The Fairy Tale in the TV Age
Call them folk tales, wonder tales, or fairy stories: Fairy tales have a history of adaptation that was born long before some Italian wrote one down on paper in the 1500s. They have celebrated renaissance, preached religious values, and outlined basic moral behavior, with a little adventure, magic, and witchery thrown in for entertainment value. Perhaps they were once teaching fables or urban legends—they have been shaped and molded by and for so many societies that the world will never know for sure. (The Brothers Grimm, not the first and certainly not the last to celebrate the fairy story, modified their own works quite heavily over the course of forty years in no fewer than seven editions.) Though we will never discover their true origins, two opinions about fairy tales seem universal among academics: Fairy tales were not originally meant for children, and fairy tales are a guaranteed source of revenue.
Whether or not you believe that fairy tales should be adapted for public consumption (Bruno Bettelheim was against adaptation in all forms; J. R. R. Tolkien hadn’t seen anything that impressed him and called it a lost cause; Jack Zipes appreciates it but draws the line at Disney), fairy tales have been popping up on our television screens for over fifty years. Based on a recent surge in popularity, they appear to be here to stay. Of course, adapting tales for media automatically calls for alteration. Ratings and awards add a whole new level of hurdles that serve to change the stories even further. The key is not losing the essence of the tales and the character archetypes when all is said and done and the end credits roll.
I’d love to know Zipes’s opinion of the portrayal of fairy stories in the “Fractured Fairy Tales” shorts from the animated classic Rocky & Bullwinkle (1959-1964). There was definitely a 1960’s, progressive-woman message behind most of these tales, yet the prince was always a short, mustachioed, smarmy used car salesman type, and the female lead was often a lazy, self-centered, and materialistic girl with a thick Jersey Shore accent. Beneath this trampy, proto-hippie tribute, the overarching theme of the Grimm tales was not compromised: Sometimes the devious main character got away with his or her schemes, and sometimes he or she did not. Only in “Fractured Fairy Tales,” it was a lot funnier.
More recently on the animated front (and much more out of left field) is The Fairly OddParents (1998-2001). While these short cartoons only touch on one recurring character archetype appearing in fairy tales, they do deal with possibly the most common theme: Be Careful What You Wish For. Though I’m sure Timmy Turner’s adventures with Cosmo and Wanda would have had Bruno Bettelheim rolling over in his grave . . . if only to turn down the volume.
I would wager that Bettelheim, given the chance (and life after death), would have had no problem plopping his kids in front of the far more subdued Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre on a Saturday morning. Inspired by her many talented friends, her love of fairy tales, and a show from the late ’50s called Shirley Temple’s Storybook, Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre ran from 1982 to 1987 and was specifically geared toward children. Duvall herself introduced every episode (à la Masterpiece Theatre), telling a little bit about the tale, the theme, and sometimes why it was personally special to her.
A couple of the episodes were directed by Tim Burton and Francis Ford Coppola, and some of the scenery was inspired by famous fantasy artists like Maxfield Parrish and Arthur Rackham. While there was a healthy dose of camp administered with each episode, the fairy tales did stay pretty true to the storyline and sometimes even took it a bit further. (How does a princess explain to her father that she went to bed with a frog and woke up next to a naked prince?) This series was made with a lot of love and some seriously high quality for the time. It was also cited by Zipes as a prime example of a big time money-making venture.
Beauty and the Beast—the show from the late ’80s with a cast (Ron Pearlman! Linda Hamilton! Delroy Lindo!) and writing crew (George R. R. Martin!) that most producers would give their right arm to have today—is the quintessential fairy tale that springs to mind when discussing such fantasy television. Zipes called Beauty “a good example of the fairy tale as representation (and legitimation) of elite bourgeois.” The show brought the original tale into a contemporary setting but took the “beast” element quite literally, further stressing the similarities and differences between the upper and lower classes of society. Above and beyond this deeper meaning, just seeing the premillennial New York City skyline in the romantic opening credits is the epitome of “once upon a time” in its own right.
The original fairy tale was taken more literally (and indeed, pushed over the top) by the 1997 made-for-television film Snow White: A Tale of Terror. Ah, the Evil Queen: suddenly one of the most highly sought-after roles in Hollywood. But long before Charlize Theron (Snow White and the Huntsman) and Julia Roberts (Mirror, Mirror), there was Sigourney Weaver as Lady Claudia. Fairy tales are quite often cited among influences of the horror genre, but this is not so much a horror movie as defined by today’s standards. Set in the fairy-tale world (despite an offhand mention of one of the miners having survived the Crusades), it does stay true to the darkness, if not quite the plot, of the Snow White fairy tale. Of course, once Lady Claudia loses her mind, it becomes more of a watch-Sigourney-Weaver-go-crazy movie and far less of a traditional fairy tale. Which, in true Hollywood fashion, earned Weaver an Emmy nomination.
Realistically, how can one stay true to any source material when one is encouraged to include all the fright and fireworks required to garner award attention? In their shorter forms, fairy tales are often used to invoke happy endings, but these longer, newer incarnations concentrate more on their dark and subversive nature. Twisting the original tales and pushing the limits both visually and emotionally for ratings, reviews, and media attention has become far more of a driving force than staying true to Messrs Grimm and Andersen.
