Fairy tales are for adults: everyone knows this. It has become one of those no longer so secret, cultural tidbits wielded by Guardian readers for dinner table conversation lulls. Disney fucked the fairytale royally, the minute Snow White came all singing onto the scene in 1937 with that sickly sweet voice. Don’t get me wrong, I am a massive fan of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and the rest, but this is not what the form was intended for. They should be cautionary tales for adults, wielding high morals and tragedy. but much of their hidden meaning has been lost over years of Disneyfication.
But are modern movie makers’ attempts at reimagining that feisty magic for bigger kids any more successful? Mirror Mirror, yet another take on Snow White’s misadventures starring Julia Roberts is released today and looks heavy on special effects and costume design but depressingly low on imaginative verve and genuine allure or bewitchment.
The Brothers Grimm were not called grim for nothing. Their tales seethe with violence, macabre and overt sexuality. Their adult themes often simmer gently below the surface narrative in a fashion that Freud would go mad for and, one would have thought, Hollywood would pounce upon.
The cauldron of film adaptations is brimming; Snow White alone has gone through over 20 incarnations spanning all manner of genres including a 1995 Italian porno and GrimmsMarchen von LusternanParchen which mingles comedy erotica and horror.
However, minus early Tim Burton, many directors just don’t seem to get it. Consider Angela Carter’s literary counterpart The Bloody Chamber, and the true extent of their missed potential is manifest. Her collection of short stories reworking traditional European fairytales courted controversy when published in 1979, and retain their ‘shock factor’ to this day. Carter revels in what she recognises as “Gothic tales, cruel tales, tales of wonder, tales of terror, fabulous narratives that deal directly with the imagery of the unconscious" like a pig in mud - her relish resplendent in the decadent richness of her imagery.
In The Bloody Chamber the folkloric material is handled with intelligent intent. Savvy, sensual and outrageously readable heroines propel the narrative, lending a feminist twist to Carter’s compact set pieces. By contrast one often wonders what the point is of many fairytale film adaptations - nothing new is added to the mix, and the violence and sex seem purely gratuitous (as in the listless and soporific Sleeping Beauty).
Catering for Twilight audiences many modern remakes scream blood, sex and terror in laboured tones, but lack the thrust to engage us. Little Red Riding Hood (2011) is a case in point example of this style over substance approach. All spectacle, it lacks any sinister undercurrent, for simply trying far too hard to push the right buttons.
Fairytales are also timeless morality tales, with neat and easily palatable messages. Fair maidens and pure princesses can be dragged through any locale or era (from sixth form play monstrosities to big budget BazLuhrmann-style efforts) and retain their essence. In 90s B-movie Freeway, suicide, female prison, murder and prostitution make for a gritty reworking of Red Riding Hood - well, in a loosely approximate sense anyway.
However, literal lifting of old material into a contemporary setting can often come across as catastrophically crass; vain attempts to be down with the kids and make motifs and messages accessible, edgy and relevant in our new and (no doubt portrayed as) fucked up times, are often obvious and transparently patronising. Carter’s success emanates from her agenda of extracting the darkness dormant within fairytale to her purpose, insisting that she was telling new stories built from the old.
Simple translation into a new setting is inane and vacuous. Such a fail is witnessed in Beastly which bombed last year due to flat wooden characterisation adding nothing nor drawing anything from the Beauty and the Beast tale on which it was based. Plus, as many scathing critics noted, the makers didn’t even have the grace to make ‘the beast’ ugly - his transformation sees him donning intricate tattoos and a mess of rugged scars which, if anything, improve squeaky clean Alex Pettyfer’s sex appeal.
For a truly original and entertaining translation, kitting actors out in contemporary clobber does not cut the mustard - the form needs to change significantly. We love Tomas Nillson’s music video for Slagsmålsklubben, which truly shows Red Riding Hood in new, logistically quantifiable terms.
Finally, the fairy tale genre holds one more obvious perk for filmmakers. Elements of fantasy should allow the creative to let their imaginations riot; the scope of what is representable is infinite and with the audience’s suspension of belief in the bag from the outset, films are free to roam into obscurity, insanity and imaginative chaos (strengthen). Big Fish, Stardust and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus are big budget blockbusters that carry this off with true aplomb, but more often than not CGI and elaborate sets lack the lyricism of a child’s mind and replace magic dust with sterile glitz.
In this sense arthouse and B-movies often achieve more mystique than Hollywood. For me Pan’s Labyrinth is a great example of the adult-friendly fairy tale. A political dimension means it avoids the empty pallor of Twilight, and it ticks boxes for being both visually stunning and evocatively terrifying. Tim Burton is also releasing a flash of the fantastical this year with Dark Shadows, his first foray into the now teen trend vampire genre. Lets hope this film sees a much needed return to form as well as reclaiming the territory from Twilight twaddle.
Mirror Mirror came out today (April 2nd) and Dark Shadows is set for release May 3rd.
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