TheTramp finds that fairy tales are back – and they’re grimy.
Once upon a time, fairy tales were Disney’s domain. They took the old Grimm boys’ stories and lightened them up a little with a combination of beautiful art work, princess dresses to die for, Technicolor and happy ever afters. Publishers followed suit, updating the fairy tales we all know and love – like Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast – and creating pretty illustrated books that children could read with their parents and enjoy the pictures to help aid sweet dreams.
Readers of the Grimm tales will know they’re not designed to aid sweet dreams. They are social lessons and morality tales. They make it quite clear that the world is full of nastiness and only the smart, the cunning and the manipulative will survive. There may be dashing princes, but don’t rely on them ladies – what if you find yourself with a wolf and there’s no prince in sight?
After years of vampires and werewolves perhaps it was inevitable that the darker side of fairy tales would return. But is the resurgence of fairy tales really just a new way of presenting the supernatural storyline that audiences have been enjoying with Buffy, Twilight et al, or is it the escapism and happy ever after that is attracting us, even if that ‘happy’ is being challenged?
Back in 2000 the TV mini-series The 10th Kingdom aired. It is a straight up modern twist on all the fairy tales you know and love – Jack & the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Snow White, Red Riding Hood – while throwing in a few additions like King Midas, Little Bo Peep, and Trolls. It is smartly written, well cast (Rutger Hauer as the huntsman was particularly inspired), features numerous inventive sets, has many funny moments and is almost nine hours of television at its best. Any darkness here is Freudian. There’s not a werewolf or vampire in sight. In The 10th Kingdom you beware the singing mushrooms, but the wolf is pretty cuddly.
The makers of Once Upon A Time, one of TV’s current fairy tale shows, said they came up with the idea in 2002 but it wasn’t until their success with Lost that they were able to make the show. Once Upon a Time shares the same heart as 10th Kingdom, taking fairy tale characters (with a few additional kids’ story book characters thrown in) that everyone knows and bringing them into the modern world. However where 10th Kingdom took New Yorkers to the story books and softened their cynical edges in a world that wasn’t nearly as cutesy as it first appeared, Once Upon A Time takes the fairy tales to our world, placing them in a little US town called Storybrooke (get it?) and robbing them of their memories and their happy ever afters and in the process making cowards, liars, drunks and victims of everyone from Jiminy Cricket to Grumpy the Dwarf. If Once Upon A Time tells us anything, it’s that our world would be better with a little magic in it. But what both 10th Kingdom and Once Upon A Time share is the importance of family and true love.
These are themes that Disney picked up on in its 2007 107 minute advert for Disney World – Enchanted. Once again broken families were explored, as was the idea of how fairy tale characters would cope in the modern world and how the modern world would react to them. Sadly cynicism is in short supply (although the take on Snow White’s I wonder, where Amy Adams is helped along in her household chores by skunks, rats and dirty pigeons is almost worth watching the film for) because, well this is Disney and there must be a Happy Ending and a good healthy dose of sugar to wash down all the moralistic twaddle that US productions seem so addicted to peddling. Enchanted did rather well at the box office of course – which was great for Amy Adams’ career and great for fairy tales.
Fast forward to 2011 and it’s a very different take on the fairy tale. Red Riding Hood, directed by Twilight part one’s Catherine Hardwicke, could be considered a cynical attempt to cash in on Twilight’s success with an update of the classic fairy tale featuring werewolves and Gary Oldman at his hammiest. Like Twilight it is beautifully shot and like Twilight it is a load of old codswallop featuring a supposedly strong female lead who spends all of her time dripping after men. It’s almost as if Buffy never happened. Ladies, please remember that you can be swept off your feet by a dashing romantic type without having to lose your brain or your independence in the process (sigh). This is an update, but it’s neither inventive nor interesting.
This year’s Snow White and the Huntsman, starring Twilight’s own Kristen Stewart, is probably best categorised as cynical cash in – even if its intention at genus was different. Once again, beautifully shot and a new take on an old story. After all, now that Hollywood has found this cash cow – sorry, audience – it doesn’t really want to let it go. Again, it suffers from a weak script with some interesting characters that are never given enough to play with to make any sense of their narrative arcs or reasons for being. In any other film would a character with legs as fine as Theron’s evil Queen be allowed to just ‘be’ magical without explanation and to be ‘wronged’ without any real attempt to provide flesh to the idea?
Cinema’s other Snow White update of this year, Mirror Mirror, was a very different beast. Director Tarsem Singh created a visual delight reminiscent of the fairy tales we know and love and gave Lily Collins’ sweet, meek Snow White sufficient backbone to be a proper heroine. Though far from faultless as a film, it’s considerably more fun than Snow White and the Huntsman and definitely contains more ideas. (However the final dance sequence is beyond awful). It also, like Enchanted, Once Upon A Time and 10th Kingdom, uses family as a key theme. Which is perhaps why Grimm, TVs other current fairy tale update, works.
Grimm is about Nick, a detective who finds out he is a descendent of the brothers who wrote ‘those’ stories and that the characters in them are real and it is his job is to protect humanity from the grim nasties that live among us. It starts out badly, but improves as Nick looks to find out more about his heritage and who killed his parents, breaking a few rules along the way – like the one where you don’t befriend any of the nasties.
Despite its darker approach Grimm, also has family at the heart of its story; the ones you inherit and the ones that you make. The latter is a modern twist and a recurrent theme in all of the better fairy tale updates that I have noted above. Take it away and all you have is an update of a tall tale you remember from your childhood which seems a little silly now. Add it in and there’s a purpose and a warm glow to it all.
As the world gets economically grimmer maybe a few old fashioned values, a little escapism and some magic – albeit with a cynical edge – is what we really want. That, and the fact that these are genuinely just fantastic stories and characters, is why I think fairy tales are back. And for a while at least – if next year’s two TV updates of Beauty and the Beast, new series of Grimm and Once Upon A Time and cinema’s Maleficent are anything to go by – they’re here to stay.