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Rated: E · Essay · Folklore · #1939894
A study of the evolution of Cinderella in film
The tale of Cinderella is a classic, a standard of all traits encompassed by fairy tales.  It has a sort of rags to riches story, and good triumphs over evil.  However, the tale as it is known in popular culture today makes the original version nearly unrecognizable.  Where has all the symbolism gone?  Why is there such a perpetuation of Disney’s version, released one hundred thirty-eight years after the first publication of the Brothers Grimm version, leaving the literary version largely unread?  Quite simply, it is a matter of modern appeal.  Audiences today are more interested in the visuals of a story rather than the didactic nature of older tales.  Disney’s 1950 version and Rogers & Hammerstein’s 1997 version are more traditional takes on the tale, while 1998 brought a feminist twist to the tale and 2004 gave us a more modern adaptation, both taking several liberties with the story.  However, the “symbolism” in these films is more like allusions to the classic Disney film than to the Grimm story.  The “source” of the tale has become Disney’s version of it, rather than the literary history that gave life to the story.

The original story of Cinderella is very different from the one most people know today.  Even before 1950, the story evolved from what we know as the “original.”  The story’s written origins are actually Chinese (although the oral tradition may originated elsewhere), and some elements of Chinese values still remain; most notably, the heroine’s exceptionally small feet.  The story originally focused on sibling rivalry, but the alteration from biological siblings to step-siblings shows the shift in culture from eastern to western, making the cruelty from the step-siblings more expected.  The text of Cinderella is deceptively simple, telling “about the agonies of sibling rivalry, of wishes coming true, of the humble being elevated, of true merit being recognized even when hidden under rags, of virtue rewarded and evil punished” (Bettelheim, 239), but the symbolism in both the textual and visual representations and the color symbolism in the film adaptations create a much deeper story.
In the Grimm version of the text, Cinderella is known as the stepsister in this story, rather than the daughter, and the two daughters from her stepmother are described as “beautiful and fair of face, but vile and black of heart” (Grimm, 101).  Unlike the modern versions, there is no fairy godmother, but instead a bird that lives atop the hazel tree marking her mother’s grave.  The use of the hazel tree as opposed to another species is important because hazel trees indicate hidden wisdom and the Grimm version recuperates medieval fantasies of nature and its symbolic power to affect human action.  But what wisdom does the tree reference?  Perhaps the wisdom that if one is “pious and good, and then the good God will always protect thee” (Grimm, 101).  The medieval reference to God and the power of nature recall earlier fairy tale accounts of the process of growing up.  This medievalism is central to the Grimm brothers’ articulations of their tales, and it is seen prominently throughout their version of Cinderella. 

Medieval numerology is present in the Grimm brothers’ tale, where the number three also plays a prominent part in the tale; there are three daughters, Cinderella visits her mother’s grave three times a day, and the king’s festival lasts for three days.  The number three is a very important number throughout medieval literature and it also indicates a Christian approach to time and presence.  While this story is generally not considered to be a religious tale, there are some very slight Christian overtones in it, especially with the number three, which represents the Holy Trinity in Christianity.  The Holy Trinity in the story of Cinderella consists of the hazel tree and the two doves that live in it—the doves that live in the tree not only help Cinderella finish her chores and provide her with the appropriate attire each night of the festival, but they also warn the prince that each of the stepsisters are false brides.  However, it is not just in Christianity that the number three is important—Greek and Roman mythologies also held the number three in high regard, with the three fates and the three furies, and the Celts revered the number three.  One of the most recognizable Celtic symbols is the triskel, “a figure composed of three spirals, signifies the three-layered nature of a human soul, and is itself a central figure in ancient Celtic symbolism” (Denault).  These historical understandings of the number three also inform medieval literature and the medievalism of the Grimm brothers.

