Fairytales contain some of the most delightful make-believe in literature, even with all their creepiness and weirdness. These stories of bargains and trials, distilled by the oral tradition, pack some of the most potent storytelling in any genre, for any audience. So why can't anybody manage to make a halfway decent fairytale movie?
We're now a few years into Hollywood's fairytale boom, and if you count things like Alice in Wonderland and Wizard of Oz as fairytales (questionable, I know), then there has been rather a lot of reimagining of classic magical tales lately. And these films have ranged from terrible to... not-terrible.
Just in the past month or two, we've had Oz The Great and Powerful, Jack the Giant Slayer and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. Prior to that, we had a bunch of them, including two competing Snow White movies, Alice, and Sorcerer's Apprentice. Coming soon: Seventh Son, Maleficent, and a number of others. Dozens are in the pipeline.
Why are pretty much all big-screen Grimm films so wretched? And more to the point, is there some component to fairytales that these movies are missing out on? Let's investigate.
1. The Two Hansel and Gretels
Once upon a time, in summer 2010 to be exact, there were two Hansel and Gretel movies in the pipeline. One was an action comedy, produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. The other was a "serious" action film featuring classic monsters of folklore, produced by Michael Bay. Here's the relevant portion of the press release that Michael Bay put out in July 2010, along with the poster at left:
The Grimm Brothers’ world famous duo Hansel and Gretel are heading to the big screen in 3D!
LOS ANGELES, CA (JULY 19TH, 2010) — “Hansel and Gretel in 3D” is an action packed visual FX filled version of the classic Grimm Brothers’ fairytale. In addition to the infamous witch in the gingerbread house, the film showcases the legendary creatures of German mythology. These Teutonic beings will be designed by Joseph C. Pepe, the lead character designer from Avatar. The film is live action.
The movie is being produced by The Institute and Kalliope Films. The Institute was co-founded by Michael Bay and Scott Gardenhour. Kalliope Films was founded by Kira Madallo Sesay. The movie is scheduled for a spring 2011 shoot on location in Germany. Scott Gardenhour and Kira Madallo Sesay are the producers on the film. “Hansel and Gretel in 3D” exemplifies The Institute’s motto: “Where Brand Science Meets Great Storytelling.”
The race was on to get one of these projects off the ground. And Ferrell and McKay won, getting director Tommy Wirkola (Dead Snow) signed on as director. By September, there was talk that Jeremy Renner and Noomi Rapace would star in Wirkola's film — which finally came out after a bit of a delay, starring Renner and Gemma Arterton.
In any case, I wanted to quote the above press release, because you can practically visualize the "action packed visual FX filled" Michael Bay Hansel and Gretel movie in your head. "Where Brand Science Meets Great Storytelling" is my new personal catchphrase. Also fantastically braindead: the poster's slogan, "If you end up lost in the woods... you may just find yourself."
Fairytales don't have a lesson at the end, unlike fables — but here's a lesson anyway: Hansel and Gretel were a public-domain piece of intellectual property, with name recognition and a connection to the hot fairy-tale brand. They were, in other words, already fattened up. Also, these two versions of Hansel represent two obvious ways of tackling the material in a way that appeals to a PG-13 audience: campy send-up, or slack-jawed action.
Not that there haven't been great live-action fairytale movies here and there — the 1980s was a time when a lot of the best fantasy action movies had a lovely fairytale sheen to them, from Time Bandits to Princess Bride. And of course, animated films have a rich legacy of fairytale storytelling, from Miyazaki to the master, Walt Disney.
2. The Disney Legacy
Walt Disney defined fairytales for generations, with films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Sleeping Beauty. Most people probably encountered some of these classic tales first through Disney versions, or else through other subsequent retellings that took the Disney vision as a jumping-off point.
Disney may have simplified and sanitized the folklore collected by the Grimm Brothers, Charles Perrault and others — but a core of fabulist playfulness remains in the best of Disney's animated classics. In Disney's imaginings, kindness is rewarded, evil is punished and upward mobility is a kind of fairy magic. In fact, Disney's tales of people rising up from humble beginnings fit perfectly with mid-twentieth century American mythology, in which hard work is your ticket into the middle class.
And the thing Disney's fairytale movies have, that recent versions lack — especially live-action versions pitched at a teen or adult audience — is a sense of sincerity and good humor. Just as a fairytale announces its fanciful nature with the traditional "Once upon a time" opening, Disney's great animated films wear their untruth on their puffy sleeves. Disney's classic Sleeping Beauty starts with credits in "ye olde" font, and then zooms in on an ornate book called Sleeping Beauty — even though the title's already appeared on screen. An unseen hand flips the book open, revealing a painting of a castle, and words in "Book of Kells" type script, which the narrator reads aloud: "In a faraway land, long ago, lived a King and his fair Queen..." The movie's announcing that it's a story, in much the same way as The Princess Bride.
