Mirror, Mirror: Taking a familiar story and making it new

Rachel Kent

Blogger: Rachel Kent

Last night I watched “Snow White and the Huntsman” the recent release with Kristen Stuart as Snow White. A few months ago I watched “Mirror, Mirror” with Julia Roberts as the evil queen. Both movies are Snow White stories but they were so different from each other. My personal preference is “Snow White and the Huntsman.” “Mirror, Mirror” was too goofy for me. If you’ve seen them, please post your opinions below!

It’s said that there is nothing new under the sun and that all story ideas have been written before. This is especially true with classic stories like fairy tales, yet there’s something in the classic stories that appeals to readers no matter how many times they’ve heard the story before. As a writer, the trick is putting your own spin on it. What tricks are used to make a familiar story unique? Here are some that I’ve seen:

1) Change the setting for the story. Taking a story and moving it to a completely different location can make a story new.

2) Add a modern day character into the story. Time travel can be overdone, but I’ve seen this done successfully a few times.

3) Make the story a modern retelling. The YA book Beastly by Alex Flinn comes to mind. It is a 21st century retelling of Beauty and the Beast. (I suggest you DON’T watch the movie. It was really bad.)

4) Give the story a 1st person narrator. This adds more personality to a character allowing the writer to use his or her imagination to shape the character significantly.

5) Add or eliminate an element like magic or technology. A recent retelling of Cinderella is a good example. In the book Cinder by Marissa Meyer, the main Cinderella character is a cyborg and lives in a world full of humans and androids. While this sounds strange, this book has done really well in the YA market.

6) Write a story that only hints at the classic tale. Using the basic structure of the classic story an author can do quite a bit of imagining and creating. The book East by Edith Pattou does this. It uses the fairy tale element of having a character who has been cursed to be an animal by day and is human by night and to be freed he must find love–similar to The Swan Princess and Beauty and the Beast but it doesn’t follow either tale exactly.

Do you have any other tricks to list that you’ve either used while writing or that you’ve seen used in books or movies?

Have you read any good fairy tale retellings? Please share them here.

I’m looking forward to Melanie Dickerson’s THE FAIREST BEAUTY. It releases in December. Isn’t the cover beautiful?!



74 Responses

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  1. I love fairytale stories no matter how many times I’ve heard them!!

    • Dear Rachel: I am new to your blog and love it. Because you touch on the things that touch me. Things I want to read about. There are a lot of blogs out there and honestly, I can only get so many…so thank you for being on my wave length.

      I write what I consider contemporary faerie tales with just enough magic to make you wonder…

      I have a series of Christmas stories set in Nantucket (Tuck You Inn). Two of my favorite magical things-Christmas and that tiny 7 mile island of beach roses, cobble stones, and tiny cottages.

      There are never enough Christmas stories and it seems the same ones appear year after year. But I think we all want that holiday faerie tale. Believing you could be the next Santa Claus or believing in yourself enough to fall in love…both are too overwhelming for Harvey Nichols.
      Harvey’s heart isn’t exactly frozen; it is just caught in the daily grind. All that is about to change when his son Walter finds a Victorian dressed young woman passed out on the village green. What caused her accident when there is no sign of a crash? When the tourist season on the small island of Nantucket is long over?
      Visit Candy Land Village where the board game originated and the Santa’s Village of your mind–a hard working place with serious deadlines.
      My Scrapbook Series (Creating Memories) is a contemporary faerie tale of 3 fossilized women who discover whatever they put in their scrap books happens. After they establish new residents, and build their financial portfolio’s they decide they want something else. They want family to be near them and they begin to manipulate the lives of their great nieces and granddaughters.
      I think when you have time to watch Once Upon a Time you will enjoy the magical elements and gorgeous settings that show the everyday problems of our favorite faerie tale characters. Let me know what you think.
      Warm regards
      Jacqueline Gillam Fairchild

  2. Mary Curry says:

    Good morning, Rachel. I haven’t seen either of those movies, but I love the ABC series, Once Upon a Time. Bringing all of the fairtytale characters forward to the modern world because of a spell cast by the evil queen was a brilliant twist. I love to see the new twists they come up with each week.

