08/01/2016 8:32 AM IST | Updated 29/08/2016 9:42 PM IST

Mirror, Mirror On The Screen: What Fairy Tale Adaptations Say About Us

Fantasy tree house in forest
egal via Getty Images
Fantasy tree house in forest

It is said that there are only a few truly authentic stories in the world. All the rest are just interpretations in whatever combination or form. But why are some forms of stories the ones we keep coming back for? Just like myths and legends, fairytales have survived many retellings over the years and continue to grip the imaginations of not just children but also adults even though we all know the beginning and end.

Many valid reasons have been given for the proliferation of fairytale adaptations since the 2011 TV shows Once Upon A Time and Grimm. There is no doubt that the darkness explored in many of these adaptations, as well as the fairytale trend itself, are much-discussed cultural phenomena. But this is not a piece simply discussing the recent zeitgeist of fairytales, dark or otherwise. I want to question whether this innate human need to return to the darkness within us all, (hence prompting so many retellings inspired by the perverse origins of the form), is in fact the real deal, or simply wish-fulfillment within a more "adult" packaging that appeals to our very post-modern sensibilities.

[F]airytales were originally not meant for a younger audience. They were stories for adults that explored the darker side of life and the less-than-ideal qualities of human nature...

It is a well-known fact that fairytales were originally not meant for a younger audience. They were stories for adults that explored the darker side of life and the less-than-ideal qualities of human nature that we still tend to shy away from to a large extent. They were observations on the then-psyche of the people and society. The medium was one of fable, imagination, magic, easily relatable motifs and a core simplicity that hid the violent, tragic layers, or at least compensated for them.

"Once upon a time, back when animals spoke and rivers sang and every quest was worth going on, back when dragons still roared and maidens were beautiful and an honest young man with a good heart and a great deal of luck could always wind up with a princess and half the kingdom--back then, fairytales were for adults." (Stardust, Neil Gaiman)

Famed fairytale scholar, Maria Tatar, writes that "true fairytales have a discrete, salutary flatness". I think what she means is that even in the "original" tales you will find that they offer a world of possibilities for interpretation and change. They leave open the potential to explore different facets of the basic story, or a particular character, for filling in the whys, whens and wheres that we feel have been left unexplored. In a fast changing and unstable world where borders, languages, cultures and identities are more fluid, complex and in constant flux, maybe we need to try and make sense of this new reality and come to terms with it in some way, but through reassuring figures of our childhood and collective consciousness, through narratives similar enough to resemble parts of our world, but different enough for us to maintain a distance.

So, it is unsurprising that adults gravitate towards the symbolic medium of fairytales. The years from 2012- 2014 saw the release of many modern (darker) fairytale interpretations that included Maleficent, Snow White and the Huntsman, Red Riding Hood, Beastly, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, Jack the Giant Kille and more.

In a fast changing and unstable world... maybe we need to try and make sense of this new reality... but through reassuring figures of our childhood and collective consciousness...

In Snow White and the Huntsman, there is a larger focus on the Evil Queen and Snow's step-mum, Ravenna, a powerful sorceress. We learn about her family, her tormented history and how it has impacted her present darkness. It doesn't much change our perception about her, but gives her the depth to make the transition from a mere caricature to a full-fledged villain. This film is shot mostly in muddy browns, faded greys and dark tones and has a warrior-like Snow White who knows how to defend herself (a welcome change in perception from the hapless princess). And yet the ending doesn't change. We all know that the Evil Queen will be defeated and Snow White will be crowned in her place to live "happily ever after". Unlike in one of the first versions of the Grimms fairytales, Ravenna is Snow's stepmother, not birth mother. Nor is she sentenced to die for her crimes in a gruesome way.


This is one aspect that sets Maleficent apart. It not only makes us empathise with a previously misunderstood character, but it also changes the fundamentals of the Sleeping Beauty classic in that romantic love is not the only one capable of having magical properties (something that Anna and Elsa have already taught us), that people can be made evil through circumstances and by being different from the norm, and that such people are capable of resorting to their original goodness through justice being served. But ultimately it is about a misunderstood character that has good reason to be "wicked" and does redeem herself, leading to a well-earned happy ending. It is endearing and fresh, but doesn't add to the true darkness analysis.

So how much is this just a superficial representation aided by the monotones in the cinematography, the edgy costumes and a shift in perception of certain characters due to a previously lacking or different back-story? I agree that it is our choices that make us who we are. The choices we are forced to make in the situations that we are faced with. But even in the original fairytales with their twisted content, the representations of good and evil are still fairly black and white. In that respect we haven't truly returned to the origins of the fairytale, we have just added a post-modern, more complex, ambiguous sensibility to the material. In the original versions, everything happens seemingly by chance, whereas "cause and effect" are an integral part of our current reinterpretations. There are far and few deliciously bad characters, characters evil for the sake of evil and the love of power and dominion. In our current mindset, there is a need to humanise many of the villains, to make us feel sympathy for their plight.

[T]he medium has changed from a stark "black and white" representation to a much more complex, grey one...

This can explain the rise of the anti-hero archetype in recent times. In this way, heroes are also portrayed as more flawed, more human. And yet the "good" always wins over the "evil", however painful the journey, how enduring the resultant scars or how high the price to pay. Through all of this our need for comfort, to relate and know that we are not alone is still very much evident, only the medium has changed from a stark "black and white" (in origin stories, the focus was on the black, while Disney shifted to the white) representation to a much more complex, grey one that nevertheless still has an underlying humanity. They are simply exploring previously unattended and unexplored facts of a familiar story structure, giving a voice, history and complexity to characters that have been mere caricatures, insignificant or in the background in the original renditions. There is nothing wrong in the representations that we see on our screen today. But it seems that in the end, we are all drawn to a certain wish-fulfillment, a "happily-ever-after" even if it is within a more realistic scenario.


Which brings me to a most recent offering from this genre - Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella. This live-action version stayed loyal to the beloved Disney adaptation, retained the sweet, simple charm, but is still different. Cinderella in this film is not a damsel in distress, but a self-possessed girl who knows her mind, is more than capable of taking care of her own and yet whole-heartedly believes in the power of love and kindness.

Does this signal a shift in these dark adaptations? Barring a Hansel and Gretel movie based on Neil Gaiman's graphic book, all the upcoming releases seem to be just re-imaginings, different perceptions and angles of content we are familiar with in some form or the other since childhood, with no attempt to portray themselves as "white", "black" or even "different".

Fairytales are supposed to represent the zeitgeist of the times, but in this case, they are that very zeitgeist, defining the last few years and the next few...

The upcoming Jungle Book should give us more insight into this ongoing cultural phenomenon (adaptations of Beauty and the Beast, Pinocchio and The Little Mermaid are also in the pipeline over the next two years). Fairytales are supposed to represent the zeitgeist of the times, but in this case, they are that very zeitgeist, defining the last few years and the next few, if the hints are anything to go by. They are not only representing and holding a mirror up to modern society and collective social consciousness as they have always done as a medium, but they are also reflecting themselves and the need we seem to have to introspect into our deeper consciousness and express and explore ourselves through fairytales.

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