1998’s Ever After: A Drew Barrymore Jawn has a complicated relationship with my brain and my heart. The year it came out, I was 12 years old with a dedicated subscription to Seventeen and its monthly updates on what all the cool public school kids were wearing while me and my Catholic school uniform looked on in envy. Seventeen ran ads and features for this weird Cinderella movie with the girl from Scream, and it looked like it would be Romeo + Juliet except the girl wouldn’t behave so irrationally this time, god.
I saw the movie and I loved it. It’s still a fun movie that never fails to cheer me up. Among my circle of friends, it doesn’t hold the same Classic Lady Movie clout as Clueless, Now and Then, or 10 Things I Hate About You, but that makes me cherish it all the more. Truth be told, I think my favorite part of the movie was how little it resembled its cheesy trailer, which carefully omitted from the movie that Drew Barrymore’s Danielle spends 5 seconds whispering “Just breathe” and two whole hours yelling at everyone, especially the Prince of France.
Those are the emotional ties that Ever After has knotted around my heart. My relationship to the movie becomes complicated as I’ve tried to defend this movie as a Genuinely Good Movie. You see, the movie isn’t perfect. Blame the unreliable older narrator who opens the movie, but the historical facts of her story don’t add up. The Brothers Grimm, to whom she’s passing on The True Cinderella Story were working in the 19th century and her “great-great grandmother” had lived these adventures almost 300 years beforehand; the historical prince married a Medici princess before dying at age 40 from injuries sustained during a joust; did Danielle’s father ever mention that Utopia was an extended ironic thinkpiece from Wolf Hall dickhead Thomas More?
Let’s not forget Ever After included in a supporting role Manic Pixie Gay Renaissance Artist Leonardo da Vinci, even though he was way too dead to help Danielle win her prince back. While some of these are absurd comic elements in the story, they also seem to undermine the important ways the movie adapted the Cinderella story for contemporary audiences.
In thinking about this piece, I kept coming back to this idea of historical accuracy and the idea that Danielle’s fictional story could lose some of its strength because these inaccuracies (in a fictional story) undermined the world where she lived and therefore her entire story. However, these errors take nothing from the story; if these mistakes were resolved, they would bring nothing to the story. Ever After derives its real strength from the cast of fully realized female characters, who redefined the Cinderella story with a new way fairy tales should be told. Since this October marks 15 years since Ever After’s release date into theaters, let’s look back at Ever After and how it can inform the way we think about the adaptations, reboots, and remakes that populate our current media.
Every repurposed fairy tale work since Ever After has been attempting to capture what it did so well. We should look at the current landscape created by Ever After’s spiritual inheritors, so to speak, because the past few years have seen a resurgence in the repurposed fairy tale. Disney-ABC’s Once Upon a Time vomited the entire Disney canon into a small town in Maine and demanded Jennifer Morrison untangle its meaning (godspeed). NBC’s Grimm… exists? In movies, we have Tangled, Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Jack the Giant Slayer, with more in the pipeline because those weren’t enough. Yet most of these (with Tangled as the exception) have been dismal contributions to their respective fairy tales, particularly the closest analogues to Ever After: 2012’s two Snow White features, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman.
Each Snow White movie had its strengths, like Mirror Mirror’s Bollywood-esque closing dance number and Charlize Theron’s terrifying turn as the queen/stepmother in Snow White and the Huntsman. (Spoiler: the secret to Charlize’s particular brand of majesty is MURDER.) Mirror Mirrorpromised a fun new twist on Snow White, while SWatH seemed a gritty interpretation that literally coated Kristen Stewart in mud and grime when the plot failed to reveal new depth to Snow White’s story. That isn’t to say that they weren’t entertaining, but the movies fell short of their own potential to tell fully realized stories within the fairy tale world borrowed for the occasion.