The story of Cinderella has had many incarnations and criticisms.  The American version is perhaps the most criticized because the title character has no ambition or initiative as “All of the moral values stressed in the earlier stories have disappeared” (Lyric Opera San Diego).  These non-American previous versions show morals and repercussions.  The Chinese version of the story teaches the lesson of greed, as the king, Cinderella’s husband at the end of the story, becomes greedy with his wishes for gold and jewels, causing the wishes to stop being granted.  The Italian version introduces the character of the fairy godmother along with the tree to which Zezolla (Cinderella) asks for her wishes to be granted, and it
“contains all the essentials of a true Cinderella story:
•          A noble, intelligent, and independent-minded girl is degraded, usually by a wicked stepmother and made to do menial tasks.
•          She is helped by an animal or a fairy or some other agent such as a tree to dress up and attend a festival of some sort.
•          There she usually attracts the eye of a prince or king and loses her shoe while trying to get away.  (Or without seeing the king, she loses the shoe and it is brought to him.)
•          The King orders a search for the owner of the shoe.  It fits only the heroine whom he marries.  The sisters meet various fates.”  (Lyric Opera San Diego)

Charles Perrault’s French version is the one most closely related to the Disney versions, and thus, to the version most people associate with the name “Cinderella” today.  “No other known version contains all the now familiar trappings such as the pumpkin coach, so it is usually thought that he invented these” (Lyric Opera San Diego) rather than merely transcribing similar tales.  However, rather than the festival being one day or night as with other tales, it lasts for two days, and, unlike other tales, the slipper is left behind on purpose, and the stepsisters are forgiven for their mistreatment of Cinderella.  Other countries add their own cultural touches in order to make the story more easily relatable to the audience.

         Disney’s appropriation of fairy tales is not new, neither for the company nor for fairy tales themselves.  Disney’s own appropriation began with 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which garnered much acclaim, including an Academy Award, and has continued through the present with 2011’s Tangled, a version of Rapunzel.  When Disney first began releasing animated features, movies were still in early stages of development.  The animation process itself has gone through a major evolution, from hand-drawn scenes to a blend of hand-painted cells and computer animation to complete computer generated illustrations, each becoming more realistic than the phase before.  The two versions of Disney’s Cinderella also show a growth in film style—from animated to live-action.

Disney’s 1950 animated feature Cinderella has the advantage of being a visual film because the intended audience is that of children, an audience that is still in the early stages of learning.  The shift from textuality to visuality is important because rather than merely see the words on the pages, this audience is visually introduced to the tale—the stepsisters are ugly rather than pretty, reflecting their attitudes towards Cinderella.  However, it shortens the story by cutting out vital information and symbolism.  Much of the same story is there, but the artists have taken liberties with the descriptions.    The original text provides only the one physical description, enabling the artists to create a whole new world.  Instead of the fair but vile stepsisters described by Grimm, Cinderella now has two stepsisters whose personalities are reflected in their appearances—they are no longer fair, but they are rather vile looking.  Throughout the film, which covers a time-span of approximately thirty-six hours, Anastasia and Drizella, as they have been named in this film, have certain colors that they wear.  Anastasia wears pinks and purples and has red hair, while Drizella wears teals and greens and has dark brown hair.  Their appearance does not change much throughout the film.  Even when they dress for the ball, the colors remain the same.  These colors might symbolically reflect the anger towards Cinderella’s singleness (she is merely one person attending to three people) and greed to marry into riches.  In contrast to the stepsisters’ ostentatious self-presentations, Cinderella initially appears in more earthy tones—brown and tan—but goes through a very obvious transformation throughout the film.  Rather than staying in the earthy tones, she initially changes into a pink dress (inherited from her mother and then altered) before arriving at the ball in a very pale blue dress.  This obvious transformation mirrors her transformation from maid-girl to true princess.  It is also from this film that we get the standard picture of beauty—blonde hair with blue eyes, a description that stays relatively constant throughout the many adaptations, film or otherwise, and is very similar to Aryan appearances, which was held in the highest esteem by Adolf Hitler.  The choice of colors for each of the three daughters also has certain meanings.  Color charts indicate different intentions with each color.  The reds in Anastasia’s wardrobe indicate determination, as in the determination to marry the prince.  Drizella’s green wardrobe also symbolizes the desire to marry the prince, but due to the desire for money.  Cinderella’s clothing represents many more things, as her wardrobe is more dynamic.  The original earthy brown tones in her servant-wear represent conventionality, and the pink dress symbolizes love—the love Cinderella has for her mother, from whom she inherited the pink dress.  The blue dress she wears to the ball, however, has the most meaning, as blue symbolizes honesty, as she never does anything dishonest, and peace, as she never does anything harmful to anyone.  The use of the animals in this feature would almost seem like classic Disney, but it is actually rather close to the original tale.  When given a particularly difficult chore, Cinderella proclaimed, in the original tale, “you tame pigeons, you turtle-doves, and all you birds beneath the sky, come and help me” (Grimm, 102).  In the Disney animation, the animals never required a request to help, but rather helped out of desire to please their “Cinderelly.”  When it seemed as though Cinderella would be unable to finish her chores and alter her dress, her animal friends, consisting of not just birds but mice as well, make the alterations to her mother’s dress as needed.  Other than the time span being cut from three days to a mere one day, the most glaring alteration to the story is the ending.  In the original tale, not only does Cinderella marry the prince, but the two sisters are also punished with blindness.  In Disney’s version, there is no mention of the stepmother or stepsisters after the fitting of the slipper.  While this particular version shares the basic storyline of the original, it has shortened the time-span and set the expectation for any following adaptations.

