Fairy tales in popular media

A favourite subset of the fantasy genre is being plundered by Hollywood, writers and tv executives and I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the various offerings that have seen the light of day recently, but that are also forthcoming. I know most of us grew up on fairy tales in one form or another, no matter where we come from and they are very close to my own heart.

Amanda Syefried in Red Riding Hood

Fairy tales are very hot right now, as can be witnessed by movies like Beastly and Red Riding Hood that have come and gone and left us all a little bit underwhelmed.  Beastly was based on the very succesful and very well written novel by Alex Flinn and I would highly recommend the book to readers if they found the movie lacking.   Alex Flinn’s had a great time re-working various fairy tales in her books.  She’s looked at Beauty and the Beast in her novel: Beastly.   Her reimagining of a very spoilt pricess waking up in the 21st Century in A Kiss in Time is superb beach reading on a sunny day.  Her new novel Cloaked has recently been released and the reviews have been pretty good.

Out in July 2011

Let’s go a bit further back and look at the Andy Tennant film, Ever After starring Drew Barrymore.  Beautifully shot, Drew Barrymore’s character “Danielle” is a very different kind of Cinderella to what audiences are used to.  She is highly intelligent and chooses out of her own volition to stay on in the house after her father passes away.  Angelica Huston plays the evil step-mother Rodmilla who has her very own agenda and sees Danielle as a hinderance to achieving her goal.  Danielle’s character is fantastically feisty and she is such a positive role model for young girls that it has to be one of my favourite retellings of a fairy tale.   Cinderella’s story is one of the oldest fairy tales, with over 500 different variants in existence.

A new Cinderella story will soon be out in the UK by a young adult UK author,  Zoe Marriott.  Shadows on the Moon (in Zoe’s words) is basically Cinderella, turned on its head and set in a fairytale version of Feudal Japan. It’s a story about revenge, and obsession and about magic, and about what happens when people lie to themselves and others. But mostly – and most importantly – it’s about love, in all its varied, beautiful and frightening forms .” Marriot takes great pains to explain how deeply she thought about the character of Cinderella and how the character’s utter passivity in the fairy tales did not make sense to her, until she thought that the passivity had to be a disguise.  And this is where Shadows on the Moon came in to being.

Another unusual reworking of the Cinderella story in novel form is Malindo Lo’s excellent Ash.  In the wake of her father’s death, Ash is left very much alone, in the clutches of her step-mother.  Ash huddles at night, reading the book of fairy tales left to her by her mother.  She dreams of fairies who want to steal her away.  In the harsh reality of daylight she meets the King’s Huntress and instead of falling in love with the King or the Prince or a Duke…her heart is given to the young Huntress.  Ash is beautifully written and was nominated for the Mythopoeic Awards in 2010.  Ms. Lo’s website is a treasure trove of writings on fairy tales, cultural diversity in fiction and she is a passionate LGBT spokes person.

Like everyone else, I watched as the Wonder Woman tv series imploded before it even got started.  I was heartsore, I really wanted to watch this show!  In the same article that they announced this, they also spoke about the other shows that got the go ahead.  And one of these was called: Grimm.  As a reader of urban fantasy by people like Jim Butcher, Mike Carey, Kate Griffiths, Neil Gaiman etc. the core show synopsis does not sound very new, but it looks atmospheric and NBC are clearly quite keen on it.  Personally I think anything new they can bring to the Grimm fairy tales can only be a good thing! Also, the show’s trailer looks gorram ace:

Speaking of Grimm.  I have to make mention of the Brothers Grimm by Terry Gilliam starring Heath Ledger and Matt Damon.  The movie is so surreal, such a complete cheese dream, that it has actually become one of my favourite movies to have on in the background when I’m doing something else.  The gist of it, that the Brothers Grimm were basically travelling con-artists, extorting money out of villagers all around Europe to help them get rid of “witches” and various other odd creatures, is so inspired.  When they are taken, against their will, to try and figure out what’s been happening in the village of Marbaden where the children have been disappearing, specifically young pretty girls, they have no choice but to man up and try to figure it out.  You cannot fault Gilliam in his sets – they are over the top and beautiful as well as menacing and some of the scenes are quite horrifying.   If you’ve not seen it, do give it a whirl.  Monica Bellucci makes a turn as the evil queen and dear heavens, she is beautiful!

Monica Bellucci as the Mirror Queen

We can’t forget the light airy comedy of Enchanted in which our fairy-tale princess Giselle meets her One True Love and on the eve of the wedding she gets thrown down a fountain by the Evil Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon) and pops up in 21st C New York.  The story is so funny, a complete send-up of all the signing and dancing we’ve become used to in Disney movies.  It’s part Snow White, something else entirely.  The climatic scene with Queen Narissa turning into a dragon is crazy and wonderful and has echoes of Kong clinging to the side of the Empire State Building.

