After centuries of fairy tales, most people are familiar with the workings of fortune-telling mirrors, enchanted frogs, and masked balls. They know to be wary if grandmother looks a little hairier than usual, and to check under the mattress for stray peas if they're having trouble sleeping.
But just because everyone knows that Cinderella gets the guy in the end, and that Sleeping Beauty awakens, doesn't mean they are tired of hearing the tales. At least that's what Hollywood, book publishers, and playwrights all hope.
This year alone, at least two versions of Cinderella are hitting the big screen, including "Ella Enchanted," opening Friday, and "A Cinderella Story," with Hilary Duff, in July. Next month the animated "Shrek 2" arrives, and later in the year expect the story of the brothers Grimm, who popularized fairy tales two centuries ago. Fairy-tale plays aimed at children - and some just at adults - are easy to come by in New York this spring, offering a new take on the tale of the frog king and musings about the nature of evil.
Contemporary writers like to tinker with the classics in much the same way the brothers Grimm did. More than just adding cellphones or shopping malls, many imbue the tales with a modern sensibility: What if the frog were kissed and the girl turned into a frog, too? What if Hansel and Gretel
wanted revenge on their parents? What if Cinderella weren't so passive?
They're not likely to turn off audiences, since they're building on a genre that has been with people from childhood - one that forges a common language.
"This is our cultural legacy," says Maria Tatar, who teaches a course in fairy tales, children's literature, and the culture of childhood at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "We haven't all read Hamlet, but we all know immediately what Little Red Riding Hood is about."
Today, the influence of fairy tales is found in everything from TV commercials to artwork, and is particularly noticeable in movies and books. Fairy-tale scholar Jack Zipes counted at least 100 different Cinderella-type stories published in the three-year period leading up to 2002, ranging from picture books to novels for adults. "All of these are attempts to present alternatives to this basic schema: What does a girl do when her mother dies?" he says.
Despite their centuries-old roots, fairy tales deal with issues that people still grapple with, says Professor Zipes, who teaches at the University of Minnesota. Cinderella is about blended families - and survival. And most tales deal with gender or class conflict. "Even though the language is metaphorical, people grasp immediately what these basic conditions are that we have to confront daily and never seem to overcome in any way," he says.
Often there are battles between good and evil, which can be easier to handle in a tale. And, as Professor Tatar notes, there's something satisfying about seeing the oppressors dealt with in the end. (Anyone who's seen the wicked stepmother in "Ever After" - played by Anjelica Huston - get her comeuppance can relate.)
Readers who love the tales from their youth aren't necessarily enamored by all the "updates" - for example, some people find the idea of Prince Charming visiting a shopping mall off-putting. But Tatar argues that collections like "The Blue Fairy Book" aren't exactly the Bible. "We shouldn't treat these stories as sacred," she says, "We should rewrite them for children and retell them." She points out the Grimm version of fairy stories tended to be red in tooth and claw - reflecting a time when children regularly had siblings who died before reaching adulthood.
But some of the writers doing the adapting say that it's those high stakes that attract them to the genre in the first place. "I'm attracted to fairy tales because of the intensity of emotion," says Webb Wilcoxen, author of "The Fairy Tale Project," a dark collection of fairy tales staged Off-Broadway recently. "There's high stakes in most of the stories - it's usually life and death - so that's a world I like to write in."
He wrote the pieces in "The Fairy Tale Project" in the year following Sept. 11, 2001. Among them are tales that explore revenge and the effects of the murder of a child. Some are adaptations of classic tales - like a Little Red Riding Hood where she and her grandmother are wolves - and some sprung from his imagination.
One reason for all the fairy tale influx in recent years is that they've become a legitimate scholarly pursuit in the past few decades, so more is known about them. Female writers also have rewritten or created new stories to counter the sexist tendencies of the classics.
Take the book "Ella Enchanted." Author Gail Carson Levine says she couldn't understand why Cinderella was so passive. She found herself asking the question many people likely wonder: Why did the perfect-footed one let everyone walk all over her?
Ms. Levine's answer involves a curse: Cinderella had to obey all those commands because she was forced to by an obedience spell. (The movie version keeps the curse and the title, but little else from the book.) "The movie is very, very, very different," she says in a phone interview while doing publicity for the film. "There are a lot of anachronisms in it that aren't in the book at all.... I think it's a funny movie and has its own charm, but it's quite different."
The details are what attract her to fairy tales. She's intrigued by tablecloths that set themselves and seven-league boots that take you 21 miles in a single step. "A fairy tale never tells you what happens in those 21 miles. A fairy tale doesn't tell you what happens when you put on a cloak of invisibility, other than that you're invisible. It doesn't say what it feels like. All that stuff gives everybody room to have fun."
When Bridgette Dunlap, a 20-something actor in New York, adapted several of Grimm's tales for children in a performance at the Atlantic Theater Company, she decided that the tale of the Frog King would be more interesting if she put the spoiled princess, who breaks her promise to befriend the frog, on trial.
But like Levine, she felt the female characters in some stories - Ashputtle (Cinderella), Hansel and Gretel - needed tweaking. "I just wanted to be careful about the evil women and perfect women that you find in these tales. I don't want to perpetuate a stereotype," she says. She chose to make the women more nuanced and involved in their fates, yet retain key recognizable elements. "The witch is still evil," she says. "I didn't want to totally rewrite the things."