inRetro: Making Fairy Tales Grown Up (Again)
While we’re on vacation, inRetro takes a look back at our most popular articles since launch. Funny how we still find ourselves in the “fairy tale moment” Jada analyzes below:
This is a fairy tale moment in pop culture, with TV and movie folk turning to the 19th century works of the Brothers Grimm for inspiration.
In their native Germany, the Brothers Grimm collected and recorded (but did not originate) the folk tales that we often refer to as fairy tales, because they wanted to preserve their cultural heritage. All over the world, people have told different versions of some of the tales the Grimms collected since ancient times.
Even before there were the Disney-fied versions that some people think have been watered down, National Geographic comments:
“Once they saw how the tales bewitched young readers, the Grimms, and editors aplenty after them, started “fixing” things. Tales gradually got softer, sweeter, and primly moral.”
So why are we toughening up these stories now?
In the words of Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever: “Insert here my hack, quasi-academic theory about the disappointment of our everyday, 21st-century lives and how this causes otherwise sane grown-ups to seek solace in “realms,” from Harry Potter to “Game of Thrones.”
And there is also that thing about branding and how it is easier to get people to pay attention to something recognizable than to try to hook them with something that is brand new.
In some ways, this surge of interest in fairy tales and their origins vilifies Disney, the proliferator of some of pop culture’s most memorable animated villains. The Faster Times discusses how Disney inventions are added to ABC’s Once Upon a Time, (probably because Disney owns ABC) and that we can’t seem to escape Disney’s version of the tales: “…Snow White makes a point about the enduring power of these old stories, and doesn’t passing off these Disney inventions as legitimate “fairy tales” undermine that point somewhat?”
But as a Slate article that breaks down how Pinocchio went from a horrid, cricket-killing doll to a kind, real boy with Jiminy as his companion shows, Disney was just doing what all people do: changing the story to fit the intended audience…although I will add that few of us make tons of money or influence so many people when we alter a story to suit an audience.
I stumbled across the work of Bruno Bettelheim, who has been credited with fostering awareness of the original intent behind some fairy tales, while writing a college paper examining the Cinderella themed-stories prevalent in Latin American telenovelas. Otherwise, I might not have considered that these sprightly things we call fairy tales could be at once cautionary and cathartic. While unsettling things still happen in fairy tales (evil stepmothers, threats to bake children in an oven), the original stories were gorier and scarier.
NBC capitalizes on this idea with Grimm. Eonline calls it a “fantasy series [that] is also a police procedural.” The show’s centers on Nick Burkhardt, a cop who learns he is descended from supernatural hunters known as “Grimms” who take down the predators that populate fairy tales. In the series opener, Burkhardt comes to learn he has powers beyond the typical human five senses as he looks for a Big Bad Wolf-type who attacks a jogger and snatches a little girl on the way to her grandfather’s house.
And if reviews and articles are any indication, ABC has a hit with Once Upon a Time, a time-traveling reworking of the Snow White tale created by some of the same people who were behind the well-regarded TV show Lost. TV being what it is, Snow White and her daughter (Emma Swan) are both young and beautiful since the Evil Queen stopped time, banishing herself plus a number of fairy tale inhabitants to a town in Maine. As with Grimm, Swan does not really know that she has great supernatural powers and has been living life as an average human.
Part of what makes the fall’s season fairy tale-based shows, along with two upcoming Snow White movies interesting is they are telling you that this is a story you know…but do you really know it? We’re here to show you there is so much more to this story than you thought.
Sure, there is something to the idea that latching onto fairy tales shows how disappointed we are…but I also think these kinds of stories, be they in a comic book or a book of fairy tales, point us to the notion that we are more powerful than we think.
(For example, if we watch scripted shows, we can help more of them stay on air and balance out the preponderance of reality shows…)