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Once upon a time, there was a beautiful fairy tale that wanted to go to the movies. “No!” the fairy tale’s wicked stepmother said. “Common old fairy tales like you have to stay in the storybook. You would embarrass me in front of the Motion Picture Academy, which would never dance with you!” The lovely fairy tale — Cinderella was its name — cried and cried, and wished and wished that it, too, could go to Hollywood and see all the wonderful stories that had been invited there.
But then! Seemingly out of nowhere, a fairy god-producer appeared in a sparkling cloud of smog. “Cinderella, darling,” she said to the sad fairy tale, smiling serenely through her Botox, “Why are you crying?”
Reader, you know the rest. By now, the sweetest fairy tale of them all has gotten a princess’s share of big-screen outings, to varying degrees of enchantment. Read on for our countdown of 11 adaptations, from the really rotten pumpkins to the happiest of ever afters.
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11. Cinderfella (1960)
Gender-swapping classic tales or even silly ‘80s movies can be fun and subversive or illuminate layers of the story we didn’t even know were there. Frank Tashlin’s thoroughly humorless comedy Cinderfella accomplishes none of those things, with all of its intended laughs derived from either abuse sustained by its weak and irritating protagonist or else misogyny disguised as dated battle-of-the-sexes humor (which I can’t imagine would have even been funny in 1960, either).
The gist of the latter is that the fairy godfather (Ed Wynn) tells the hapless Fella (Jerry Lewis) that Fella has been chosen “to rectify all the great wrongs brought about by the original Cinderella story,” the biggest of which is that the fairy tale gave women of the world unrealistic expectations (a stupid and false cliché to begin with) that they would find charming princes, which led them to become dissatisfied with normal men, which turned them into nagging wives. “When we finish, the married men of the world will be able to look their wives in the face — that is, if they have their makeup on — and put them in their place,” the godfather says. Yes, that is a real quote! From a real movie! That is supposed to be funny! If there were a lower ranking than 11th place, Cinderfella would take it.
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10. Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella (1965)
Admittedly, the 1965 version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, starring Lesley Ann Warren, does not benefit from comparisons to the original 1957 adaptation or the later 1997 incarnation. Warren comes off as shrill and cloying when compared with Julie Andrews’ perfect voice and unaffected sweetness; the high school-grade set design and categorically ugly costumes are that much more dismal when compared to the vivid production of the 1997 fairy tale. So do we hate it because it’s terrible? Or is it terrible because we hate it — next to the others? Frankly, it doesn’t matter.
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9. A Cinderella Story (2004)
In the year 2004, there were surely a lot of preteens who fell in love with A Cinderella Story. We would estimate, however, that Mark Rosman’s high school-set adaptation turned into a pumpkin right around the stroke of midnight on the eve of 2006 or so. Whether or not today’s viewer will be charmed by the teen rom-com depends entirely on whether they are a millennial who loved Lizzie McGuire, or at least lived that early-2000s Lizzie McGuire lifestyle, and would find it enjoyable to revisit those years of low-rise jeans and high-shine lip gloss. In short: It doesn’t really hold up.
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8. The Glass Slipper (1955)
Soon after starring opposite Gene Kelly in An American in Paris, Leslie Caron, unfathomably beautiful dancer though she was, was an unsuccessful Cinderella. But poor casting was only half of it — Charles Walter’s 1955 adaptation unfortunately reimagines the heroine as an irascible, anti-social brat with delusions of grandeur, all explained away by bizarre contemporary psychoanalysis provided in voiceover. But hey, the ballet sequences are pretty good!
