Enchanting reinvention of a classic fairy tale
A yuletide TV tradition in several European countries, Václav Vorlíček’s adaptation of Božena Němcová’s fairy tale is a radical alternative to the better-known Brothers Grimm and Disney versions.
Aside from a solitary screening on BBC 2 in the 1980s, the film has been unavailable in the UK until now. Relatively unknown outside of mainland Europe, in several countries it is a firm fixture in the festive TV schedules. Since 1975 one million Norwegians gather round their TVs each year on Christmas Eve to watch the film.
A Czechoslovakian-East German co-production, the film is one of the most significant examples of Czech fairy tale films. Credited with reviving the genre and ensuring its longevity Three Wishes for Cinderella is a classic for all ages.
Variants of the Cinderella fairy-tale have appeared in several countries. Folk historians have traced versions dating back to 7BC. Charles Perrault’s tale is the best-known version in Western Europe. Introducing the magic pumpkin, fairy godmother, and glass slippers, it has inspired countless screen adaptations and stage pantomimes. The Brothers Grimm tale is the most widely-known version in Germanic countries. In this version, instead of a fairy godmother, Cinderella is aided by a gift-giving hazel tree. Božena Němcová’s tale is the best-known version in Czechoslovakia. A Czech equivalent of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christan Anderson, Němcová recorded fairy tales for future posterity. Read by Franz Kafka, her image has been used on Czechoslovakian stamps and currency. Němcová’s version of the Cinderella fairy tale also dispenses with the fairy godmother and has the heroine receive a gift from a farmhand of a magical twig with three hazelnuts.
Made with a budget far exceeding the amount normally allotted to fairy tale films, Three Wishes for Cinderella was produced for two markets. The film features Czech and German actors. During shooting dialogue was recorded in the actors native tongues. The completed film was dubbed into German and Czech before releasing prints to specific territories.
Regarded by critics as a proto-feminist reinterpretation, the film is set in eighteenth-century Czechoslovakia. The realistic setting is a stark contrast to other films based on Cinderella that have accentuated the fairy tale’s magical elements. A last minute decision to shoot the film in winter instead of Spring proved to be a shrewd move, the shots of snow covered forests adds to the film’s intrinsically captivating qualities.
Stronger than most other screen Cinderellas, Libuše Šafránková’s title character is a defiant downtrodden stepdaughter who has been defrauded and is forced to endure routine abuse. Adored by the estate workers and her animals she is a sympathetic young adult with a strong appreciation of nature.
When news breaks that the king and his son are to visit the area, Cinderella’s wicked stepmother plots to ensure the bachelor prince picks her daughter as his bride.
Posing as a male hunter Cinderella wins a hunting contest and tames the prince’s horse. The prince and Cinderella are free spirits trapped by circumstance. In Three Wishes for Cinderella the title character does not see the prospect of marriage as an opportunity to escape from a life of humiliation and servitude. Subverting the traditional fairy-tale, it is the prince who must win over Cinderella’s heart and prove he is a worthy suitor.
Charming and delightful, the film has been extensively restored by the Czech National Film Archive in Prague and the National Library of Norway. The definitive Czech Christmas DVD.