Thursday, March 22, 2012

Article: The Better To Entertain You With My Dear (aka Fairy Tales Are Outdated)

Red Cap American McGee Wine Label by Ken Wong
In this article posted by the New York Times, we have the writer arguing this:
The world from which fairy tales and folk tales emerged has largely vanished, and although it pleases us to think of these stark, simple, fantastic narratives as timeless, they aren’t. Thanks to video games, computer graphics and the general awfulness of everyday life, fantasies of all kinds have had a resurgence in the past few years. But the social realities on which the original fairy tales depend are almost incomprehensibly alien to 21st-century sensibilities; they reek of feudalism. And the lessons they’re supposed to teach our young don’t have much force these days. Kids learn to be skeptical almost before they’ve been taught anything to be skeptical of.
Really? This sounds like someone who was raised on a diet of Politically Correct (remember those?) and Fractured Fairy Tales without having the benefit of a classic canon collection to compare them with.

I think it's the first time in a while, particularly in this time of pop-cultural fairy tale focus, that I've seen fairy tales being called outdated and useless. It's not a new accusation. It's the argument I've heard throughout my life as to why my time would be better spent pursuing the study of other things. (Obviously, I don't agree.) I do hope the normally more balanced and critical NYT follow up with an article from someone who argues the opposite (and with more substance).


The writer's concern seems to revolve around how cringe-worthy so many "fairy tale films" are and while I understand his point I think he's actually missing the real one. He says:
...the characteristic tone of fairy tales and folk tales, which is derived from oral storytelling traditions, is awfully difficult to replicate on screen. 
Rapunzel American McGee Wine Label by Ken Wong
Films that try to put a specific fairy tale on screen often do have problems in translating the wonder aspect of fairy tales (note I didn't say "fantasy aspect") into a visual, filmic state that's as believable and substantial as the one that happens in your head when you read (or are read) them. We inevitably place the stories in a specific time period and outfit them with supposedly magical special effects that often can't live up to the imagination. But it doesn't mean films are unsuccessful in communicating that "characteristic fairy tale tone". Think of Pan's Labyrinth, Like Water for Chocolate, Freeway and The Secret of Roan Inish among many others.You do feel as if you've entered a fairy tale but the real world connection is still very evident. (I'm leaving out animated films here - that's a different conversation.) As I see it, there are fantasy films (think Legend), fairy tale fantasy films (The Slipper and the Rose, Hardwicke's Red Riding Hood) and fairy tale films (see above examples). It's the latter that appeals to me most as they communicate the feeling of being absorbed in fairy tales the best. Fairy tale films that have a fairly straight retelling of a specific fairy tale tend to fall into the fairy tale fantasy arena (though not always) and there aren't that many that are succeed from a storytelling or box-office point of view. So, while I see the writer's point, I think he should have been more specific.

It also would have helped to define the "characteristic tone" he's talking about. I don't think he means the wonder aspect of a tale, which is what actually makes it a fairy tale, but that is the elusive thing. Fairy tales aren't magical stories full of unicorns and pixie dust. That's fantasy. Fairy tales are everyday stories with an element of wonder. The focus is different and it's that wonder factor amid the mundane that makes all the difference. The tough thing is that people tend to retell (resell?) fairy tales as fantasies so it gets confusing.
Snow White American McGee Wine Label by Ken Wong
I'm not thrilled by the lack of deeper research (specifically with regard to supporting the writer's argument) in the article. The whole point of the piece is the argument that "fairy tales have nothing to offer audiences of today" and yet it ends with how popular Grimm and Once Upon A Time are, how many fairy tale films keep coming out and how the target audience will likely very much enjoy Mirror Mirror.

When I got to the comment in parentheses: (Was there really so much insult humor in the Middle Ages?) I had to shake my head. Because yes, there was. There really (really!) was. Apparently the writer missed his Shakespeare and Chaucer classes.

There is, however, one interesting sentence I wanted to point out, even though it's rather throw-away in the body:
The TV series “Grimm” and “Once Upon a Time” are, surprisingly, more thoughtful than any of the recent fairy-tale movies have dared to be. Maybe the succession of weekly episodes more closely approximates the regularity and one-thing-after-another quality of bedtime stories.
Bedtime stories. Hmm. I think there actually might be a connection there, just not necessarily in the way the writer implies. Fairy tales aren't chapters in a novel in which they all go "Into the Woods" so to speak, but there is a definite feeling of accessing a unique world just out of sight from story to story, even if Rapunzel is not ensconced in the same woods Red Riding Hood's grandmother lives in (although this is part of the premise of both Once and Grimm). What do you think? Is there a connection between the qualities of having fairy tale bedtime stories and watching weekly installments of fairy tale TV shows?

You can read the whole article HERE.

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