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The story of Cinderella has been told countless times over the years.
The story of Cinderella has been told countless times over the years.

Alan Cumming: Great stories, like Cinderella, need to be rebooted Add to ...

I’ve been thinking a lot, of late, about the old and the new. Why some things last and some things just don’t. Why some stories seem to keep needing to be told and others only have portent for a short time and then drift into obsolescence, lucky to be googled or referenced in a crossword clue.

The other day I saw an advertisement on a bus for the new Cinderella movie, and many thoughts whirred through my mind: a) who advertises on buses any more? Most ads we see are on our computer screens or phones and are, precisely and sometimes rather embarrassingly, tailored to what we have clicked on or liked.

b) Cinderella? Didn’t that come out already? Wasn’t she just on our screens, racing gracefully down a stone staircase with her skirts hiked up, elegantly discarding a glass slipper that bounced to a dramatic and well-choreographed standstill in the centre of the frame before a beefy, well-manicured princely hand snatched it up and … well, you know the rest.

But then I realized this wasn’t a franchise spin-off for Cinderella from Into the Woods, but yet another interpretation of a tale that dates back to the first century BC when a story about a slave girl marrying the King of Egypt was first published and then bastardized through the ensuing centuries ad nauseam.

Of course, I am no stranger to dipping my toes into the timeless tale pond. I’ve often had the thankless task of getting up incredibly early to go on television shows to be quizzed by orange-skinned, loud-voiced people about why I have chosen to appear in plays that, to them, seem old and boring.

“So, Macbeth? It’s written in a language we don’t even talk in any more. Why do it?” was a question I parried at 8 a.m., on air live, just a year or so ago.

The Bacchae? It’s what … Greek? Do you look for the most obscure things you can find and try and make them relevant?” was another gem from the canon of my American morning-TV appearances.

Remember that the night before I had been onstage actually performing Macbeth or Dionysus in The Bacchae and so would much rather be sleeping off those challenges than dealing with the simultaneously blunt and cutting words of an over-caffeinated host with a producer yelling in his ear to move on from the boring play to how I am able to lose my Scottish accent to talk like a real live American person in The Good Wife.

But my answer, and the point to why we are being subjected yet again to a reboot of the well-worn Cinderella franchise, is that some stories keep being told because they need to be. Euripides and Shakespeare aren’t just lucky hacks who stumbled onto the gravy train. They, and others like them, wrote stories that we need to hear again and again, generation after generation. These stories are about the human condition and therefore have as much to say and are as able to enlighten and entertain and challenge us as they did when they were first written. And so is the myth of Cinderella.

Cinderella tells us that poor, put upon, plain people can actually turn it around and find a partner who is hot, rich and get this, royal! Originally, I suppose, it was the Assyrian Empire’s equivalent of The Bachelor. Nowadays, our culture is full of images and allegories about how ordinary people trapped in their humdrum lives can be catapulted to success and fame and wealth and, oh yes, happiness. Reality TV is Cinderella on a never-ending loop.

But something interesting is happening in our culture of myth regurgitation of late. I’ve noticed that the handsome prince, hitherto the catch, has recently begun to be reinterpreted in a less than flattering light. In Frozen, a movie based on the ancient Ice Queen myth, Prince Hans, who initially fits the bill of the strapping, wholesome and cute leading animated man, turns out to be, well, (spoiler alert!) a real dick. And in Strange Magic, a recent George Lucas film I voiced a role in, the Prince Charming figure is also an egotistical, vain, manipulative user.

So what is this all about? Are these hapless princes the victims of a surge of proto-feminism to suit the fickle mores of our zeitgeist? Are our young movie-going tweens being brainwashed by angry myth revisionists?

I don’t think so. We, like every generation before us, are shaping the story for our times, for our circumstances, for where we are in our journey through the universe. Cinderella may be having a reboot, but great stories have always given us the boot in the places we need it most. That is what makes them great: their ability and their need to be retold, reinterpreted and remain relevant.

I still hope the slipper fits.

Alan Cumming is an actor and a writer. He is the author of the novel Tommy’s Tale and the autobiography Not My Father’s Son.

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