Most of all, there's not a drop of irony in a classic Disney animated film, and these films were made long before Susan Sontag wrote her famous essay on Camp. Notably, Disney mostly picks the stories about innocent female heroes, and ones in which there's less of an element of outwitting — or even ripping off — a supernatural being that's made a bargain.
Here's a quote that's attributed to Walt Disney various places online, which apparently comes from his essay in a 1959 issue of Wisdom Magazine (although I can't verify it's authenticity):
To captivate our varied and worldwide audience of all ages, the nature and treatment of the fairy tale, the legend, the myth have to be elementary, simple. Good and evil, the antagonists of all great drama in some guise, must be believably personalized. The moral ideals common to all humanity must be upheld. The victories must not be too easy. Strife to test valor is still and will always be the basic ingredient of the animated tale, as of all screen entertainments.
For the purposes of Hollywood and for mainstream pop culture, Walt Disney is the source material for most fairytale reimaginings, not so much the original texts, which might as well be written in Sanskrit. Disney has continued to do the occasional fairytale movie in recent years, and meanwhile some of the best Pixar films are like brand new fairytales — the best stuff about Brave is how it encapsulates fairytale goodness.
And what do you do if you're reinventing a story that revolves around "strife to test valor"? You turn the strife into CG and the valor into banter. Duh.
3. Why does Hollywood want fairytales? And why do we?
Fairytales are hot right now for the same reason spaceships were hot after Star Wars, and cowboys were hot back in the day. They're a handy framework to hang a three-act story about a hero and his (maybe her) journey on. Or actually, it's the other way around — the three-act journey is the framework, the fairytale stuff is the latest cloth to be draped over it.
And yet, this particular piece of drapery has been chosen because there's a vague sense that it's what people want. In the wake of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Twilight, there's a sense that people want that sort of fantasy, the sense of something old that abides in the modern world.
It's actually really hard to generalize about fairytales as a genre of story, given that they encompass so many different types of work — just look at the random categories in the Arne-Thompson classification system. Or this list of types, which include things like "stories about bald men," or "stories about a runaway pancake." Yes, there's a whole genre of "runaway pancake" stories. Plus multiple stories about "the mouse who was to marry the sun."
But common elements in a lot of these stories seem to include the natural world, everyday objects that have a life of their own, a strange bargain, an enchanted forest, an ordinary person transformed somehow, supernatural beings, and seemingly nonsensical rules that must be followed. Grandeur and strangeness, unspeakable danger and unspoken possibility.
In general, fantasy is on the upswing in movies and television, as traditional science fiction — the kind with scientists in it — is dwindling a bit, especially on TV. And no doubt, part of this stems from a sense, among tastemakers and stuff, that people are feeling overwhelmed by change and a sense of doom. When we see the immediate future, it's post-apocalyptic. So the past, as represented by ancient supernatural forces and age-old stories, becomes more attractive. But that's probably too facile an analysis.
There's also the fact that fairytales become more relevant when people feel powerless — many of us actually are in the position of having made bargains with entities whose true names we're not allowed to know, thanks to the magic of mortgage securitization. At the same time, we still dream of being lifted up from our drudgery to noble status — and we dread having everything that makes us part of middle-class society taken away, if we fall through the cracks the way so many people have.
According to the book Folk and Fairy Tales: A Handbook by D.L. Ashliman, the most popular fairytales are the ones that pack the purest amount of wish-fulfillment (becoming a princess) or express our deepest fears and taboos in a way that we can deal with. Writes Ashliman:
The problems of fairy-tale heroes and heroines are real: poverty, sibling rivalry, unjust persecution, finding an appropriate mate, and many more. The fairy-tale solutions to these real-life problems are literally and figuratively out of this world.
There's also a great piece in the Guardian about the popularity of the deep, dark forest as a source of danger and mystery in stories from the Brothers Grimm to Harry Potter, in which Northumbria University film studies professor Peter Hutchings is quoted as saying:
The forest is often used as a source of threat in our culture. It represents an older, pre-modern world that we have pushed aside, but which will now come back to endanger our protagonist. In gothic horror, the forest is where primitive people and animals live. In fairytales, the forest can be both a magical realm as well as a place of danger. We see this in Snow White, for example.
So maybe fairytales represent both the fear that we haven't left behind our roots as fully as we like to believe — but also the hope that something we'd cast aside from our pre-modern past could be a source of power or fulfillment.
In any case, there's tremendous power in those tales, whether they're about a runaway pancake or a princess in a coma. Someone, somewhere, will find a way to harness that power and capture it on film, with live actors. Some nimble soul, in the land of make-believe, will find a way to make a bargain with the studios that allows her or him to transform dross into fairy gold.