Tales like Little Red Riding Hood sometimes were “even explicit in drawing the connection between a symbolic wolf and a literal dangerous man,” McNeill said. “In early versions of Little Red Riding Hood, there is no woodcutter; she doesn’t survive.”
The older version of many stories are darker because life was “pretty grim” in earlier centuries, Baumgartner said. “People had grim experiences, and the fairy tales give expression to that.”
It was partly the Grimms who made the tales less grim. “As they put together their collection in the early 19th century, the Grimm brothers “started to take these more brutal tales out and replace them with more sanitized and optimistic tales,” Baumgartner said. “And then Disney did that even further.”
Fairy tales seem to be drifting a little farther away from the Disney model, or at least, Zipes said, more writers and filmmakers are “taking fairy tales more seriously.”
Some relatively recent films have been noted for providing a social commentary by using fairy tales in different ways.
“Disney gets a lot of flak for representing women as weak and needy, needing to be rescued, all of that stuff,” McNeill said. “And then we look now for example at the ‘Shrek’ versions of a lot of these tales, and we see a post-modern unpacking of what’s going on in these stories. Instead of an ogre becoming a prince, we see a princess becoming an ogress.
“We can see a reflection of contemporary culture in that,” she said. “We are wondering in our culture now if the structures to which we have subscribed for so long are really true, or maybe things are different than we think they are. So we take a traditional form that has always portrayed the world as being one way, and we portray the world different in that.”
While it remains to be seen what purposes the new films “Mirror Mirror” or “Snow White and the Huntsman” will try to meet, and whether they will succeed, their origins in the Snow White fairy tale should give them a boost.
The films’ trailers have a differing look and feel to them and appear to be taking the story in very different directions.
However, one of the things about folklore, McNeill said, is that unlike movies based on novels, where if the ending is changed everyone says the filmmakers got it “wrong,” in folklore there is no “right” version.
“Every version that gets told is just another version; there’s so much more room to re-create it,” she said. “They’re all able to be right that’s what makes them so expressive.”
The differences in these films are part of what gives them, and fairy tales in general, their strength and endurance.
“We like to see these tried and true categories that we have culturally grown up with sort of being thrown at each other and see what happens,” McNeill said. “Let’s mix them up and let’s make Snow White a strong character; let’s make Little Red Riding Hood be the wolf.”
At the films’ cores, however, if they both truly follow the fairy tale model, will be a similar message.
“People, especially now, I think, want to have a narrative that’s hopeful,” Baumgartner said. “And want to have something where the good guy succeeds. Around us right now, we see a really problematic landscape, and the fairy tales give us hope.”
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