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 theories—why do you folks think Hollywood and viewers are suddenly so enchanted by re-tellings of fairy tales?