Fairytales in Fiction

27 Jul

It was announced last year that not one but two movie versions of the Grimm’s classic fairy tale Snow White would be released. One is a light-hearted take from visualist Tarsem Singh and the other was a “grittier” version from debut director Rupert Sanders.

Fast forward and while Singh’s version has been pretty much blasted by critics and viewers alike, SWatH has now assumed the mantel of first in a trilogy with no word yet on how the storyline will progress. Well it gives Kristen Stewart something to do now that Twilight is coming to an end. There are numerous articles proclaiming the death of Hollywood due to the fact that all the industry seems to be churning out at the moment is remakes, “retools”, sequels, “threequels” and spin offs. In theory fairy tales would be the perfect source of ideas for anyone wanting to pop out a quick movie. They are copyright free, fairly simple stories with one-dimensional characters that can be easily moulded to the filmmakers’ requirements. Often the original purposes and implications of these stories are missed. Lets use good old Snow White as an example.

Queen wants a child with very specific features (why hasn’t anyone latched onto a potential designer baby analogy here? Come on Hollywood!) and gets her wish. Then dies. Those delicate women creatures. The King remarries a woman with some serious body image issues and a penchant for creepy magic. The King dies and the Evil Queen is now ruler and Snow White’s guardian. Due to aforementioned body image issues, Evil Queen orders a huntsman to take the girl into the woods and kill her, bringing back her heart as proof. But he can’t BECAUSE SHE IS SO PRETTY! The story is never clear on whether he has issues with murder or just the murder of attractive people. The forest is dark and scary and in fear Snow White flees to the home of seven dwarves who she wins over with her housekeeping skills. Evil Queen quickly works out that she’s been duped and figures if a job is worth doing, its worth doing yourself and begins a series of wacky schemes to off Snow White namely a poisoned comb and a cursed corset. Why she doesn’t just stab the whiny brat is never brought up. Both times the dwarves thwart the Evil Queen plans and never seem to get frustrated the Snow White seems to KEEP ACCEPTING GIFTS FROM SUSPICIOUS WOMEN! There is a lesson for all kids out there. Finally the Evil Queen gives her a poison apple, which seemingly kills her. Because Snow is just so pretty the dwarves place her in a glass coffin so they can always look at her (decomposition is not a factor) and one a day a prince comes riding by. His immediate thought is “I’ll have bit of that” and asks the dwarves if he can take her.

photo from here

Note One: I have not yet mentioned that in the original stories Snow White is about eight years old…

Note Two: The whole kiss was a Disney invention; originally the Prince just fancied having a comatose girl around. At least she was better of than sleeping beauty who was raped and had two children by her Prince “Charming” before she awoke.

When the prince’s people carry the coffin it shakes loose the bit of apple caught in her throat and Snow White awakens. God only knows what the poor girl thought.

Terri Windling has written a really interesting essay about the origins of the Snow White story for the Endicott Studio and the darker elements that she outlines in detail are lacking from either of the recent adaptations.

That is not to say that they are bad films. I adore the work of Tarsem Singh. He has an amazing knack with visuals and Mirror, Mirror is no exception. I will argue with anyone who belittles his worth as a filmmaker but that isn’t to say that I don’t see the faults with his version of the story. Funnily enough it was the same problems I had with SWatH. Don’t these stories deserve a little more?

Arguably it was Red Riding Hood that kicked off the revival of fairy tales as film plots and it cemented the one underlying factor that all these recent adaptations have – they are aimed at a preteen audience. I will hold up my hands and say firmly that this is not a bad thing in and of itself. It is what the powers that be have done with this that bothers me. I spent the whole of SWatH waiting for the film to kick up a gear and finally let loose. It never happened. The studios are blatantly aware that the presence of Stewart for the Twilight crowd and the “dark” undertones for those who hated Mirror, Mirror, would draw a crowd. And crowds mean money and money means sequels. A gear change may very well come with the next film. And that is just insulting.

