02 April 2013

Fairytale Movies

Charlie Jane Anders asks "Why can't Hollywood make a decent fairy tale movie?"

Because fairy tales don't make any damned sense.

I just got finished reading Philip Pullman's new edition of the Grimm stories, and two things stood out:

(1) They're violent. I think everyone realizes they're a lot darker than what Walt Disney told us, but I wasn't prepared for Cinderella's bird friends not only helping her get gussied up for the ball but also gratuitously pecking out the eyes of her evil step sisters. I lost count, but I think there were a dozen stories in a row in which someone was casually executed.

(2) They don't make any sense. Characters pop in and out of the narrative, completely unrelated stories are strung together, and everything has the logical coherence of a fever dream. They're the kinds of stories children tell: "first there was a princess, and she ran away from home because her stepmother was evil, and then this guy found a mountain made of gold after a witch gave him some magic socks, and then the king went hunting and ordered his sons to go find a rabbit made of rubies which was living in the golden mountain with a singing donkey. The end."

Add to this that characters in fairy tales are almost universally one-dimensional (often by design) and you're not left with much to build a movie around. There's few compelling characters. There's no rising action or climax. The stakes are often ridiculously high or non-existent. There's often no love interest until the prince shows up at in the last paragraph and instantly falls in love with the heroine. Dei ex machina show up to resolve conflicts left and right.

If you try to fit that into a standard contemporary three act structure all you'll be left with is the syntactic trappings of a fairy tale instead of the semantic meat of the story. And that's usually not a good recipe to work from.

In fact I think that's the problem with a lot of sub-par movies. You can't start with the syntactic pieces you're interested in and mash them together until a story comes out. You need to start with the story. This (partially) explains why so many Hollywood trend-following movies are so bad. People sit there and think "oh, audiences are in the mood for werewolves and plucky heroines and [whatever]. Let's keep jumbling those bits and bobs around until a movie pops out." It's not a Mr Potato Head. You can't keep sticking parts on it until it works.

This is also why I dislike such a vast majority of superhero comics. Too many writers grew up enthralled by their favorite character, and wanted nothing more than to play with those costumes and sidekicks and powers and villains when they grew up. So then they land a job writing for DC or Marval and they're given the keys to the toy chest and they just start banging all the pieces together. No no no no. Start with a story that's worth telling, and then figure out if and how it fits into Spiderman's universe.

I have to disagree with something Anders says: "Fairytales don't have a lesson at the end, unlike fables."

I don't want to get into a big thing about Charles Perrault and Romanticism and the difference between fairytales and folktales, but yes, fairytales do often have lessons.

Sometimes fairytales are discombobulated knots of hallucinatory story fragments. But sometimes they have lessons. They're not deep or complicated, but they exist. They're things like "be kind to strangers," "don't trust everyone you meet," "fortune favors the bold (sometimes)," "don't fall asleep while you're on guard duty," and "stay out of the woods."

Even the really weird stories have an important, Tom Robbins-esque meta-lesson: the world is a really weird place; don't expect to be able to make sense out of it all the time. That's a lesson we could all use some reminding of.


  1. Huh. My first response on reading your post was that Hollywood most certainly can make a decent fairy tale movie, just look at Princess Bride and Stardust! Then I read the original piece, and maybe he specifically means based on classic fairy tales rather than in that style.

    Even then, the problem is not the stories: Disney's already proved that many of them can be made into great movies, and there have been many brilliant re-imaginings of the tales over the years in written form. They are endlessly malleable, and the idea that you cannot make a decent motion picture of them is just silly.

    The real question is why the recent live action / CGI adaptations have been so bad...

  2. ... and come to think of it, I think you went a good way towards addressing that question in your post, now that I reread it. :)

    1. In retrospect I should have been clearer. It's not that you can't make a good fairytale movie. (Your examples prove that beyond a doubt.) It's that you can't flip Grimm or Joseph Jacobs or what have you to a random chapter, update the dialog and costumes, slap on some FX and call it a day.

  3. I ran into trouble when I tried reading out of Grimm to my kids:


    1. I can not imagine reading the originals to my kids anymore. I'm not interested in feeding them any of those "sanitized" versions. But I also don't want to have to explain to my daughter why the frog turns into a man not when the princess kisses him but *when she agrees to let him sleep in her bed under the covers.* And that's not to mention the body counts that third world dictators would be envious of.