With the live-action retelling of [Cinderella](movie:373064), Disney has done it again. The classic tale gets a contemporary update that is rooted in the magic and sparkling optimism of 1950's animated version. The House of Mouse has managed to make such a statement with its pristine interpretation of Cinderella that it can be difficult to remember that the story actually began long ago. And its origins aren't pretty.
Though the Cinderella we know and love gets her happy ending with little shedding of bodily fluids (just a few tears here or there), the rudimentary fable goes back thousands of years—before humanity was so respectful. Through multiple iterations, it has been sanitized as a palatable tale for children, but upon further inspection, Cinderella's core is fueled by the stuff of nightmares.
Let's take a look at some of the most outlandish and surprising facts about the story that gave way to one of the most uplifting fairy tales of our time.
1. Cinderella's story is multinational
If you can boil down the Cinderella plot into one basic but powerful idea, it's that an oppressed heroine weds a more highly respected man to elevate her current social standing. Vox traces that simple story back all the way to ancient Greece in the sixth century BCE when one recorded story sees an eagle steal the show of a Greek courtesan and drop it in the lap of an Egyptian king, leading them to marry.
Another ancient version is found in ninth-century China with the tale of Ye Xian. This young girl's magically-created shoe ends up in the hands of a monarch, who goes on a journey to find the only one who can fit such a tiny foot. In the end, he marries her, and her evil stepmother is crushed to death in her home.
2. Cinderella is really a story about money
The version of Cinderella that is most familiar to us comes from France by way of Charles Perrault. In Cendrillon, he introduces many of the symbols now immediately recognizable as aspects to the story: the glass slipper, the time constraint, and the fairy godmother. But, really, what Perrault establishes is the story of upward mobility and the ruthless pursuit of it.
When Cinderella loses her father, she loses the esteem of her household. With her stepmother in power, she needs another man in order to elevate her to a higher social rank. Though she proves herself to be a hard-worker, the only way things will change is by marrying into a wealthy family. She follows the rules set forth by divine intervention (the fairy godmother) and ultimately gets rewarded.
3. The Brothers Grimm made it even more gruesome
For starters, their story Aschenputtel does not have her wishes granted from a charming, human-like fairy godmother. Oh, no, instead she needs to implore the tree that is growing out of her dead mother's grave. Interesting message: your life is terrible, so rely on the most painful event in your past to get you through it.
4. And the devastating family dynamics don't stop there
Not content to make her an orphan with a sympathetic family, the Brothers Grimm also create a terrible father. Unlike in other tellings where Cinderella's father is lost, killed, or missing, in Aschenputtel, he's simply willfully oblivious to his daughter's all-consuming misery.
5. The stepsisters are WAY more serious about locking down the prince
Also in Aschenputtel, the telltale show is made of gold, and the money-hungry stepsisters will stop at nothing to get it—even if that means mutilating themselves. When the prince comes for the test fitting, one of the them horrifically cuts off her own toes in hopes of making the shoe fit, effectively living out this scene from Romy and Michele's High School Reunion.
6. But the wicked get what's coming to them
At the wedding, each of the stepsisters get at least one eye pecked out by doves as punishment for their mistreatment of Cinderella. They spend the rest of their lives permanently blind and presumably hobbling around on one good foot.
7. Disney actually chose the more passive Cinderella for inspiration
Though the Grimm fairy tales are undeniably, well, grim, Aschenputtel as a character is remarkably self-motivated. In Charles Perrault's version Cinderella, the main character relies on fate and the will of others to achieve her happiness, which is really just marrying rich. As Vox's Kelsey McKinney brilliantly puts it, "Cinderella has to be home at midnight. That's just when Aschenputtel decides to leave." This gelled with the culture of the 1950s America where women were expected to use marriage as opposed to work to improve their status. And maybe that's the most distressing reality of all.