Once upon a time, in a faraway realm called Hollywoodland, there lived a powerful mogul. He had a wonderful looking-glass, and he stood in front of it and looked at himself in it, and said, “Looking-glass, looking-glass, on the wall, what’s a safe bet for a gigantic financial haul?”
Magically flickering to life, the looking-glass answered, “Fairy Tale Movies, my king. The punters will love them.” And the king was satisfied, for he knew that the mirror spoke the truth.
“Oh, and get Kristen Stewart,” the looking-glass added, “She’s so hot right now.”
2012 is fast becoming the Year of the Fairy Tale. Locked away in their castles, the movie men have been engaged in some kind of sorcery, with at least fifteen major big-screen adaptations of classic fables currently in production and a slew of others in development, after Tim Burton’s surprise billion-dollar box-office success with 2010’s vivid Alice in Wonderland opened the eyes of many a magnate to the commercial possibilities of these enduring, classic tales. This year, audiences have already been treated to two decidedly divergent versions of Snow White, in the shape of Tarsem Singh’s family-friendly Julia Roberts vehicle Mirror Mirror, and Rupert Sanders’ markedly morose Kristen Stewart starrer, Snow White and the Huntsman. Though Mirror…, with its jaunty musical numbers and mugging Nathan Lane faltered at the box office, the $300 million gross of the far more austere …Huntsman has proven that there remains something positively spellbinding about the fairy tale formula that is built to last.
Already on the slate for this year is Usual Suspects helmer Bryan Singer’s big budget vision of Jack the Giant Killer, featuring X-Men: First Class star Nicholas Hoult battling Bill Nighy’s 22 foot tall CGI ogre. Hot on its enormous heels comes the ridiculously high concept Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, with Avengers’ Jeremy Renner and Prince of Persia’s Gemma Arterton as adult, bloodthirsty bounty-hunter versions of the eponymous duo, suggesting there’s plenty of mileage left in these age-old fables.
Accounting for their bewitching popularity, Jack Zipes, one of the leading authorities on fairy tales, wrote in his book, What Dreams Come True, that these stories emanate from ‘specific struggles to humanise bestial and barbaric forces which have terrorised our minds and communities in concrete ways, threatening to destroy free will and human compassion. The fairy tale sets out to conquer this concrete terror through metaphors.’
Deep stuff, but for many, Zipes’ words surely ring true. These are the tales we are told as children, imparting wisdom, fostering development and helping us work through confusion and anxiety in a sugar-coated ‘once upon a time’ way. Thanks to Walt Disney’s ‘safe’, technicolour animated interpretations, and the straightforward way they deal with common truths and feelings, stories like Cinderella and The Little Mermaid carry a comfortable predictability and will forever hold an important place in the collective subconscious, remaining ripe for artistic reinvention.
By taking universally understood symbols, or archetypes – think ‘witch’, ‘prince’, ‘princess’, ‘magic beans/sword/whatever’ – these familiar yarns, in the hands of different storytellers, can be eternally recycled in strange new settings, yet can always be relied on to deliver certain fundamental, familiar features. Some symbols, like ‘Jack’s beanstalk’ will always be an integral component of their respective tales, and Dr Laura Martin, a senior lecturer in Comparative Literature at the University of Glasgow, and an expert on Grimm tales, has reflected on the significance of these enduring motifs: ‘There’s a huge growth going up into the sky…why is that? It’s connecting earth to the sky. It’s the realm of something beyond the human, so it’s that connection with something bigger…Psychologically, it’s brilliant. So, life is boring, life is dull, but what if I made it to that magical realm?’ Escapism is a huge part of our movie-going experience and with our ticket, we purchase more than just entertainment – these tales, when told well, bring us that little bit closer to the kingdom of our dreams.
The malleability of these stories, stemming from centuries of retellings, has recently seen filmmakers cook up all manner of curious interpretations. Last year, Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood attempted to distil the success of her yearning, sexually-charged, pretty young things Twilight template into the fairy tale mould, delivering a thoroughly ridiculous, yet straight-faced guilty pleasure. Likewise, Julia Leigh’s provocative Sleeping Beauty tapped into and drastically amplified the eroticism of the classic tale, ensuring audiences would never be able to look at Lemony Snicket’s Emily Browning in quite the same way again.
