With Maleficent arriving in theaters this weekend, I can't help thinking that fairy tales really are the gift that keeps on giving.
For good or bad (I haven't actually seen Maleficent yet, so I can't vouch for it), stories penned by the likes of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Perrault and countless other fairy-tale authors have been popping up on the big screen nearly as long as there's been a “big screen.” And the list of fairy tales that have served as the source material for movies just keeps getting longer every year.
Sure, for every heartwarming Hook or The Wizard of Oz, there's a thoroughly disappointing Beastly or 2011's Red Riding Hood, but you have to respect the existence of centuries-old stories that are so compelling that Hollywood – and audiences – can't help revisiting them every few years (or in the case of 2012's Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, sometimes twice in a single year).
Over 300 years separates Maleficent and the fairy tale that inspired it, and it seems like a safe bet that Perrault's story “La belle au bois dormant” won't be disappearing from popular culture anytime soon.
While that's all well and good, another reason I've been thinking about fairy tales a lot lately is because it occurred to me during a recent backyard barbecue that many of the kids running around the yard will likely grow up seeing the stories of Sleeping Beauty and Peter Pan interpreted in various forms as often as Spider-Man or Batman's origin stories will be told and retold in movies, television or other media. On the big screen, superhero stories have become just another fairy tale to be adapted, reimagined and seen through the eyes of directors with very different visions for their subject.
And honestly, I'm okay with that – because not only is it vitally important to keep great stories alive through telling and retelling them over time, but much like Hollywood's track record with superheroes, the hits have been worth the misses when it comes to movies based on fairy tales.
Along with all of the animated adaptations of classic fairy tales that Disney and other studios have given us, we've had live-action films like Hook or Splash push fairy tales around the corner from “kid-friendly” to “family-friendly” fare. Films like Ever After and Enchanted have made fairy tales into date-night material, while movies like The NeverEnding Story and The Princess Bride have introduced audiences to lesser known, fantastic stories. On the far end of the spectrum, films like Sleepy Hollow and Black Swan have entirely removed children from the target audience for their interpretations of classic fairy tales with dark, brooding and occasionally quite graphic reimaginings of fables and folklore.
Heck, throw in Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters and The Matrix (a sci-fi spin on Alice In Wonderland at heart) and we've even had action movies inspired by fairy tales. (And don't even get me started on Ellen Page's ultra-creepy, R-rated spin on Red Riding Hood in 2005's Hard Candy.)
Like superhero stories, fairy tales have been a fount of inspiration for filmmakers, and since this column is usually devoted to pondering the former, it seemed acceptable to spend at least one installment celebrating the latter. Classic fairy tales are, after all, what groomed many of us for the weird, wonderful worlds of comic books, video games and high fantasy in all its forms.
Of course, movies aren't the only media to benefit from dipping into the waters of fairy-tale nostalgia. Both Once Upon a Time and Grimm have found success on the television side of things and helped usher in a renaissance of sorts for fairy tales on the small screen. While Once Upon a Time relies on a cast of characters that hail from a magical, fairy tale world that existed prior to – and occasionally in parallel with – our own, Grimm follows an agent charged with policing the creatures of fairy tales and legends that have existed all along in our own world, hidden from human eyes.
Meanwhile, writer Bill Willingham's award-winning comic book series Fables will conclude next year after a long run as one of DC's top-selling monthly titles, drawing to a close its chronicle of the lives of “Bigby” Wolf, Snow White, the Frog Prince and the rest of the “fables” who were exiled to a small neighborhood in modern New York City after a brutal war in their magical homeland. Over the course of its 13-year run, the series has found fertile ground in the land of fables, with Willingham mining not just European and American folklore, but also the myths and legends of the Middle East, Africa and various other continents and cultures. Plans for a movie based on the series were announced in June last year, adding yet another project based on classic fairy tales to the upcoming slate of big-screen projects in the works.
While it's the most prominent series based on fairy tales, Willingham's Fables is far from alone in tapping into the rich world of fables and folklore. Along with various spin-off series from Fables that have carved out their own continuities – namely, Jack of Fables and Fairest – Zenescope Entertainment's long-running Grimm Fairy Tales has offered up a more mature, darker spin on various tales set within the Brothers Grimm's famous stories. Even Marvel Comics has gotten in on the action with multiple series that cast some of the publisher's famous characters in reimagined fairy tales, such as 2006's X-Men Fairy Tales and its successors, Spider-Man Fairy Tales and Avengers Fairy Tales.
If nothing else, all of these projects only serve to further blur the lines between fairy tales and superhero stories – if there ever was a line, that is.
Gamers have similarly benefited from drawing on the world of fairy tales, with popular franchises like Disney's Kingdom Hearts bringing players into the world of Alice in Wonderland and other classic stories that have been reinterpreted by the studio over the years. American McGee's Alice put a bloody, mature-audience spin on the famous fairy tale, while the recently released, chapter-based game based on the Fables comic, The Wolf Among Us, offered up yet another angle on fairy tales as gaming fodder.
And yet the titles I've mentioned here are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the influence of fairy tales on the geekiest corners of the multimedia landscape. While it may be a great time to be a fan of superhero stories right now, it's definitely been a great time to be a fan of fairy tales for a far, far longer span of time – and whether Maleficent succeeds or fails at the box office, it won't be the last we've heard of the tale of Sleeping Beauty.
All things considered, I just can't help wondering if, a few generations from now, there will be any distinction at all between a story about a witch who casts a sleeping spell on a beautiful princess and one about a boy who gets bitten by a radioactive spider.
Question of the Week: What is your favorite film, book, game or show based on a fairy tale?
Rick Marshall is an award-winning writer and editor whose work can be found at Movies.com, as well as MTV News, Fandango, Digital Trends, IFC.com, Newsarama, and various other online, print, and on-air news outlets. He's been called a “Professional Geek” by ABC News and Spike TV, and his personal blog can be found at MindPollution.org. You can find him on Twitter as @RickMarshall.
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