My daughter is five years old and although she doesn’t love princesses like she used to, her imagination is still captured by them, especially if they are wearing beautiful dresses, a sight she always appreciates. When she was younger, her favorite movie was Cinderella, so I thought it was fitting to take her to Disney’s new live action version of Cinderella while it was still in the theaters. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed walking downtown with my little sweetheart, sitting next to her in the theater, and enjoying Easter candy with her while we watched such a beautiful movie together. I’ve long been a fan of Kenneth Branagh, the director of Cinderella–the man knows how to create a beautiful film. His four hour Hamlet in 1996 was fantastic! I smiled to see the king played by none other but the usurping king in Branagh’s Hamlet.
What I really loved, however, is probably the reasons this tale has been retold for so long all over the world from what is thought to be the original tale, a Greco-Egyptian tale recorded by the Greek historian Strabo in the first century BC. I’ve found versions from China, Germany, France, Persia, Russia, Italy, and Vietnam, along with many others. I think it’s been so popular over multiple generations and cultures for at least three reasons: it’s a tale of good triumphing over evil, love, and restoration. I believe all of these give us a picture of the true, big Story that we participate in every day. They also give us a glimpse of Jesus.
Millions of stories written and told throughout the history of the world echo the theme of good conquering evil. Cinderella is just one of many, to the point of being cliche. However, despite this prevalence, this theme is still satisfying and still desired. I believe this is because it rings true. It just seems right even though none of us have seen it played out consistently in real life. Some might say we like to watch good win because of wish fulfillment–we don’t see it in real life, but we wish it were true, so we watch it and read it again and again for entertainment as relief from the horrors of the world. I don’t see it that way. I wonder, instead, why the triumph of the good feels so right if it were never meant to be so. I would like to submit that we are satisfied in seeing good conquer because it was created to be so–it was set in our hearts for us to desire good to triumph because one day it ultimately will. I thought that this version of Cinderella took this a step further when Ella turns at the end to her cruel stepmother and tells her she forgives her. This grace is more than the good girl winning–it’s the good at its very best–a transcendent goodness.
The theme of love is almost as prevalent in stories as the theme of good conquering over evil, but once again, it is still a theme at least women want to repeatedly watch. Cinderella and other fairy tales have often been maligned because of women who have tried to find their Prince Charming among the men around them and have been disappointed, as no man can live up to the perfection found in some of these love stories. This Cinderella is really no exception. I believe there’s a reason for this longing for perfection, though, and why women will continue to watch romantic movies with near perfect male protagonists. I believe we’re searching for the perfection we’re supposed to find in Jesus, the One who calls His people His bride (Isa. 62:5, Rev. 19:7). He is the One who will ride in on a white horse to save the day (Rev. 19:11-13). When we look for this in our boyfriends or husbands, we will be disappointed, no matter how good they are to us. By the way, Greg is as close to perfection as it gets! (He made me add this.) This disappointment, however, can be the catalyst to turn us to Jesus, the One who will never disappoint, the One who loves us more than anybody else ever could. I love to teach my daughter this lesson through stories like these so she won’t try to find this satisfaction anywhere else.
Most importantly, though, I believe this story is timeless and well loved because it is a story of restoration and renovation. Why are makeovers that take a fairly ugly woman and make her beautiful so popular on tv? Why do people love to watch HGTV shows that take a damaged house and make it sturdy and beautiful? Restoration is what we long for, and at the deepest level, if we’ll admit it, we long for it for our own hearts.
Cinderella is given a name of shame, a point well given in this version of the story, but later is given the name of Queen Ella. God has promised to do the very same for us: to take our shame and call us by a new name (Rev. 2:17). Cinderella spends time in mourning over her father and her abuse, literally covered in ashes, but she is transformed (with the help of magic) from a dirty, grieving, abused slave to a beautiful, joyful, cherished woman of royalty. What a beautiful picture this is of what God does for us: “provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” (Isa. 61:3). This story is a mirror of what God does for us, not through fairy godmothers, but through the power of Jesus, the son of the High King.
You may think of Cinderella as a trite fairy tale with no grounds in reality, but I find it to be a beautiful picture of the truest reality, that God loved us so much that He came down from His throne to the level of filthy commoners such as ourselves and conquered the evil of sin and death to renovate our hearts and make us beautiful within, bestowing on us a righteousness that makes us able to have intimacy with Him.