When speaking about film or television versions of fairy tales, one would likely not cite the critically acclaimed early 90’s television drama, Twin Peaks, whose heroine is a dead girl named Laura Palmer, “the Homecoming Queen with a hidden lust for sex” (Plummer 308) as an example. While the program was a pastiche of detective story and prime time soap opera, the otherworldly aspect of the program pointed to “one of the oldest narratives: the fairy tale. Along with the archetypal markers of the genre, they follow the narrative plot of Sleeping Beauty” (308). The crystal coffin has been replaced by a coroner’s body bag, and the flaxen splinter of Basile’s text is present as a clue in the form of a small paper letter. This item is removed, not by a suckling child but by Federal Agent Dale Cooper, the handsome prince’s stand-in, who though unsuccessful in awakening the sleeping princess, is able to solve her murder by her own father, reminiscent of Perrault’s “Donkeyskin” in his “burning…desire that drove him mad” (qtd. in Tatar 110). The elements of the father pursuing the daughter are more horrific due to their modern context, but the relationship to “Sleeping Beauty” and therefore to fairy tales is hard to deny.
In the opening paragraph of his article “Towards a Theory of the Fairy Tale Film: The Case of Pinocchio” Jack Zipes makes the statement that “we know immediately that a particular film is a fairy tale when we see it” (1). His statement would carry more weight, if one were only considering the films of Walt Disney, Zipes’ favorite whipping boy. However, if one can allow Pretty Woman as a retelling of “Cinderella” (Cooks, Orbe & Bruess) or Stephen King’s “Carrie” as the horror genre’s interpretation of Sleeping Beauty (Alexander), then the landscape of the perilous realm becomes less familiar, less iconic. The question of what constitutes a fairy tale film has become an important one to the academic discourse on folk and fairy tales. A discussion on the subject seems necessary, given Stith Thompson’s comment that “cinema, especially the animated cartoon, is perhaps the most successful of all mediums for the presentation of the fairytale” (qtd. in Koven 177) juxtaposed with the reality that feature fiction film has been largely ignored by folklore studies (179) or heavily criticized, as already mentioned with regards to Zipes and Disney.
The following essay is an attempt to pick up where Zipes left off with his “Theory of Fairy Tale Film” by first establishing that film is not a fixed media, but rather a new form of the oral tradition, and then proposing 5 elements which would classify a film as being of the genre of fairy tale. According to the Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, there are 3 elements which form a “mythic matrix” (331) which form the starting point for our list of elements, or distinctives. Those three elements are 1) gender and sexuality, 2) that good will always conquer evil and 3) the meritorious individual will win out in the end. To these I would add two more; 4) the presence of magic, and 5) a personal transformation. Ridley Scott’s film Legend will then be examined as a perfect combination of all five elements.