One of the most challenging parts of being a writer is constantly coming up with original ideas. You can feel extra pressure to be inventive and develop your voice. There are many ways to shake these pressurized slumps, but I find that the best way is to work on an adaptation.

You get the backbone of the story, and you can flesh the rest of the original parts out on your own, allowing you the freedom to dream big.

Still, it's not easy getting your hands on IP. That's where the public domain comes into play, a collection of work you can use for free. Lucky for us, in it is almost every fairy tale you've heard about (and then some).

Modernizing a fairy tale for film and television involves a creative process that goes beyond simply updating the setting or characters. It's an artful blend of respecting the original story while also making it relevant and engaging for contemporary audiences.

Let's look at how you can tackle this adapted work yourself below.

10 Ways to Modernize a Fairy Tale

The reason I love fairy tales so much is that they usually come with great archetypes for characters, as well as ever-relevant themes and classically clear beginnings and endings.

No matter which story you intend to tell, you have to sit and adjust every aspect of the fairy tale to the tone you want for your adaption.

Are you adding comedy, drama, horror? Do you want the setting to be in the modern world, a distant past, or perhaps a fantastical kingdom?

Start with big changes and then continue to sculpt the little things—an inverted pyramid of your own adaption.

See below for a guide that will help fine tune your process.

1. Update the Setting

One of the most straightforward ways you can modernize a fairy tale is to change its setting. Classic fairy tales, often set in undefined medieval or ancient times, can be reimagined in a modern-day context, or even a futuristic setting. This shift can involve updating the story's visual elements, such as costumes and environments, and incorporating contemporary technology and culture.

2. Redefine Characters

Modern audiences often look for well-rounded, complex characters. Fairy tale adaptations can offer deeper character development, providing backstories and motivations that are not present in the original tales. This includes transforming archetypal character tropes (like, say, the common fool or the evil stepmother) into more nuanced, relatable figures.

3. Incorporate Diverse Perspectives

Traditional fairy tales often lack diversity. Modern adaptations have the opportunity to incorporate characters of different races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations. This not only makes the story more inclusive, but can also add new dimensions and interpretations to the original story.

4. Alter the Narrative Structure

Modern storytelling techniques can be used to alter the linear narrative structure of traditional fairy tales. This might include non-linear storytelling, multiple viewpoints, or even interactive elements in the case of digital adaptations.

5. Address Contemporary Themes

One of the most significant ways to modernize a fairy tale is to infuse it with contemporary themes and issues. This could mean exploring topics like gender equality, environmentalism, or social justice, which can resonate with today's audiences and provide deeper layers of meaning to the story.

6. Utilize Modern Filmmaking Techniques

Advancements in filmmaking technology allow creators to bring fairy tales to life in ways that were not possible before. This includes using CGI to create magical and fantastical elements, employing innovative cinematography, or even experimenting with different genres, such as turning a fairy tale into a thriller or a science fiction story.

7. Balance Nostalgia and Innovation

While modernizing a fairy tale, it's important to strike a balance between innovation and nostalgia. Retaining certain iconic elements or scenes from the original tale can provide a sense of familiarity and comfort to the audience, while the modern twists keep the story fresh and engaging.

8. Incorporate Interactive and Transmedia Storytelling

Finally, modern adaptations can extend beyond film and TV to include interactive media like video games, virtual reality experiences, and social media storytelling. This transmedia approach can create a more immersive and engaging experience for the audience.

9. Elevate with Humor and Self-Awareness

A clever way to modernize a fairy tale is to infuse it with humor, particularly a self-aware or meta style of comedy that acknowledges and subverts fairy tale tropes. This approach can involve characters who are conscious of their roles in a fairy tale, satirical twists on classic elements, or humorous references to other well-known stories. This not only appeals to a contemporary audience's sophisticated understanding of storytelling but also adds a layer of entertainment and relatability that may not be present in the original, more earnest versions of these tales.

10. Promote Empowerment and Agency

Modern audiences often seek stories where characters, especially those traditionally portrayed as passive or victimized, exhibit agency and empowerment. In reimagining fairy tales, creators can focus on empowering characters, giving them more control over their destinies, and showcasing their strengths and capabilities. This can be particularly impactful in the case of female characters, transforming the classic damsel in distress into a proactive, dynamic individual. This shift not only updates the story but also aligns it with contemporary values surrounding independence and self-determination.

Movies Based on Fairy Tales

Shrek and Donkey wanting the Merry Men dancing in 'Shrek'


Credit: DreamWorks Animaton

Classic Fairy Tale Adaptations

  1. Cinderella (1950) - Disney's animated classic based on the folk tale of the same name.
  2. Sleeping Beauty (1959) - Another Disney animated staple, adapted from Charles Perrault's fairy tale.
  3. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) - Disney's first full-length animated feature, based on the German fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm.

