What’s Up With All The Filmed Fairy Tales?

A promo advertising a film about to be released called Hansel and Gretel, has me shaking my head and asking why now? Why all the fairy tale inspired, interpreted, twisted, films and TV now? They’ve been around for centuries and other than Disney, pretty much ignored. Besides Snow White, Disney has a tendency to lighten up its fairy tale fare. Not today’s offerings. Some seem to try to find the grisliest way to interpret what are quite violent stories to begin with. A few years ago a film was made about the Grimm brothers, and never made a sound as it sunk into the rental pool. Since that time, two TV shows, two new Snow White films, and now a Hansel and Gretel movie. None of them stick to the original sources.

A not very well received comedy with Julia Roberts took the Snow White tale and focused from what I could tell, on the wicked Queen, the one whose mirror talked to her, telling her how gorgeous she was. It didn’t look particularly humorous from the trailer, so I didn’t take it in, which I don’t regret. I doubt I will ever rent it either. I like my fairy tales to take the material at least at face value, with humor where you can find it, but not trying to manufacture it whole cloth. The other Snow White film also seemed to accent evil over good, in glorifying the Queen’s role. Again, I found myself saying no to paying the big bucks for something so clearly full of computer graphics I wondered if the actors were real. Nothing can destroy the illusion of a fairy tale than over produced special effects, especially when none are needed. The story of Snow White is frightening enough without birds disintegrating into shards of deadly weapons. What could possible be wrong with playing that story straight? Yeah, the 7 little men are a creepy concept these days, so I suppose they wanted to keep them out of it, however, if you want to focus on the hunter who allows Snow to live, do so in a believable manner. Believable you say? For a fairy tale? Yes.

Fairy tales could only hold power if believed by those who heard them, read them.  Believable in the sense that something bad could come your way if you did wrong. Fairy tales are  black and white. You have a young naive princess, a stalwart brave lad, or prince; an evil stepmother, queen, king, witch, fairy–you name it, it could be evil, and those forces clash, with the good winning every time. Not so now. Grey is the main color. The wicked Queen isn’t all bad, as we have learned on Once Upon a Time, the ABC series with lavish costumes, well trained actors, and marvelous effects, ones that don’t scream COMPUTER! The stepmother to Snow was terribly hurt herself as a young woman, and has taken that pain and directed it viciously at Snow White. Snow White, isn’t so pure either. She is a strong woman who has committed her share of shady doings to survive. The dwarfs are battle companions, not singing drones with Snow talking to birds and dancing away. And the Prince is not who people believe him to be; he’s actually a poor lad thrust into royalty for bearing a resemblance to the slayed real prince. And the baddest bad person of them all, is in actuality a coward whose only wish was for his son to avoid serving in war, and in order to keep him safe, he kills the baddest person, to become the baddest person–with all the power that comes with it. Alice in Wonderland is thrown in, various other fairy tales, plus Pinocchio, the Blue Fairy and monstrous beasts. It resembles what fairy tales on paper consist of, but everyone is not whom they seem, and bad could be good, and good could be bad, and you’re not sure from week to week which is which.

Grimm takes license with fairy tales even farther. Suppose fairy tales are more like legends? Based on real beasts, real monarchies, real dragonslayors?  That’s Grimm’s premise. Again, bad can be good. The main character who is a police officer, also finds he is a Grimm, meaning a person whose life’s work is to protect the normal populace against monsters in disguise. His friend in arms is one of those monsters. I won’t go into names here, I couldn’t spell them if I tried. Suffice it to say this friend turns into a sort of werewolf at times. The first episode used the Little Red Riding Hood story cleverly. A cottage indeed was in the woods with a present day example of a pedophile, abducting little girls. His closet is full of red cloaks. Other fantasy beasts come and go, and many of the story-lines are vaguely based on an original tale. This show doesn’t worry about sticking to any real story, they take the essence of the masses of fairy tales, and create their own world. One that I feel comes close to capturing the evil that the written stories have, and the good that defeats the evil. Once Upon a Time doesn’t have a clear cut point on that–because good is often evil and vice versa.

So back to the question of why now? Why fantasy now? After 9/11 in the US, fantasy holds no terror for us. The real thing is so much more horrific than we could have imagined. My father used to say that Americans have no idea how bad war is, as they never have it come to their shores. We still don’t, but we saw what can happen one day out of the blue that changed our perceptions of safety and security. We will never feel either of those again. Fairy tales fill a need of some sort. To dive into a world that can’t happen, that is purely imaginary, it’s evil a grotesque monster, or queen or dragon can be destroyed in that world. And as is the real world, things are murkier, so good and bad may not be clearly distinguished from each other, but inevitably the bad get their just deserts, whomever the bad are that week. In the real world, a war still carries on against invisible enemies, a soldier doesn’t know if the child in front of him is someone he needs to protect, or if it will throw a bomb and blow the soldier and his comrades to pieces. Suburbs can’t ascertain the difference between a lonely troubled kid and a mass murdering gun totting lunatic. There are no dragon fins to separate the two. There are no dragonslayers at the fore when random things occur. In fairy tale land, there are no random things. Evil ones control the universe, and good ones fight them and win. No one really wins on Law and Order SVU, or any other crime drama on TV, the perps plead out, get small prison sentences or go free. Just like real life. In a fairy tale, the pedophile wolf is chopped to bits. In Cinderella, the ugly stepsisters cut off there toes to fit into the glass slipper. In Rapunzel, the prince is sent to the wilderness where thorns tear out his eyes, In The Red Shoes, a greedy girl puts on coveted shoes and dances herself to pieces. Violence permeates real fairy tales. And the filmed versions exaggerate that violence to the nth degree. Promos for Hansel and Gretel show them as witch hunters, happily killing as many witches as possible. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were able to hunt down and destroy the terrorists out there that wish us harm, one by one, and in as vicious a way as possible? In our celluloid fairy tale world, we can.