  3. I enjoyed Snow White and the Huntsman until the end,which left me disappointed. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone by telling, but I bet you know what I’m talking about. Mirror Mirror wasn’t at all what I expected and it was goofy, but a couple of scenes made me smile.

    I’ve always loved fairy tales. I read Sweetly by Jackson Pearce and I thought her contemporary spin on Hansel and Gretel was very well done and fun to read.

  4. I love a good fairy tale, Rachel. In fact, I just finished the book, “Between the Lines,” that was written by Jodi Picoult and her teen daughter. It was a very unique twist on fairy tales. 🙂

    I also, like Mary, enjoy the tv show, Once Upon a Time. I have seen the Snow White with Kirsten Stewart and liked it…except the ending (so I agree with Jessica). It is interesting how others can take something old and revitalize it.

    I can’t wait for Melanie’s book to come out! She’s not only such a sweet person but she’s a great writer. 🙂 I love that cover!

  5. Thanks for these pointers, Rachel. I’ve been playing around with a story retelling in my head (not fairy tale) but I think these could work just as well for what I’m thinking!

    I haven’t seen “Mirror, Mirror” but I liked “Snow White and the Huntsman.” My favorite fairy tale retelling so far is definitely Melanie’s “The Merchant’s Daughter.” Looking forward to reading her new one.

    (I agree Morgan–love the cover!)

  6. I have not seen Snow White & the Huntsman, but fell asleep during Mirror, Mirror – kinda’ says it all. Many books make my top ten lists for re-spun fairy tales, but going off topic a bit here, I loved the musical “Wicked.” (Wizard of Oz told from the Wicked Witch perspective.) See it if you get the chance!

    • Jenny Leo says:

      I love Wicked! I’ve seen it three times and have the soundtrack. However, I a friend refused to go to see it with me because it was about witches. 🙁 I’ve always loved fairy tales and think that fairy tale elements like wizards and magic don’t necessarily have to be incompatible with the gospel. Tolkien and Lewis come to mind. But my friend was adamant that Wicked was, well, wicked (without seeing it). Rachel (or anyone), what kind of push-back, if any, do you get from Christian publishers about stories with fairy-tale elements?

      • Rachel Kent says:

        Jenny, I haven’t experienced any pushback from the publishers with my clients who write fairy tales. It seems like as long as the message is a good one the publishers are interested.

      • Jenny, I completely agree with you that fairy tale elements such as magic and wizards should not automatically be dismissed as evil. Tolkien’s works, especially the Silmarillion and the Lord of the Rings have distinct Christian messages. Lewis’ writings are another excellent example. The Harry Potter series also has Christian themes of love, sacrifice and even the laying one’s life down for others and resurrection. Arthurian legend also comes to my mind as literary that has Christian themes in it and yet often is avoided by Christians because of the presence of the wizard Merlin. Mary Stewart, in her novel The Crystal Cave, does a fantastic job of moving Merlin (age 9 at the beginning of the book) from pagan beliefs to a Christian theology (although he doesn’t quite convert) by the age of 27.

        One of the saddest cases of Christians dismissing a book because of the word “witch” happened a few years ago. I am a Florida native and a Christian. As a child, one of my favorite stories (it was a MG book) was The Witch of Blackbird Pond. It is a fantastic story that shows how wrong it is to judge and condemn people simply because they seem different. There is no actual witch in the story, just an elderly woman that the majority of the community (the book is set in 17th century New England) BELIEVE to be a witch. A young woman risks the anger of the community by getting to know the woman. They develop a touching relationship and through her eyes, the reader gets to know the truth about this lonely and despised elderly woman. The book won literary awards. However, back in about 2005, it was banned from Central Florida public schools and libraries simply because it had the word “witch” in the title. There was no witch in the book, no witchcraft practiced or described, it taught an excellent lesson with a Christian message, yet it was Christians who worked to get the book banned–without ever reading it! As I said, very sad.

    • I love the concept of Wicked! It’s great to have a story told from another character’s perspective, especially, as in Wicked, to change the villain to the protagonist. There are always two sides…at least!

    • I loved the Wicked musical too, but I couldn’t get into the books at all.

