7 memorable adaptations of The Sleeping Beauty

9 Feb 2021

Dating back to Norse mythology and medieval sagas, folk tales about maidens who fall into an enchanted sleep have been told and retold in many cultures. Since Charles Perrault and the Grimm Brothers popularised the tale in Western Europe, it has continued to evolve over the decades through adaptations on stage and screen.

Charles Perrault’s La belle au bois dormant (1697) – Fairy tale

French author Charles Perrault popularised the story of Sleeping Beauty by publishing it in his landmark collection of fairy tales, Mother Goose Tales. Perrault’s version introduced the now familiar elements of the story including good and wicked fairies, the cursed spindle, 100 years slumber and the dashing bachelor prince. What is often forgotten is the dark second act of Perrault’s tale, involving the princess’ children and her ogress mother-in-law who wants to cook them for dinner.

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Brothers Grimm’s Dornröschen (1812) – Fairy tale

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm dedicated their lives to researching German language and literature. Amongst the height of German Romantic nationalism, they collected and published folk tales passed down through oral traditions to preserve them for future generations. In their tale, the fairies become Wise Women and the princess is named Briar Rose after the hedge of briars that engulfs her castle when she falls into her sleep. The Brothers Grimm version removes the second half of Perrault’s tale and ends with prince and princess living happily ever, the ending we all know today.

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Henry Maynell Rheam (1859-1920), Sleeping Beauty (1899), print on canvas

Piotr Ilych Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty (1890) – Ballet

One of the classical repertoire’s most famous ballets centres around the conflict between good (Lilac Fairy) and evil (Carabosse) and is filled with radiant and inventive music from the popular Russian composer. Iconic moments include the famous Waltz where the corps celebrate Aurora’s 16th birthday with flower garlands and the Rose Adage where the Princess dances with four suitors who support her in a series of difficult balances. The ballet concludes with a magnificent wedding attended by some of Perrault’s other fairy tale characters including Puss-in-Boots, Little Red Riding Hood and The Bluebird.

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Engelbert Humperdinck’s Dornröschen (1902) - Opera

Unlike his well-known and frequently performed Hänsel und Gretel, Humperdinck’s third fairy tale opera is an oddity, featuring a mix of orchestral set pieces, spoken dialogue and sung numbers. With the grand orchestrations, Humperdinck might have still had his work as copyist on Wagner’s Parsifal in mind. However, the magical musical numbers are interspersed with spoken word and minimal singing, making it more of a play with music. Highlights include the festive choruses and the joyous awakening of the Sleeping Beauty.

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Ottorino Respighi’s La bella dormente nel bosco (1922) – Opera

After suffering a mild bout of the Spanish Flu, Italian composer Respighi wrote his take on Perrault’s fairy tale for Vittorio Podrecca’s famous marionette company, I Piccoli. Using the first half of Perrault’s tale, Respighi expands the period of sleep to 300 years and introduces a party of Americans, led by Mr Dollar Cheques, who arrive to sound of a cakewalk. The production featuring puppets on stage and singers in the orchestra pit remained in I Piccoli’s repertory for over twenty years, even going on a world tour which included Australia.

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Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959) – Animated film

A childhood favourite for generations, Sleeping Beauty was the last Disney fairy tale adaptation until the release of The Little Mermaid 30 years later. The film features meticulously hand-painted animation cels and a score based on Tchaikovsky’s ballet, performed by Graunke Symphony Orchestra under the direction of George Bruns. With nods to Tchaikovsky and the Brothers Grimm in the naming the princess Aurora and Briar Rose, it introduces the vampiric villain Maleficent. Disney’s focus, of course, is on the romance between Aurora and Prince Phillip (named after the Duke of Edinburgh), reducing the princess’ slumber to a single night to accommodate the boy-meets-girl storyline.

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Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent (2014) - Film

One of Disney’s most memorable villains returns in the 2014 fantasy film dedicated to the backstory of Maleficent. Once a good fairy, Maleficent switches to the dark side after being betrayed by her lover, and on discovering that he has a new wife and daughter, she puts an old curse on baby Aurora. In a twist, the curse is reversed when the kiss of true love comes from a reformed Maleficent rather than a transient prince. Featuring Angelina Jolie, a truckload of CGI and a Lana del Rey cover of ‘Once Upon a Dream’, this modern film offers a female revisionist perspective of the old fairy tale.

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By Beata Bowes

Victorian Opera presents Respighi's The Sleeping Beauty at Palais Theatre on 23, 25 and 26 February 2021.

What is your favourite version of The Sleeping Beauty?