Once upon a time, fairytales were the province of storytellers. Then, briefly, they were the province of children. Now, they’re the province of major studios and television networks. As if by magic, a surge of fairytale-inspired media has swept big and small screens alike, suddenly and simultaneously. ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” and NBC’s “Grimm”—two 2011 series featuring an assortment of characters and motifs culled from Grimm’s fairytales—inaugurated the latest flurry. Then came Red Riding Hood, Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror Mirror, Hansel and Gretel: Witchhunters, and, this past spring, Maleficent, a radical retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” from the villain’s perspective. A film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods is slated to come out this December, and two story collections, Told Again and The Witch and Other Tales Re-Told, will be published this fall. The former, a reprinting of a collection first published in the 1920s, is a reimagining of a reimagining, the re-repackaging of stories now twice repackaged.
These new fairy tales are more than just modern “updates” of their precursors: they go so far as to personalize stories that were once impersonal. Until now, fairytales have been a cultural resource, collective and anonymous, often repurposed but rarely reclaimed. But unlike the original “Sleeping Beauty,” a folktale with no clear origin and no clear author, Maleficent bears the distinctive mark of its directors and writers. Like the other films in this most recent wave of retellings, it highlights the creativity of its authors by subverting a story we all know so well—by choosing a context where deviations from the norm are felt so acutely.
Fairytale spin-offs like Maleficent are poised to do particular violence to our expectations. Our familiarity with favorites like “Rapunzel” and “Cinderella” amounts to a sort of fluency: fairytales have an intuitive grammar, and we become conversant in the language of glass slippers, wishes, and magical transformations at an early age. It’s no coincidence that structuralist scholars like Claude Lévi-Strauss and later Roland Barthes selected folktales and myths as their focus, breaking them into their component parts and deciphering the social practices that underwrote them. Many of the elements they isolated were loaded with ready-made, widely-acknowledged significance that affords fairytales a kind of communicative precision absent from other literatures. Usually, the symbolic meaning of literary imagery is up for debate, but years of telling and retelling have worn the significance of fairytales deep into the narrative woodwork: Archetypes like witches, stepmothers, and princesses take on an almost unambiguous valence.
Fairytales, then, are characterized less by their specific plot points than by their affect, their reliance on familiar tropes—their invocation of what fairytale scholar Marina Warner calls in her forthcoming history, Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale, the “form’s symbolic language.” This language relies on quaint yet curt surrealism: Fairytales are disturbing, even fantastic, but their tone is always simple, incredulous, bordering on childish.
New retellings like Snow White and the Huntsman are novel in that they represent a break with this familiar language, logic, and sensibility. Their tone is adult, and they are hard-hitting, even investigative: They promise to let us in on a secret, to complicate what always appeared so straightforward, to mature what always appeared so infantile. Many of the refurbished stories have a touch of exclusivity, of revelation, about them. Where their earlier iterations were stylized and sugar-coated—blonde, blue-eyed, and, in their most iconic forms, animated—recent retellings shock us by deviating from the standard scripts to expose the “facts.” “You know the tale ... now find out the truth!” the Maleficent trailer proclaims, as if the film were relating a piece of scandalous gossip. And there is indeed something scandalous about unfamiliarity that takes such a familiar form, a wolf in grandmother’s clothing. Adaptations are always implicitly paired with the stories that inspired them, always haunted by the ghosts of their originals, and it is for this reason that they manage to surprise us so thoroughly whenever they stray from their source material.