Another show to achieve Emmy award-winning fame is the cult favorite Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I admit it’s a bit of a stretch to list Buffy as a whole without commenting on Supernatural, Doctor Who, or all the other paranormal/fantasy TV fare on the small screen, but Buffy Summers truly embodies the archetypal “Jack” of so many fairy tale legends, and in doing so became a unique legend herself. Jack is the überhero, voluntarily or not, who must use his wits and whatever little skill he possesses to best giants and beanstalks and talking animals and fair-weather fairies. Buffy faced off with the original Hansel and Gretel, but she was also forced to conquer the Grimm-inspired child-eater Der Kindestod and the The Gentlemen of the dialogue-absent, Emmy-winning episode “Hush.” So many fairy and folk tales were successfully woven into the genesis and storytelling of Buffy over the years that it’s really impossible to separate the two.
Possibly the most successful weaving of fairy tales into contemporary storytelling is the 2000, ten-hour miniseries The 10th Kingdom. Of all the shows on this list (though Faerie Tale Theatre was probably truest to the Grimm tales, and the jury is still out on today’s Once Upon a Time), The 10th Kingdom stands out as the best. The series begins in contemporary New York, but the fairy tales are not modernized: The premise is that there are nine kingdoms in the storytelling land of fairy. The real world as we know it, accessible only through a magical mirror portal, is merely the tenth.
Despite its poor ratings, The 10th Kingdom did win great reviews and ultimately an Emmy for (if only for Outstanding Main Title Design). It’s interesting to wonder how the reception might have differed if this miniseries had premiered today, in a world far more ready to welcome fairy tales with open arms. (There are rumors that a sequel called House of Wolves was planned; it would have been great to see the cast together again, but it would also have been hard to stand up against the original.)
Another show in the running for Best Contemporary Fairy Tale has just been made available in the U.S. (thank you, Syfy): Lost Girl. Our scholars must set aside the basic Grimm and Andersen stories here and look to the old Celtic tales of the Sidhe. Lost Girl is the TV show you’ve always wanted to see, one based on that mass-market, urban-fantasy adventure series you love (or loathe), with the hot chick with a sword and a tramp stamp on the cover. In Lost Girl, there are werewolves and sirens on the police force and dwarves running underground pubs, and every fey who comes of age must choose to ally with the Light Fey or the Dark. The titular heroine, an orphaned succubus named Bo, allies herself with no one, choosing her human friends over strange fey. It’s the lovely hero myth and allegory of the outcast that weaves itself through these plots. The heaping spoonful of sex that comes with it may be an example of how to make fantasy shows more palatable for the masses, but as seeing as how that’s presented as an integral part of the heroine’s lifestyle, it’s slightly less gratuitous than, say, an HBO series.
It was good timing that Lost Girl, a Canadian series, was given a chance in the U.S. market, right when many gave up on Grimm. The concept of Grimm is awesome: Police investigation of fairy tale murders and a man with a monster-fighting destiny. But too much exposition—and spooky hand-wavium—weighed the storyline down in the first few episodes like a ten-ton anchor, saved only by the divine comedy of the Blutbad Monroe. Excessive amounts of excitement and too little useful information left the watcher as clueless as the character of Nick Burkhardt himself—the original fairy stories may have been tedious at times, but they were not quite so obtuse. But that same monster-of-the-week formula that kept Buffy fans coming back for more has served Grimm well as the season went on, and it’s given the characters a chance to settle into their roles. My hope is that when the writers decide to return to the larger arc, it’s a bit less we-made-it-up-as-we-went-along.
The one show that seems to have appeared on the scene and become the belle of the ball from the first episode is the aforementioned Once Upon a Time. Unfortunately, ABC is owned by Disney, as anyone who watches Once Upon a Time will be constantly reminded. Neither the Grimms’ nor Charles Perrault’s versions of the Snow White tale had the characters of Pongo or Maleficent, nor did they include subtle nods to the TV show Lost. (It’s also a little tough to see Jennifer Morrison and not wonder if Hugh Laurie is hiding behind a curtain somewhere.) I tend to agree with Zipes on many of his anti-Disney points, and I do hope this series doesn’t fall into the same ridiculous, gumdroppy-sweet, misguided holes as the Snow White films. All this aside, Once Upon a Time is a pretty darn successful TV show so far, in both ratings and storytelling execution.
Fairy tales became popular throughout history because they could be passed along via the oral tradition, a benefit in a world where the uneducated masses could not read. These days, those masses mostly choose not to read—and turn on their televisions instead. They will find wonder tales on that small screen, and beast tales, and fairy stories of all shapes and sizes, both new and old. But I hope that the popularity of these shows fuels a desire in these audiences to seek out the original tales—be those origins Italian, French, German, Dutch, or other—and experience them firsthand. After all, it’s not a retelling if you’re hearing it for the first time. And the jokes for those of us in the know are much, much funnier.