    • Rachel Kent says:

      I haven’t gone to see Wicked yet. I wasn’t a fan of the book, but I hear the musical is much better.

  7. Lacee Hogg says:

    I really enjoyed Snow White and the Huntsman, especially the way the movie told the story with all the imagery and atmosphere. It reminded me a lot of the Alice in Wonderland movie that came out a few years ago.

    Fairy tale retellings are one of my favorite genres. I especially like the ones that retell tales that I’m not as familiar with, like The 12 Dancing Princesses. I think this genre is getting more and more popular!

    • Rachel Kent says:

      I thought they did a great job with the world-building and special effects in Snow White and the Huntsman, too! I was surprised that they put so much into it.

  8. Jeanne T says:

    I’m out of it. I’ve not seen either of the movies you mentioned. 🙂 Though it’s old, I liked the re-telling of the Cinderella story in “Ever After.”

    I loved your tips, Rachel. I’ve got a favorite Bible story that I’ve considered writing as a modern day tale. Your tips would work well for that. 🙂

    Thanks for a fun post today!

    • I love Ever After, too, Jeanne. And I hope you do write that Bible story told as a modern fairy tale so we get to read it in critique group. How fun!

    • Rachel Kent says:

      I love Ever After! Great movie. 🙂

      And you are welcome. Glad the tips might be useful.

    • Jeanne, “Ever After” is one of my all-time favorite movies! 🙂 In fact, I think I might just have to watch it tonight! lol

    • Anna says:

      “Ever After” is one of those few movies which I like in spite of it being woefully historically inaccurate and implausible, and the characters’ “English” accents being terrible.

      One of the others is “George and the Dragon” with James Purefoy, but often, I am rather pedantic when it comes to Medieval movies- and the latter did depict George as a bit weedy.

  9. I loved Snow White in the Huntsman, though I don’t plan to watch Mirror, Mirror.

    These and modern retellings of classic tales are seeming to make a resurgence — the CW has a new TV show called Beauty and the Beast (where Beauty is a homicide detective…)

    I’m fascinated by it all and I very much look forward to Melanie Dickerson’s novel!

    • Rachel Kent says:

      Lol! Beauty as a homicide detective? I have to check this show out. 🙂

    • Anna says:

      I read Mrs Dickerson’s “The Merchant’s Daughter” and would like to read her soon to be released one and the prequel, the first one.

      I gave the former three stars if I recall, it was alright, but I found the whole nobleman ricking his life to save a servant a little implausible- still giving fairy tales a real historical setting is an interesting idea I think.

  10. Yes, my hubby and I just got hooked watching the entire first season of ONCE UPON A TIME–we love the way you’re guessing who each character in the modern world was in the fairy-tale land.

    I also love the show GRIMM–which is much blacker, but honestly, the real fairy tales were often BLACK. Those stepmothers were often murderers. Kids wound up in desperate situations, with no parents in sight. Many of the stories didn’t have the happiest of endings.

    I love the Norwegian fairy tales, like “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon.” I also love “Snow White and Rose Red”–describes my daughters to a T. And Snow White in that story was a blonde (at least in my illustrated version!)–Rose Red was the brunette.

    • Rachel Kent says:

      The book EAST is also like that Norwegian tale. I couldn’t think of the name of the tale when I was writing the blog last night so I left it out.

    • Anna says:

      I was looking up Grimm’s Fairy Tales on Wikipedia and think I saw that one mentioned. Finding the origins of some of these stories could prove interesting I think.

      People say for instance that Lord of the Rings is ‘Christian’ but its basis is largely in Norse/Germanic and other mythologies, and whilst it is very ‘historical’ and Tolkien was a Medievalist, which is something I like, I think we should perhaps be careful about reading ‘Christian’ meanings into his work.

  11. As I said before, *gasp*, that cover is gorgeous. Makes me want to buy the book without even reading the back cover (oh, the power of a good cover to draw us in!).

    I liked Mirror, Mirror okay, but definitely Snow White and the Huntsman had a more powerful draw (even if Kristen Stewart has a perpetual scowl). But yeah, like Jess, the ending…ack!! Seriously?!

