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

The fairytale is in a crisis. At least, on the screen: originally thought of as serving as a cultural mirror or as distilling central presumptions about children and culture into narrative form, today’s live-action film adaptations seem more reflective of the writers and their views of the tales, or even more vexing, reflective of the hunger for big profits. Of course, commodification of fairytales started long before they could be seen in theatres, but the live-action film versions of loved tales such as Cinderella, the also recently adapted Red Riding Hood and Snow White, with two upcoming projects, pose specific problems.

The problem is not in the interpretation of the tales per se. As J.R.R. Tolkien famously wrote in “Tree and Leaf”, fairytales are particularly suitable for updating or reimagining: “Fairy-stories are by no means the rocky matrices out of which the fossils cannot be prised except by an expert geologist. The ancient elements can be knocked out, or forgotten and dropped out, or replaced by other ingredients with the greatest ease.” Sociohistorical, psychological, formalistic: scholars have long discussed the preferred way of reading the tales and their continuing relevance.

Feminist readings are perhaps best-known, and presuppose the presence of cultural codes and contexts in the stories that help perpetuate a gendered reading by suggesting a certain role division to the reader. Psychological investigations focus on the role of the fairy tale as a release vault for the individual reader/spectator, and see them as central to the development of children.

Even neo-Marxists have had a go at appropriating the tales for propagating their own group motivations. It is clear that not the central content, but the expression of that content and the forms have changed. The emphases are different, but what all reinterpretations share is that they have kept some elements from the legendary tales, however little that may be (think this March’s Beastly starring Alex Pettyfer and Vanessa Hudgens, a retelling of Beauty and the Beast in an American high school setting). But there are also plenty of adaptations that do not change the setting and aspire to capture the essence of the original stories, such as Red Riding Hood, with ambiguous results.

The first thing about live-action film adaptations—as opposed to many Disney films—is that they are no longer (just) for children. Of course, a psychological thrill has always been central to its storyline and solidified its appeal for an older audience as well; in fact, many stories now viewed as fairytales were first written with an adult audience in mind, and it was only in the 17th century that collections specifically geared towards children became popular. But now, they are remodeled to such an extent that a PG-13 rating (for violence, or more often for the awkwardly termed ‘sensuality’) will prevent the original, young fairy tale-appreciators from seeing the film versions at all.

Nor are fairytales still confined to the domain of worn-out books passing through generations of intimate parent-children reading sessions. These days, it’s rather a cinematic affair, in which neither the young children nor the parents emerge as winners: young adults are the new ‘It’ market for film producers seeking to capitalize on the hype surrounding everything magical or supernatural. Snow White, Snow White and the Huntsman, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel in 3D!; these are just a few of the film titles currently in development based on classic fairy tales or folktales.

For the small screen, NBC just picked up the pilot for Grimm, a cop drama with magical elements. The proliferation of live-action fairytales is emblematic of a current trend in the film industry to completely uproot fairytales and fables from their original text and context, with often ambiguous results.

Of course, what exactly this original text and context is remains a complex question. Fairytales differ from other folktales in that they contain magical elements, elements that are nevertheless an accepted and established part of human experience. Fairytales emerged first of all in oral form, which means that there are hundreds of versions of the same tale, none of them authoritative or ‘the’ original. The blueprint of the tale is thus what comes to define it, and this blueprint—consisting of recurring elements or plot aspects that the versions shared—transcended both national and generational boundaries. Following this line of heritage, every interpretation is as valid as the other.

However, we have come to associate certain individual authors with some fairytales, such as Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm. The versions that they brought into the world bear the connotation of authority, and it are these versions that have come to serve as a source text for many film adaptations. Jack Zipes has done excellent work on this, and has demonstrated that it are these versions of fairytales that are presented to us as “universal, ageless, therapeutic, miraculous and beautiful,” while in fact they too are the products of their sociohistorical context (Zipes, Fairytales and the Art of Subversion, 1).

A recent case in point is Red Riding Hood, in which the central love triangle revolves entirely around sexual aggressiveness. Even though the film was critically panned, including by our own reviewer,I would thus propose that Red Riding Hood is in fact not a completely failed reinterpretation in that it manages to retain some of the thrills of the source text while at the same time at least half-succeeding in its attempt to rescue Red Riding Hood from the deterministic medieval setting by updating her to some sort of proto-feminist stance. That is, until the ending, which is as absurd as destructive of the film’s initial success at portraying Valerie as a more complex character.

The omission of “little” in the title already indicates the new direction of the story. Amanda Seyfried rolls around in the hay with outsider bad boy Peter (“I am wrong for you”) while her meek and neutered fiancé Henry (“I know you don’t want me like that”) is condemned to aimlessly hammering away his sexual frustrations at his father’s blacksmith shop. “I could eat you up,” Peter tells Valerie after he has floored her and thrown her onto the leafy forest ground.

The real sexual prowess, however, is with Valerie, who murmurs with the pained look of rejection after her lover hesitates: “Don’t you want me?” The rest of Red Riding Hood is the constant investigation of Valerie’s otherness in a world that revolves around conformity. Heavily policed by class and demanded religious homogeneity, a mentally handicapped boy becomes the first victim of the regulated environment that ousts all perceived threats. Threats of course being equated here with mere differences.

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

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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