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Sue Short examines how fairy tale tropes have been reworked in contemporary film, identifying familiar themes in a range of genres – including rom coms, crime films and horror – and noting key similarities and differences between the source narratives and their offspring.



Introduction: Fairy Tale Films, Old Tales with a New Spin

The downtrodden heroine who triumphs in the end; an enchantment that forces a male protagonist to change; the acquisition of fabulous riches — and their potential cost; marriage to a monster; and unhappy families rife with danger and abuse — these are all familiar narratives, with a history that extends back to some of the earliest stories people have exchanged. Cinema has continued this process, effectively telling the same tales (or, rather, variations on a similar theme) since the medium began, and the focus of this book is to examine this fascinating interrelationship, paying particular attention to contemporary narratives that take such tales as ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Ali Baba’ and ‘Bluebeard’, and give them a new spin. Films and fairy tales go back a long way. As scholars such as Marina Warner (1993a) and Jack Zipes (2011) have pointed out, the film industry’s interest in adapting fairy tales is evident from the earliest days of cinema, when film-makers were drawn by the familiarity of the material, its propensity for staging visual spectacle and potential to attract widespread appeal. In many ways not much has altered in terms of these incentives; a film industry, struggling to hold the attention of a global market, has ploughed considerable resources into reimagined fairy tales. A notable trend in adapting fantastical stories has been apparent since the mammoth commercial success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001, 2002, 2003) and Tim Burton’s 3D Alice in Wonderland (2010), prompting a spate of remakes, including two versions of the ‘Snow White’ story released in the same year, pantomime renditions of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ and ‘Hansel and Gretel’, and revised treatments planned of virtually every well-known wonder tale, from novels such as Peter Pan and Pinocchio, to classic fairy tales such as ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Cinderella’.1
Sue Short

1. Finding Love and Fulfilling Dreams: Aspiring Underdogs and Humbled Heroines

The romantic aspects of fairy tales are perhaps their most familiar (and most criticised) feature. After all, the heroine who rises above misfortune and marries a prince is a plot that distinguishes many of the best-known tales, with the protagonists of ‘Cinderella’ (ATU 510A), ‘Snow White’ (ATU 709) and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (ATU 410) all decisively putting an end to their woes by marrying Prince Charming. Criticism ranges from the fact that such heroines are largely characterised by passivity and prettiness, threatened by vindictive female counterparts and ultimately ‘saved’ by a well-heeled partner — making their potential lesson for female audiences somewhat suspect. Of course, this depends on how literally we take such tales, and how negatively we view their perceived influence, with a number of conflicting ideas raised about this point over the years. While fairy tales frequently came under attack with the emergence of the women’s movement, an important detractor asked us to think again. In two articles published in the early 1970s, Alison Lurie contended that such tales have a great deal to offer feminist thinking in terms of the powerful females at their centre, pointing out that a wider variety of heroines exist — beyond the usual suspects — and attributed the limited range of ‘classic’ tales to male editorial policies. Marcia Lieberman’s response, ‘Someday My Prince Will Come: Female Acculturation Through the Fairy Tale’ (1972), denied any progressive features.
Sue Short

2. Curses, Wishes and Amazing Transformations: Male Maturation Tales

Transformation is at the heart of many fairy tale narratives, whether it be charting a protagonist’s journey from ‘rags to riches’, witnessing a haughty princess curtail her pride, or seeing an apparent beast return to human form: changes that include astonishing makeovers, rapid social climbs, dramatic changes of heart and magical enchantments. So far, this discussion has confined itself to romantic narratives featuring female characters, noting how a number of rom-coms have updated certain fairy tale motifs. This chapter adopts a contrasting mode of inquiry by evaluating romantic concerns from a male perspective; assessing how male coming-of-age tales have been depicted on screen, and asking how certain fairy tale tropes have accordingly been revised — especially in terms of the qualities deemed most desirable in men and the tests they are given. For the most part, popular comedies are the main focus of discussion, examining the changes characters undergo and highlighting some interesting role reversals. Particularly notable is the fact that examples of male pride, vanity and egotism are routinely taken to task in what might be considered a male variant of the ‘humbled heroine’ motif, while an emphasis on compassion and kindness is overtly fostered as a positive sign of male maturation. Put simply, if Cinderella has had a modern makeover in some films, how do male ‘coming-of-age’ narratives compare?
Sue Short

3. Wealth through Stealth: Evening the Odds, or Flirting with Disaster?

Narrative success, in fairy tales, often takes the form of romantic reward, yet vast riches are an added incentive for those who ‘marry up’. Impoverished heroines can say goodbye to work when they attract a royal spouse, just as knaves, numbskulls and ne’er-do-wells may beat off rivals, and defy expectation, to wed a princess. Another means of getting ahead entails a certain degree of moral latitude, spotting an opportunity to swindle or steal, and taking full advantage of it. The rapid social ascents made possible by such tactics suggest that unfavourable origins are as inconsequential as a class system in terms of impeding progress. Individuals can ‘pull themselves up by their boot-straps’, as Zipes has put it, and make good on what they have in an interesting affirmation of entrepreneurship. Indeed, while he claims that such tales ‘gave vent to the frustration of the common people and embodied their interests and wishes’ (2002a: 6), affluence remains a primary objective. Whether it is achieved through securing a royal marriage, or stealing treasure hoarded by villainous witches and ogres, money is understood as a means to evade poverty and live happily ever after — in most cases at least.’ While the last chapter looked at cinematic narratives that bring a measure of maturity to male characters, noting a tendency to repudiate material concerns as secondary to family and friendship, we look at a direct contrast here: tales with the specific aim of seeing protagonists make a fortune, appraising differing treatments of this apparent dream-come-true.
Sue Short

