Fascinated by fairy tales

Published: Thursday, March 29 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

Kristen Stewart as the title character in "Snow White and the Huntsman."

Universal Pictures

Mirror, mirror on the wall, if you’ve seen one, haven’t you seen them all?

Fairy tales are once again making their rounds in the media. Two versions of Snow White are coming to theaters this year: Relativity Media’s “Mirror Mirror” opens March 30, and Universal Pictures’ “Snow White and the Huntsman” will have its premiere in June. Two current network primetime series, ABC's "Once Upon a Time" and NBC's "Grimm," are also based on fairy tales.

The tale of Snow White is nothing new, though much of the exposure people have had to the story stems from Disney’s 1937 animated adaptation. So what makes this story, and all the fairy tales that have been reimagined time and time again, so unendingly interesting to audiences?

Folklorists, or those who study fairy tales, say fairy tales get their staying power because they are familiar to audiences, yet differ enough with each retelling to remain interesting and applicable. The stories have a rich and continuing history of providing hope, wisdom and inspiration. They supply a social commentary. And, of course, they entertain.

Fairy tales make up “the only genre in the world … that sticks with us throughout our lives,” said folklore scholar Jack Zipes, a professor emeritus of German at the University of Minnesota.

“There really is no genre like it that we imbibe as we’re born, practically, and stays with us. … Throughout our lives, we’re engaged with fairy tales until we die.”

But with that familiarity, shouldn’t people get bored with hearing the same old stories?

“We don’t get tired because we keep changing the stories,” Zipes said. “There are literally thousands of variants to the ‘classical’ version of a particular tale.”

But it is the familiarity with the more traditional versions of the tales that really makes the new variations work for audiences.

“It wouldn’t be as appealing if we didn’t have the original version in the back of our minds,” said Lynne McNeill, a professor of folklore at Utah State University. “It’s the comparison or perhaps the contrast that makes it so communicative for us culturally; it’s being able to see what’s been changed.”

It’s not just familiarity with “classic” fairy tales that makes retellings successful.

It’s also the love for the original stories; the messages they share and the inspiration they give their audiences.

“They really speak to a lot of the needs and dreams and hopes that we have, the wishes that we have,” Zipes said. “They give us a great deal of hope that no matter what the odds are against small people … there is a way that we should somehow overcome all of these problems and become a queen or king or prince or princess … that we are able to attain control over our lives, that we become autonomous, that we can make decisions that will have a great impact on our lives and on other people’s lives and we are not dependent on, let us say, tyrannical exploiters.”

McNeill agreed that there’s “a real opportunity for wish fulfillment” in fairy tales.

“We have a lot of people in those stories beginning their lives as peasants or as downtrodden impoverished people who end up kings or emperors or receiving these amazing magical items,” she said.

However, according to Karin Baumgartner, professor of German at the University of Utah, it’s not just seeing people get what they wish for that attracts audiences to fairy tales. The stories are hopeful and optimistic, but they also depict people continually trying to overcome challenges.

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