story you’re going to be working from is likely to be quite beloved, you have to handle the classic elements with care. Start with the source material most familiar to you, dissect it, and then look for as many other versions as you can. How was each version important to the culture that told it? In some cases, the big items stay the same, but often they do not, so choosing what’s most important in your new retelling is important. As they say, “kill your darlings.” You can’t always keep everything from the original and make it relevant in your new setting. A quick internet search will lead you to numerous websites offering different variations of fairy tales from around the world.  

When I’m adapting, I first think about themes. What is the original fairy tale about and what lesson, if any, is it trying to teach? Is it a theme I can stick with or do I need to alter it? In It Started With Goodbye, I knew I wanted a protagonist with more agency than Cinderella, who really just suffers through her family’s bad behavior and, seemingly because she is kind, gets pulled out of her unfortunate circumstances and stuck into better ones. The stakes are low, which doesn’t necessarily make for a successful book. I chose to adapt the theme, refocusing it on standing up for yourself and the things that make you happy. In my second book, Everywhere You Want To Be, I stuck closer to the original--I adapted Little Red Riding Hood from a cautionary tale about promiscuity to a story about a girl forging her own path, despite her mother’s wishes.  

Next, I think about the familiar puzzle pieces. What are the aspects from the original that most readers would recognize or be looking to see in a retelling?

Here are some of the choices I made when turning Cinderella into It Started With Goodbye.

- Evil stepmother = helicopter stepmother

- Dead father = father away on business for the summer

- Not allowed to go to the ball = house arrest & super-strict rules

- Glass slipper = lost keychain

- Evil stepsisters = ballet dancing stepsister

- Fairy godmother = step-abuela 

- Ball at the palace = concert

- Helpful animals = pet-sitting charges

- Prince Charming = well, you’ll have to read the book to find out!

Turning Little Red Riding Hood into Everywhere You Want To Be:

- The forest = New York City

- Red cape = red sunglasses

- Big Bad Wolf = teammate with a penchant for sabotage

- Woodsman = cute drummer

- Path through the woods = path toward the future/career choices

Not every fairy tale has quite as many recognizable elements, which can make an adaptation more challenging, but it also gives the writer more space to put their own spin on it. Be thinking of ways to play with setting, gender, motivations, obstacles, point of view, etc.

And why stop with fairy tales? Folk tales, myths, legends, poetry, songs, and classic literature all make wonderful sources of inspiration. Using original material can be difficult, because the reader’s expectations may be higher, but also really fun. They provide the writer a way to innovate something familiar and often get the creative juices flowing beyond the original idea.

Christina June writes young adult contemporary fiction when she’s not writing college recommendation letters during her day job as a school counselor. She loves the little moments in life that help someone discover who they’re meant to become – whether it’s her students or her characters. Christina is a voracious reader, loves to travel, eats too many cupcakes, and hopes to one day be bicoastal – the east coast of the US and the east coast of Scotland. She lives in Virginia with her husband and daughter. Visit her website here, or follow Christina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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