On a more sober and scary note, came Hansel & Gretel, a pretty stark Korean story of a young man, Eun-soo, who follows a young girl into the forest after an accident that almost kills him.  The girl leads him to this fairytale house where the three children live and never age.  Eun-soo soon finds he cannot leave and he also realises that there is something odd about the children – they do not seem to age or change in any way.  He discovers a way out…but it lies in a fairy tale story book.  It’s a dark, twisty story with some deliciously creepy kids thrown in for good measure.

Hansel & Gretel - UK DVD Cover

They are fond of showing the following two made for tv movies over school holidays: The Snow Queen (2002) starring Bridget Fonda as the titular character and Jack and the Beanstalk (2001) starring Matthew Modine as a descendent of the original Jack.  Both stories are clever retellings but they are long.  And dull and I’d suggest that you watch them in short snippets.

Back to newer versions of Hansel & Gretel and we are looking at Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2012) starring Gemma Arterton and Jeremy Renner as well as Famke Jansen, who will no doubt be the evil something or the other.  The write-up on IMDB says: Catching up with Hansel and Gretel 15 years after their incident involving a gingerbread house, the siblings have evolved into bounty hunters who hunt witches.  So far, so Supernatural.

There are TWO Snow White movies currently in the works.  The mind boggles.  The first one I heard about was Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) and it’s got a twist: The Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) ordered to take Snow White (Kirsten Stewart) into the woods to be killed winds up becoming her protector and mentor in a quest to vanquish the Evil Queen (Charlize Theron). I suspect I may 100% be backing the Evil Queen.

The second movie seems to be called just Snow White and it too is out next year.  This is the article I found earlier this week.  It’s being called a spirited action adventure comedy.  Somehow I do not think this will be The Princess Bride.

Let’s not forget about the Eisner winning (it won 14 Awards at last count) Fables graphic novels written and created by Bill Willingham.  A series that just goes from strength to strength, relying on Willingham’s extensive knowledge of fairy tales, characters and pairing them to modern day settings.  It is a treat to read and a series I will highly recommend to others.

Mother Gothel

Let’s look at Tangled.  I never thought that I’d say this about an animated movie but this flick really stole my heart.  It was so carefully plotted, making full use of recognisable archetypes yet spinning it on its head retelling the very strange story of Rapunzel, and her subsequent reunion with her parents.   Definitely a feel good flick with a great can-do heroine.  But the character who steals the show has to be the utterly vain, selfish, devious and conniving Mother Gothel.  As a villain she was superb.  She believed 150% in herself and in her quest for eternal youth.  I loved her to bits and audiences could not help but be swayed by her charm whilst rooting for Rapunzel.

I sourced a tranche of names on Twitter for authors who have done fairy tale retellings, apart from the very few I’ve mentioned in this article.  Jackson Pierce has given us Sisters Red, of course we have Angela Carter and her deeply dark and subversive fairy tale works.  Authors like Jane Yolen, Robin McKinley and Alice Hoffman immediately come to mind, as does Juliet Marillier.  And these are titles not just aimed at younger or teen readers, but piercingly dark tales for adults.  Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling have worked endlessly on their fairy tale anthologies for adults – here are retellings as well as brand new stories.  Last year saw the publication of My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me – an anthology edited by Kate Bernheimer which received critical praise.  There are stories to everyone’s taste to be found, if only you knew where to look.  My friend Mieneke from the Netherlands patiently pointed out the amazing list over on Good Reads that showcase authors books that are tagged as retellings.

I can’t help but be pleased at the proliferation.  I am pleased because it goes to show that fairy tales are still as strong as ever, as dark as ever, as uplifting, odd and scary as ever.  Each new generation of authors are raised on fairy tales and they feed our creativity and imagination and they allow us to explore stories as old as time.

GS Reporter: Liz

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  1. Don’t forget the original fairytale where the farm boy left home, joined the army and saved everyone from the Empire – oh and rescued the beautiful Princess who turned out to be his long lost twin sister. Star Wars of course!

  2. ComaCalm /

    Great post! I definite want to buy Ash now and I’m going to go right out of my way to watch Grimm. The Brothers Grimm movie however, I did not enjoy. :/

  3. There’s also a Korean drama called, “Cinderella’s Sister” that’s from the pov of one of Cinderella’s step-sisters. I’d say it was an interesting interpretation. Pretty good character development and backstory.


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