Friday, June 8, 2012

Letting Fairy Tales Live (A Fairy Tale Enthusiast's Dilemma)

Oops. It's an essay.
Consider yourself warned regarding the wordage!

So, in the last post I wrote this:
...that's one of those difficult things about fairy tales. We have to let them go and watch how they evolve, even when the outcome is not what we would choose or hope for...
It's something I've been thinking about a lot with all the various incarnations of tales and familiar characters popping up all over the place this past year and then on the release day post for Snow White and the Huntsman, Christie wrote this comment:
I have mixed feelings about this film. Its promise to be visually stunning and the re-worked storyline are intriguing but pouty, post-Twilight Kristen Stewart as Snow White does not speak to me. Part of me approves mainstream Hollywood peeking into the wealth of fairy tale material we all know is there, and part of me wishes we could keep it to ourselves in our community, where I know it will be properly appreciated.

I totally feel her dilemma. I've grappled with this for many, many years and still have an uncomfortable dual response to fairy tales appearing in film, TV and even books. Let me digress for a moment to explain some realities made clear to me in my time in Hollywood:

(I'll get back to actual fairy tales right afterward, I promise!)
Note: I've always worried about saying these things on the blog because I'm concerned it might impact my future employment in the entertainment industry when I stop being a stay at home mum and can go back to work BUT my respect for (most) people working in film and animation has only increased with the dose of reality that changed my outlook, so here goes. I hope my previous and future colleagues understand this has only made me more in awe of most people who continue to work regularly in the field and still aspire to producing something truly excellent.
When I finally got to work for Disney Feature Animation - a dream of mine since I was small - reality quickly came crashing in: I discovered, no matter what the official press, the company wasn't truly interested in honoring fairy tales or a tradition of good storytelling. At the end of the day it's run on dollars (how much they could ultimately make) and the "wow" factor that would dazzle both the public and the executives in charge of handing out the jobs and the money to make movies. The people in charge were not interested in someone who could help with development by offering research insight and access to avenues they may not have considered. Ironically, they thought they were, but challenging people on a production schedule quickly proved where the focus was and why as a result there was so much confusion. It was a club, it was exclusive and it was run on dollars, not on ideals. That was heartbreaking to realize for the little girl inside who had planned to help Disney make the best fairy tale films in the world. I quickly went from dreaming big and driven by ideals to scrambling to fit in enough to keep my job and survive. (You'd be astonished at the number of people who have, not only good ideas but excellent skills and are still in "workhorse" jobs.)

Surprise, surprise, most of Hollywood runs this way. Sure directors, writers and others lucky enough to be allowed creative input may start out with noble aspirations for a special story or project but that tends to get swallowed pretty quickly in the day-to-day reality of trying to get - and keep! - a job (and, for those a couple of rungs down the ladder, just trying to keep feeding their families). I'm not saying great things don't happen. Nor am I saying there aren't people who aim for the ideal and have a strong sense of respect. I know they exist as I've been lucky enough to meet a few of them but the reality is most people really are just trying to keep their jobs, just like the rest of the population. (The current economy has made that abundantly clear.) The challenge these storytellers have is to keep working while trying to hold on to their unique vision (often with both fists and all their teeth!). No one sets out to make a "bad" movie (one that the public hates or is indifferent to and doesn't earn good dollar return). Unfortunately, unless you are independent or a powerful enough force in Hollywood that you can do things entirely your own way,  the story you wanted to tell is rarely the one that makes it to the end/screen (or the starting gate as far as the public is concerned). It turns out that even "bad" movies are hard to make.

It's a tough business and I've gone from being highly critical of films using fairy tales to assessing them by the following criteria: Would I have been proud to have been part of that production? I have high standards so the answer isn't "yes" as often as you might think but it is "yes" far more often than it used to be. And "yes": I still want to do what I can to encourage excellence and truly resonant storytelling with regard to fairy tales in entertainment.

So, regarding Snow White and the Huntsman: would I be proud if I could add that project to my resume? The answer is "yes". Absolutely. Could it have been better? Absolutely. But that's not the point. In some ways I've come full circle and am back to being excited when fairy tales are used, period. It's a very odd feeling and something I have to remind my cynical, critical self to be aware of, especially right now.

The tales can't "live" without being retold by "common" people (ie. those who haven't made them their life and focus) because they belong, not just to linguists and writers but to average Joe's and Jane's. This is often very tough for people who love fairy tales!

Regarding SWATH, however, it's clearly a (pure) fantasy film* and one could argue that its very essence as such puts it in a different category from the sorts of tales the Grimms were collecting and retelling. Movie making is a much different business than working with tales everyday people tell and retell. That doesn't make it irrelevant though. In one sense it's reverse "popular" storytelling (in the sense of the types of tales and storytelling the Grimm Brothers were trying to preserve). Only a select few (the movie's creative team and writers) work on the reworking of a story and set up a "buzz" via teasers and other marketing to get people thinking about their product (that's right: "product", not "story" as you might at first think), the object being to capture the imagination of the public and get them talking about a story/movie and ultimately spending some of their hard-earned money on it. It's not until you see what sticks or how deeply it invades the lives and thinking of the public afterward (ie. what, if any, impact it has long term on popular culture) that you can truly see if there's been an evolution in a tales understanding or a "new" culture-wide reaction to a tale or tale-type.