Amanda Seyfried’s Red Riding Hood was listed as one of the worst film heroines here in an article by Lindy West and her lack of self-reliance is cited as the main reason. This is one of the trickiest things about adapting fairy tales, the characters are archetypes at best which is fine for a short story that can be told in two minutes where the moral is the main focus but to translate this into a two hour film the characters and the plot lines need to be fleshed out. Both recent versions of Snow White expand the backstory of Snow White’s father at the start of the film and in Mirror Mirror it becomes a crucial plot point. Both versions also offer a glimpse of the land suffering under the rule of the wicked Queen who has usurped the throne. In both films these additions serve to make the settings of the film more real so it ceased to be just about the principal characters fates but the fate of the world that rests with the heroine. Because the stakes are higher the audience is invited to invest more emotionally and the moral of the story become more complex. The performances of Julia Roberts and Charlize Theron are the most engaging in the two films and perhaps it is no coincidence that both actresses are playing the wicked Queen. In a way the story is more about her, her obsessions drive the story and she is the one who provides the conflict and the moralistic aspect.

photo from here

In the original, when Snow White’s looks were the focus (older versions have tried to make this politically correct by saying that fair means she has a “fair heart” and general inner goodness) the Queen is an example of what happens when women become obsessed by beauty and youth with the suggestion that once you pass a certain age you can no longer be considered beautiful. Where this falls down in relation to the films is that they have cast possibly the two most attractive, and established, actresses working today who are both over 35. In Mirror Mirror, the for youth obsession is played for comedy and the comparison with aging actresses getting nips and tucks to sustain their careers for the few more years is not hard to miss. Conversely, SWatH goes for the old “power corrupts” angle with Queen Charlize getting her youth and beauty from draining the life force from young women and the very earth itself. What both examples have in common is the condemnation of a woman who places her own beauty over the welfare of the people she is supposed to protect and govern. The moral has evolved from “do not become consumed by your desire for beauty” to “do not over estimate the importance over beauty over what really matters” and this is what makes the Queen the most interesting character in the story. Her drives and motivation are more complex and open to interpretation that that of any other character. They are all reacting to what she does and the films suffer when the protagonists is less interesting and nuanced than the antagonist.

photo from here

It seems that this may be getting through to the filmmakers. Next year sees the release of Maleificent, centred on the villainess of Sleeping Beauty and starring Angelina Jolie in the main role. As with Snow White, the motivations of the villainess give the writer more to play with. Why would she condemn the princess to eternal sleep? Is it merely spite or can this be expanded upon? Here lies the potential for a deeper and more interesting character analysis. Even the 1950s version of the story realised there is not much to work with when the title character spend much of the story asleep, instead choosing to focus on the three fairies (they didn’t make it onto the Disney Princess merchandise line though).

photo from here

While complex and engaging antagonists are an exciting and important feature in film, it counts for nothing if we don’t feel the same way about our heroine. Snow White’s complete inaction and dulled emotion means that not only does the action packed climax of SWatH feels like it totally come out of nowhere but without seeing her develop as a character, it doesn’t feel genuine. On the other hand in Mirror, Mirror we get to see Snow White develop her fighting skills (and wardrobe) but any depth is undercut by cheap gags. It seems that while the short folk tale and even the feature length movie don’t provide enough scope for a character this may be being remedied on television. There are currently two (American) TV series that revolve around fairy tales, Grimm and Once Upon A Time. Snow White is prominent character in the latter and within 22 episodes there is more than enough room to develop her from the passive shrinking violet that needs to be saved. Snow White is an action girl but again that is not the only facet of her character and now that the foundation for a strong protagonist on screen has been laid isn’t it time that other writers and director had a go?

About the writer: Sarah is a filmmaker and writer with an obsession for luscious visuals and a distain for tomatoes (they are a sneaky and untrustworthy foodstuff). If she’s not blogging, she’ll be watching films or running around with her video camera.

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2 Responses to “Fairytales in Fiction”

  1. and Rose Red 02/08/2012 at 6:03 pm #

    This was a very interesting read. I have a bit of a fascination with fairytales in film and the hows and whys of all the various adaptations. I think you hit the nail on the head with the problem that the heroines are not being fully fleshed out–that’s a problem with a lot of fiction aimed at preteens lately. I think that’s another reason that the television adaptations seem to be handling the characterization better, because they’re aiming at a wider audience rather than marketing to the Twilight crowd. But I’m still dying for someone to make a show more like the miniseries 10th Kingdom; I feel like it’s the last adaptation that really managed to make fairytales current without making them bland and broody.

    • Sarah 02/08/2012 at 11:55 pm #

      I loved 10th Kingdom! It got just the right balance of whimsy and darkness and I agree with your point about wider audiences. It helps as well that genre hybrids are easier in TV adaptations. For example, “Grimm” is a police procedural/fantasy drama but it mixes in elements of horror and even conspiracy thrillers. Because the writers have longer to flesh this stuff out, the world has more depth and there is something for everyone, going back to your point about wider audiences.

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