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.
“They show us that even if something doesn’t work the first try, you try again,” Baumgartner said. “I think that that appeals to human nature. We like to try and retry and get it right at the end.”
Fairy tales have, by nature of what they are, been tried and tried again as they’ve been reworked and retold throughout the world.
“It’s really hard to pinpoint” where fairy tales come from, McNeill said. They’ve existed in cultures throughout the world for thousands of years. The earliest Cinderella-type tale, she said, was documented more than 3,000 years ago in China.
“Fairy tales come from many, many different sources,” Zipes said. “The origins go way, way back, and they were quite often told for different social purposes that became part of customs and belief systems of people throughout the world.”
There are two explanations for a story turning up all over the world, McNeill said. “Either a whole bunch of people in a bunch of different places for some perhaps inherent psychological reason began telling the same story, all at the same time, or much more likely is that members of cultures who traveled and visited other places have, over the course of thousands and thousands of years, been telling each other stories, and those stories get shaped by the different people who tell them.”
The challenge of tracing a fairy tale to its roots is part of why the oldest stories cannot be attributed to a single person. For that reason, what are generally considered to be fairy tales don’t come from a particular author or publisher, McNeill said.
“We tend to get our fairy tales and folklores out of books,” she said. “Even those books aren’t authored pieces of work; they’re books of collections. The Grimm brothers, for example, didn’t write their stories; they collected them.”
When it comes to those collections, several elements distinguish a fairy tale from other stories.
Fairy tales mostly differ from other folk narratives, McNeill said, because they are told as fiction.
“When we tell a fairy tale, we tell it, ‘Once upon a time in a land far, far away,’ which immediately sets it apart from the realities of life,” she said. “We’ve got that distinction that we’re dealing with a fictional story. Therefore we accept all the strangeness without doubt.”
Fairy tales, in their most basic form, often differ in length — they’re generally short — from many stories of other genres, Baumgartner said, though there are always exceptions.
A fairy tale, she added, is “usually a shorter narrative that has a fantastic or a marvelous or an unreal element. Fairy tales usually, not always, but usually end with a happy ending. They are very optimistic tales and they usually show an underdog succeeding, the third brother or the youngest sister or a member of society who is at the margins.”
The success of a suppressed central character is often one of the defining elements of a fairy tale.
“These tales generally involve some type of miraculous transformation and the survival of a hero or heroine who is either persecuted or given enormous tasks to do, and they succeed,” Zipes said.
With all of their pieces, fairy tales have a long history of not only entertaining audiences but also helping people cope with their surroundings.
“I think people have made up fairy tales from the beginning in order to deal with their environment and to sort of make sense of the world that they couldn’t understand,” Baumgartner said.
Fairy tales, Zipes said, “enable us to talk indirectly but nevertheless to talk about some very troublesome problems that we still have in our society,” such as child abandonment in Hansel and Gretel and predators in Little Red Riding Hood.
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.”