The Fairy Tale Dystopia


The idea that either dystopia texts rely heavily on fairy tale elements or that fairy tales are really set in a dystopian world has been buzzing around my head this month. It was actually a couple of picturebooks that kicked this thought off in my mind, and the reviews of those books follow this discussion.

Dystopia, like fairy tales, are written (generally) with the strategy of describing a threatening future. Dystopian authors and texts offer a glimpse of the worries of their present, providing a chance of exploring the anxieties of their times. At the beginning of the month I asked – why are fairy tales resurfacing? What makes them so consistently popular? Indeed we have asked several of our author interviewees the same question – the only thing that is certain is that the masses will never tired of hearing new and intriguing stories.

This brings me to the sudden popularity of dystopian novels? Now I want to mention here that I don’t think that all ‘dystopian’ novels of late are actually dystopian, I would argue that many of them fall into the New Teen category; They are romances in a sci-fi time. But, I think that one reason dystopia has boomed is because they are contemporary fairy tales. Not only do they contain a strong sense of good versus evil, with high stakes (life or death) but they too deliver a lesson or a warning. Beware the powers that be, take action, stand up, become a hero, survive. Of course by fairy stories, I don’t necessarily mean the modern day re-workings of traditional fairy tales where the main character invariably lives “happily ever after” (nothing wrong with those! Shout-out here to Heather Dixon’s Entwined), but rather I refer to the vicious, sinister, ‘original’ tales. Where Cinderella’s sisters respectively cut off their toes and heels so that their feet fit the glass slipper; where Beauty is the spoilt “beast” and the Beast has a gentle, beautiful soul; where Little Red Riding Hood is eaten by the wolf along with her grandmother (or the hunter saves them but then fills his stomach with rocks and sews it closed).

Who doesn’t love those good old gruesome fairy stories? Who doesn’t love it when the resolution of the story is a little bit ‘happily ever after…. but beware!’ *ahem* Hunger Games. Dystopia, and let me make this clear, teen dystopia, is the new fairy tale – but we’ll get to that in November for our dystopian month!

Also (and unabashed plug for our blog), check out Marissa Meyer’s Cinder – we interviewed her earlier this month. Her retelling of Cinderella is also a dystopia, which is fascinating.

Ok! Back on track.

Let’s talk fairy tales. I saw a trend so I went back in my memory to recent fairy tales that I had read and came up with two picturebooks (and I know there are more but I can only write so much!) that I can definitely argue are dystopian and here they are:


Frisch, Aaron, and Roberto Innocenti. The Girl in Red. Mankato, MN: Creative Editions, 2012. Print.

In this modern take on the centuries-old tale of an ailing grandmother, a wicked wolf, and a young girl in a red coat Innocenti’s brilliantly detailed illustrations present a city as the dystopian wilderness, while the text by Aaron Frisch narrates the journey of a girl named Sophia through the twists and turns of a stormy day. Sophia lives with her mother and sister in a high-rise apartment and, in the classic fairy tale fashion, her mother sends her to deliver honey and biscuits for her grandmother on the other edge of the gritty urban jungle.

The illustrations have echoes of the seedy, unkempt edges of New York, this dystopian urban landscape is the pages are splattered with red, full of traffic, litter, graffiti and raucous advertisements. When Sophia reaches The Wood, a Times Square-like space, she finds her favourite shop, full of action figures and heroines but loses her way. A tall leather-clad male motorcyclist rescues her and takes her to her grandmother’s, a broken down trailer. The most poignant and political part of this story is its conclusion, offering alternate endings, the book comments on the way that stories (old oral stories and current news and fact) change to suit the listener. Instead of underestimating the reader the authors offer them a choice, should the story end with the demise of Sophia, or her safe return? Either way the story is menacing with terse narrative and dark illustrations. The crowded, large-trim spreads, with their detailed detritus of urban blight, establish a discomfiting tension between the garish, saturated colours of the commercial noise and the drab decay of the asphalt jungle. The reader is engaged in this dystopian setting, which sets up the debate surrounding the price of commerce and media saturation, the impact of corporate greed on humanity’s integrity, and asks the reader to look past these outward signs of decay and look for the root of the issues.


The Brothers Grimm. Hansel and Gretel. Illus. Anthony Browne. Trans. Eleanor Quarrie. London: Julia MacRae, 1981. Print.

Of the many Hansel and Gretel picturebook retellings, Anthony Browne’s is among the few that transform the retelling into a picturebook as opposed to an illustrated text; in other words, the story that Anthony Browne tells cannot be told without the pictures. Although Browne takes no liberties with the text, translated by Eleanor Quarrie, his illustrations create a dystopian contemporary world that changes the way the story interpreted. Browne’s retelling reflects the anxieties of the late twentieth century, while traditional versions of Hansel and Gretel blame famine for the family’s misfortune, in this retelling, the family’s misery seems to be a direct consequence of unemployment, or perhaps war and of patriarchal convention. Without employment the father is shamefully weak, dominated by the chain-smoking, make-up laden stepmother and the children are silent and rather ineffectual. With no one to provide for them and no one willing to offer positive suggestions the tale of Hansel and Gretel plays on.

The dull coloured artwork creates an atmosphere of a family that was once middle class but has descended into poverty; grime on the walls, aged and peeling wallpaper and décor, mismatched furniture, their clothing. Browne’s attention to detail and ability to weave in subtle inferences, metaphor and intertextuality is astounding. Each illustration offering insight into extra narrative information that isn’t expressed in the text, such as the many images of the stepmother where the reader can see that shadows on the wall extend into a triangle above her head so that it appears as if she is wearing a pointed hat. These aspects of the illustration help to explain the gaps in the text, i.e. how the stepmother came to die while the children were away.