1997 brought a new audience to the world of Cinderella.  Whitney Houston wanted to film a live-action production, with herself as the lead, but rather than take on that role, she handed the title role to Brandy Norwood, enhancing the “rags to riches” story.  Brandy was a choirgirl before moving to California and eventually becoming famous, with Houston, her idol, as her mentor.  Brandy’s own life mirrors that of the Cinderella, and the role was made particularly special for her as Houston played the fairy godmother.  This reproduction is similar to that of the style of the Grimm brothers themselves, who “kept revisiting these tales in seven different editions to make them relevant to the experiences of the German people, especially young readers, during the nineteenth century” (Zipes).  Disney’s remakes are similar to that of the Grimms' revisions because the changes are made in each production to make the films relevant and appealing to the ever-changing audiences.
The 1997 version is a live-action film adaptation from the musical by Rogers and Hammerstein produced by The Wonderful World of Disney.  As with its predecessor, it relies heavily on visuals and music, along with the talent, rather than physical appearance, of the cast.  Rather than the title character be portrayed as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Caucasian girl, Cinderella is now of African-American descent, with a white stepmother, a white stepsister, and a black stepsister—the prince and queen have also changed ethnicities, for he is now Asian and she is now black.  The film starts off with an interaction between Cinderella and a male counter-part who is actually the prince in disguise.  Cinderella’s name is explained during their exchange—two words, Cinder Ella—something that has been overlooked previously.  The colors in this film are similar to that of the original Disney film, but they are more extravagant.  The stepsisters, whose names have changed from Anastasia and Drizella to Calliope and Minerva, dress in the same color palettes as their predecessors, reds for Calliope and greens for Minerva.  This change of names is rather interesting—Calliope is the name of the Greek muse of epic poetry, and Minerva is the name of the Roman “goddess of handicrafts, the professions, the arts, and, later, war” (Encyclopedia Britannica Online).  The connection between these two names may seem rather weak, but the shrine to Minerva in Rome was a gathering place “at one time [for] dramatic poets and actors” (Encyclopedia Britannica Online), suggesting a connection to literature and education—quite a different representation than actually portrayed by these characters.  Minerva desires to show intelligence, but her mother warns that men are intimidated by intelligent women, while Calliope plans to laugh at all jokes the Prince tells her, but when she laughs, she has tendencies to snort.  These flaws are to be hidden until after the marriage, according to the stepmother, although it is not indicated which sister is more deserving of marrying the prince more, nor is the fate known of the sister that is not chosen.  Neither sister is portrayed as particularly attractive or sympathetic, but rather comedic—a standard set, once again, by the 1950 version.  Each character has conflicting views on what the ball actually means—for the stepsisters, stepmother, king, and queen, it means marriage; for the prince, his man-servant, and Cinderella, it is about finding love.  Early in the movie, in true Disney style, Cinderella and the prince-in-disguise sing a duet together, foreshadowing that they will be married by the end of the film (Cinderella and the Prince sang together at the ball in the previous version, and Jasmine and Aladdin had “A Whole New World”).  Both Cinderella and the prince desire something different than what they have—they both desire more equality; she wants to be treated more as a person and less as a servant, and he wants to be treated more as a regular person and less as royalty.  As with the colorful setting, the name of the prince is rather extravagant itself—“Prince Christopher Rupert Windemere Vladimir Karl Alexander Francois Reginald Lancelot Herman Gregory James.”  Each name is seemingly chosen on previous names of royalty—Denmark had three kings named Christopher; King Charles I’s nephew was Prince Rupert of the Rhine; the meaning of Vladimir is to “rule with greatness” (behindthename.com); Karl is a Germanic version of Charles, the name of a few British kings; Francois was the name of two French kings; Reginald is from a Germanic name combining “advice” and “rule”; Lancelot is the name of one of King Arthur’s knights; Gregory is a more common name for a pope, but comes from the Greek, meaning “watchful/alert”; and James is the name of several Scottish rulers, along with six American presidents (an anachronism given the implied time setting), and a few British kings.  Herman and Windemere appear to be thrown in for comedic effect, but while the name of Herman actually has a rather military meaning—from the German meaning “army man”—“Windemere” has no meaning as a name and seems to be included merely for dramatic effect.  Also included in this production is the inclusion of the fairy godmother.  Like Cinderella, she wears earthy brown tones, while in the original version, this character wore blue.  An addition to the color palette in this film from the last is the inclusion of purple, the color of royalty.  At the ball, the prominent colors are varying shades of purple and teal, causing the two stepsisters to clash with the rest of those in attendance.  Also with the original Disney version, the magic of the fairy godmother wears off at midnight—excluding the magic on the shoes, and the prince enjoys his waltz with the beautiful anonymous stranger—despite their interaction at the beginning of the film, he is unable to recognize her.  When the ball is over, and her slipper is left behind, the prince desires to find the owner of the slipper—upon arriving at Cinderella’s home, the two stepsisters attempt to fit the shoe, but when they fail, their mother tries, all the while neglecting to acknowledge a third eligible maiden in the house.  While the time elapsed in the film is more realistic than in the previous version, it does not equal the relevance of the three days of balls in the original text, nor does it mention any punishment for the evils done to Cinderella by her stepfamily.  The comparison with these two versions shows a growth in Disney, from mere visuals to more vibrant colors.  The differences between the two films also suggest a growth in the audience—the title character has definable aspirations, encouraging audience members to follow their own dreams.

