My daughter asked me to tell the story of "The Princess and the Pea" after seeing its title on the back of her Cinderella book. It's not one of my favorite fairy tales, as I've always found it rather simplistic and silly. Still, I gave it my best. " Once there was a prince who needed to marry a princess. But he didn't know any princesses that he liked. One day, a girl showed up at the palace. She said she was a princess, but she didn't look like one. She was too messy. It had been raining, and she had gotten all wet and muddy. She didn't have a crown--"
"It got lost in the flood," my daughter said.
"Yes," I said, warming up to her dramatic addition. "Her carriage had been swept away in a flood caused by the rainstorm. Her carriage was carried away by the river, but she managed to get out and swim. This is the movie version," I added as an aside to my husband.
I went on to give the conventional details of the story, where the princess spent the night, was tested by the queen with a pea placed under a huge pile of mattresses and comforters, and was proclaimed to be a princess after she complained of a sleepless night. Even with our added twist, really not enough to make a good movie. I doubt anyone would choose to make a movie of this tale.
But it can be done, as my daughter's elaboration shows. We just need a bit more drama, a few more twists. Here's one way of doing it:
The princess is on her way along with many other princesses to a house party and ball given by the prince. One mean princess that she meets along the way misdirects her and so she ends up deep in the forest, gets caught in a storm and her carriage is swept away by the overflowing river as they go over a bridge. Her coachman is knocked unconscious but she swims out, rescues him, and carries him to a tree. When the floodwaters subside, she finds a poor family living in the woods to nurse the coachman while she goes to the palace. The other princesses see her and are shocked by her untidy appearance but the prince takes pity on her and leads her to a room where she can dress for dinner in borrowed clothing. There is an instant connection between them, which the mean princess notices. She plays tricks on the princess to make her seem foolish and clumsy, but the prince is amused by her witty comments in response to the accidents, and likes her more than ever. The queen proposes the test with the mattresses and pea and the princess passes many sleepless hours until a mouse burrows under the mattresses and takes out the pea! She complains to a servant about this in the morning. The mean princess overhears and tricks her into entering a closet, which she locks. Later, after she has dressed for the evening's ball, she opens the closet to show off to the princess and taunt her, but finds she is gone! It turns out there is a secret passage in this closet which leads outside the palace. The mean princess has no time to pursue her, but leaves instructions with her coachman to look out for her and do away with her if she appears. He sees her before she can enter the palace and kidnaps her.
Meanwhile, the prince has given up hope of seeing the princess again after looking for her and failing to find her all day. The queen says perhaps it is just as well, as she did not seem to be a real princess. Then the servant mentions the princess's complaint and they realize she was a real princess after all. The prince orders a search, and they see the carriage of the mean princess driving off. He orders it to be pursued.
The coachman reaches the forest and is about to dump the princess there but she pleads with him not to leave her to die a slow death from starvation but to make a speedy end of it by throwing her into the river to drown. He complies, and she escapes from her bindings Houdini style and swims to the shore. The prince arrives in time to fish her out and kiss her. The king comes for their wedding, where he breaks down and confesses that the princess is not his real daughter but an orphan he had taken pity on. It would appear that the wedding should be cancelled, but the princess convinces everyone that he really is her father and that ought to make her a real princess. That's good enough for the prince and his family. So they get married and they live happily ever after.
My version ought to be long enough to be a movie. Whether I'll tell it to my daughter is another matter; this version is now too long and complicated for a child of barely five, I think. Stories are told to suit their audience, which is why I have no issues with updates of fairy tales if done well. Stories for adults have grown more sophisticated over the ages, growing from simple moral tales to complex novels. We now demand psychological realism whereas audiences in the past accepted situations such as people looking into each other's eyes and falling so deeply in love they would die for each other. I think any story can be updated and adapted, and all the different retellings give us a fresh view of the original. Given this, I think I need not aplogize to Andersen. After all, he adapted tales himself.