So, Rumpelstiltskin is really the first “problem” fairy tale we’ve looked at (yes, okay, fine, we’ve only looked at three so far, but just go with me on this one). East of the Sun is just fantastic all on its own, and Beauty and the Beast isn’t a great story, but at least it follows a basic pattern of logic and reason. But Rumpelstiltskin, as we discussed at the beginning of the month and really every week since, is a much more problematic story. It doesn’t make sense. It isn’t well explained. There’s really very little rhyme and reason. And so, of course, it’s fascinating to me to see how authors handle it in adaptation.
As a reminder, this month, we read:
Spinners by Donna Jo Napoli and Richard Tchen
A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce
The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde
The Crimson Thread by Suzanne Weyn
On the first hand, we’ve got Spinners, which, all in all, really did take a pretty straightforward approach. Yes, Rumpel got his backstory, and was made slightly more complex by the twist of being the miller’s daughter’s real father, but really, this novel stuck pretty close to the original. We had the three nights to spin straw into gold, we had Rumpel striking his three deals, we had the contest to find out the name, and we had the stamping into the floor and ripping his leg off death at the end.
And really, to me, that was Spinners’ biggest weakness. Napoli and Tchen deviated a bit from the original tale, but not really enough. It’s almost like they were afraid to go too far away from the familiar details. But that becomes a problem when the familiar details just plain don’t make sense. This month, this book was definitely the weakest offering, and that’s really why.
In choosing to take the narrative in completely different directions, adaptations like A Curse Dark as Gold and The Crimson Thread really opened themselves up to brand new possibilities. In A Curse Dark as Gold, Bunce made a bold move and pitched a lot of those common elements – straw was spun to gold only once, there was no king in sight, and the name “Rumpelstiltskin” was never offered. Instead, this story and its essential elements were planted in a more realistic world (for all that we had ghosts and lost souls and curses presented as a matter of fact), and that made the story not only more relatable, but also more meaningful.
The same holds true with The Crimson Thread, which was even more of a departure from the original. Rumpel is a love interest, the firstborn child threat was never a serious deal, and the “miller’s daughter” leaves the “king” in the end – and we applaud that decision because in this day and age, it’s hard to root for a girl who agrees to marry the man who threatened to kill her if she didn’t live up to her father’s clearly impossible boasts. A Curse Dark as Gold and The Crimson Thread succeeded as adaptations because they made the choice to depart from the original. At the very least, think of them what you will, they were miles more successful as adaptations than Spinners was.
And then there’s The Rumpelstiltskin Problem, whose entire point is to deviate from the original plot. I’ve already talked about how brilliant I find this book, and this is the reason why. Because it’s detrimental when we get so attached to stories that we refuse to see anything bad about them. When our nostalgia for the familiar keeps us from recognizing the very real issues that whatever is familiar might have.
Rumpelstiltskin, as a fairy tale, is a highly problematic story, and it won’t be the only one that we look at this year. Now, Rumpelstiltskin also doesn’t have quite the level of nostalgia attached to it that some of the others do (likely due largely to the fact that Disney has yet to tackle this one (not counting ABC’s Once Upon a Time and the brilliant Robert Carlyle, of course)), but we will talk in the coming months about more of these problematic stories – Sleeping Beauty jumps immediately to mind – and once we do, I know we’ll be fighting that nostalgia factor, so I want to state this reminder, for you all as well as for myself:
If we sacrifice objectivity for nostalgia, we do ourselves and our stories a disservice. Rumpelstiltskin and its adaptations have shown us that this month. The strongest offerings are those that dared to take the story in a new and different and divergent direction. That says a lot.
So! The individual novels and their rankings:
The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde gets top ranking of the four for me, with a Strongly Recommended. Its snark and meta-ness and the fact that Vande Velde did exactly what I’ve been doing won it the spot. The six stories are brilliantly done, and yet all so very different, but all making the same points.
A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce also gets a ranking of Strongly Recommended. I really enjoy the grittiness of this novel and how much is constantly at stake. With its stubbornly infuriating protagonist and excellently well rounded cast of characters, it’s well worth the read.
The Crimson Thread by Suzanne Weyn ranks third, with a Recommended ranking. I enjoyed the story a lot, but it did suffer some pacing issues (and, yes, now that they’ve been pointed out to be, some pretty unfortunately historical inaccuracies). It’s a great story with a great premise, just not quite as well executed as the other two.
Spinners by Donna Jo Napoli and Richard Tchen falls last, with a Not Recommended ranking. It hurts me to assign it, because so much of the book was good, but the ending just killed it for me. It could have been so much more.
Other Notable Novels: None, really! Between Heidi and I, we pretty much exhausted the adaptations of Rumpelstiltskin. Want a great new take on his character? Watch Once Upon a Time and the brilliant Robert Carlyle! :)
Thanks for reading along this month!
August’s fairy tale: The Twelve Dancing Princesses