Modern Live-Action Adaptations

  1. Beauty and the Beast (2017) - A live-action/CGI adaptation of Disney's 1991 animated film, itself based on the French fairy tale.
  2. Maleficent (2014) - A live-action film starring Angelina Jolie, offering a new perspective on the "Sleeping Beauty" story.
  3. Cinderella (2015) - A live-action retelling of the Cinderella story, directed by Kenneth Branagh.
  4. The Green Knight (2021) - A beautiful adaption of the Danish tale told in epic fashion by director David Lowry.

Fairy Tales with a Darker Twist

  1. Pan's Labyrinth (2006) - Directed by Guillermo del Toro, a dark fantasy film with fairy tale elements, set in post-Civil War Spain.
  2. Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) - A dark fantasy version of the Snow White tale, featuring a warrior Snow White.
  3. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013) - An action-horror take on the classic Brothers Grimm tale where Hansel and Gretel, you guessed it, are portrayed as witch hunters. Talk about empowerment.

Animated Adaptations with a Modern Twist

  1. Shrek (2001) - A DreamWorks Animation film that parodies multiple fairy tales, with a self-aware, humorous approach.
  2. Tangled (2010) - Disney's animated take on the "Rapunzel" fairy tale, with a modern and comedic twist.
  3. Hoodwinked (2005) - An early aughts mashup of all your favorite fairy tale characters that's... aged.

International Fairy Tale Films

  1. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013) - A Japanese animated film based on "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter", a 10th-century Japanese fairy tale.
  2. The Red Shoes (2005) - A South Korean horror film loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale.

Adaptations with Unique Interpretations

  1. Into the Woods (2014) - A musical fantasy film based on the Broadway musical, intertwining several Brothers Grimm fairy tales.
  2. The Princess Bride (1987) - A cult classic that combines elements of fantasy, adventure, and fairy tales in a unique storytelling style.
  3. Enchanted (2007) - A modernized, live-action musical from Disney shuffling and subverting fairy tale tropes through a fish out of water approach.
  4. Black Swan (2010) - An adaptation of an adaption, this is a twisted take on Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, originally adapted from the German fairy tale "The Lake of Swans".

Fairy Tale Retellings in Animation

  1. The Little Mermaid (1989) - Disney's animated musical romantic fantasy film based on Hans Christian Andersen's tale.
  2. Frozen (2013) - Loosely based on Andersen's "The Snow Queen", this Disney animated film became a worldwide phenomenon.

TV Shows Based on Fairy Tales

'Once Upon a Time'


1. Once Upon a Time (2011-2018)

A series where fairy tale characters are transported to the modern world, unaware of their true identities due to a powerful curse.

2. Grimm (2011-2017)

A crime drama with a twist, where the protagonist discovers he is a descendant of a line of guardians known as "Grimms," charged with keeping balance between humanity and the mythological creatures of the world.

3. Merlin (2008-2012)

A reimagining of the Arthurian legends, focusing on the young wizard Merlin and his relationship with Prince Arthur.

4. Beauty and the Beast (2012-2016)

A modern-day, crime procedural twist on the classic fairy tale, where the "beast" is a super-soldier with a mysterious condition.

5. Tell Me a Story (2018-2020)

This series takes the world's most beloved fairy tales and reimagines them as a dark and twisted psychological thriller set in modern-day New York City.

6. Sleepy Hollow (2013-2017)

A modern-day retelling of Washington Irving's classic tale, combining elements of mystery, horror, and science fiction.

7. Regal Academy (2016-2018)

An animated series that plays on fairy tales, featuring a granddaughter of Cinderella who attends a school for fairy tale characters.

8. Ever After High (2013-2016)

An animated series set in a boarding school attended by the children of famous fairy tale characters, who are destined to follow in their parents' footsteps.

9. The 10th Kingdom (2000)

A miniseries that blends various fairy tales into a single narrative, exploring nine kingdoms of fairy tale creatures and the adventures of a father and daughter from New York City.

10. Adventure Time (2010-2018)

While not a direct adaptation of a specific fairy tale, this animated series incorporates fairy tale and fantasy elements into its storytelling, creating a unique and whimsical universe.

Modernizing a fairy tale for film and TV is a complex, creative process that requires balancing the essence of the original tale with the expectations and values of contemporary audiences.

By thoughtfully updating the setting, characters, narrative structure, and themes, and by leveraging modern technology and storytelling techniques, creators can breathe new life into these timeless stories.

Let me know what you think in the comments.