Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Towards a Classification of Fairy Tale Film: Introduction

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 The crystal coffin has been replaced by a coroner’s body bag, and the flaxen splinter of Basile’s text is present as a clue in the form of a small paper letter.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.


  1. This looks like a good beginning to a paper. I have two questions regarding the development of your argument. 1) Did you first notice these 5 elements within the film Legend and then find and develop an interpretive theory which fit the film? or, did you research the theory and then find a film which fit into it well? Does theory preceed observation or visa versa?
    2) By claiming that Legend is a "perfect" example of the five elements do you not think that your argument will be more open to criticism because it does not acknowledge ambiguity. You may very well include ambiguities in the bulk of your paper, but I was just wondering whether you think that the rhetorical tactic of weakening your own argument to ultimately strengthen it is viable.
    These are just questions aimed at learning to formulate stronger arguments in my writing.

  2. Actually, my original thought for this paper was an evaluation of the movie "The Brothers' Grimm" as a hyperbolic, mythic approach to the lives and historical setting the historical Brothers' Grimm wrote their fairy tales in. My research lead me down the path to a taxonomic concept, and having come up with the five elements, Ridley Scott's Legend seemed a very good case study. I should have used a less value-laden word than "perfect " though. Thanks for the critique!