Mirror, Mirror on the Screen: Hollywood’s Obsession with Grown-Up Fairy Tales

by | Sep 27th, 2011 | 12:25AM | Filed under: Movie Lists, Movies

Hollywood’s current love of classic fairy tales isn’t new—the movies have been all over them since Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. But there’s no doubt we’re in the middle of a fresh fairy tale movie fad in which the stories are modernized or “grown up” (or at least adolescent-ized).

In the past and upcoming years we’ve seen or will see:

  • Red Riding Hood — A Twilight-izing of the tale, complete with young lovers (Amanda Seyfried, Shiloh Fernandez, and Seyfried’s giant eyes) torn apart by family, Gary Oldman, extreme mouth breathing, and yes, werewolf curses. Plus it’s from the first Twilight film’s director, Catherine Hardwicke.
  • Beastly – A modernizing of Beauty and the Beast, only instead of a big hairy monster, Alex Pettyfer is turned into a tattooed, scared, pierced, shaved-head industrial-dance club-goer by an Olson Twin. Vanessa Hudgens (and NPH) help him learn that beauty is only skin-head deep.

(My 15-year-old niece Sydney offered sage advice on Twilight-izing a fairy tale for maximum teen-girl appeal: “The guys have to be super hot, but the girls have to be kinda different looking. Not ugly, but not beauty queens. Girls that watch the movie want to think they’d have a shot with the guy, too.”)

  • Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil; Shrek Forever After; and Tangled– New entries in two animated kids’ franchises give a grab bag of classic fairy tale characters the cartoon pop-culture spoof treatment, and Disney’s spin on Rapunzel has a snappier feel than the studio’s traditional animated fairy tales.
  • Two New Fairy Tale Television Shows – NBC’s Grimm, in which cops work to solve modern crimes involving “real-world” supernatural versions of fairy tale monsters and villains, and ABC’s Once Upon a Time, a Lost-style soap-thriller with classic fairy tale characters stuck in the modern world. (A premise similar to that of Bill Willingham’s ongoing smart, literary minded comic-book series Fables.)
  • New Snow White Live-Action Movies Next Year – Tarsem Singh’s (still untitled) Snow White film stars Julia Roberts as the Evil Queen and Abduction’s Lily Collins as Snow White, and promises to take the more Twilight-y “dark love story” route. The other, Snow White and the Huntsman, is more along the lines of Lord of the Rings action fantasy, with Kristen Stewart’s Snow White learning to fight from Chris Hemsworth’s huntsman so she can return to battle Charlize Theron’s Evil Queen. (Huntsman is the one with British character actors such as Ian McShane, Eddie Izzard, Ray Winstone playing dwarfs.)
  • A New Live-Action Cinderella – Disney (which also has a third live-action Snow White movie in development, this one set in 1800s Hong Kong) is planning to “re-imagine” Cinderella on the big screen and may be eying Mark Romanek (um, One Hour Photo and Never Let Me Go) to direct.

This sudden wave of live-action, non-kiddie fairy tale movies begs the question, Why are we adults (and by extension Hollywood) still so into fairy tales?

Why We Adults Love Fairy Tales

  • They Are Intended to Both Entertain and Teach — Fairy tales were created not so much as moral lessons (see below), but as survival guides for children to prepare them for the real adult world. Of course, throughout time storytellers have known that a little wisdom and advice goes down a lot smoother with some exciting danger, adventure, and yes, a little sex and violence. (How about this for a “stranger danger” lesson? Until 200 years ago, most versions of Little Red Riding Hood ended with the Wolf devouring her. Urp.)
  • They Were First Told as Much for Adults as Children — Like any cultural tales, fairy tales also function as refresher courses for grown-ups in how to maintain a strong, safe, functioning society. They don’t just to teach children how to behave like adults, but also remind adults to behave.
  • The Original Stories Were Full of Sex and Violence — The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen cleaned them up some, and Disney sanitized them even further, but as films like Red Riding Hood remind us, there’s an awful lot of heavy breathing and bloodletting lurking just under the surface of these tales. After all, you have to have some real danger (and desire) to really drive your point home.