But more than tone, substance distinguishes these retellings.The new accounts are three-dimensional (sometimes literally—Maleficent and Hansel and Gretel: Witchhunters are both in 3D), and they realize a personal vision in place of an anonymous cultural imperative. Characters who once helplessly enacted their assigned roles are reclaiming some measure of agency. In earlier versions of “Sleeping Beauty,” Maleficent is a caricature, less a character than a symbol. But in Maleficent, we learn her back-story—and come to find her sympathetic, even relatable. In Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, Snow White undergoes a similar transformation, this time from archetypal damsel in distress into an autonomous figure with no shortage of sword-fighting skills. Like the new Maleficent, the new Snow White is forward, intrepid, and assertive. She’s real—a person, not a cookie cutter. Perhaps most striking are Hansel and Gretel, whom we know as helpless if clever children—and who become a physical force to be reckoned with in Hansel and Gretel: Witchhunters, where they make use of high-tech weapons in their fight against a league of evil witches.
These departures from the traditional stories highlight their author’s originality because their genre accentuates each point of difference. Our sensitivity to deviations is heightened, and each small challenge to the established framework ripples throughout the narrative, shocking us at every turn.
This is a first for fairytales, where originality is a relatively recent virtue. The first big names associated with folklore saw themselves as collectors or historians, sometimes ethnographers, but rarely as creative agents. Their job was to give voice to collective fantasies, to report back from the dreamscape of the public psyche, not to invent or fabricate. They did not construct so much as transmit or transcribe.
Frenchman Charles Perrault, whose 1697 collection Histoires ou Contes du tempes passé contained some of the earliest versions of classics like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Puss in Boots,” published his major work under the name of his son, Pierre, claiming that the tales had been recounted to the child by his peasant nurses and caretakers. In keeping with this practice, the Brothers Grimm, perhaps the world’s most celebrated popularizer of fairytales, regarded themselves as vehicles for the expression of pure cultural content. In their quest to solidify German national and literary identity, they consulted commoners, seeking to establish the outlines of a universally German folk tradition. In the introduction to their 1812 collection, Children’s and Household Tales (Kinder-und Hausmärchen), the first of seven editions they would eventually publish, the brothers write that the stories gathered there are “close to the earliest and simplest forms of life,” emanating from an “eternal source.”
Although the Children’s and Household Tales are too violent for an audience of actual children, there remains a sense in which they live up to their name: They are primal and foundational, strange and brutal, and they read as if children wrote them. Flat, affectless, and unpretentious, proceeding with the certainty of a sleepwalker or the inevitability of a dream, they offer no explanations, no apologies. Warner writes that they are “one-dimensional, depthless, abstract, and sparse.” Above all, they are atmospheric—they let an aesthetic dictate and direct their content.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that fairy tale retellings have made their way into movie theaters or bookstores. French filmmaker Jean Cocteau’s 1946 rendering of “Beauty and the Beast” is canonical, and Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going Where Have You Been” is a loose adaptation of “Little Red Riding Hood,” to name just two prior examples. But those tales were isolated, and they were for the most part variations on a familiar theme: they were true to the aesthetic, if not to the literal content of the stories that inspired them. They meet matters of darkness and complexity with childish simplicity. Reading them or watching them, we have the sense that some inner drive, something dark and deeply ingrained, is their animating force—that someone has cast a spell on us, that we are victims of a magic too powerful to resist. The effect is seductive: We aren’t its author but its object.
Maleficent and its cohort offer a refreshing contrast. These revamped stories are empowering. They deliver us from the curse of passivity, from the vulnerability of lost children, defenseless princesses, and magical events that we cannot control. They’re explanatory: they help us parse characters whose motives eluded us, events we never understood. But they no longer play by the savage rules of a world where a wish is simultaneous with its fulfillment, a transgression with its just comeuppance. They’re too practical, and they make too much sense.
If, as Warner argues, fairytales are defined not by the specifics of their content but by their approach to reality, by their graciously straightforward acceptance of suffering and their unflinching brutality, then these adaptations aren’t fairytales at all. The original stories were dark and baffling but familiar and oddly comforting. They imagined a world of brutal justice that appealed to something primal in us. Rational retellings can engage us, but they cannot enchant us as thoroughly, cannot transport us back to our origins quite as powerfully. They can explain what we couldn’t understand, but they cannot assail us with mystery—and they can’t end quite so enigmatically, so magically, so happily, ever after.