Friday, August 31, 2012

The Twelve Dancing Princesses Wrap Up

Twelve Dancing Princesses Wrap Up

All right, so this month was pretty disappointing overall, and I’d like to look at why. We read the following:

The Night Dance by Suzanne Weyn - This adaptation combined The Twelve Dancing Princesses with the legend of King Arthur, and while I’d remembered it as being an okay book, I liked it less and less the longer I read it.

The Princess Curse by Merrie Haskell - This adaptation combined The Twelve Dancing Princesses with Beauty and the Beast and wasn’t too bad, all things considered, though it did depart from the source material pretty severely.

The Phoenix Dance by Dia Calhoun – This adaptation was actually a platform for advocating the medicating of bipolar disorder, and was just God-awful.

The Thirteenth Princess by Diane Zahler - This adaptation was one of the more simpering saccharine things I’ve ever read, and I wanted to punch the main character in the teeth. If she’d been characterized differently, this book might have been decent.

Princess of the Midnight Ball
by Jessica Day George - This adaptation is not only my favorite adaptation of this story, it’s also one of my favorite fairy tale adaptations of all time.

So with one outstanding adaptation, one decent adaptation, and three total flops, what is it about this fairy tale that makes it so seemingly destined for poor adaptation? Honestly, I think this fairy tale just plain gets underestimated. It seems so simple on the surface of it, but actually, there’s a lot going on. There’s a large cast, there’s all sorts of politics, and there are a lot of questions that need to be asked as one attempts an adaptation. It’s not all dancing and a contest love story.

Unfortunately, most of the adaptors in question didn’t seem to get that memo. Let’s use the checklist as a basis, yeah, and go backwards because of reasons.

Round out the cast – we’ll get to the princesses in a minute, but for now, let’s look at everyone else. It’s not just that there are a lot of characters who need to be fleshed out here, it’s that there are a lot of characters who add important elements to the forward progress of the story, and they seem to get continuously shunted aside. Let’s look at the princes, first off.

The idea behind this contest is that there are a boatload of princes who have tried and failed to break this curse. This is important because every prince who has tried and failed adds to the urgency and hopelessness of the situation, especially since they’ve all been killed. But Night Dance? One prince before the soldier character gets there. Phoenix Dance? A handful, if that, and none of them die. Thirteenth Princess? Doesn’t even get that far; the king puts the kibash on the whole idea before it can get started. The Princess Curse and Princess of the Midnight Ball are the only adaptations that give us a string of failed attempts with disastrous consequences, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those are also the only two stories I felt invested in.

Then we have the soldier, who comes after this string of princes, and despite the fact that so many have died, is determined to try his hand at the task. And yet, as important and central as this character is, he’s barely present in the adaptations. We get Bedivere, but in Princess Curse? The character is there, but the investigation is mainly handled by the herbalist’s apprentice. Phoenix Dance, it’s taken on by the shoemaker’s apprentice. Thirteenth Princess? He needs the help of two children to really accomplish anything. Only Princess of the Midnight Ball really gives us a soldier who succeeds because he was a soldier, which is strange because that's his whole thing that sets him apart in the original.

I find it interesting that so many of the adaptations felt the need to rewrite this character, and really, that’s true across the board with a lot of things about this story. There was an awful lot of departure from the original source material, either combining it with other stories or adding elements that didn’t really need to be there. The first four novels are all guilty of this, and to me, it feels like the authors didn’t fully understand the story they were trying to tell, and rather than really delve into it and try to answer the obstacles, they tried to change huge pieces of it and hope that that might work.

And then we have the characterization of the princesses – Setting aside The Princess Curse for the time being, as that adaptation failed to characterize the princesses in a way that actually worked for the story, the three failed adaptations of this story all failed in the same big way – not one of them characterized more than two of the twelve princesses. I said it back at the beginning of the month – if you choose to retell this story, you have to be aware of the inherent cast. If you’re not up to the challenge of characterizing a cast of twelve, why are you telling this fairy tale?? It’s just sloppy, and incomprehensible to me.

Overall, I feel like the authors, excepting George and maybe Haskell, just got in over their heads. They had a partial idea that they attached to this story, but they never really attached it well enough to make it work. In the end, they all tried to do too much with it, and they strayed too far away from the original story. George kept it simple, a straightforward retelling, taking the politics inherent in the story and fleshing them out, and I think that’s why she succeeded where everyone else failed.

Read Princess of the Midnight Ball
with its so very strong recommendation, and read The Princess Curse, which comes recommended. But the other three? Don’t bother.

Next month’s fairy tale is The Little Mermaid, and boy, won’t that be fun?


  1. Just commenting here to say that I love your site, the amount of detail you put into these reviews, and your acknowledgement that the original fairy tales weren't perfect and that retellings can actually improve on them. I also appreciate how you focus on lesser-known fairy tales like the Twelve Dancing Princesses. (There's actually a recent retelling of it, Entwined by Heather Dixon, which I haven't read but others have said very positive things about.)

    The Little Mermaid is also one I'm looking forward to, as I don't really know of any notable adaptations of it other than the Disney film.

    1. I want to thank you for all your comments -- haven't had a chance before now to do more than just read them, but I'm thrilled to know that someone is reading and enjoying my crazy-in-depth (to a potentially off-putting degree) reviews.

      A friend of mine was going to do Entwined as a guest review, but wasn't able to because of life. I have a copy, but haven't had a chance to read it yet.

      I have the whole year planned out, and while I am limited right now to fairy tales that have a full month's worth of adaptations to offer, I am pleased that there are some more obscure stories out there, like East of the Sun and Twelve Dancing Princesses, and Anderson's Snow Queen, which is coming up.

    2. Well, luckily I'm exactly the kind of person who enjoys reading crazy-in-depth analyses, especially in regards to my resurgent interest in fairy tale retellings, so your blog is like a godsend to me. You've also added a lot of retellings to my reading list, especially Princess of the Midnight Ball and Cloaked in Red (thanks for mentioning the latter to me!), so I thank you for that.

      The Snow Queen is another tale I haven't really heard of any high-profile adaptations for, so I'll definitely be looking forward to that month, though I'm also looking forward to the Cinderella and Rapunzel months as some of my favorite retellings came from them.

  2. I'm coming late to this post--just discovered the blog--but if you are still interested in The Twelve Dancing Princess, you must read Entwined by Heather Dixon. Quite the best princesses adaptation I've ever read, outside of short fiction. Cheers!