  12. What a neat post, Rachel. I’ve never been a huge fairy tale fan. When I was young, I found them a bit creepy. An evil queen who is so jealous of her step-daughter’s looks that she tries to kill her? No thanks. My home life was ugly enough.

    That said, my girls and I really enjoyed Cinder and are looking forward to the release of Scarlet next year. Though I’m not big into sci-fi and futuristic novels, Meyers not only made the book interesting with her superbly drawn characters, as the series continues, she’s blending fairy tale characters from different stories and having them interact with each other. That’s clever.

  13. I really enjoyed Mirror, Mirror, but I WAS trapped on a 5.5 hour plane ride with all five kids, so … ;p

    Leslie Gould’s newest series is Amish books inspired by Shakespeare!! I don’t normally read Amish, but Leslie is a great writer. I’ve just started Courting Cate–it came in the mail yesterday–and it’s the retelling of Taming of the Shrew. I’m really, really enjoying it and know all of this series are going to be fabulous!

    • Christina,

      I was just getting ready to type the same comment about Leslie’s new book. I guess there really isn’t anything new under the sun! 🙂

      I got it in the mail last night, too. Amish Shakespeare? What a great twist on two old themes. I’m can’t wait to see how she handles it.

      I love the cover of Melanie’s new book. There’s been some really amazing covers in the past few years. It makes me wonder if publishers are putting more emphasis on art than they used to, or if the current styles are just more appealing to my tastes.

    • Rachel Kent says:

      How neat! I’ll have to check those out.

      I also watched Mirror, Mirror on the plane. I think if I had been home I would have turned it off before it was over, but I wasn’t trying to entertain any children. 🙂

  14. Thanks for mentioning my book, Rachel! I love retelling fairy tales. I just try to imagine what the story would have been like without the magic, as if it had really happened.

    I guess I’m the only one, but I loved Mirror, Mirror! I’ve seen it twice now! LOL! I saw Snow White and the Huntsman too and it was a bit dark for me. Plus, Chris Hemsworth was always so dirty. What was up with that? Dirty medieval people is one of my pet peeves. And his hair was bad in that movie. I prefer him as Thor. 🙂

    I hope people will like the new twist I put on the Seven Dwarfs in my book. 😉

  15. Alex says:

    I loved “East.” It still remains one of my favorite books today. I wonder how you could manage to do an adult retelling on that? And congrats, congrats, congrats to Melanie.

  16. I had wanted to see Mirror, Mirror, but now I probably won’t. Thank you for the heads up, Rachel, and thank you for the great ideas.

    The play Once Upon a Mattress, I think, is a fantastic retelling of the Princess and the Pea. I like the play much better than the original story. I also like the original Grimm fairy tale of Snow White and Rose Red better than the Disney version.

    My own WIP is literally a fairy tale since the main character is a teenage faerie. I’ve been consciously trying to avoid stereotypes and stock characters. Studying Celtic mythology and Irish folklore and symbolism has helped tremendously with this. I learned from Yeats’ Celtic Twilight that there are several different types of faeries, so although I have a sprite in the book who is Tinkerbell type, my main character is a faerie who is human-sized and doesn’t have wings. She wants to fly, though. In fact, her deepest yearning is to transform into a dragon, in part so she can fly. Most of the magical characters in the book have been inspired by Celtic folklore, so I’ve been able to put a different spin on a trip through an enchanted forest. One such character is the Capall Agamecht (a name I invented from corrupting Irish). It is a cross between the Irish Kelpie and the Welsh Ceffyl Dwr. It is a beautiful and charming pony who has wings and who invites the main character, Siobhan to get on his back so he can fly her out of a dangerous and haunted grove. Fortunately, another character intervenes and stops her. The Capall Agamecht’s goal is to get a one to ride on his back, then he flies into the air and disappears, leaving the victim to fall to her death. I purposely described him in such a way that any girl reading the book will think of cute stuffed unicorns or Pegasus toys. And it worked! Someone in my critique group keeps referring to him as “the purple pony” and she is quite upset that he turned out to be a cold-blooded murderer.

