As a little girl, one of my favorite holiday treats was getting all dressed up and taken to The Nutcracker. It did a marvelous job of combining my somewhat cliched little girl favorites – a desire to be a ballerina and a nearly all consuming love of Christmas. Should you find yourself with a similarly obsessed nutcracker fiend, I’m going to do my best to give you a sense of all the Nutcracker books I could get my hands on (turns out that’s seven versions).
This may well be my favorite picture book version. Retold by Anthea Bell and illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger, this version is far from the ballet performed on stage, but is a lovely fairy tale.
This version’s basic differences from the ballet: The main character is called Marie (typical of book versions) rather than Clara. The book has Marie’s dream state brought on by an injury rather than just sleep (this is consistent with Hoffman’s original from what I can tell). Bell goes into the fairy tale behind the Nutcracker; you see, he isn’t a toy, he’s a boy who has had a spell put upon him (which Marie, of course, helps to break). The whole magic surrounding the Nutcracker to boy transformation is something that always sort of confused me in the ballet, but this provides a lot of back story. Finally, the part that comprises a large portion of the ballet (in fact, all of Act II) is largely omitted. There is no large tour of the land of the sweets with sugar plum fairies and coffee and tea and all those other bits. Some children will be sorry to see them go.
Overall, I thought it was an engaging fairy tale and I was interested to learn the back story of how the Nutcracker became a Nutcracker. This won’t work with children who would be irritated by the differences from the ballet. Also, this is absolutely not one you’ll whip off nightly before bedtime, it has 10 pages of text, but they are text from top to bottom. It’s probably best for school age children or older because of the longer text and because the storybook violence is a bit more than in other versions I read. In case you’re wondering what else Anthea Bell has done, she’s the one who translates Cornelia Funke’s books to English. As Funke is highly beloved, Bell must be doing a good job!
Sex, Nudity, Dating –As with many fairy tales there is a theme of marriage. The king promises the princess will marry anyone who breaks the spell. At the end, Marie and the nutcracker/Drosselmeier’s nephew become engaged and he takes her away. She appears quite young in the book and there is mention of a year passing, but not years passing, which certainly strikes me as a tad young for marriage.
Profanity – None.
Death, Violence and Gore – The soldiers tell the Nutcracker they will follow him to death or glory. In one of the illustrations the great battle between the mice and the toy soldiers is depicted. It includes a mouse depicted holding a knife over a dead toy, another mouse standing over a decapitated doll and a random mouse head (without body) on the floor elsewhere. Toys and mice are both armed with weapons. When Marie awakes after the battle, she finds herself in bed and is told that she had put her arm through the glass toy cabinet and had cut herself badly. In the story of Pirlipat, the king is angry with a mouse for stealing bacon so he sets out traps and kills her sons. He is then warned to beware that the mouse queen doesn’t bite his princess in two. The nutcracker’s sword is bloodied from killing the mouse king.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – None.
Frightening or Intense Things – The mice aren’t particularly scary looking despite clearly taking part in carnage. The nutcracker totally creeps me out though. A mouse stands over the adorable princess and she is instantly changed, her head grows fat and shapeless and her body becomes tiny and shriveled.