The rise of feminism in the latter half of the 20th century brought to light issues with the expectations of women, especially in literature.  Most textual versions of Cinderella have been written or otherwise perpetuated by men (including Greek philosopher Strabo, Charles Perrault, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and Walt Disney), which can create an inner-battle within the female audience between the expectations of women set forth in the literature against their own identities.  The use of a multi-racial cast in the 1997 film helps to include women minorities in the idea of a rags-to-riches story as “black women have complained that white middle-class women, in academia as well as in the mass media, often end up speaking for feminism or for all women” and “third-world women…feel similarly silenced and unrepresented in mainstream social agendas” (Norton, 24).  However, race is not the only issue in media, but, while talent should be considered more important than appearance, setting must also be taken into account.  Sixteenth-century France did not have an abundance of African descendents, nor of such mixed families, so the return to a cast of appropriate ethnicities was welcomed.  Feminism is not limited to only women, so it is not entirely surprising to see that a man co-wrote the screenplay and directed 1998’s Ever After: A Cinderella Story. 

The 1998 film provides a completely different view of the Cinderella story.  It takes a similar plot and setting, but changes the names of the main character, and gives different traits to some of the characters.  The story is set up as a story within a story—a queen is meeting with the Grimm brothers to discuss their version of “Cinderella,” which she has deemed to be extremely incorrect and wants to set the record straight.  The framing of the story, based on the lives and publications of the Grimm brothers, is set in the early 1800s, while the majority of the film is set in France in the early 1500s, although, based on some inaccuracies (the release of More’s Utopia and the life of Leonardo da Vinci), the actual timeframe is unknown.  The mild-mannered character of Cinderella has been transformed in this film into a much stronger female lead named Danielle (the change of names is not limited to the main character, but to the sisters as well)—she plays with the neighboring boy in the mud, has quite a good aim and throwing arm, and stands up for what she believes is right.  Her first encounter with the prince involves her attempting to stop him from stealing her father’s horse as he is fleeing his responsibilities of the kingdom.  He has no desire to rule the kingdom, and his parents, the king and queen, are ready for him to wed so that he can produce an heir.  It is unlikely that Rogers and Hammerstein’s film production had any influence on this film, but the similarity between the princes in the two films is notable—neither particularly cares for the life of royalty.  Danielle yearns for a stable family arrangement, disappointed that she has been reduced to the status of a servant, watching as the belongings of her parents disappear to pay off the debt of her stepmother.  Even though the coloring of this film is significantly more subtle than that of the previous, similar colors are used for the corresponding characters.  Danielle is often seen in blues, while Marguerite (Anastasia and Calliope in the previous versions) is seen in reds, and Jacqueline (Drizella and Minerva) is seen in greens.  Similar to the 1950 version, the dress that Danielle intends to wear to the ball was her mother’s wedding dress.  However, this dress is not the first time that she dresses above her status—she posed as a Countess when she went to the palace to request the release of her friend’s husband.  During this venture, she is not wearing blue, but rather green, presumably because green indicates money (not to be confused with royalty).  The prince intervenes, and has a vague sense of recognition.  Danielle constructs a story that she is visiting her cousin, a story that she must keep up with throughout the remainder of the film until the truth is revealed.  The persona that Danielle creates using her deceased mother’s title and name seems to give her a sense of self-confidence, especially around the prince.  Rather than being the meek and obedient character as previously portrayed, this incarnation of Cinderella has intelligence, a certain amount of beauty, and more brawn than previously conveyed.  Rather than let Marguerite wear her mother’s dress, she physically fights her for it, although the fight is rather one-sided, with the other side running away.  The portrayal of the stepsisters is also different from previous versions—only one of them seems to be “evil” (Marguerite) while the other (Jacqueline) is treated slightly better than Danielle.  The stepmother pushes for Marguerite to marry the prince, telling the younger daughter that it would benefit them all—in the previous films, the sisters were at odds with one another to gain the prince’s attention and then affection.  A rather large part of attraction between Danielle and the prince is the love of the written word—More’s Utopia plays a large role throughout the film, as she often quotes it—as well as a battle of wits, both of them being walking contradictions—a prince with plenty of land but no desire to work it, and, although merely a persona, a countess with no pride in her station.  Other than directly referencing the Grimm brothers and their tale of Cinderella, the film actually shows punishment bestowed upon two-thirds of Danielle’s evil family—as the prince’s wife, she requests that her stepmother and stepsister Marguerite receive the same kindness that they had shown her. 

