So I thought there were a lot of adaptations of “Snow White” out there to be looked at. Hah! That was before I checked out “Cinderella”. The number of Cinderella movie adaptations is simply ridiculous, and there are new ones coming out almost every year. And that’s just the movies – never mind novels, and plays, and musicals, and picture books, and TV shows, and so on and so forth. And we won’t even mention the stories that aren’t a retelling of the fairy tale per se, but have a “Cinderella” theme to them, like Harry Potter, because if we started on that, we’d still be here tomorrow. Let’s stick with movies, for now – and even there, only a small selection, the ones that stuck out to me, or crossed my path for one reason or another. Let’s do this chronologically.
The first Cinderella movie made, indeed, one of the first fairy tale movies made, ever, was Georges Méliès’ version from 1899. It’s a short little thing, just five minutes, and you pretty much have to know the story to catch what’s going on, but it’s the beginning of it all. Méliès made another version, much longer (half an hour), in 1912, which I haven’t actually watched all the way through. My silent-film tolerance is only so great. Oh, both of those films are live-action.
I already mentioned the amazing 1922 Lotte Reiniger animated paper cut-out version, which is probably one of my favourites.
The next movie after that, chronologically, is the Disney version of 1950; I won’t bother talking about that one right now because that’s what my paper is on, so there’s far too much to say on it. And besides, everyone knows it, anyway – in North America, at any rate.
However, the “everyone knows it” version for Europe is not Disney, but the beautiful 1973 live-action film Three Wishes for Cinderella, or rather, Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel(German) or, in the original Czech, Tři oříšky pro Popelku. Here is a BBC version with English narration overlaid over the Czech film. It’s a cult film in Germany, shown on TV every Christmas season. I’ll tell you some more about it some other time.
Jumping ahead to the 1990s, the number of Cinderella movies is really starting to take off. A quite amusing version is the 1997 musical with Whitney Houston as the fairy godmother. I just read somewhere that the production has a “multi-cultural” cast, but actually, it’s not multi-cultural, just multi-racial. My favourite bit about that is that the white King and black Queen (played by Whoopi Goldberg) have an Asian son (and very charming he is, too). As far as the culture goes, the setting and costuming is firmly mono-cultural, namely that pseudo-medieval-European flair which spells “stereotypical fairy tale”. It’s all of a piece, realism need not apply, which adds considerably to the charm of the version and, oddly enough, makes a story more believable (which is a whole other topic).
The exact opposite of this is the 1998 Ever After: A Cinderella Story with Drew Barrymore in the lead. It’s probably next to the Disney version the most popular Cinderella film, one of the first hits on a Google search for the name. Ever After tries to play the story as “real”, starting with a scene of the Brothers Grimm talking to an old French woman who is telling them that the story of Cinderella really happened, to a great-great-grandmother of hers, no less. I’m afraid the movie loses me, right there. A story which tries to be taken seriously as “real” but plays fast and loose with actual facts isn’t really my line. Not only were the Grimms German, not French, but the glass slipper with which the old lady entices them is not even part of the Cinderella story as they told it (the slipper in question is gold, in their version). Later, the movie brings in Leonardo da Vinci together with Prince Henry of France, but in reality their lives overlapped by no more than a month – Prince Henry was a babe in arms when Leonardo died, not a marriageable Prince Charming. And that’s another thing that bothers me about this movie: I don’t find this Prince particularly charming. In fact, he treats Danielle/Cinderella like dirt, humiliating her in front of the whole court for something that is pretty much his own fault. But in spite of this, she still eats out her heart for him. Of course, he’s a better choice than the enslavement by her stepmother, but her love for this overbearing, self-absorbed royal is still quite pathetic. The success of their relationship – and if we’re trying to be “real”, let’s go all the way and consider what their actual marriage will look like – is based on the romantic premise that the love of a good woman can change a man’s character, which is, I’m sorry to say, a faulty idea. Once you do away with wand-waving fairy godmothers, and substitute science, technology and Machiavelli for magic, you’re left with nothing but real-life principles, and they don’t always work so well the way they’re laid out here. This movie has been lauded as a feminist revisioning of the Cinderella story, but in the upshot, Danielle/Cinderella is still dependent on the Prince to say sorry for being a jerk and graciously accept her, after all; she doesn’t have the inner freedom that a truly empowered character should have.
Speaking of fairy godfathers, this brings me to the very hilarious 1999 Sesame Street musical Cinderelmo. The title character is played by everyone’s favourite furry red monster (insert Elmo giggle – ha ha ha!), who wants nothing more than to go to the Princess’-Eighteenth-Birthday-Holiday-Find-a-Husband Ball to dance. His fairy godfather – “Pardon me, fairy godperson!” – (played by Oliver Platt) tells him in no uncertain terms and a snappy song that just wishing for something isn’t going to do the trick; you’ve got to start by doing something – in Elmo’s case, who is sad because he’s too dirty to go to the ball, “Go have a shower!” The story goes from there as expected, except that at the end, when the Princess asks Elmo to marry her, he just laughs: “Get married before kindergarten? No way!” They find a better solution to the royal husband problem; Elmo and stepbrothers Telly and Baby Bear go off to play with the Princess at the castle; and everything truly ends happily for all involved.
So that’s a hundred years’ worth of highlights of Cinderella movies – see what I mean about the number of them out there? There are more; the new millennium hasn’t been a slouch on the Cinderella-filming front. Just to mention a few:
-2001: I was a Rat, adapted from the children’s novel by Philip Pullman. The story of Roger, who was changed from a rat to Cinderella’s page boy and missed the re-changing afterwards, and now has to adapt to life as a boy.
–2004: Ella Enchanted, adapted from Gail Carson Levine’s novel. I’ll talk about that more some other time, it’s too good not to (the book is, the movie, uh, not so much).
-2004: A Cinderella Story, with Hilary Duff in the lead. Cinderella in a California high school – ’nuff said.
-2008: “Cinderella”, an episode of BBC Modern Fairy Tales. She’s a cleaning lady in a university, he’s a highly respected professor who gets the surprise of his life when this uneducated girl proves to him that his most cherished theory is, in fact, wrong.
And then there’s a Kenneth Branagh version slated to come out in 2015, with Helena Bonham Carter as the fairy godmother. I’m looking forward to that one.
And I’m sure there’ll be about three other Cinderella movies made between now and then, but I ain’t going to write about them!