Even though Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood is the freshest example to date, popular fairytales, fables, and folklore have been told and retold (and retold again) in films for decades. The communal nature of these stories and the bond to the material creates a collective acceptance to passing them on from generation to generation and through various reiterations.
But in a world where films get remade multiple times and sequels are put into production before their predecessors are released, fairy tales both beloved and unexamined are likely to be milked for new movies. Films like Red Riding Hood, Maleficent, and another live action Cinderella are already in the works.
The likely path will see these movies relying on the audience’s familiarity and fondness for the source material rather than telling tales that could stand on their own. By carefully balancing the old with the new, however, filmmakers can harness what we love about fairy tales in order to weave creative and entertaining stories that could be as timeless as their original incarnations.
Here’s what they need to do…
Venture into unexplored territory
It is clear that Cinderella is a classic story, but considering she has lived out her life on film more than a hundred times, maybe she deserves a little time off of those glass slippers. There is a vast library of folklore that has just as much potential to enthrall audiences and yet have not had as much screen time, if any.
Unsurprisingly, Disney has taken initiative to further corner the market on children’s entertainment with upcoming films like the potentially-stalled Snow Queen, Rapunzel (which is being released as Tangled later this year), and the recent Princess And The Frog (although Disney is also behind the new Cinderella, so maybe their pool of potential projects is overall more limited than innovative).
Still, if one were to broaden the scope of folklore beyond the immediately recognisable characters we see in pop culture, to extensive works of collectors and authors like Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen, Giambattista Basile, Aesop, Alexander Afanasyev, and of course the Brothers Grimm, we wouldn’t have to see the same five stories get a tune-up every few years.
Unless a tale is boring, illogical, or unrecognisable within another setting, modern day adaptations of stories with well-known or easily followed plots allow for those stories to be examined in a different light. The benefit of fairytales is their simplicity, their ability to be moulded and transported into various situations and time periods.
When thinking about the setting and circumstances for a modern remake, however, relying once again on easy allegories makes stories predictable and uninspired. A popular choice is setting these tales in a school because of its blatant representation of hierarchy and opportunities for downtrodden characters to reach an ultimate, albeit superficial, redemption (see Hilary Duff in A Cinderella Story and Amanda Bynes in Sydney White). Enough! Let’s try something new.
Exploit unknown details of our favorite fables
Because certain fairytales are quite popular in film, particular elements of these stories that have become ingrained in pop culture are addressed and expected to be seen in every subsequent adaptation. For example, Snow White’s apple, the kiss that broke both her eternal sleep as well as Sleeping Beauty’s, and of course Cinderella’s fairy godmother.
Throughout history and various retellings, Cinderella’s “fairy godmother” has taken the form of everything from an eagle to a magic tree, but everyone remembers the spritely old woman with the wand and catchy song. On many occasions, material from the original stories is excluded to eliminate the darker edge that many fairytales have.
The fantasy genre has proved, though, that it wouldn’t be such a terrible idea to make fairytales for adults, bringing them back to their childhood while probing into more in-depth themes. Just take a look at Bill Willingham’s graphic novel series Fables to see a prime example of how fairytales can be changed to suit older audiences while keeping much of the original material intact.
Inserting some alterations, surprises, or little known portions about the tales we love into these films further connects them to the original material, all the while keeping them fresh and fun.
One of the most surprising aspects of Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland was that it heavily took a page from Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass instead of the more popular Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, thereby exploring a new angle on Alice’s journey that makes the viewing experience more exciting.
The risk, however, was also present in that decision because sometimes audiences like going through the motions and seeing something recognisable, which very well could have made that film a disappointment to many. It is that comfort with familiarity along with the allure of striking movie gold with the solid foundation of a well known story that will make it difficult to branch out from the norm, but those little tweaks can at least shake the dust off our perceptions of these fairytales.
Learn from past mistakes
It wouldn’t be too difficult to find films that have been less than stellar in the execution of adapting these stories. And while there are a variety of things that can be blamed for their failures, a common thread is seen throughout quite a few of them.
If we can learn anything from movies like Ella Enchanted, Shrek The Third, Happily N’Ever After, and countless others (sounds unlikely, I know), it is the imbalance of the old and the new that brings these type of films off the rails. The charm of the original stories these movies attempted to tell was overshadowed by the obsession to be up-to-date and clever with references to aspects of present day life, whether it be a pop song or an iconic line from another film verbalised with a metaphorical wink to the audience.
This is not an uncommon occurrence in most children’s films, but Pixar has proved that it is possible to tell a story without the need to distract the audience. By carefully examining the original material and understanding just exactly why people continue to love it, fairytale films can still incorporate new paths for their characters to trek without losing what made their journeys unforgettable in the first place.
Leave your own thoughts in the comments below!