Once upon a time? How about thrice upon a time? Why not admit we’ve lost count?
The movies are in love with fairy tales again. “Mirror Mirror,’’ a playful revamp of “Snow White’’ with Lily Collins as the heroine and Julia Roberts cracking wise as the Evil Queen, opens this Friday. Directed by the eccentric visionary Tarsem Singh Dhandwar (“The Fall’’), the movie has won the battle of the competing bedtime stories, with “Snow White and the Huntsman’’ waiting until June 1 to hit theaters. Based on the previews, the latter looks like a rock ’em sock ’em post-“Lord of the Rings’’ action fantasy with Kristen Stewart (“Twilight’’) as a sword-wielding Snow White and a heavily CGI-ified Charlize Theron as Queen Ravenna.
And that’s just the first few chapters of the new Grimm playbook. In January of next year, “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters’’ is expected to be released, starring Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton. The plotline, according to the studio? “Fifteen years after their traumatic gingerbread-house incident, siblings Hansel and Gretel have become a formidable team of bounty hunters who track and kill witches all over the world.’’ Will Ferrell and Adam McKay of funnyordie.com are co-producing, which should tell you something.
Also in the pipeline, for spring of next year: a 3-D “Jack the Giant Killer’’ from director Bryan Singer (“X-Men’’) and his “Usual Suspects’’ screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. It stars Nicholas Hoult (“About a Boy’’) and half the acting talent in Great Britain.
Want more? Projects in various stages of development include “Maleficent,’’ a re-do of “Sleeping Beauty’’ with Angelina Jolie as the witch; a new version of “Beauty and the Beast’’ starring Emma Watson and directed by Guillermo del Toro; a live-action “Cinderella’’ from Disney; a dark-hued “Little Mermaid’’ from director Joe Wright (“Atonement’’); and yet another “Sleeping Beauty,’’ this one starring Hailee Steinfeld of “True Grit.’’
Are we so starved for fairy tale endings that we have to go back to the original source this often? Or is it just further evidence that Hollywood has officially run out of ideas?
Both, and more. The reasons are varied for this unusually concentrated burst of filmic folklore. First, understand that everyone in the entertainment industry drinks the same Kool-Aid - passes around the same scripts, eyes the same pop-culture trends - so that when one particular property suddenly seems like a good idea, similar ones do, too. It’s why we got all those body-swap comedies in the 1980s, why “No Strings Attached’’ and “Friends With Benefits’’ were released six months apart last year. Nothing is more predictable than a Hollywood development executive who sees someone else’s project green-lit and has a script just like it in the drawer.
Think of this latest batch of films as an extension of the current obsession with fantasy.
But why fairy tales? Think of this latest batch of films as an extension of the current obsession with fantasy - all those vampires and zombies and sword-clashing heroes on TV and the big screen. With their castles and curses, evil queens and talking wolves, fairy tales exist one cultural bin over from both the classic monster genre and the sword-and-sorcery tradition, and all three can easily swap genetic material. (The worlds of L. Frank Baum are close by as well; it’s no coincidence that Broadway’s “Wicked’’ is being filmed for 2014, or that at least three other “Oz’’ scripts have been knocking around Hollywood in the past couple of years.)
The current trend is for genre mixmastery, and few of the new fairy tale movies seem to play like bedtime stories. In “Mirror Mirror,’’ Snow White becomes the bandit queen of the forest; in “Snow White and the Huntsman,’’ she’s a full-on action heroine. Hansel and Gretel are all grown up now and kicking witch butt. The trailer for “Jack the Giant Killer’’ makes it look like an antic action-adventure with special effects never dreamed of by author Charles Perrault.
These movies take their cues from the fantasy tradition as reestablished by the “Lord of the Rings’’ films, the “Harry Potter’’/“Twilight’’ franchises, and by recent TV series such as NBC’s “Grimm,’’ ABC’s “Once Upon a Time,’’ and “Game of Thrones’’ on HBO. Like those properties, the films take into account our abiding familiarity with classic tales and characters and assume that we’ll only pay attention when they’re pumped up with the latest in violence and special effects. An early outlier was last year’s “Red Riding Hood,’’ a very conscious (and really bad) effort on the part of “Twilight’’ director Catherine Hardwick to turn the fairy tale into a psychosexual adolescent horror show.
The truth is that it’s easier for Hollywood to adapt a familiar story than dream up a new one, especially when the original work is in the public domain. And because the film industry assumes there’s a new audience every 15 to 20 years, studios have no problem going back to the well for all kinds of genres and properties. Fairy tales have been recycled for the movies many times before, both in the straight-up retellings that Disney has profited from (1937’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’’ to 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast,’’ and beyond) and in versions retooled for every audience imaginable.
There have been art-house fairy tales (Jean Cocteau’s breathtaking 1946 “La Belle et la Bete’’) and broad satires (2005’s so-hip-it-hurts “Hoodwinked’’). There have been revamps both mainstream (Drew Barrymore in 1998’s “Ever After: A Cinderella Story,’’ Amy Adams in 2007’s “Enchanted’’) and obscure (2007’s “Year of the Fish,’’ a charming Chinatown Cinderella story told in rotoscoped photorealism). The “Shrek’’ series has prospered on merry mash-ups of classic fairy-tale characters. Two of the smartest and most creative (if not demented) adaptations have been 1984’s “The Company of Wolves’’ - Red Riding Hood meets Freudian werewolves with Angela Lansbury as a most ambiguous Grandmama - and “Freeway’’ (1996), in which Red’s a foul-mouthed LA runaway played by Reese Witherspoon and the Big Bad Wolf is Bob Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland), a creepy serial killer.
Those last two work because they’re confident and clever but also because they honor the genuine sense of danger the originals meant to warn us about. We know fairy tales at the root level - they were told to us when we were so small that we believed them, and they’ve been swirling around for millennia not only in Western culture but in every culture. They are the first stories, passed along in an oral lineage well before Perrault and the brothers Grimm collected them between covers - and they served as metaphors of caution and hope for young children in a very dangerous world.
That’s why the original, non-Disney fairy tales are often so bleak: The Little Mermaid landing on knives with every step, Bluebeard’s dead wives hanging from hooks. In Perrault’s “Red Hiding Hood,’’ there is no savior huntsman, just a well-fed wolf and a moral for young women never to talk to strangers. Fairy tales were the original horror movies, and they referred to horrors that were all too real.
We still live in a perilous world, and we still want to transmute our fears into mythic landscapes where we can deal with them safely. But modern pop culture - addicted to entertaining depictions of darkness and death while remaining terrified of the real things - is pulled in two directions at once. To sanitize fairy tales with happy endings, musical numbers, and ironic dialogue is to look away from the harsh lessons these stories were intended to deliver. To amp them up with action, violence, and special effects is to try and relocate the danger at their core. The dance will always go on: You can build on fairy tales, poke fun at them, turn them inside out, and they’re resilient. The originals will always be there, bedeviling our dreams and taunting us with their happily ever afters.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.