I love fairy tales, and some of my favorite novels and films are fairy tale adaptations. Adapting a fairy tale comes with a unique set of challenges, as I found out when I adapted the story of Scheherazade for my novel The Ninety-Ninth Bride.
A purist might say that The One Thousand and One Nights, of which Scheherazade plays a part, is not quite a fairy tale. I would argue that, in our context, the Nights fit– a story that has its roots in oral tradition, including magical elements, usually reproduced for children.
The Nights open in a faraway land, and at first we focus on the Sultan, who, betrayed by his Queen, has resolved to marry and then murder a succession of virgins. Then our focus comes to Scheherazade–the clever young lady who hatches a plan to stop this slaughter. And The One Thousand and One Nights ends with a happily-ever-after in the frame story–the Sultan pardons Scheherazade and she becomes his Queen.
This is not unprecedented in the world of fairy tales. In the western European story “Like Meat Loves Salt,” for instance, there is a father who cruelly turns out his daughter at the start of the story. At the end, he has a public crying fit when he thinks of her and realizes he did her wrong. Seeing this, his daughter reconciles with him, and they’re a family again. So here we have one fairy tale villain who doesn’t have to dance in iron shoes.
But notice: The father wronged his daughter, and whether or not to forgive him is her call to make. She does so after she has found a safe new home away from him. Once again, fairy tales prove themselves wiser than people usually give them credit for.
Now let’s look at the Sultan again. He abuses his position as Sultan and kills a lot of women. How can he make that up? Does he pay reparations to their families? Does he pay for grief counseling? Sponsor the education of girls across the land? Order a day of mourning? Does he go on pilgrimage to atone?
We don’t know. It doesn’t say.
The One Thousand and One Nights introduces us to a national calamity but closes on the note of marriage. We have to assume that happiness for the kingdom follows from happiness for the family. It makes sense in a metaphorical way. Bruno Bettelheim might tell us that marrying the princess and ruling the kingdom is a metaphor for a good life and a healthy soul.
But maybe–even in a story sense–all those murdered women deserve something better than metaphors. This is what I tried to address with my novel, The Ninety-Ninth Bride.
My viewpoint character and main protagonist, Dunya, befriends the women who are, one by one, married to the Sultan and then executed. Dunya herself is in line for this fate, but spared by chance. After that, it is up to her to remember the executed women, as only she knew them. It is also up to her to give meaning to her life, spared almost at random.
None of my protagonists are perfect–they may be absorbed with their own problems, or passive to the point of complicity–but these flaws can be addressed with action. And no two people have the same path. The girl who shrinks into the shadows can find her voice and speak for others. The djinn can learn to temper her fire and not be burned by her passion. The happy ending can be more than metaphorical when characters find balance within themselves.
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