Adapting Fairytales

I’ve always loved fairytales; that’s what happens when you grow up watching (and rewatching, and rewatching, and rewatching…) Disney classics. I’ve been writing stories ever since I learned how to spell, so it was only a matter of time before I began adapting fairytales. Interestingly enough, my first adaptation was of Snow White. I’d never been really attached to the Disney movie, as it always seemed to lack something that the following era of “princess” movies had. And that was where the idea for my adaptation started. The movie Mirror Mirror showed me how different an adaptation can be from the original while still holding true to the main hallmarks of the fairytale. I began thinking of ways I could put twists on the traditional tale and add more depth to it. A few months later, I’d written a full-length novel entitled Snow. Since then, I’ve written two more novel-length fairytale adaptations, as well as a short story based on “The Brave Little Tailor.”

Fairytales are really popular in today’s world. You may think because there have been so many retellings already, there’s nothing for you to add. But that’s the awesome thing about adapting: each person brings their own unique twist to a story that everyone knows. Personally, I find that really exciting when writing any kind of adaptation! And not only is it a good writing exercise, but you can decide just how much effort you want to put into it. You can make a short retelling or turn the fairytale into an entire novel. The choice is up to you! So buckle up and I’ll lead you through my process of adapting fairytales.

What’s the point?

When I first set out to adapt fairytales, the very first thing I determine is the point I’m trying to get across. Most fairytales have a moral, so I have to decide if I’m sticking with the same thing or doing something entirely different. In the case of “Seven in One Blow,” my retelling of “The Brave Little Tailor,” I actually decided to go with the complete opposite point of the original story.

One of my biggest inspirations for writing has been this book of children’s fairytales that my dad got me when I was seven years old. At the end of each story, it explains the moral of the tale. For “The Brave Little Tailor,” apparently the moral was supposed to be something about cleverness, which I never understood, even when I read it as a kid. The tailor was a jerk! So the original inspiration for my adaptation was just pure annoyance that the tailor was applauded for being a complete git. If no one else would give him his comeuppance, then I would. I wanted to tell a story that said using cleverness for selfish gain isn’t all that matters in life; it can get you far, but in the end, will it really bring happiness?

To change, or not to change?

The next stage was deciding which parts of the original story I wanted to keep and which parts weren’t relevant to the tale I was telling. Mind you, I did slightly change or put a twist on some of the key elements I wanted to keep in my retelling, but those staples of the tale are still there.

This is an important step in deciding where you want to go with your adaptation. I decided to mostly stick with the story of the fairytale, but dig deeper into the main events. However, in my adaptation of Snow White, I changed the story a lot, only retaining little callbacks to the original tale like the apple, the huntsman, the seven dwarves (although they’re not dwarves in my book!), etc.

Your personal intent for telling the story, which we talked about in the last point, will greatly influence this step. This is the part where it’s important to know the ending of your tale because the ending will drive home your “moral.” While the brave little tailor ends up happy in the original tale, since I was going for the opposite theme, I instead had him end up unhappy in my story. The ending is often where some of the best twists come in.

Stylin’.

Then I came to the writing style of my story, which is really important for fairytales. For “Seven in One Blow,” I decided to keep the narrative tone of a traditional fairytale but use slightly more complex language. With Snow, I knew before I started that I wanted it to be a novel, so I abandoned the “fairytale” style of writing and instead wrote it like a fantasy novel.

Don’t think that you have to write a whole book for your adaptation to get your point across, though. “Seven in One Blow” ended up being a short story, and yet I’m really happy with how it turned out and I accomplished everything I wanted to in my retelling. Short doesn’t have to mean simple!

So, are you ready to adapt a fairytale now? Can you think of a fairytale you’ve always wanted to change or an idea you’ve had to put a twist on an old story? I encourage you to try it, no matter how long or short it ends up being. I know from experience that you’ll have lots of fun and get tons of great writing practice, too!

Just to give you an idea of how this works, I’ve included “Seven in One Blow,” which is part of my short story collection The Drabbles of a Dreamer (paid link).


