The Evolution of Fairy Tales: The Return of Dark Stories (IV)

Not the Grimm’s Tales

CASE STUDY: Snow White and the Huntsman

I just want to write a bit about a couple of questions I came up with in the previous posts relating to this subject. It is about the idea that society influences tales and their apparent return to darker versions. I wondered: what does this mean about today’s society? Is there really a return to the darker ‘roots’ of fairy tales?

Because we see films with a really evil queen in Snow White and the Huntsman‘s case (2012), a considerable amount of gore in Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters (2013) or even the villain portrayed as a hero in Maleficent (2014; in this case, it’s just on principle seeing as the film is a little more complex than that), suddenly a lot of people assume that there is a return to the darker tales written by the brothers Grimm. But I think it takes a particular knowledge of these older tales to be able to make such a statement. And having read and researched quite a few, I have decided to share my ideas on the subject.

An article (S. Meslow, 2012. “Fairy Tales started dark, got cute and are now getting dark again”) I read about the way fairy tales had evolved, explained the transition which occurred when Disney took hold of them, and explored the new wave of dark fairy tales one can see at the cinema nowadays. Taking for example the 2012 film Snow White and the Huntsman, it explained that several elements from the film – including the queen killing young women by sucking out their youth and planning to tear Snow White’s heart from her chest to eat it – made the story, one not suitable for children anymore. It is interesting to see that this film did reuse several elements that were present in the Grimm’s tale and put aside in Disney’s version. The idea of cannibalism is reintroduced when the queen explicitly announces she wants to consume Snow White’s heart to remain forever young and beautiful.

That being said, out of curiosity, I went to look at the ratings for this film. Surely parents would never tell their children fairy tales such as the ones written by the brothers Grimm in 1812; the many themes such as infanticide, cannibalism, the sexual undertones and the sometimes gore violence make them unsuitable for children nowadays (this idea is supported by a lot of adults who write about fairy tales in books or on the internet; however authors like Bruno Bettelheim had a particular point of view on this matter. I will explore this further in a future post). So I thought, if this re-adaptation really was much closer to the version of the brothers Grimm than any before, theoretically it would have a rating such as R or NC-17. But curiously, it did not. I also noticed the ratings differed considerably between countries, which is quite interesting; it’s another proof that cultural differences play a part in the popularity of a movie (the notion of incest in Jacques Demy’s Donkey Skin does not shock the French audience as much as it seems to shock audiences abroad). For Snow White and the Huntsman, the film is rated PG-13 in the US, which means that even though parents are strongly advised to be cautious as to the content of the film and the effect it can have on their children, they are still allowed to go and watch it with them. It is rated 12A in England, which is quite similar to the US; and what surprised me, was the French rating, which was a G for General Audience. I agree that the film is definitely darker than the Disney version – which seems logical seeing as the latter is an animation specifically aimed at children – but can we really claim that fairy tales have returned to their dark roots?

If one were to adapt one of the brothers Grimm’s fairy tales completely truthfully for the big screen, I wouldn’t doubt that it would be classified as a horror film; and usually parents don’t take their children to see horror movies on the big screen. I then went on to look at a blockbuster action film, which I believe is quite popular amongst adults as well as children: The Avengers (2012). The film is distributed by Walt Disney (amongst other production companies) and the heroes, based on that of the comics, are extremely popular amongst children who dress like them at Halloween, relive their adventures on video games and play with figurines of their favourite hero. And yet this film, which at first sight seems like a friendlier film than Snow White and the Huntsman (regarding children), is still an action film with themes such as violence, death and even the destruction of the planet. So out of curiosity I looked at the ratings and after thinking about it, wasn’t too surprised when I saw that they were exactly the same as the ones attributed to Snow White and the Huntsman: PG-13 for the US, 12A in the UK and G in France. Because of the influence of society on fairy tales, people have been associating these stories with prince and princesses, beautiful fairies, songs and a happy ending (the contemporary concept of the fairy tale), forgetting that once, fairy tales were dark and gore by necessity in an attempt to teach people important lessons and morals. Therefore when a film suddenly brings back several of the themes these tales once contained, it may come as a shock to anyone who wasn’t necessarily aware just how much darker they once were. Analysing this, I am starting to doubt that the film adaptations of fairy tales really are trying to tie up with the older versions. It seems to me, they are simply readapted as adventure films with a more realistic approach than the ones Disney produced.

The example above is only an observation, and I don’t want to come to such a conclusion before making a few other case studies. It is only based on one film, and seeing the long string of re-adaptations that have been made in the past few years, I need to deepen my research to see if this hypothesis is potentially valid.

 

Merle. C, 2012. Demention [online]. Available at: http://dementionblog.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/real-life-isnt-always-pretty-so-why.html [Accessed 07 November 2014]

MESLOW. S, 2012. Available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/05/fairy-tales-started-dark-got-cute-and-are-now-getting-dark-again/257934/2/ [Accessed 07 November 2014]

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