Saturday, January 13, 2007

Toward a Classification of Fairy Tale Film: Part 2

The first element proposed is that of gender and sexuality. Even the most sanitized versions of fairy tales are concerned with issues of gender and sexuality, even if that sexual aspect has been sublimated through multiple literary retellings. The earliest version of Little Red Riding Hood, “The Story of Grandmother”, contains what amounts to a striptease when the little girl asks the wolf, “where should I put my apron?” to which the wolf replies, “Throw it into the fire, my child. You won’t be needing it any more.” These two phrases are repeated over and over, with different clothing items replacing the already discarded ones until the little girl is obviously naked, at which point she immediately gasps at how hairy the wolf is (qtd. in Tatar 10-11). Basile’s verson of Sleeping Beauty is said to be a “story of rape, adultery, sexual rivalry” (Hallet and Karasek 18), while beast-bride tales deal with “courtship rituals and…the morning after” (Tatar 28).

The second distinctive, that of good vs. evil in fairy tales has fallen upon critical times. In a global community, the dichotomy of good triumphing over absolute evil, often in violent ways is seen as backward thinking. Kenneth Kidd makes a call for children’s books which “actually reckon with the horrific world violence to which our nation handily contributes, and which challenge the masterplot of childhood innocence that has transformed our very understanding of citizenship” (140). Insofar as Kidd is speaking of books which deal directly with actual atrocities, such as the Holocaust or 9/11, I would agree; but to expect the same for fairy tales and films in that genre is remiss. Maria Nikoljeva writes that the ambiguity in postmodern fantasy undermines the sense of security readers derive from “clear cut distinction between good and evil” where “it is not self evident which choice is the right one…” (146-47).

While it is dangerous to apply the labels of ultimate good or ultimate evil to actual people groups or individuals, to downplay the “layers of menace” (Haase 370) presented by fairy tale villains robs the story of any real tension; if the child “discovers that we have removed the wolf’s teeth, the game is up; simply by attempting to shelter the child reader from harm, we have portrayed “the world as a fearful place”” (Richards 833). In modern versions of Little Red Riding Hood, killing the wolf in a violent manner gets replaced with a hasty getaway. The adults who altered the wolf’s fate from execution to evasion “perceived that version as less violent and less frightening, but children found it scarier because the threat of the wolf remains unresolved” (833). Rather than finding the gory or horrific details of how the heroes are devoured or the villain slain terrifying, children reported that they found “stories with no endings as frightening” (834). Further, in denying a form of justice for evil, we have removed the “anticipation of a better world” (Haase 361).

There can be no anticipation of a better world if a darker world is not imagined, and in that imagining, defeated. To debate whether Hansel and Gretel are greedy little children for their consumption of “the house made of bread…and cake…and sparkling sugar” (Hallet and Karasek 141) is pointless within the secondary world of the fairy tale; what matters is that the “wicked witch, who waylaid children and…killed, cooked, and ate any child who fell into her hands” (141) is “burned miserably to death” (143). She is a witch—not a modern adherent to Wicca, but a mythic monster.

The third element is that the meritorious individual will win out in the end, whatever the obstacles may be. In fact, the obstacles are implied within the idea of the meritorious individual succeeding, since there would be no point in needing merits to succeed if there were no obstacles. This is the deserving hero/heroine, the one who triumphs by holding fast to a true, pious or generous nature, one who suffers but does not waver from goodness and in the end is rewarded, such as Gerda in the Snow Queen, or Laidronette during her trials in “Green Serpent”. This motif abounds in fairy tales; "Cinderella receives compensation for being patient and humble; the goose-girl because she did her work without complaining and didn't reveal her secret; the golden virgin because she worked tirelessly and diligently for Frau Holle" (Bausinger 80).

“All manner of weird phenomena” (Worley 14) constitutes the fourth element, which is another way of saying magic, but with the same proviso Worley makes in regards to fantasy film in general, wherein “for the duration of any given fantasy film, magic must be accepted as real…the audience must temporarily believe…that princes can turn into doves, wizards can command magic and faeries do exist” (10).

The element of “all manner of weird phenomena” refers to how the realm of fairy “may resemble our own, but the illusion is never entire…Perhaps its geography appears inconsistent, and gothic towers loom incongruously over pastel suburbs, or the behavior of its inhabitants seems weirdly irrational, and grown men squabble like infants over tickets to a chocolate factory” (Worley 25). This could encompass everything from fully secondary worlds such as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, to Superman’s Metropolis, where the only weird phenomenon is a man in tights flying over what is otherwise a familiar city skyline.

In the case of Ever After, there is an absence of magic as an act of the miraculous. It is not magic which enables Drew Barrymore as Danielle DeBarbarac to arrive at the prince’s ball on time but the scientific wonders of Leonardo DaVinci. While DaVinci’s “butterfly wings may appear magical, they rely on human craft for their effects” (Gruner 150). Nevertheless, the moment when Danielle steps into the palace courtyard, dressed for the ball, there is definitely a sense of wonder, which awakens “our regard for the miraculous condition of life and to evoke in a religious sense profound feelings of awe and respect for life as a miraculous process” (Spells of Enchantment xiv).


  1. I find this installment insightful and interesting, but the ending left me with an odd taste in my mouth...although that may have been the rather old gingerbreadman I was eating whilst I read it. The part of it which left me feeling unsettled was your treatment of magic. Although you provide a susinct and sophisticated argument for the micarculous events of life I am unconvinced. Perhaps it is something within me that desires "real" magic. I don't want to know the rational explanation behind something which on the surface appears mysterious. There is a difference between creating a literary argument as to why magic and all sorts of fantastical happenings are believable and actually believing in them like a child.

    I once heard a grown man attempt to explain the secret of Narnia. He claimed that it was that Aslan is Jesus. Although I was not allowed to question this naive assertion publically I dissented by maintaining that Aslan is Aslan and that the secret of Narnia is that it is as real as any other myth about the past. I know that you probably are more well read in Lewis and Tolkien than myself, but I think that your argument about magic is antithetical to that idea. Granted I am assuming that you even agree with Tolkien and Lewis' view of myth, or my insane conclusions based thereon.

    Does your case study actually fullfill the requirement of magic, or have you just elaborately explained away the issue? or am I just crazy?

    oh and thanks for ruining Little Red Riding Hood for me and giving credibility to ever so many porno plots...

  2. I'm not dismissing magic. I'm merely saying that if a film holds a level of "enchantment" then it might classify as the magic necessary for it's inclusion as fairy tale film -- for example, "Pretty Woman" is obviously not intended to be a realistic portrayal of women involved in the sex trade, whereas "Leaving Las Vegas" is. One is enchanting, the other is not. If a film has overt magical elements (such as "Harry Potter")then no further evaluation of whether or not it is magical is necessary. I'm merely allowing for the possibility of films like "Ever After" to be included as fairy tale films. You know I love my magic.