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7. The Slipper and the Rose (1976)
Bryan Forbes’ The Slipper and the Rose, starring a lovely but mostly unremarkable Gemma Craven as the cinder-princess and a too-old Richard Chamberlain as her prince, makes a musical out of the beloved fairy tale. Richard and Robert Sherman wrote the songs, and while some of them do have some charm — like the fairy godmother’s “Suddenly It Happens” or the two or three songs that provide self-aware commentary on the fairy tale’s class issues — the others mostly sound like incomplete versions of the kind of classics the Sherman Brothers wrote for Mary Poppins or Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
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6. Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella (1957)
The wistfulness of “In My Own Little Corner” and the thrill of “Ten Minutes Ago” are best felt when it’s Julie Andrews singing those sweet songs, and she is the best of the three women to take on the role in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical adaptation. That doesn’t make the version in which she stars the best of those three, however. While it was produced for television (all three of them were), the 1957 adaptation is so overly theatrical as to be cinematically awkward, and its direction and choreography are less than uninspired.
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5. Cinderella (1914)
This early adaptation called on Mary Pickford, a true queen of silent cinema, to play the cinder-princess (opposite her then-husband, Owen Moore, as Prince Charming), and her waifish sweetness suited the iconic character well. James Kirkwood, Sr.’s thoroughly enjoyable early silent adaptation gets points for its beautiful Grecian-inspired wardrobe and its many little weirdnesses, including the stepsisters’ visit to a misleading fortune-teller and the royals’ generous offer to behead Cinderella’s cruel stepfamily after she’s been identified as the girl from the ball (ever forgiving, she politely declines).
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4. Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella (1997)
There is not one single line in Cinderella that demands that the title character, or her Prince Charming, or literally any other character at all, be white, so it’s truly appalling that only one among the 11 best-known film adaptations of the tale casts people of color in the two major roles — not to mention in many parts across the whole cast. The 1997 Rodgers and Hammerstein version gets some extra fairy dust for its wonderful diversity, but it also earns its spot in the ranking for being a simply delightful adaptation — Prince Charming Paolo Montalbán, wicked stepmother Bernadette Peters, and of course fairy godmother Whitney Houston are particular highlights.
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3. Cinderella (1950)
As one of the classic Disney animated fairy tales, it goes without saying that the 1950 Cinderella is pretty great. “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” is an iconic magic-sidekick song; Jacques and Gus-Gus are iconic animal-sidekick additions; Lucifer’s dirtying of Cinderella’s freshly cleaned floor is an iconic evil-sidekick move. However! When compared to other classic tales from the House of Mouse, Cinderella falls a bit short. “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” can’t hope to compare with “Once Upon a Dream”; Prince Charming looks like a cardboard cutout next to The Little Mermaid’s Eric; Cinderella’s ball gown is genuinely embarrassing next to Belle’s yellow dream of a dress (don’t even get us started on the hair, or that unforgivable choker). So while its place in the Disney canon merits a high ranking, Cinderella’s middling ranking within that catalogue places it right here — a bronze medal.
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2. Cinderella (2015)
Kenneth Branagh’s 2016 interpretation of the tale, part of Disney’s recent string of live-action remakes of its library of animated classics, performs the truly magical feat of being thoroughly modern while resisting the tiresome “revisionist” trend, remaining unwaveringly faithful to the traditional story. Downton Abbey’s Lily James nails the deceptively tricky lead role, perfectly walking the tightrope of sweetness and strength, compliance and courage, while Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden is the charmingest of princes. Add a wicked Cate Blanchett and magical Helena Bonham-Carter, and Branagh has a new fairy tale classic on his hands.
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1. Ever After (1998)
There are too many reasons that Andy Tennant's Ever After is the best Cinderella movie to enumerate them all here; from the nuance added to the stepfamily dynamic to the replacement of a fairy godmother with Leonardo da Vinci, Tennant’s “realistic” interpretation gives the tale a unique new texture. It doesn’t hurt that the costumes, sets, and music are as beautiful as the fabled princess — or that Anjelica Huston gives the greatest, cruelest performance of anyone in the truly wicked rogues’ gallery of stepmothers. But in the absence of fairy dust, the true magic of Ever After can be found in the authentic romance between Cinderella (Drew Barrymore) and Prince Henry (Dougray Scott), who fall in love perusing libraries, walking among ruins, and playing rock-paper-scissors at gypsy feasts. It’s enough to make us feel, as the closing narration states, that while they did live happily ever after, the real point is that they simply lived.