Yesterday I watched Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella. After the movie began, I sat in the dark theater measuring my expectations, waiting for the old, familiar fairytale to be deconstructed. I’ve seen enough modern adaptations of classic stories to worry about a director pulling the rug out from under me. Just a few minutes into a plot, there’s often a cynical jolt, and my innocence becomes the butt of someone else’s joke. Out of nowhere comes the sarcasm, the crude humor, or the cheap political slam, and I feel my face flush with shame that I had once again hoped that a world—even an imaginary one—could be honest and beautiful.
Indeed, the first few scenes of Cinderella are idyllic. The film opens to a lovely meadow adorned with flowers and a blue sky full of puffy clouds. Ella’s family members are tender with one another. Their home looks like it was built from a vintage storybook drawing, so unabashedly sweet that I heard little girls and their mothers coo with delight as we walked through the rooms.
In fact, it was all so perfect that I couldn’t relax. I felt like the high school geek about to walk in on a locker room prank, so I steeled myself, preparing for that awful moment when the director would lift his leg and mark an old fairy tale as his newest territory.
I was ready for the worst, but the worst never happened. Cinderella was told purely, without excuse, without abuse, and without sarcastic distortions. Every plot addition that I noticed emerged from the core themes of the earliest versions of this tale. In a few places, I felt undertones of King Lear and the Russian folktale “Finist the Bright Falcon,” but whether these connections were intentional or not, Branagh’s final product gelled with the same narrative spirit that has made this folktale beloved in many countries for centuries.
The unflinching purity of this film is so rare that it made me uncomfortable at first, and then it made me ache, because I’m so starved for sincerity. I’ll admit that when the pumpkin turned into a carriage, I got a big knot in my throat, for pure wonder was being held out to me in two hands. A magical story was being told humbly, and I was being trusted to receive it with humility as well.
For years I have been afraid that we were becoming a post-fairy tale culture, and as a humanities teacher, I can see some philosophical/sociological reasons for that. I’m not as well-versed in this realm as many of you, but I’m going to offer two examples that I have been considering below, and maybe those of you with more training can contradict or complete my gaps in the comments. (Or, if you want to avoid the nerd talk, skip the next seven paragraphs altogether.)
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, there was an important German philosopher named Georg Hegel. He made a number of contributions to the world of philosophy, but one of the simplest was a method of truth finding called the “dialectic.” Hegel’s dialectic (which I believe he actually attributed to Kant) begins by submitting an idea called a thesis. After the thesis is established, an antithesis (a counterargument) is provided, and then both of these viewpoints are morphed into a conclusion called a synthesis.
The idea of using some sort of argumentative dialectic to find truth didn’t begin with Hegel or Kant; it goes back to the Socratic dialogues. However, some of Hegel’s thoughts and methods ended up being quite influential upon our present world. Maurice Merleau-Ponty suggested “All the great philosophical ideas of the past century—the philosophies of Marx and Nietzsche, phenomenology, German existentialism, and psychoanalysis—had their beginnings in Hegel.”
One example of this influence is found in Karl Marx, who attempted to apply Hegel’s dialectic to social change. His first activist group, The Young Hegelians, adopted “Criticism!” as their battle cry, for they believed reform would result from the critique of power. Of course, there was quite a bit in Marx’s time that needed critique; however, can’t you also feel the deep unrest in such a methodology? Can’t you feel how it is driven by mistrust of every established good? And elements of that same fidgety spirit still run through our culture today, though our battle cry tends to be, “We doubt it! Whatever it is, we doubt it!” I’m a child of this age, a cynic by nature, and I believe there are benefits as well as drawbacks to a mindset of criticism. What is inevitable for the cynic, however, is that trust will eventually begin to feel naive.
Switching to the realms of linguistics and literature, we can find a similar tendency in Derrida and other post-structuralists. Post-structuralism suggests that “there are many truths, that frameworks must bleed, and that structures must become unstable or decentered” (Owl Purdue). In other words, let’s dig down into the skeletal forms that hold our society together and rattle their bones. Particularly, let’s do this whenever power is involved. It is an assumption of post-structuralism that hegemonies are actively working to maintain control, so we must find out where strength is rooted in a culture and uncover how authority is being maintained.
What does this mean on a practical level? It means that all grand narratives are immediately suspect. It means that the fundamental promises of science (innovation will save us), of theology (God will save us), of history (mankind is growing), of traditional literature (the canon exists and its stories are good), of every realm are deconstructed. The old templates are torn to shreds. Nothing is dependable, including language itself.
Post-structuralists were not the first to notice that there are spaces between words and their intended meanings. There’s no way around the fact that language is metaphorical. However, what they did with the gap is unique, for “post-structuralists assert that if we cannot trust language systems to convey truth, the very bases of truth are unreliable and the universe—or at least the universe we have constructed—becomes unraveled or de-centered” (Owl Purdue). In other words, they took a single defined gap and used that to blow up trust in everything.
You can see shadows of post-structuralist thinking in a movie like Shrek, a deconstructed fairy tale. That plot is built around the humor of defying narrative norms. The princess is a tough guy half-ogre. The ogre is an insecure romantic. There is bathroom humor, and short guy humor, and phallic humor, and the protagonist’s best friend is an ass. (Haw, haw, haw. An ass. See what they did there? An ass. Haw, haw, haw.) Sure, Shrek is funny in some ways—but it’s funny like passing gas in church. When you hear it, you laugh first, and then you are sad you laughed, because crude humor feels like despair after it settles.