The 2004 film is different from the previous titles in that it is a modern story rather than a period piece, and the target audience appears to be pre-teens and teenagers.  This film is more of an adaptation of the original Disney version than anything else.  It is set in present day California, with a blonde-haired lead.  Similar to “Ever After,” “A Cinderella Story” changes the names of the characters and makes the main character slightly more confident than the other two versions, along with being more of a tomboy.  In addition to all of the chores at home, Samantha must work at her stepmother’s diner, which has been renovated to suit her tastes after the death of her husband.  The significance of the name change reflects the name in the original text.  “Cinderella” is an extension of her real name of “Ella,” whereas “Sam,” the name that is used most often in reference to the main character, is a shortened version of her real name of “Samantha.”  The negative nickname that Sam is given is not by her family, but by the popular girls in school.  Just as Cinderella is called so by her being covered in soot, Sam is called “Diner Girl” as she works at her stepmother’s diner.  This film also returns to the comedic and dislikeable version of the stepsisters.  Just as with previous versions, these sisters are over-the-top in almost everything they do, and are disliked by those surrounding them, with exception of their mother.  The sisters are twins named Brianna (Anastasia) and Gabriella (Drizella) in this film, and, playing up the idea of twins, generally match everything, from their clothing to their cars (Volkswagen Beetles).  The color schemes are also kept from the original films, although at this point, it is questionable as to why, in every incarnation, the color scheme has never changed, especially with these two characters.  Sam’s desire in the movie is to go to a prestigious school—Princeton University, a place for princes and princesses to meet, according to her father.  However, acceptance into Princeton and the cost of tuition are two major factors as to why Sam never stands up to her stepmother—she works hard to earn straight A’s in her classes, and she is hoping her stepmother will help her pay the tuition costs.  Her stepmother has other plans—for her to run the diner, stating that “people go to school so that they can get a job” and that, because she already has a job waitressing at the diner, school is unimportant.  Similar to its predecessor, the idea of magic is left out of the film, making it more realistic, but the role of the fairy godmother does not go unfulfilled.  Rhonda, the manager of the diner, steps into the shoes of the godmother, encouraging Sam to not only continue working hard to get into Princeton, but also to meet her cyber-mate—a boy at her school who also has dreams of attending Princeton.  Rhonda protects Sam and helps her at work when necessary, and even provides the dress she wears to the costume dance.  Other nods to the Disney original include a cameo character named Jaq (with the appetite of Gus), along with the other workers in the diner helping Sam, similar to the animals helping to alter the dress.  A bit of foreshadowing happens in the diner, which is themed to the 1950s—Aretha Franklin can be heard singing “Rescue Me,” exactly what Sam wants her education to do.  Having a dance last three days is unrealistic within a modern high school setting, but the film takes place over the span of several days, rather than one day.  The first few days lead up to the costume ball, their annual homecoming dance in which two students are named “prince and princess,” rather than the more common “king and queen.”  