4. Dangerous Liaisons: Demon Lovers and Defiant Damsels

The flipside to fairy tale romances, and the fantasy of living happily ever after with a stranger, are encounters with beasts who cannot be romantically redeemed and who offer death, rather than deliverance, to the women they become involved with. Murderous suitors have become popularised in various tales, presented as duplicitous figures who have killed former partners and have no qualms about doing so again. ‘Bluebeard’ (ATU 312) is a familiar text in this regard; its serial-killing husband is exposed by a wife who narrowly avoids becoming his next victim and manages to put an end to his crimes. This chapter examines contrasting versions of the tale and the way various female protagonists face the same perilous situation, evaluating the attributes that enable their survival. The attraction of such tales is the sense of dread evoked, the mystery that unfolds and the plot turns involved — all conspicuous elements of the thriller. We are invited to identify with characters who are often marked by a degree of naïveté, and experience the thrill of witnessing their ordeal, as well as applauding their eventual triumph. The fact that extreme danger is located at the hands of suitors and spouses is particularly notable, provoking imperilled females to utilise considerable resources when they realise the true nature of the men in their lives and work to expose and undermine them.
Sue Short

5. Houses of Horror: Domestic Dangers and Man-made Monsters

The scary side of fairy tales is often obscured, yet far from being conceived as cosy bedtime reading for children, they originally aimed to entertain listeners of all ages, and a number of gory and gruesome features remain. Monsters may take various forms, but are perhaps most frightening when presumed care-givers are shown to deviate from their role. Child abuse, cannibalism, murder and incest are but some of the crimes that feature in these tales: terrors conspicuously located in the family home — making them veritable houses of horror for imperilled protagonists. The frequent appearance of familial foes has prompted folklorists and psychoanalysts to offer various explanations. Why make mothers and fathers into threatening figures, and turn a place usually associated with security into a dangerous realm protagonists must escape? Do such narratives exaggerate common childhood fears as a means of voicing repressed anxieties, perhaps hoping to incite a level of maturity via characters who are forced to leave their homes and fend for themselves? Or do they voice other (often unspoken) ideas via their manifestly unhappy families? As Angela Carter notes in her introduction to The Virago Book of Fairy Tales:
Fairy-tale families are, in the main, dysfunctional units in which parents and step-parents are neglectful to the point of murder and sibling rivalry to the point of murder is the norm.
Sue Short

6. Postmodern Revisions: New Tales for Old?

Whether we term it ‘defamiliarisation’ or ‘de-Grimming’, an interest in revising established narratives has become increasingly popular, utilising methods often aligned with the postmodern. Cristina Bacchilega describes ‘postmodern’ fairy tales as stories that rework classic tales and tropes, distinguishing themselves from traditional tales through rewrites that ‘refuse to obey their authority by revising and appropriating them’ (1997: 4). This is what Angela Carter implied in describing her work as putting new wine into old bottles, asserting that ‘most intellectual development depends upon new readings of old texts. I am all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the pressure of the new wine makes the bottles explode’ (1983: 69). Cinema has been keen to extend this experiment, often playing with expectations — or simply playing up to them — yet even examples that mock the conventions they draw upon are not necessarily as incendiary, or innovative, as we might think, partly due to the growing prominence of this approach. Far from necessarily provoking shock in deviating from the ‘traditional’ version, we have come to expect fairy tale films to retell familiar stories with a twist of some kind, as is testified by upcoming releases including a role-reversing Peter Pan that recasts Captain Hook as a detective in search of a child snatcher, ‘The Little Mermaid’ retold from the princess’s perspective, and a version of ‘The Pied Piper’ where a bullied schoolboy assumes the role of the mythical avenger.
Sue Short

Epilogue: The Importance of Enchantment

It seems that the fairy tale film is experiencing both the best of times, and the worst of times: enjoying increased critical and industrial attention, while the films deemed worthy of commendation appear to be relatively small. Cinematic interest in rejigging familiar stories is long established, of course, and fairy tales largely ‘presold’ in this respect, with star appeal, an epic scale and special effects best appreciated on the big screen all figuring prominently as major incentives for studio investment. However, recent examples have largely proved to be disappointing — particularly given the many talented figures involved in dismal projects such as Jack the Giant Slayer and Oz the Great and Powerful. The likelihood of further releases of similar ilk, effects-driven crowd pleasers without substance or staying power, would seem to corroborate critical misgivings about the co-opting of fairy tales for commercial ends. Nonetheless, as I said at the outset of this book, the more obvious fairy tale adaptations are by no means the most interesting examples, and although it is easy to become frustrated or discouraged in response to so many creative opportunities missed, it is more important to focus on areas of continued innovation and inspiration.
Sue Short


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