These latest adaptations of the Snow White story share an interesting feature in that the most compelling character of either movie is Snow White’s antagonist, the evil queen. Each movie gives its queen an origin story and her own history; each shows the choices she made to create the woman who sits on a usurped throne and rules by sheer force of personality. Their realized stories from selfish beginnings to unsustainable ends are well-planned, but they’re too large to fit alongside Snow White’s story. Their unsustainable ends (Mirror Mirror’s queen and her lavish parties/spa treatments, SWatH’s Ravenna and her one-peasant-girl-a-day habit for flawless skin) rush in with Snow White’s resurrection, reducing Snow White to a deus ex machina within the villain’s story as well as her own.
Each Snow White’s lackluster treatment becomes all the more apparent in comparison to the lavish attention paid to the villains in these movies. Snow White becomes a more difficult story to adapt because even in the popular Brothers Grimm version, Snow lacks action in her own story: she buys every damn murderous thing those traveling forest witches/evil saleswomen hock at the dwarfs’ door. She can’t even cough out the poisoned bit of apple she choked on until a necrophiliac prince’s searching tongue dislodges it from her mouth.
Mirror Mirror and SWatH’s Snow Whites have similar passive roles, though Kristen Stewart’s Snow does demand an army of dudes to make her their weapon. She defeats the evil queen by snarling at her, “I’m everything you’re not,” defining her strength by how much she hasn’t done. Actually, that might be enough since the movie establishes that Ravenna maintains her “fairest blood” status in the world with a steady diet of SUCKING YOUNG WOMEN DRY. (Nature, or God, or that crazy Miyazaki stag, or whatever does the magical law-keeping in their world, seems to think it’s a fair cop.) Strength here still isn’t defined by making the right choices, but by the luck of surviving a lifetime of victimization.
(Except it’s Snow White so she still has to survive, then die, and she has to wait for the right Hemsworth to resurrect her. Sorry, Liam. The lips of Thor are the lips of a healer, or something.)
These Snow Whites (like other Cinderellas) suffer from contemporary writers’ desires to portray their “true stories,” and so fail to understand that there’s no correct way of re-telling a fairy tale. Each tale changes constantly through new attitudes, mis/translations, miscommunications, and appropriation, with the woman’s story at the center of each as the only constant. Snow White escapes, finds some friends, and finds herself; Cinderella escapes her stepmother, wins over her prince, and ensures her freedom. It’s up to each artist to take those bare bones and create a new figure that can captivate audiences across centuries and countries. The settings and props can change, but keep the girl and make it her story—she’s the one we came to see.
If comparing Mirror Mirror and SWatH to a movie like Ever After that has withstood the test of time seems unfair: I absolutely agree. It’s disheartening, ridiculous, unbelievable, rage-inducing stupidity that has narrowed this field to a handful of movies with enough substance for comparison. It’s unbelievable that fairy tale heroines are so pervasive in our world, yet we’re hopeless to find movies where those characters are women with their own thoughts who make their own decisions and live their own lives. That’s it. That’s all that Ever After does differently. That’s the big secret that Drew Barrymore’s Cinderella has been hoarding all these years: she’s a person with a history and a family, and her own thoughts and desires. That’s it. That’s what so few movies, most of them built on premises and franchises rather than characters’ stories, can accomplish.
Instead of recapping the entire plot of Ever After and Danielle’s story (Cinderella has a name!), we can best gauge Danielle’s definition as a character by looking at her story’s culminating moment. Near the end of the movie, Danielle has been sold to Local Rich Creeper to pay her stepmother’s debts. When the prince learns that she’s been sold, he gathers several men on horseback to join him in freeing his ladylove! The prince rides up to Castle Creeper, but Danielle has already liberated herself by threatening to bisect Creeper with his own swords. Danielle gives the prince a baffled look as he announces that he came to rescue her.
“SO UNREALISTIC,” cried haters. “Women didn’t sword fight in Those Days, or even once in the history of sharpened sticks as weapons, so how could she be good enough to do that?”
