Failed Fairy Spells and Crazy Adventures: Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted

Iphigene here.

People familiar with both the book and the movie know that the two are worlds apart. While the Anne Hathaway film kept the character names and the obedience spell, the filmmakers mangled up the plot. Hence, for those who have only seen the film you might not be able to make sense of this review.

I picked up Ella Enchanted with a vague idea that I would feature if for our Fractured Fairy Tale theme.  With the obedience spell as its overarching problem, I was not so sure which fairy tale it could possibly be adapted from. Turns out it is a fleshed out, funnier version of the most famous of fairy tales—Cinderella.

Anne Hathaway as Ella

Levine’s story, I think explores deeper into the whys of the original Cinderella question. Why did she allow herself to be deprived of her father’s wealth? Why did her father marry such a cruel woman? Why her fairy godmother needed to use objects to make her a coach? Moreover, to the more curious, Levine explored answers to questions such as what did Cinderella do all day? What was her life like before her stepmother and sisters moved in? While most fairy tales are but a few pages long, Ella Enchanted takes many pages and tells us of a story of a girl whose servitude was not out of simple martyrdom, but rooted in a spell casted on her by a self-centered fairy.

Unlike picture books, reviewing full-blown novels can be tricky. It’s a constant balancing act on what should and shouldn’t be said. In this review, I would focus only on a few points: 1) The twists the author added to the original fairy tale, 2) the messages we can derive from the story, and 3) the details that make the story a bit more interesting. There is definitely more to the story than just these three. We can go all day talking about the nuances of the story. However, we do not have that luxury.

This isn’t your ordinary Cinderella Story

This story is not straight-up Cinderella or I’m just dense. The Cinderella plot only makes its way at the latter part of the novel. Levine for the most part gives Cinderella a personality, a history and a home. Ella Enchanted is a stand-alone, while the fairy tale it was inspired from is but a minuscule part of the story. The first give away would be the introduction of the glass slipper found by Ella and Prince Char during her father’s wedding. From there, we get the story of servitude, balls and a prince in search of the shoe’s owner.  However, Levine, in Ella Enchanted melds the Disney version of the story and that of the Grimm’s fairytale. She took the Mice and pumpkin from the Disney show and the three day masked ball from Grimm’s.

Other twists the author introduced is in the failed fairy spell of giving a babe an obedience spell. Levine takes this literally. Any order whether it’s to eat, walk or jump, Ella will follow. This spell explains everything about Cinderella’s sad sorry state. Levine in so many words tells us that Cinderella wasn’t a push over. She just happened to be in a spell. I’ll expound on this later.  Levine applies her twist by putting a meatier back-story to every character. She doesn’t make a saint of Cinderella’s father, but portrays him as a self-centered, manipulating man who marries a woman to save himself from poverty the first time and takes in another wife for the same reason the second time. The author also put greater dimension into the prince. I often felt sorry for the prince of every fairy tale who seems to be mere men, riding in horses to save a princess without much story. Levine creates an interesting prince, while well mannered and duty bound he isn’t boring. The fairy godmother isn’t spared either. We get a glimpse of fairy-magic rules and what help they can truly give.

Prince Charming

The back-stories give each character personality unique to them. Levine takes the Cinderella fairytale to new heights, but putting some depth into the people that make the story. The author brings adventure to the life of Cinderella, from dealing with finishing school classmates to being caught by ogres. Ella Enchanted is definitely not about a maiden scrubbing the floors of her wicked stepmother.

Cinderella isn’t a push over.

In Levine’s novel, Ella isn’t one to scrub the floors and take the cruelty for the heck of it. Cursed with obedience she doesn’t have much of a choice. Yet, she tries. She doesn’t simply accept the order without trying to hold her ground. It is unfortunate however that each time she prolongs following the order she gets sick. It is this dynamic that makes Ella somewhat endearing to the reader. Levine makes you feel Ella’s willfulness. The reactions and actions of Ella translate so well into creating that picture of a girl who’ll do anything to forge her own destiny. I think, this is what made me enjoy the book the most.  People can tell us what to do, compel us to obedience, but we are in charge of our lives. Every attempt might fail, but we must persist and insist until we find our destiny.

