Trouble in Wonderland, or The Crisis of the Fairytale in Film

by Suzanne Enzerink

30 May 2011


Modern Retellings Can Exacerbate -- Rather than Relieve -- Tensions

This gearing towards an adolescent audience and a focus on sexuality means that the central message of the tales—not always a moral in nature, but nevertheless there—is also transformed or lost, with arguably destructive consequences. Bruno Bettelheim is perhaps the most well-known (and disputed) scholar to have investigated the importance of the fairytale for children in his Kinder brauchen Marcher, literally translating to “children need fairytales” but published under the more nuanced title The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. In his work, he argued that the importance of fairy tales cannot be underestimated, and serves up psychoanalytical readings to prove his point. “Fairy tales can do and serve children well, can even make an unbearable life seem worth living, as long as the child doesn’t know what they mean to him psychologically” (57). The lesson attached to a tale—often, but not always moral in nature—can offer support and comfort, and is central to the mental health of children.

What’s even more important for Bettelheim is the way in which fairytales stimulate the child’s capacity to invent stories of his/her own, stories that can serve to deflect the tensions and pressures of growing up. In order to achieve the desired unconscious effect,  a resolution of conflict and a happy ending is required. This of course still happens, as long as children continue to read or be read fairytales. Increasingly, however, the cinematic versions come to be substituted for the written versions, and that’s where the real danger lies if you believe Bettelheim. Rather than offering a release vault for teenage angst, modern retellings or adaptations can exacerbate it by creating assumptions about what is normal, what is beautiful, and what is expected of teenagers. Red Riding Hood’s somewhat guilty of this too, favoring sexual aggressiveness over romance and the dark and forbidden over the safe and sensible.

Nevertheless,  Catherine Hardwicke and co’s envisioned lesson seems to be that it’s okay to be different, a message that has become the slogan of the current adolescent generation, with Lady Gaga as its most visible champion. Valerie does not fit into the medieval society, and like her grandma, she is happiest when she is out in the forest, removed from the confines of the village.

This new interpretation is not necessarily a bad thing; the newly defined gender roles lead to a story more friendly to current opinions. Sure, it is still the men that go out to hunt the wolf while the women are ordered to stay locked indoors, but the story also manages to transcend the medieval setting in its personal relations. Valerie emerges as an independent young woman who defies her parents’ wishes to marry the wealthy and sensible Henry, and instead chooses true love. She is the active agent in the story: there is no huntsman to rescue her, and she kills the wolf (a person close to her) herself in order to protect Peter.

Even when she was a young girl, as the opening scene shows her hunting a rabbit with Peter, she was the one to strike the decisive blow; not Peter, but an approximately seven-year-old Valerie kills the fluffy animal. But the sympathetic message is obscured by some of Valerie’s other naïve and selfish decisions, and Seyfried’s heroine will not be warmly viewed by all.

The other main change is that film adaptations already visualize what Bettelheim argued our imagination should do. Images always accompanied fairytales, but contemporary live-action updates take away a lot of the thrills by showing us everything and then some. Bombastic effects, an oversized werewolf that looks more laughable than awe-inspiring: they kill the imagination rather than stimulating it. And that was even before Michael Bay announced that he would bring us a 3D version of Hansel and Gretel. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for innovation and the reimaging of classic stories, also on the screen, I just don’t see the added value in “an action packed visual FX filled version of the classic Grimm Brothers’ fairytale” that would offer a “fast-paced magical adventure” (as the press release introduced Hansel and Gretel in 3D!).

1894 illustration by Herman Vogel for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

1894 illustration by Herman Vogel for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

The charm of fables and fairytales, with their origin in oral culture and children’s books, is that their very language manages to evoke powerful visual imagery and emotion; they do not need to be “action packed” to be creepy, or shown in 3D to emotionally engage audiences. And they certainly don’t need an exclamation point in their title. Being locked in a house made of gingerbread by a cannibalistic witch seems to me a terrifying experience as it is, but the producers of Hansel and Gretel in 3D! decided that just ginger was not spicy enough and that the inclusion of “legendary creatures of Teutonic imagery” would be the ingredient to give the story an extra bite for the siblings and the viewers. See, just writing about it is enough to fall into trite and cheesy clichés. Of course, the example is very much black-and-white and premature, as Hanzel and Gretel will not be released for another year, but it would be a joy to see a fairy tale adaptation that manages to capture the essence of the source without large-scale effects or drastic revisions, as the ‘80s and ‘90s still managed to do to some extent.

The future of the genre holds many exciting projects. Snow White and the Huntsman so far has managed to attract a decent cast, and director Rupert Sanders’ short films are promising, but as it’s Universal producing it will likely be big. Therefore, my hopes are on The Brothers Grimm: Snow White, which has Tarsem at the helm and Relativity Media as its production company.

As mentioned, NBC’s Grimm is also exploring the darker side of the fairytale on the small screen. The just-picked up show will be a cop drama in a society that is home to characters from the Brothers Grimm-tales, and will be written by Jim Kouf (Angel) and David Greenwalt (Buffy). It’s thus abundantly clear that fairytales are here to stay, but exactly what form they will take remains to be seen.

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