(In some older versions of Snow White, the evil stepmother is forced to wear red-hot iron slippers and dance ’til she drops dead; in others, the dwarfs are all killed. Sleeping Beauty, in one tale, is impregnated with twins by a passing king—while she slumbers. The king’s queen orders the kids secretly cooked and served to her unfaithful husband, but the cook hides them and serves lambs instead. And in the Brothers Grimm telling of Cinderella, her stepmother mutilates her daughters’ feet in hopes of squeezing them into the slipper the Prince found, but the jig is up when he notices all the blood. Later at Cinderella’s wedding, pigeons swoop in and pluck out the stepsisters’ eyes. That’ll learn ‘em.)

  • They Reflect Our Hopes, Fears, and Moral Complexity — Today “fairy tale” is often a synonym for “feel good,” but as we’ve seen, many of them go to some very grim places. In the original versions the heroes and heroines often act very un-heroically: cheating, lying, stealing, and sometimes even torturing their antagonists. We’re not perfect; we want to be good people and live lives full of happiness, but the world can be a dark and scary forest—you may have to cheat, lie, steal, and sometimes torture to get through. (Plenty of adult-oriented fairy tale films have explored those heavier themes in the past, including 1997′s Snow White: A Tale of Terror and 1984′s A Company of Wolves.)
  • They Go to Those Dark Places Then Find a Happy Ending — Still, today’s fairy tales eventually give us something inspiring to cheer about—they just make their characters (and us) earn it first. The stories usually tell of people who face great challenges and hardship, suffer and strive, but come out ahead. And they’re almost always about the little guy or gal fighting and triumphing over the bigger, stronger power—be it an evil monarch or a deadly creature.

Why Hollywood Loves Fairy Tales

  • They Appeal to the Lucrative Teenage-Girl Demographic — Most of these tales were originally created by women and told to young girls. As a result the stories are often female-centric, and young women are more likely to drive coveted teen box-office sales than boys.
  • They Combine Two Popular Genres: Fantasy and Romance — A little Harry Potter, a dash of Lord of the Rings, and yes, of course, more than a few dollops of Twilight. Mix, stir, and serve for maximum box-office effect.
  • And Finally, They’re Free — No pesky screen rights to purchase, no fussy authors or fan base to appease, and best of all, fairy tales come with super-strong brand-name and character recognition built up literally over centuries.


At least those are my theorieswhy do you folks think Hollywood and viewers are suddenly so enchanted by re-tellings of fairy tales?


Slightly skewed fairy tales from redbox:

10 Responses to “Mirror, Mirror on the Screen: Hollywood’s Obsession with Grown-Up Fairy Tales”

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    Posted on September 27, 2011 at 2:41 am

    I love the new Red Ridinghood and I personally think that the reason that adults like/love fairy tales so much are because they’re so exciting.! I actually would be really interested if hollywood came up with a new, thrilling, and scary version of The Little Mermaid, Hercules, and sleeping beauty… (Idk if there’s a sleeping beauty one) and yes, they remade hercules but I mean even better.! With special effects.! Have great actors/actress and the badest of the bad to play heydes.! Of course like you said. Include the sex but keep it right. Don’t go all Rob Zombie on us but don’t keep it Disney… (;

    • Currently 3/5 Stars
    MIndy Ross
    Posted on September 27, 2011 at 2:53 am

    During the Great Depression, fantasy or escape films were popular too. People are trying to escape these hard economic and cance-ridden times. That is why they are going to fairy tale movies.

  1. Pete
    Posted on September 27, 2011 at 3:43 am

    I had seen the Red Riding Hood movie, and although I am no fan of Twilight nor it’s cast, I thought Red Riding Hood was okay. But I still think that it could of been better if they had a better actor and actress. But as said, I thought the movie was actually good. I still think Company of Wolves was better.