I would suggest that the serial form of ABCs Once Upon A Time, for all its many short-comings and cringeworthy moments has still managed to capture the public's imagination over the long term and is one form the Grimms might have seen more as carrying on the oral/evolution of fairy tales than any blockbuster movie. While I personally have more than a few issues with the show regarding its use of fairy tales (yes, my precious! Told you I have this dual response), one thing that's clear is how it has encouraged widespread change in how people think about fairy tales and what wonder tales in general are. None of the concepts are new and there have been many far better written/filmed/etc ways in which fairy tales have been retold over many, many decades but it's rare that those have had such a wide impact (much to the chagrin of the fairy tale community). For every amazing Angela Carter work we've been blasted by (eg.) Little Mermaids and yet it turns out both are relevant for their effect on general thinking about fairy tales as well as for keeping fairy tales alive. The cross-cultural impact of Once Upon A Time (and other contemporary entertainment using fairy tales which only serve to bolster OUAT's impact again) is undeniable and impressive, especially considering that the "princess culture" which has remained, until recently, the current reigning popular consideration of fairy tales.

Are fairy tales "breathing" today? Most definitely. It's just that how they're "growing" isn't always how we'd wish, despite our best efforts to encourage all those ideal qualities we believe tales should retain. (Sound familiar parents?) Art and other vital "cultural organisms", for want of a better term, are fickle that way. Prof. Zipes discusses this dilemma of the need for popular culture to mesh (or sometimes clash) with history in order to let tales "keep living" in his new book The Irresistible Fairy Talewhich I am currently reading and plan to review. (I can't wait to get to the chapter titled Fairy Tale Collisions which discusses what's happening with fairy tales in art and entertainment right now.)

Snow White - the tale, the character - definitely has something to say to people in 2012. There's a reason she's the "it" girl of the year. Any other year Snow White - in these exact retellings and incarnations - may not be as well received but there's something about the tale that's filling a needed gap right now. What that actually is, is up for debate. I think it depends on who you are and what your situation is that impacts what you take away and retain from a story in particular. For Snow White, right now, it would seem that many aspects of her tale have things to say that are relevant to many different people. That's very interesting and points to something significant in the "life" of a tale.**

One thing that is clear from current adaptations is that familiar fairy tale characters appear more relatable to adults and grown-up situations than they did when Disney was the "king of the fairy tale". Again, it's nothing new but what I'm seeing is that adults who previously dismissed fairy tales as something only belonging to their childhood are suddenly connecting the dots and finding adult relevancies. While that's not news to anyone who's studied fairy tales it's a significant change for everyone else.

There's no doubt the film Snow White and the Huntsman has its own slants. Whether it is relevant or not to men and women today is another issue.  Some people will see it as a film about the need for strong heroines. Others will see a message saying women can't do really anything of consequence without acting like a man (or a very scary witch). Others still will see it as good will win out in the end if you persist while for others it will reinforce the idea that fairy tale values are unrealistic and unattainable without the perfect vessel (which in this film is the beautiful, powerful yet still virginal Snow White). Each of those, in their own way, is valid. At the end of the day, though, the film is pure entertainment first and foremost. While we can critique it and dismiss or embrace it, what the public overall see it as saying in 2012 - and how it affects their lens on fairy tales in the longer term - is yet to be determined.

*Unlike, for example, Pan's Labyrinth which, while clearly embracing fairy tales and a fantasy, has solid real world elements and is therefore more akin to a wonder tale than a purely fantastic film.
** In the case of this film (SWATH), the fact that the leading lady of the Twilight phenomenon (who gives up all ambition and her sense of self for a boy) was cast in a very non-passive*** role as Snow White (almost a polar opposite of her Bella Swan character) may have more to do with how fairy tales affect the "Twilight generation" rather than the fact that it's "Snow White" but that's a whole other discussion right there.
*** I've used the words "non-passive" instead of the more correct "active" for clarity here. Being active is more than doing action-hero stuff. Unfortunately, it's quite possible to be a passive action-hero. When I say "non-passive" I mean it has to do with a strong sense of identity, facing fears and forging forward for what you believe.


  1. Thanks for this fantastic essay. I really enjoyed reading it. As a fairytale enthusiast myself, I found Snow White & the Huntsman a very poor interpretation of the story. But as you said, Hollywood is about making money not creating perfect tales. Again, I really enjoyed your essay-and blog!! Keep it up! xx

  2. It's so true it hurts.

    Language is is the same way. For linguistic enthusiasts like me, it's hard to let go and let language live and evolve, which is how it came to be in the first place. But I still wrinkle my nose with Strunk and White when people use the (now correct) word "enthused"!

    Fairy tales, like the words that incarnate them, are living, breathing things. Bittersweet!