The dress that Sam ends up wearing is reminiscent of Cinderella, as noticed by the costume judges, and her cyber-mate, school star Austin Ames, whom she is planning to meet in person at the dance, forgoes his three musketeers costume (to match two of his friends) for a “Prince Charming” costume, causing the pair to be voted as winners.  However, Sam is unable to reveal her identity, and Austin does not recognize her with the mask.  While there are no magic spells that will end at midnight, Sam must still leave the dance and be back at the diner at midnight, or else her stepmother will know that she disobeyed.  There is no shoe left behind at the dance, but rather the cell-phone through which Sam and Austin communicated via an instant messaging service.  As also in the 1998 film, the punishment of the stepfamily is shown here—they are now forced to work in the diner to pay off their debts.  The development of Austin, the prince character, is quite a bit more dynamic than any of the previous films.  He grows into his own being, following his own dreams, rather than doing exactly what his father wants him to do, which is to follow in his footsteps.  Throughout the movie, there is a significant lack of water—the San Fernando Valley is experiencing a drought, which is mentioned several times throughout the movie, from Sam telling her stepmother they need to conserve water to the water conservation announcements over the school’s announcement system.  Only when Sam and Austin both stand up to their respective parents does the drought end.

         The character of Cinderella has gone through many incarnations—from sweet servant to confident woman, but none of the films have measured up to the meaning of the original text.  The addition of a fairy godmother, the changing of time-span, and the perpetuation of the color scheme—these changes are all drastic and relatively unnecessary.  Fairy-tales are not meant to be entirely realistic, so the inclusion of the talking birds that give Cinderella whatever she asks for would not be out of place—given that the setting is not changed too much, as with the 2004 film (which has spawned two spin-off films).  The 1998 film, despite some historical inaccuracies noticeable to those knowledgeable in the history of art and literature, sets out to be a more successful film than the other three because it is aware of the tale on which it is based.  The changes in the story of Cinderella are noted and it is explicitly stated in the beginning that the Queen wants to set the record straight regarding the tale of her ancestor.  The 1950 Disney film fails in realism, even though it is a fairy-tale, simply because it happens too quickly—a mere day appears to have lapsed between the decision to have the ball, the creation and delivery of the invites, and the discovery of the owner of the missing glass  slipper.  Rogers and Hammerstein’s 1997 production is a successful remake of the 1950 animated feature, but not a successful adaptation of the original text, and the 2004 film is an extremely loose adaptation, but given the target audience, realism and slight fantasy must work together in a way appealing to teenage girls.  Sacrifices must be made to reach the largest audience, but how far from the story can one stray before it can no longer be “based on” and must be considered an “adaptation”?  Hollywood has tried many times, but the right balance of accuracy and liberty has yet to be obtained.  In order to create an accurate yet appealing film, the establishment of the origin must be made.  For the version we know today, do we credit the Perrault tale, or the Grimm tale?  By including the original text in the opening credits, such as “Based on the story by Charles Perrault (or the Brothers Grimm)” and staying true to the chosen text, the setting can be manipulated in many ways, and the target audience will determine the exact setting and how much back-story is necessary.
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