Hilary Duff’s Cinderella Story (another adaptation)

As Ella challenges her obedience spell at the most critical part, when she was willing to go through the physical pain that went with defiance, she found her will free of the spell. This particular part of the story offers us with rich discussion. One can take the religious route and discuss similarities to Christ or one can take the route of empowerment. Pain can be scary, but it shouldn’t be a stumbling block to achieving our dreams. Ella isn’t a pushover and with enough reason she found herself willing to defy her current situation.

The details that make the story

Levine plays around in her stories, as seen here, and in the other books, I’ve read from her. Some are obvious in the story, while others are more subtle. I love the play in the names. Ella, our heroine is short for Eleanor, however like a nod to the fairy tale Ella can be a contraction to CinderELLA. Similarly, Prince Char’s name is short for Charmont and a nod to Prince CHARming.

Another detail that I liked is the idea that it was  Prince Char who experienced ‘love at first sight’ and confesses it first almost with the tone of spell-casted himself, while Ella builds on it from acquaintance to friendship. It would have been out of character had Ella just swooned immediately over the Prince. Also, I love that they allowed these characters to know each other which most fairy tales don’t offer us.

Finally, unlike most fairy tales where a prince breaks the curse, Levine allows her character to break it on her own. There is neither magic nor knights. In the end, while Ella went from adventure to adventure and stood up against her opponents, the true manifestation of ‘girl power’ was when she broke the curse through her own will.

Ella Enchanted is another Cinderella adaptation, but it offers more than what most would offer. It gets the reader involved in the lives of its characters. It mixes fantasy with reality. It dispels the usual stereotype and offers the reader a Cinderella that is relatable and very human.

8 Comments on Failed Fairy Spells and Crazy Adventures: Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted

  1. I love this book! I first read it when I was a kid in grade school, and I’ve re-read it countless times since then. Glad to see it featured here!

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  2. This sounds like a great retelling. I am intrigued by the back stories and how it spans to include even the fairy godmother, the father, the prince. I am a sucker for back stories :P. You’re right about how the author makes the stories and characters more realistic. How Ella’s actions are due to a spell, the father’s motives…it all makes more sense….There really are a lot of movie adaptations of Cinderella, Drew Barrymore’s Ever After also comes to mind. Anyway, I’ll add this book on my wish list. 🙂

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    • Hi Tin,
      I hope I didn’t give the impression that the back stories are too fleshed out, they aren’t. However, the motivations behind the actions, the personalities and the ‘rules’ they move around offer a backstory that suffice to bring meat to what we normally see as flat characters. If you ever get to read it soon, let me know how you liked it. Glad you enjoyed the review and that it made you add the book to the list. 🙂

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      • No worries! It’s enough that the author gave these other characters more attention and more personality than usual. Yup, you did an awesome review, it worked on me. Haha 😛

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  3. I read this book a couple of months ago and really enjoyed it. I felt bad for Ella- for her obedience curse. I would hate that!!! I also really liked that she is clever and witty and that she is who she is, no matter what!

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    • Hi Jess,
      I have to agree, Ella’s independence and sense of self is at the heart of this book and makes the reader feel for her. thanks for dropping by. 🙂

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  4. Hi, Iphigene! You know, I’ve only seen the movie, but whenever I saw the book on the shelves at B&N, I’ve always been tempted to purchase it ’cause I’d love to read it. I avoided it because I already own more books than I can read and my space is run out! lol Then, as chance would have it, lucky me got to meet Gail Carson Levine at the recent Princeton Book Festival (http :// writersideup. com /2015/09/23/up-the-2015-princeton-book-festival/ —minus spaces) and OF COURSE I was going to give in then and have an actual signed copy! lol Still haven’t read it yet, but I will!

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