These mouldable, magical tales have been around for as long as stories have been told, but it is surely a sign of the times that so many remarkable renditions are sailing into cinemas at once. In an industry currently banking the big money on sequels, franchises and remakes, the public’s fondness for fairy tales must seem like a license to print money. But what is it that compels us to return to them, time and time again?
Martin argues that, in morally ambiguous times, they teach us how to be upstanding citizens: ‘What we have now as fairy tales were probably once told round the fireside…people singing, telling tales, doing jokes, but they’re somehow making meaning. They’re learning how to behave and how not to behave. That’s a basic fairy tale message – do the right thing at the right time.’
This relevance of fairy tales as moral parables could be vital in explaining the renaissance of all things fantastic. An important touchstone for Martin is the work of Carl Jung, who believed that a ‘collective consciousness,’ including values shared by all human beings, can be revealed through the peculiar symbols and archetypes found in our favourite fantasy tales. Referencing the stuttering economy, she explains, ‘everything’s falling apart and maybe it’s giving us this kind of core…that we all want the same thing and we magically hone in on the same sort of tale.’ In these uncertain times, perhaps we all need the solace of happy endings.
It can be no coincidence that many of these retellings, particularly Sanders’ …Huntsman, with its gruesome visuals and Charlize Theron’s genuinely terrifying villainess, are returning these tales to decidedly darker territory than Uncle Walt ever envisioned. It’s easy to forget that before Disney gave it a facelift, the Brothers Grimm’s Snow White featured an evil queen who heartily devoured vital bodily organs and who got her comeuppance by being forced to dance in red-hot slippers until she fell down dead. Though Sanders’ picture isn’t quite so macabre, it is notable that the relatively austere …Huntsman, with its kingdom in turmoil offering gloomy parallels with riot strewn streets of contemporary ‘Broken Britain,’ fared far better than Singh’s whimsical Mirror Mirror. This gritty gloominess could well be the key to convincing audiences that these tales still have something to offer. Certainly, Chris Thor Hemsworth’s gruff, axe-swinging Huntsman offered more to tempt hesitant males into cinemas than Arnie Hammer’s doltish Prince, and Gemma Arterton’s assertion in a recent Entertainment Weekly interview, that Hansel… will be ‘very dark and bloodthirsty,’ with a ‘Tarantino feel,’ cannot have harmed the film’s chances with the male demographic.
The success of films, like …Huntsman, could also have much to do with the emergence of tougher, aspirational female leads. Martin believes the ‘Disneyfied’ versions of these tales did women no favours, explaining that ‘with sweet little birds flying around, with Snow white helping the dwarves do their housework, basically, she’s a little housewife. So any sort of energy in her as a heroine is gone.’ The Girl Power, however, is strong with teen-icon Kristen Stewart, and this is perhaps another reason why …Huntsman’s assertive, armoured championess has caused such a stir with movie-goers. ‘There’s no copyright to telling stories,’ Martin continues, ‘but you can rightly talk about what gets lost in some versions.’ These are films about women claiming back the ‘energy’ that years of ‘Disneyfied’ retellings have drained from them. These are tales of peasant revolt, about the little guy sticking a finger up at wicked rulers. The key to the fairy tale renaissance could be that in these troubled times, the grown-ups have decided it’s time to reclaim these fables that have long been censored and sanitised by market forces. By returning them to their roots as folk-tales shared by adults, the potential for action, adventure and thrills can be restored, with a satisfying dose of sticking-it-to-The-Man that keeps everyone happy. Seemingly, just the right witches’ brew of revolutionary escapism, nostalgia and cross-gender appeal can keep the studios laying golden goose eggs for a while yet.
A list of impending releases longer than Rapunzel’s tangled locks, including Guillermo del Toro’s mooted take on Beauty and the Beast and Tim Burton’s gestating Pinocchio project, should be evidence enough that the cherished, infinitely adaptable fairy tale movie template continues to represent a suitably ‘safe bet’ for the studios. These were tales told round the campfire, never set in stone, but mutating, adapting and enduring as a sign of the times, and as long as we want to return to these enchanted kingdoms, Hollywood will happily keep conjuring new ways to grant our wishes.