  2. Nike
    Posted on September 27, 2011 at 11:51 am

    Mindy Ross has a point, but I suspect it goes a bit deeper than that. As pointed out above by Locke, one of the reasons we like fairy tales is because the little guy triumphs over the bigger one. In this day and age, the big guy is Wall Street, big business CEOs, and a government that appears to be increasingly in the first two’s pockets. A fairy tale is a safe way of giving in to our subconscious desire to tell them, “Hey, we down here don’t like what you guys are doing up there, and if you don’t shape up, we’d like to do something nasty you.” And of course, get a happy ending when we do so, something that doesn’t often happen to people willing to foment a social rebellion in order to affect change.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a trend in movies towards fairy tales when people start getting unhappy with their own lives but either haven’t quite gotten up the gumption to do something yet or someone else to do it for them.

  3. Lizzie
    Posted on September 27, 2011 at 12:26 pm

    Speaking of fairy tales in the up and coming…whatever happened to the sequel to Enchanted? Is it still in the works?

  4. Locke Peterseim
    Locke Peterseim
    Posted on September 27, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    Mindy and Nike, one of the things I find fascinating about fairy tales, old and new versions, is that while, as I said in the piece, we tend to think of them as “feel-good” or “escapism,” they are and they aren’t. Granted, I’m a kinda dark, cynical guy, but what’s interesting is how many non-Disney-ized fairy tales (as well as some of the older Disney ones, like Snow White and Pinocchio) go to some pretty dark places before they emerge into the “Happily Ever After” light at the end. It’s a deeper, more therapeutic kind of escapism, one that asks you to confront and deal with your darkest fears before you get your happy ending.

  5. Locke Peterseim
    Locke Peterseim
    Posted on September 27, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    And Nike, it’s also, as you noted, interesting to look at the source of fairy tales and legends. Most fairy tales begin, as you suggest, at the peasant level, and yes, they are often a way of both venting at the powers that control their lives, both political/social (foolish or tyrantical kings, evil queens) and natural (wild animals and the weather). And they also indulge in a little aspirational fantasy (the poor girl or lost/exiled princess who finds her prince and goes to live in luxury in the castle for the rest of her life).

    You won’t however, ever find fairy tales that outright call for open rebellion en masse–it’s always a wronged individual who triumphs, not the mob. Obviously there wasn’t such a thing as “free speech” then, so you had to hide your dissatisfaction with the system in fairy tales or risk losing your head, literally.

    On the other hand, most of the Arthurian legends were written in courts to first be performed for royalty, so of course they feature knights performing great feats and champion a “good king” who makes the land better.(Though they also have their fair share of juicy court-gossip style infidelity.) (The stuff with Arthur growing up not knowing he was the King-to-be was worked in later from more bottom-up local legends and tales.)

  6. Janice
    Posted on September 28, 2011 at 12:43 am

    As a Baby Boomer, I feel that as long as the writer keeps the original story line and it is ‘to wish for’, it doesn’t matter how the writer wish the characters should speak like, look like or dress like; IE: Enchanted! Which I loved! I haven’t seen LR-RH as yet, but I am looking forward to it. I hope the writer have been able to update the characters to this modern day or a since of the future – as long as I can still recognize the story line and it remains to stand up to the Title it represents.

    Am I looking forward to seeing yet another adult-given fairytale – also told to me as a child – just to get away for it all? – or something like that. No! I just love any type of movie that could move my emotional side – in anyway: laugh, cry, or fearful!

    Fairytale done well & kept the story line (no matter what year the characters are set to be in,are simply the best! Because they capture both my childhood and my adulthood and moves me!

  7. Angel
    Posted on September 30, 2011 at 11:12 am

    For me Fairy Tales were exciting as they provided entertainment, they inspired and they evoke the sweet and the dark, a safe way to emtionally connect, almost as if a savory food…the thrill of the dark yet the safe\sweet…I will always hold a place in my heart for them.

  8. Lise
    Posted on April 24, 2012 at 12:28 am

    There is an updated Sleeping Beauty coming out in the distant future. Angelina Jolie has been cast as Maleficent (whom I have collected for many years.) Not sure if I like that choice, but she may do it justice. Looking forward to seeing the trailer!