Seven in One Blow
A retelling of the fairytale “The Brave Little Tailor”

There was only one person in the world who mattered to the village’s little tailor: himself. 

With every coat he mended, every sock he sewed, the tailor worked knowing that every stitch would help to bring about his own glory and renown. Word spread through his village, and those nearby, that he was the best tailor around. Still, it wasn’t enough. The tailor wanted more. 

One afternoon, as the sun let its hazy rays shine over the tailor’s work table, some flies buzzed in through the open window. Sweating and fretting over his work, the tailor became irritated at constantly swatting the flies away. He picked up a nearby rag and whipped it at the flies, hitting spot on. He pulled the rag away and stared at the seven flies lying dead on the table. 

“Seven in one blow,” he murmured. The phrase echoed in his mind. Seven in one blow. 

A wave of drowsiness washed over the tailor, as if he had become exhausted from his simple feat. He leaned back in his chair and let his eyelids fall closed. Like a lullaby, the phrase seven in one blow sang him to sleep. His dreams were of grandeur and fame, with people from every village and even the king and the six princes hailing the man who had killed seven in one blow. 

When the tailor awoke, he knew what he had to do.

Abandoning his previous project, he began on a sash to wear as a belt. The tailor worked more tirelessly than he ever had, completing the sash in a single night. The colour was bright red so it couldn’t possibly be missed. Embroidered in gold was the phrase: “seven in one blow.”

The tailor tied the sash proudly around his waist and tucked in his shirt so the words would be visible to all. And then, having a feeling that he had hit upon a wonderful idea, he set off to become something greater than a tailor. He would journey far off past the villages, and present his amazing skills to the king. 

On his way to the castle, the tailor felt the ground shake like an earthquake. He began to look for shelter until he noticed the hulking form of a giant still a ways off. The tailor smiled to himself, sure that he could take some token from this giant to the king to show the ruler how powerful he was. 

He approached the giant, who was dragging a tree over his shoulder. The giant didn’t see him, of course, so the tailor called, “Hello, friend!” (He had found this was the surest way of making people assume his intentions were innocent.) 

The giant looked this way and that before discovering where the voice was coming from. The giant frowned, squinting his eyes at the tailor’s belt. “Seven men in one blow?” he asked, misunderstanding the tailor’s belt just like he had intended. “You must be strong enough to help me carry this tree.” 

“Certainly!” the tailor called. He could see that the giant was exhausted, as the day was hot and humid. “I’ll carry the branches so they won’t scratch you.” He took up that end of the tree and found a comfortable spot in the branches. He let the giant drag him with the tree, but pretended to be hauling his weight when the giant paused for breath. 

The giant’s breaks became more and more frequent as time went on, until eventually he looked back at the tailor, blinking as sweat dripped into his eyes. “I might need to rest for a bit.” 

“Rest?” the tailor asked incredulously, jogging in place. “Well, I suppose if you’re tired, and you really think you can’t go on…”

The giant seemed to puzzle over his words, then turned with a grunt and continued dragging the tree. The tailor enjoyed his shady ride, refreshing himself with provisions he had brought for his journey. The giant tried to stop again and again, but the tailor manipulated him into continuing every time. 

Finally the giant slowed, and stopped. “I think…” he muttered, and then fell over with a great crash. The tailor sprung up and raided the giant’s pockets. He broke up some of the food he found there so it would fit into his own sack, and also purloined a huge, magnificent hat. Though the tailor hated to crush such workmanship, he folded up the hat as small as he could and stuffed it in his sack. 

With one last look at the sick giant, the tailor continued on. A few days passed by before he entered a vast forest. While making his way through shrubbery and low branches, the tailor heard galloping hooves. Quick as a streak of white lightning, a unicorn appeared and charged at him. The tailor sidestepped, and the unicorn lodged its horn in the tree just behind the tailor with a force that made a loud crack. The unicorn’s horn split and the beast fell over, unmoving. The tailor took the part of the horn that was embedded in the tree and stuffed it in his sack as well. He went on through the forest, leaving the dead unicorn behind him. 