And it’s not just Shrek, there is so much in our culture that reduces humanity to its lowest animal state. I wasn’t around to verify whether humans evolved from apes, but I have seen evidence that we are becoming beasts. We are crass. We treat one another as if we were disposable. The present zeitgeist of defiance and deconstruction pushes us toward an uncivilized end instead of just acknowledging it.
Last week a couple of high school students told me about a video game that kids are playing these days. I thought they were exaggerating, so I found clip of the game on YouTube, and I watched it myself. What I saw is terrible to explain. The gamer picked a virtual prostitute off the street, then he drove her to a parking garage where he used her sexually two different ways. The images and the dialogue were graphic. When the gamer let the girl out of his car, he walked around and shot her in the head. After she fell, I could see up her skirt. She was naked, dead, bloody, and I wanted to vomit. My legs felt weak for several hours thinking about all the children who are exposed to this sort of role play. God, save us.
Ever since I watched that clip, I’ve been thinking about different strategies creators are using to try and rescue us from our barbarism. Of course there are Christian people making overtly Christian movies. Yet not all creative strategies are so straightforward, and I think that’s fine. It’s even street smart. There are creators who operate like that ragged assortment of British fishermen recruited in WWII to collect wounded soldiers from foreign banks. These authors, filmmakers, songwriters are a motley crew, using an odd mix of grit and light in their attempts at redemption.
For example, the movie (and books) The Series of Unfortunate Events seem to attempt a covert sort of rescue. If you’ve seen the movie, you know how the grim challenges of the plot are introduced by a saccharine Littlest Elf, who prances about with cutesy, overdone sweetness. When the elf’s fantastical world is exposed as a foil, there is something like disappointment and relief that rises in the viewer simultaneously. We want to cry out, “I knew it! I knew the world couldn’t really be so cheery and simple.” Then the story moves on to tackle courage and love in desperate times, and for some reason, the painful struggles of the Baudelaire children feel more honest because that gay little elf was dismantled from the outset.
So I sat in Cinderella, prepared for a similar sort of sinking. I was ready for it, but it never came. This time the strategy was different, an old school, unadulterated fairy tale. There were no challenges to the establishment. There was no attack on metanarrative. The mockery didn’t come. The cynicism didn’t come. The heroine was kind, tenacious, long suffering, honest, and beautiful. As tears swelled up in my eyes at the audacity of such a thing, I asked myself, “What is happening here; and why is this both so foreign and so familiar?”
Cinderella’s tale of redemption is found in countries all over the world. She has different names, and the details change, but the same basic plot is there. Why is that? Why is humanity so driven to create, to tell, to retell this story? Maybe it’s because we are tired of sleeping in the cinders. Maybe it’s because we are all sore from evil stepsisters and from grieving the losses of old comforts. Maybe it’s because we haven’t been courageous or kind, and we wish that we would have been.
As I watched Ella’s tenacity—without being offered even a drop of cynisism for protection—I grew penitent, because I recognized that I had given up on goodness too soon. As I watched her kindness toward the needy, I saw how I have been more focused on what I don’t have than on being generous with what I do. In her refusal to retaliate, I saw how I have accepted the currencies of pain and abuse, and how I’ve traded in them. In her strength, I saw how I’ve given the cynics my character and my hope. More importantly, I saw how I don’t want any of that any more, and the existence of my thirst indicates that there is also something in the universe to quench it.
There is a brilliant scene at the end of the movie (spoiler, if you haven’t seen it) where Cinderella asks her evil stepmother why she is being so cruel. The stepmother replies that Ella’s beauty and kindness have made hatefulness more tempting instead of less. There is a sort of math to this. The corrupt heart cannot receive Ella’s goodness, because darkness hates light, and because somewhere along the way, every villain stops believing that happily ever after could apply to him. Losing that one hope changes everything. It means we look at our pitiful plate of leftover food scraps and refuse to kneel down and share with four hungry mice. It means we lose our bearings for bravery. It means the roots that once fed tenderness shrivel, and we sit drying up, weeping in our rags, not understanding that Jesus was speaking to our very own poverty when he said, “take courage; I have overcome the world.”
A lovely woman from China sat next to me in the theater, and every once in a while, I would steal a glance at her shy grin. She looked seven years old sitting there, and I could tell that we were both recovering something powerful that we had held inside us when we were tiny. “You too?” I thought. “You and me both, and all of us. We had forgotten, hadn’t we?”
Somewhere along the way, our worlds grew dim, we got discouraged, and we forgot how much the fairy tale meant. Finding it again is as audacious as holiness, and even though we are tired, we aren’t too ruined for it yet.
Goodness. Kindness. Courage. Beauty. Hope. The early tales whisper a promise that a servant girl can stumble into an extravagant grace on the night of her deepest despair and become a great queen as a result. Therein is the gospel, isn’t it? Believe, weary one. Believe. Drink from the stream of faith so that you can walk today having courage and being kind. You who wake with labor’s ash on your face, with trouble’s sorrow in your heart, and with the hunger of loneliness in your belly, you can live from the good old vision again.”