    I’ve also tried to keep the story from being a complete fairy tale by having the main character stay for a while with her aunt who is a faerie living incognito in a human town. This brings the main character out of “fairyland” and into a contemporary setting where she has to deal with culture shock and discovers human “magic” such as lighting a room by flicking a switch or talking to someone long distance by use of a phone. I think the seed for doing this was planted in me by a line from J.K. Rowlings’ character Mr. Weasley, who is fascinated by muggles and who asks earnestly, “‘Tell me, Harry, just what IS the function of a rubber duck?'”

    Have a blessed day!

  17. I’m a recent addition to the Once Upon A Time fandom and love it. Really want to see Snow White and the Huntsman, but haven’t looked for it around here yet. The more I hear about how dark it is, the more I want to see it.

    I love fairy tales, and retellings. At first I was very nervous about Tangled based on what I’d heard about it while it was still in production. Then I saw it and it was awesome. Disney did a great job.

  18. I enjoy fairy tale retellings too. But the retold stories this post brought to mind are Leanna Renee Hieber’s take on the Persephone myth starting with The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, and C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, a retelling of the Psyche myth.

    Hieber’s Strangely Beautiful series is a unique, good read in my opinion. But Lewis’s Till We Have Faces is life-changing. In fact, I think it’s time I reread it.

    As for the recent movies you mentioned, I nearly melted onto the floor when I realized I’d dragged my husband to see a Snow White movie aimed at the Justin Bieber crowd–Mirror, Mirror. Ugh! To his credit, hubby handled it with his customary easy-going grace. I guess I owe him big time for that one.

    Was it just my ears, or did the actors mumble all through Snow White and the Huntsman? Everybody except for Charlize Theron, that is.

  19. Gail Carson Levine does quite a bit of retelling of old fairy tales. She’s quite successful at it.

  20. Rachel,

    Your tips were great and I will definitely be saving them for future use.

  21. Laurie Evans says:

    I’m not a fan of fairy tales, but I DID love the movie Ever After. I could watch that over and over…

  22. Jenna C. says:

    I love when a classic fairytale story or any other story for that matter is retold. It’s pretty cool how some authors can twist things around!

  23. Sharyn Kopf says:

    I love fairy tale re-tellings too, including many of those mentioned here. Not a big fan of Mirror, Mirror — I was too aware of Snow’s eyebrows & Julia Roberts’ overacting. And I haven’t seen The Huntsman yet. But OUAT & Ever After are great!

    One of my favorite fairy tale movies is The Slipper & the Rose, a 1972 British musical version starring Richard Chamberlain. It has most of the traditional story elements but when the Prince finds her & you think the story is over … it’s not! Because this happens: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEmPMgNoWOY&feature=relmfu

    The Fairest Beauty has definitely been added to my reading list! It sounds like just the kind of book I would enjoy.

  24. Elizabeth Kitchens says:

    I saw Snow White and the Huntsman, but I didn’t care that much for it. I expected a romance between Snow White and the Huntsman; I thought that would be a good twist to the story. It was more about special effects and the horrible queen.
    I like to make fairy tales part of my stories. I wrote a story about the enchantress who enchanted the prince in Beauty and the Beast. It’s is mainly about the enchantress, but has a little of the classic tale in it too.

  25. Linda Jewell says:

    Although Jane Austin didn’t write fairy tales, I’m familiar with three of the many takoffs on her novels:
    1. Pamela Aidan wrote a trilogy, Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman, in which Aiden switches storytellers. (Aiden tells the story of Pride and Prejudice from Mr. Darcy’s point of view.) I enjoyed these books and reread Pride and Prejudice to see how the two authors’ books mesh.
    2. P. D. James wrote Death Comes to Pemberly, in which she used Austin’s locations and characters from Pride and Prejudice. However, James, an accomplished mystery writer, adds a murder and starts the action in 1803, six years after the ending of the Austin novel. I enjoyed reading this new mystery which contained familiar characters.
    3. Karen Joy Fowler wrote Jane Austin’s Book Club, a contemporary novel in which six people meet to discuss Jane Austin’s six books. I haven’t read this book because when I flipped through it I didn’t think I’d enjoy it.

    And yes, after one look at the cover art for The Fairest Beauty, I’ve made a mental note to look for it in the stores in December.