In yesterday’s conversation about how to make retellings of Snow White more interesting, some commenters suggested, entirely correctly, that we not just transpose Western fairy tales into new settings, but that we try to tell stories from new mythologies. I agree with that suggestion, though I don’t think we’re going to stop telling Western fairy tales to Western audiences and so it’s important to see them as vehicles for more creative and multicultural storytelling as well. Instead, we need to both reform and refresh what we’ve got and look for new materials. So here are five awesome non-Western fairy tales that deserve movies of their own.
1. The Seven Chinese Brothers: The number of brothers vary in retellings of this story, but the principal remains generally the same: a group of super-powered brothers stand up to the Emperor (in some retellings, they do so because he’s mistreating workers building the Great Wall of China). When he tries to execute them in succession, they prove impervious to his punishments. It’s a nice inversion of superhero stories: these are extraordinary people who have chosen essentially ordinary lives, but bring their powers to bear against injustice, using both strength and cleverness to discredit a corrupt and powerful ruler. Grant Morrison and some of his coworkers created a superhero team with a little resemblance to the Brothers, but it would be nice to have a modern interpretation that challenges the Chinese government, rather than working for it.
2. Tokoyo: I have a particular weakness for stories about fathers and daughters, so this Japanese folk tale, about a girl who vows to return to her father after the Emperor banishes him is right up my alley. She visits forbidden islands, spies on imperial gossip, and offers herself up as a sacrifice to save a young girl — though instead of dying, she frees the Emperor from a powerful underseas curse. And I appreciate that it’s a story that’s about both social justice and filial love, rather than yet another story about a princess whose greatest accomplishment is getting successfully married. It’s a role that could produce a Japanese or Japanese-American Jennifer Lawrence, and how fantastic would that be?
3. Anansi, and Trickster and Culture Hero Tales More Generally: Speaking of being mired in marriages, getting away from an overreliance on the Western folk traditions would let us escape the omnipresence of marriage plots, and give us stories that up the stakes a bit. Anansi’s all about keeping — and sometimes upsetting — the balance of natural and intellectual resources in the universe. Culture hero stories are harder to sustain in an era of scientific reasoning — we don’t really need the invention of the wheel or other seemingly-inexplicable advances explained to us—but they can still be powerful statements about identity, divinity, and progress.
4. Nanabozho — and Paul Bunyan: I know Bunyan’s Western, specifically American. But Nanabozho, an Ojibwa spirit, threw down with one of the founding American culture heroes and in some versions of the story, killed him. A grand story of the frontier that’s told equally from the perspective of American Indian and American Gods, done right, could be an astonishing American epic. And it would certainly be more interesting than, say, Hell on Wheels.
5. Rama, Sita, Hanuman, Ravana, et.al.: If you want a team-up, it’s hard to get cooler than the Ramayana. You’ve got exiles! Kidnappings! Monkey deities! Demon kings who could be interpreted sympathetically (If we can have Magneto Was Right shirts, we can so have Ravana Was Right Ts)! The gender politics are kind of retrograde, but maybe Sita can organize a rebellion while in Ravana’s captivity, and an update could give Surpanakha motives other than being sexually rejected, though having your nose cut off is decent motivation for revenge.
Bonus: Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters. John Steptoe’s retelling of Cinderella in Zimbabwe is one of the most stunningly beautiful picture books I’ve ever read. A movie that captured its gorgeous vision of African civilization would both be a treat, and a fantastic starting point for a conversation about alternatives to medieval-influenced High Fantasy. And maybe it could get us to a point where we could have a Black Panther movie, too.