Here’s how: Ever After isn’t the story of Danielle growing up. The movie skips from her father’s death to her life several years later. By the time the movie picks up again, Danielle is an adult who knows that her locust stepmother and stepsisters will be moving on when they find the next man to bankroll their expensive life, and she can bide her time until they leave and she can take back her home and live her life. Before that, Danielle had a weird upbringing—she even knows how to read. With her mother dead and her father traveling frequently, and the household servants all old as balls (and only getting older), who was going to protect Danielle while her father was away? Who was going to protect their house, their lands, their animals and crops? The household servants could do their best but, ultimately, it’s Danielle who would manage the property, and Danielle who would prosper or starve depending on its management. The least her father could teach her, as soon as she grew old enough, was how to use a sword.
When we meet her as an adult, Danielle’s stepsister mocks her by pointing out that she doesn’t even sleep in the house, but with the animals. Of course her stepmother will force her to sleep with the animals and of course Danielle will sleep with a knife tucked under her bag-of-oats pillow, because if she doesn’t, someone (like the prince of France) will stroll in at night, take whatever they like, and the household will have nothing to eat.
Danielle, officially a servant in her stepmother’s house, could be imprisoned for theft (like the servant, Maurice, she rescues early on) if she doesn’t take the basic precaution of sleeping in the barn like the metal bitch she is and slicing open the next anyone or anything who tries to steal one of their animals. (Or, as we see in the movie, braining the prince with whatever she has at hand when he steal-borrows one of their horses.) It’s not out of the question that in the 10+ years Danielle has been banished to the barn, she has had to beat the shit out of more than one nighttime thief to make sure her household can eat. This all comes to a head after Danielle defeats Local Rich Creeper and meets the prince with a baffled, “You came to rescue me?” We’ve been told to expect princes to rescue damsels, but why would Danielle expect that? How could she know that someone was coming to save her? No one has before.
Even more remarkable: Danielle’s story doesn’t come at the expense of other characters, or is itself compromised in favor of other characters. Ever After’s antagonist doesn’t overtake the narrative and draw attention from the central Cinderella story, but Anjelica Huston’s wicked stepmother (Rodmilla, for those keeping a tally on “women’s names used at least once in the course of a movie”) has just enough backstory to put the plot into motion. The movie shows that Danielle’s father died shortly after he marries Rodmilla, but his dying words and comfort are for Danielle, not for her. It explains how someone could harbor so much bitterness for her stepdaughter, and raise a similarly mercenary daughter (Marguerite!) who learns to rely on men for money and security but not affection.
It doesn’t excuse Rodmilla, but it explains her, and life with her stepmother shows Danielle another path available to her: she can work to maintain her family’s farm and run her household within its available means, or become her stepmother and stepsister who rely on favors from one rich man to the next for the luxurious life they can no longer afford.
Ever After remains an incredibly fun movie, but it’s a breath of fresh air after years of consuming media where so few female characters have the opportunity to exist for themselves and celebrate their own autonomy. Danielle’s portrayal and her past bears very little resemblance to any other Cinderella version, and its depth of detail makes it more satisfying than adaptations of other fairy tales full stop. That doesn’t make it more or less “correct” than any other version. It does make Ever After better than many other versions of many other fairy tales because it does what so few of them do: it uses a woman’s story to bring viewers closer to that still-beating heart of every fairy tale, the one everyone wants to find and devour to gain some of its power.
In revisiting Ever After and the movies that have followed in its suit, two things stand out in the comparisons drawn.