He came to the king’s castle and met a beautiful woman just outside the gates. She revealed herself as the king’s sole daughter, the princess, and said that only people of distinction were allowed through the gates. 

“I’ve defeated seven in one blow,” he said, gesturing to his belt. “I’ve bested a giant and a unicorn. The king should see me.” 

“Only if you now best me,” the princess said. “You have shown that you have great strength, but now I will test your wits. Discern the answer to this riddle:

I am in the heart of every man:

Every pauper, every king, every village, every clan. 

Gold and silver do not satisfy me,

Power and influence give me strength,

I can make a man go to any lengths. 

Few have overcome me, 

I cannot be defeated, 

And when you die unsatisfied, my purpose is completed. 

The tailor smiled. He knew the answer because it was as close to him as his own shadow. Without hesitation, he responded: “Greed.” 

The princess frowned at his quick answer and handed over a grand emerald ring. “Give this to the king,” she said, “and you will be granted an audience with him.” 

The guards let the tailor through the gates once he showed them the ring, and he was allowed access all the way to the king’s throne room. He approached the king, seated on a central throne with his six sons split on either side of him, and showed him the princess’ ring, as well as the giant’s hat and the unicorn’s horn. He displayed his sash and explained how he had beaten a giant, a unicorn, and the princess herself. 

The king was extremely impressed. “If you can give me proof that you really can kill seven in one blow, I will allow you to marry the princess.” 

The tailor knew that if he married the princess, he had a chance of being king one day; but waiting around to be king wasn’t enough. He immediately came up with an idea of what he could do to show the king his prowess and gain what he’d been seeking at the same time. “I will be back here tomorrow at the same time. As you and your sons feast, I will prove to you that I am who I claim to be.” 

The tailor had a few preparations made that night, and then came back to the king’s throne room the next day. The king and his sons sat on their thrones, and the tailor gave a grand soliloquy as they began to eat and drink. The tailor dragged his speech on for longer and longer, until one by one each of the princes slumped over, the goblets of wine in their hands crashing to the floor. When only the king was left, he looked around in distress. 

“I told you,” the tailor said as the king himself closed his eyes, “seven in one blow.” 

The tailor, of course, took no responsibility for the demise of the king and his sons. Brushing over how the death of the king had taken place, the tailor insisted that the ruler’s last request had been for him to marry the princess and become king. No one would defy the man who had killed seven in one blow, so it was done. 

The tailor lived a long life of struggle and strife, fighting every day to keep himself alive from those who saw his craftiness as evil. His overzealous greed bred more greed throughout his kingdom, until everything fell into chaos. Other kingdoms attacked, and no one would rally to fight for their king. By the time the little tailor was an old man, his life and his kingdom were in ruins. 

As he lay in the last few hours of his life, his wife, the princess who had told him the riddle of greed so long ago, came to his side. 

“If you could live your life again,” she asked, “would you choose the same path?” 

The tailor turned king thought, and thought, and thought some more. “I think,” he confessed, mustering the last of his strength, “if I had the chance, I might try being kind.” 

The princess smiled, the only time the tailor had ever seen her do so. “I can see that what you have spoken is true. Go now; your wish is granted.” 

The tailor awoke gasping, awed to find himself at his work table from the little hut he had abandoned so long ago. Lying on the wood were the seven dead flies, freshly killed, and within arm’s reach was the red fabric and golden thread he had used to create his belt. 

But when the tailor looked down, no belt was tied around his waist. He rubbed his head and tried to make sense of it all. The memories of his journey to the castle, becoming king, and struggling through life were so vivid that he was sure he had lived them. And yet here he was, many years earlier, before he had even made the belt. He reached for the red fabric, but as he did, his own words resounded in his head: 

If I had the chance, I might try being kind. 

The tailor hesitated. He let his hand fall. Carefully, he scooped up the bodies of the dead flies and gently laid them across the windowsill. 

Then he sat in his chair, picked up his needle and thread, and began mending a pair of trousers. And that was the moment when he became the brave little tailor.

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