If I could trace the popularity of contemporary young adult fairy tale retellings, I might start with Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted. It might not be precisely the first retelling of a popular fantasy, but it is certainly ranked among the most well known. Like I mentioned in my Geekerella review, it is ridiculously easy to retell the Cinderella story, but the best ones bring their own twists and turns to create legitimate suspense and character. And certainly, Ella Enchanted cemented early in my mind as a retelling model.
In a world filled with ogres, gnomes, fairies, and other such creatures, Ella of Frell has a cursed life. As a child, an impulsive and airheaded fairy named Lucinda gave her the “gift” of obedience. Whatever order Ella is given—no matter how trivial or even how dangerous—she must obey. This complicates things when she makes friends with the crown prince Charmont, and her widowed father marries a woman with two catty and greedy daughters. Ella has always wanted to break her curse, but she is now determined to find a way, since it could put her friends, and even her beloved homeland, in danger…
You either know Ella Enchanted because of the book, or the Anne Hathaway movie, and it’s probably the most apples-to-oranges adaptation there ever was. The two only share similarities in character names and the very title, so it’s futile to compare them. It is, in retrospect, a little disappointing that the movie differs so much from the book, because the book is so delightful. To watch Ella and Char play with a baby centaur or slide down stair rails would have been adorable to watch; a retread of the Shrek formula is okay, but what material there already was was just fine too.
Levine has crafted an excellent cast. Ella is clumsy and fiery, but still sweet and very smart. Her stepsisters, Hattie and Olive, are so much fun to hate. But, the romantic that I am, the sweetest and most fun scenes happen between Ella and Char. There is genuine warmth between them that I return to more than anything in the book. They’re both older teenagers, but they’re still playful and mirthful—still children, in some respects.
But Levine’s biggest strength, beyond writing compelling and fun characters, is her storytelling. The familiar Cinderella beats are all there, but it doesn’t truly become a Cinderella story till halfway through. That’s because Ella is a character in her own right; she goes to finishing school; she runs away and tames a few ogres; she spends some time with the forest elves—she has all these adventures before the balls happen. Plus, the conflict of living with an obedience curse is fun, uncharted territory. Which, then again, is probably the best word to describe the book: fun. While more recent fairy tale retellings strive to be dark and bloody, this one just strove to have a fun adventure dabbling in danger and romance. Darkness is fine in moderation, but fairy tales can work just as well when they have more magic and mirth than blood and sex.
I’ll admit, the movie version of Ella Enchanted is a guilty pleasure, but the more satisfying version will always remain the book. It’s a never-ending cycle of childish, fantastical fun, and among one of Gail Carson Levine’s finest works—if among one of the greatest fairy tale retellings ever.