Hollywood works on trends. Remakes of 1980s horror franchises, comic heroes, rock and roll biopics, Beowulf, penguins – movies follow trends and come in batches. And the current trend is fairytales.
Fairytales are not in any way new to the silver screen having long been a source of rich material for all sorts of film makers. Disney lead the world during the Golden Age of animation in the first half of the 20th Century with their animated fairytale features such as Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959), and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) which was the first feature length animated film. These animated adaptation of traditional folktales defined fairytales for a lot of people, with many thinking of the narratives in these adaptations as the canonised versions of the traditional tales.
Remaking and retelling fairytales in movies is not a novel concept either. Films such as The Company of Wolves (1984), a dark and heavily sexualised version of Charles Perrault’s Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (Little Red Riding Hood); the German comedy spoof 7 Sverge (7 Dwarfs) (2004); and Snow White: A Tale of Terror (1997), the creepy Sigourney Weaver and Sam Neil version of the classic tale directed by Michael Cohn. These are only a few examples in an unfathomable list of movies that present a different twist on traditional fairytales. At present there are numerous films to add to that list both on our screens and in production.
Recently Disney gave us another version of Rapunzel in Tangled (2010), an animated comedy musical about a long haired girl trapped in a castle, who encounters a runaway rogue and discovers her true nature as a shrewd princess. Disney is also currently at work on another retelling of Snow White titled Snow White and the Seven which tells the story of a young English girl in Hong Kong who discovers her stepmother is plotting against her and travels to mainland China where she teams up with seven warriors. Snow White and the Seven is one of three versions of the Snow White fairytale currently in production. Universal Pictures is also working on Snow White and The Huntsman directed by Rupert Sanders and starring Kirsten Stewart (Twilight) as Snow White, Charlize Theron (Monster) as the Evil Queen, and Viggo Mortensen (The Lord of The Rings) as The Huntsman. This version focuses on Snow White and her relationship with the Huntsman, the man who was meant to kill her and return her heart to the evil queen. Instead of killing her, the Huntsman becomes Snow White’s protector and together they work to end the evil queen’s reign of terror. Relativity Media is also working on the story in The Brothers Grimm: Snow White directed by Tarsem Singh. Here Snow White and her seven outlaw comrades launch an attack on the Evil Queen, to be played by Julia Roberts, to regain Snow White’s kingdom. Little Red Riding Hood has also been remade in Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood (2011). In this version Valerie a young woman suspects her lover, Peter (get it?!) may be the werewolf responsible for terrorising her village. The Grimm fairytale Hansel and Gretel is set to hit the big screen in 2012 with Tommy Wirkola’s horror/action/comedy Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. In this film we see siblings Hansel and Gretel, fifteen years after the incident in the Gingerbread House, become hard core witch hunters. So, what is the appeal here?
Since the epic successes of film franchises like The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, Avatar and that whole Twilight thing, fantasy is a hot commodity. New digital technologies make it more and more possible to bring fantasy to the screen in increasingly different ways. Once upon a time, it was rare for fantasy to survive the journey to the big screen let alone survive it well. But those times are well and truly over with fantasy films, many based on presold product, gushing out of Hollywood at an alarming rate. We might speculate that the aforementioned fantasy successes have opened up film and small screen audiences to speculative fiction material in general. Film cultures are more ready to see boy wizards, or teen vampires, talking lions or blue Na’vi riding great leonopteryxs, some even want to see that. So the producers are delivering en masse.
But it’s not just the speculative fiction aspects that are at the centre of the appeal of fairytales to modern film going audiences. Something else is happening within these texts. It might be argued that the stories themselves have a degree of universal resonance. Good is good, bad is bad, good beats bad, hero princes get the princesses and princesses get the princes and everyone lives happily ever after. Right? It might not be as simple as that. Fairytales are built on a distinctive juxtaposition of simplicity and complexity. We read about simple characters in simple situations, a child visiting her grandmother, a brother and sister lost in the woods, numerous girls constantly at odds with their step families, all of which play out in totally self contained universes. We’re told who the virtuous characters are and we’re told who the evil characters are. And yet despite this simplicity, fairytales more often then not are tangled in complex and often ambiguous moral themes and situations – fathers purposefully losing their children in the woods at the will of their wives, love that can only be gained through trickery and deceit, children killing old women, meek women and controlling men. It is these ambiguities and complexities that modern retellings really get their teeth into.
Catherine Hardwicke explains that Red Riding Hood is one of the few fairy tales in which the girl doesn’t get married in the end, and remains strong and independent and this is the angle her version focuses on. Many retellings adopt this, reversing the meek female role and creating a strong, empowered woman. Singh’s Snow White appears to be taking a similar path by empowering the fairy tale heroine. This snow white isn’t the meek girl who needs to wait for her prince to come and rescue her; this one leads her own army back to the castle to reclaim her kingdom. Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood also draws out the underlying symbolic sexuality of the werewolf as a folktale figure, removing it from its sanitised story book version and wrapping it in a tale of paranoia and mistrust, in a treatment similar to The Company of Wolves. At this stage it is a little too early to tell how the new Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters will adapt the canonised version for modern audiences. But we wait with baited breath. And perhaps it is this very sense of wanting to see how the familiar versions of these stories have been changed that perks the curiosity of film audiences and keeps us watching.