Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Cinderella, you have some explaining to do.

My first encounter with Gail Carson Levine was in Elementary School when I stumbled upon her collection of fairy tales retold entitled The Princess Tales.

I was immediately drawn to Levine’s writing style and skill with fairy tale adaptation.

I yearned for more.

A few years later I picked up this Newbury Honor book: Ella Enchanted.

I’m surprised I didn't find Ella sooner.

Ella Enchanted is about a girl named Ella who at birth receives a gift of obedience from a fairy. This "gift" is in reality a curse as she is compelled to obey any verbal command directed to her. 

From this beginning, Ella is sketched as pretty hopeless. Her beloved mother passes away and her father's character is revealed as that of an emotionally detached workaholic. She would be mostly alone if it wasn't for the housekeeper Mandy and a developing alliance with Prince Charmont.

The novel is a record of Ella’s journey to rectify her curse and become free. Her patience is inspiring and her relapses refreshing. It is impossible to not cheer for her. Levine’s complex characters, languages, and cultures are effortlessly layered with deep themes of agency, bravery, sacrifice, and what it means to love someone.

Prince Charmont

I think it’s safe to say that in a Best Prince contest, Prince Char wins. He is bursting with flawed goodness. Ella and Char’s relationship develops realistically and impactfully. There is loss, fear, and insecurity dancing along with the happiness and laughter.
“He put his hand on my waist, and my heart began to pound, a rougher rhythm than the music. I held my skirt. Our free hands met. His felt warm and comforting and unsettling and bewildering--all at once.” (Ella Enchanted)


I am embarrassed to admit that it wasn't until I was well into the novel that I realized it was a retelling of Cinderella.

Ella's story stands alone with only delicate references to the classic fairy tale. The subtle and unexpected ways that Levine brings aspects of Cinderella into the novel creates a sense that the Cinderella story is trying to be a part of Ella Enchanted and never the other way around.

Cinderella leaves some questions unanswered.

Why did Cinderella do all of the despicable things her step family asked her to do? Why didn't she defy them or rebel? Can a person really be that sweet?

Levine's explanation of the obedience curse makes this all clear.

Ella simply had no choice.


The Film

Not everyone loved Ella in the same way I did. Or at least, not the Ella that was bursting from the pages of the book. I can’t talk about the novel I love without hating on its movie counterpart. Ella Enchanted was adapted into one of the most disappointing movies that I have ever seen.

I am very aware that movies and books are different mediums. They can’t ever tell the same story in the same way; they simply aren't meant to. However, I must say that the film adaptation was a mockery to the beautiful, detailed novel that Levine wrote.

There is little by way of plot and nothing by way of style that addresses the complexity of Levine’s writing. A novel's entirety cannot always be included in a movie adaptation, but what was included re-invited all of the cliche that Levine so carefully and cleverly removed in her story retelling.

(My cousin wrote an excellent movie review here. Check it out.)


  1. I love Ella Enchanted too! And I absoultely agree with you about the movie. So you kinda mention in your narrative that Ella as a main female character is incredibly strong, but due to the spell, is rather limited in what she can do. Because of this, the action of the novel is more so what happens to her rather than what she physically does. I think you can draw a connection here to Alice. She doesn't seem to have a lot of control in her environment in Wonderland which often frustrates her. You could build a interesting paper using a feminist lens and looking at how heroines are treated in literature in comparison with the male main characters. (I think you mentioned doing something like this in digital dialoge, but I can definitely see how that would work)

  2. That is super interesting! I hadn't thought of it in that way. I've been really struggling to think of a good way to connect it to Alice in Wonderland. I've leaned away from the feminist approach, but I like the first part of what you mentioned: They are both out of control of their world.