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

Live-action fairytale adaptations are more popular than ever, with Red Riding Hood just out and four others -- including two Snow Whites in the works. But film and the source texts do not effortlessly go together, and children emerge as the losers.

Red Riding Hood

Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Cast: Amanda Seyfried, Gary Oldman, Billy Burke, Shiloh Fernandez, Max Irons, Virginia Madsen, Lukas Haas, Julie Christie
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Warner Bros.
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-03-11 (General release)
UK date: 2011-04-15 (General release)

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.

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