The first point remains particularly important during the current trend for green-lighting reboots and remakes. That point is: old stories do not and should not equal histories. Every historical fact has an expiration date. The next gospel found in a jar, the next excavated coffin-within-a-coffin, even the next development in our self-awareness while writing histories (“Hey, maybe we should refer to x as y because x degrades who/what we’re writing about?”)—things constantly change the existing “that’s how it happened” factual narrative completely on its head. There’s a difference between timeliness and timelessness; binding a work to one specific time and place ensures that that’s where it will stay. Histories, though, can become stories, and stories can last long after the who/when/where they were written. It’s not only the gritty “historical” remakes that are guilty of this, but any movie where the premise or setting is more important than the players. The importance of the players connects to the second point:
A character can make a role, but a role will never make a character. Mirror Mirror wasn’t as good as its visually unique world promised because that Snow White was herself playing a role that we, the audience, know as “Snow White.” This Snow White only had to survive until the end of the movie—because it’s a fairy tale, the spell would be broken, the evil queen would be vanquished, and balance would be restored to the kingdom. Snow White played her role, but she never became an individual distinguished from the other Snow Whites, with the result that Mirror Mirror’s take on the Snow White story won’t stand out among other portrayals of the same role. A character makes a role, and no two characters are ever wholly the same.
I could have made these points in a discussion of big budget action movies, TV adaptations like this fall’s Dracula (NBC) and Sleepy Hollow (FOX), comic book movie franchises, or a piece focusing on a series’ past/present remakes (Sherlock Holmes, anyone?) I chose to focus on fairy tale adaptations for one very specific reason and that’s the large number of central female characters in fairy tales. This part has been the most difficult for me to write because the conclusion on how to improve the quality of female characters’ portrayals is so basic, so easily said and screamed, that I can’t parse it into anything that sounds even remotely articulate. So here it is:
WRITE WOMEN AS PEOPLE!!
Don’t use a devotion to historical accuracy (whatever that means) as the excuse for writing women as less than full-fledged people. Don’t think that because women in the past lived lives different from their male contemporaries (where they had dowries, worked primarily as homemakers, provided a majority of childcare, couldn’t own/inherit property in their own names) that they had no hopes, dreams, desires, or ambitions of their own. Don’t think that because some accounts of history said women were forbidden from doing something that women didn’t do it anyway.
All stories are slices of life. Stories cover very short spans in increasingly longer lives and the even longer history of humanity and the even longer span of time across the solar system, the galaxy, the universe. Too frequently, the roles for women in movies, television, books, fan fiction, ANYTHING LITERALLY ANYTHING, have no life outside their brief roles in other people’s stories. Female characters shouldn’t disappear without a trace once they’ve fulfilled their role in a story; every female character is a person within her world with thoughts of her own and her own life to live outside the story where she appears. This isn’t a test. It’s not a rubric for grading every piece of media ever released. It’s a reminder that if a story featuring women falls flat, there’s a good chance those women weren’t written as people, but as cardboard cutouts with tacked-on breasts.
And why not view these shortcomings in our contemporary storytelling through the lens of fairy tales? They’re some of the first stories that children hear because they provide basic guidelines for growing up in this world: people who do good things are rewarded with the satisfaction of not having hurt someone for personal gain; people who do bad things will be forced to put on red-hot shoes and dance to their death in front of the entire kingdom. Tell stories that work from the basic premise that women are as intelligent as men and that women can also live the full spectrum of human emotions and experiences. Remember that female characters can dabble in moral ambiguity, amorality, and straight up evil, just like their male counterparts. Maybe that story will be respected as a genuine work of art that doesn’t degrade half the world’s population as arbitrarily less complex, less capable than the other half. It’s a decent place to start.
The Slipper and the Rose: The Story of Cinderella (1976) (DVD Only) (Gemma Craven as Cinderella and Richard Chamberlain as the prince. A (bizarrely beautiful) musical version that spends two and a half hours rubbing its satire everywhere. Check out the songs: What a Comforting Thing to Know, Position and Positioning, and (relevant to the discussion of fairy tale heroines with agency) Tell Him Anything (But Not That I Love Him))
Michelle Vider lives in Philadelphia. She has a master's degree in English, but she's feeling much better, thank you. She tweets here.