Dark tales

By Wei Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2013-7-22 18:53:01

Baby Maddie in a scene from Snow White pondering her apple Photo: IC

"And they lived happily ever after," is how a kid's fairy tale usually ends, but a number of classic fairy tales have been adapted here in China with different endings: the ugly duckling does not grow up into a swan but gets caught by a peasant woman and made into a dish; Cinderella is burnt to death as a burial object of the prince; and the sleeping beauty turns out to be a witch who takes revenge on the prince that gave up on trying to save her.

Such adapted fairy tales also include The Little Mermaid, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast. Compared with the original versions of these classics, they contain more of the dark side of life that occurs in modern-day society. And because they have such dark endings, they have been dubbed "dark fairy tales" by Chinese netizens.

Are adaptations appropriate?

As one of the most widely spread adapted versions, the new The Ugly Duckling tells about a duckling, who after listening to the original version as told by his duck-professor, believes he must be the one that will become a swan. Turned down by his mother, the duckling leaves home and lives alone near a river, waiting for the wonderful day to come.

But one day, as he falls asleep, a peasant woman comes and discovers him. She is so happy to see the duckling because she is preparing a big dinner. So she catches the duckling and roasts him.

While these "new" stories are widely spread online and from printed books, they raise controversial discussions on whether they are appropriate for children.

Wang Yimei, a children's writer in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, revealed her opinion in a phone interview with the Global Times. She said that in the early stages of a child's growing up, the things he or she are exposed to must be those things that reflect the bright sides of life. Otherwise, it will bring negative influences to that child's later life.

And Wang also believes, there are more bright sides than dark sides in life itself, and those who came up with dark adaptations are only using their narrowed opinion to mislead the children.

Wang's point of view gets shared by Tong Haiqing, a senior editor at Shanghai-based Juvenile & Children's Publishing House.

"[Concerning for] the reading psychology of children, [reading material providers] should bring them things that are bright and beautiful," Tong said, adding that the perception of children is still limited; therefore they are easily influenced by what they get without the benefit of proper judgment.

Also, Tong does not think the new adaptations are good enough to exceed the classics. "Having been handed down for centuries, the classics contain meaningful educational benefits. [If there is no good cause,] I don't think the later generation should carelessly adapt them."

Supporting voices

Yet, there are opposing opinions both among professionals and common people.

A staff member surnamed Zhao at Blossom Press, one of the publishers of the adapted The Ugly Ducking story, told reporters from Shanghai Morning Post that they were made aware of the controversy around the story and reread the piece several times but did not think there was anything inappropriate.

"It is a fairy tale that is down-to-earth," she said, adding that there's no single writer for the new version of the story, but that it was adapted by a group and was examined carefully before being published. 

Also, some supporters argue that dark fairy tales can help raise children's awareness of possible bad things they might come across in daily life, especially since recent years have seen more and more violence against children in China.

In a reader's opinion column in the Southern Metropolis Daily, an opinion holder with the name Wang Pan took the "dark version" of The Ugly Duckling as one example and wrote, "In real life, many children, [just like the duckling,] are rebellious. They do not listen to parents' warnings and leave home alone, and later meet some accidents." Wang believes it is more meaningful to warn the children than make them daydream of becoming a swan.

A series of Hollywood cartoons, such as Corpse Bride (2005), Coraline (2009), and ParaNorman (2012), are also used as supporting examples of the need to provide dark stories for children.

Loopholes in the industry

Aside from the discussion about whether these adaptations are good or bad, the issue reveals some editorial shortcomings in the children's publishing industry.

In an article published on review.qianlong.com, the children's book market has long been mixed with unhealthy books.

The article stated that when unhealthy reading materials are published, it is a direct result of failures all along the industry chain - author, editor, publisher and seller: Responsibility extends to related regulatory departments as well for their lack of supervision.

Yang Hongying, a popular children's author in China, agrees on this point. She told the Global Times that having worked in children's publishing for more than 20 years, she found in the Chinese mainland there are still few professional children's book recommenders who work for the genuine interest of the readers.

"In many cases, some books are recommended because the seller can take more commission from that," she said.

Also, while disapproving of the "dark versions," Yang believes that adaptations have appeared in the market because the foreign classics are no longer applicable to the lives of modern Chinese children.

"So some people can make a selling point by adding in something more relevant to the society. But those made under the guise of a classic can do more harm."

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