Fairy Tales on Film: “Why Grandma, what big teeth you have…!”

Two films stand out for me with regards to the retelling Little Red Riding Hood as it was meant to be told i.e. as an enchanting, dark and sinister fairy tale. The first being a childhood favorite, The Company of Wolves (1984) and the second, the recent Red Riding Hood (2011) released last year as part of the influx of fairy tales on film. Two very different films in my opinion, with The Company of Wolves by far exceeding in quality of story and screenplay but both getting the atmosphere spot on. 

The Company of Wolves is one of those films which I remember watching a lot growing up. More specifically the opening dream sequence with giant dolls in a creepy woodland, the (at the time) very creepy scene of the dog jumping through the window at the end – trust me that was scary for some reason! And also the bizarre scene where the guests at a 17th century aristocratic wedding are cursed and turn into wolves at the dinner table, their chunky paws breaking through thier court shoes! But I digress. 

The Company of Wolves, albeit not everyone’s cup of tea, really is a fantastic imagining of this popular fairy tale. Based on Angela Carter’s novel, it looks at Little Red Riding Hood from a more psychoanalytical approach. More specifically focusing on the sexual awakening of a young girl and the dangers this presents, all expressed through subtle metaphors: Rosaleen’s white (pure) dress hanging up on her bedroom door, the red cloak given to her at the same time as her first date, the mysterious man who captivates her but who is in fact a werewolf, the constant warnings from her Grandmother not to “stray from the path” (the “path” being both literal and figurative). As soon as Rosaleen strays from the path, she is at the mercy of dangerous men, but this just seems inevitable during the film.

What’s most fascinating about this film is the many layers involved in the story. From the start you are aware that you are being pulled into Rosaleen’s dream. Then within her dream we are able to see the stories her Grandmother tells her. This inter-weaving of tales and dreamlike atmosphere really adds to the overall affect of the film, as does the mixture of the past and present. Her dream takes place in a typical fantasy/fairy tale forest and seems to be set in the past by their dress and their general way of life. But then we have scenes including a1920s motor car with a chauffeur. It all just adds to the mysterious, almost ethereal, atmosphere of the film.

It was Charles Perrault who originally wrote Little Red Riding Hood in 1697 and The Company of Wolves follows this original tale insofar as it is the huntsman who leads Rosaleen away from the path and then attacks her Grandmother (he being the wolf in disguise). His transition into the wolf is both painful and fascinating to watch, (even if its just to appreciate the level of “special effects” at the time!), and its scenes like this one which push this film slightly into the horror genre. The end of the film sees Rosaleen taming the wolf and turning into one herself, having “embraced her womanhood” and finding her mate who she manages to tame in the end. 

The general tone and ambiance of this film is spot on when it comes to conveying a classic fairytale like Little Red Riding Hood, but focusing on the gothic, almost macabre side of it. It was suitably enchanting yet sinister. The psychoanalytical undertones and the dream-within a dream storyline only added to its overall charm and, for me, it’s a classic.

Last year another reworking of Little Red Riding Hood came out: Red Riding Hood starring Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman. This one did not have as much depth as The Company of Wolves but it certainly had a similar atmosphere. The problem with this film, which I think dragged it down right from the start, was the immediate comparisons to the Twilight franchise. Amanda Seyfried was perfect casting for the lead role and the press releases of her in her deep red cloak against the pure white snow in a gothic forest seemed to hit the nail on the head as far as I was concerned. But then you have the addition of the two lead males/love interests, complete with their emo haircuts and soulful eyes and it goes down the toilet along with the other Twilight-y copycats that have come out over the last few years. Not to mention the slightly dodgy special affects when it came to the wolf. (By the way, what is it with that anyway? Even the latest Twilight film, with their big budget, couldn’t pull off CGI wolves well enough so save people from frowning at the screen and saying…”really?”). But, story and crappy romance aside, the overall look of the film was fantastic. For me the cinematography i.e. set design, lighting and the general ambiance conveyed throughout, personified “dark fairytale” for me and for that alone (along with the brilliant Gary Oldman of course) it should have done well – or at least better than it did! 

So there were are. Two films based on the same fairytale. Two very different approaches. But both, more or less, achieving that “dark fairytale on film” which seems to be more and more popular these days. I know which one I prefer, but I am still delighted that there are films like this out there and more to come: keeping fairy tales dark and gritty as they were meant to be! 🙂

Fairy Tales on Film Week!

I came across this article a few days ago. Although it is over a year old I still found it quite an interesting read.

http://www.npr.org/2011/01/21/132705579/the-fairy-tale-struggles-to-live-happily-ever-after

Apparently Disney is starting to move away from the fairy tales they famously favored all these years. Which is strange given that their logo is a fairy tale castle! After years of churning out countless classic fairy tales they now seem less enthusiastic about continuing with these retellings, Tangled being the last one of note that did relatively well.Image

The importance of Disney in keeping an interest in fairy tales should never be underestimated. Classics such as Snow White (their first feature-length film), Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are undoubtedly timeless and enchanting. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty in particular seemed to retain the original darkness and disturbing nature of the Brothers Grimm versions. But, as the years went on, Disney fairy tale adaptations got brighter and brighter and (in my opinion!) cheesier, for example The Princess and the Frog and Tangled. These days a lot of people would associate fairy tales such as Cinderella with the bright and happy Disney version complete with singing mice, Prince’s with whiter than white teeth and songs such as ‘Bippity Boppity Boo!’. However, their films were (maybe even unintentionally) tailored more towards younger girls who like to dress up as their favorite Disney princess and ride off with their dashing Prince. So whilst Disney has done an awful lot for fairy tales, and I myself grew up watching them too, they have also done a bit of (for want of a better word) damage to the original versions. But, as it says in the article, it appears that times have changed.

However, I have noticed a recent invasion of darker fairy tales on film, in a very distinct move away from Disney. Red Riding Hood with Amanda Seyfried, released last year, Snow White and the Huntsmen released this year with Kristen Stewart and Jack and the Giant Killer for 2013 to name a few. That’s not to say there hasn’t been a steady flow of dark and gritty fairy tales on-screen throughout the years. In fact some of my favorite childhood films are fairy tales of the more sinister persuasion. But this recent influx of ‘Grimm style’ tales only goes to show that people still want to see their childhood favorites told as they were meant to be told: as enchanting yet sometimes disturbing tales of mystery, magic and danger. And what I would like to do over the next week or so is an overview of fairy tales on film: past, present and future, focusing on those films which are loyal to the original darker and more sinister tales. 

So here we are…it’s my “Fairytales on Film” week! Join me as I go through Red Riding Hood adaptations, stop-motion features, fairy tale horrors, the future of fairy tales on film and much more!

 

Dancing to the Piper’s Tune…

As previously mentioned in my posts The Frog Prince never ranked that high in my list of favourite fairy tales, growing up. The Pied Piper however was always one of my favourites. The story is sinister, unsettling and tragic and it certainly does not end happily ever after. I’m not trying to suggest I was a creepy, disturbed child who only enjoyed tales of misery and death; I merely liked the tale because it stood out from the rest.

For me, my favourite fairy tales were split into two categories. You had tales such as Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, The Frog Prince and Cinderella. Although still dark and disturbed tales in their own right due to the Brother’s Grimm, they were still essentially romances with ‘Happily Ever Afters’ tagged onto the end. Then you had tales such as The Pied Piper, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel and Rumplestiltskin which did not follow the traditional romantic route and ended in violence and even tragedy. Mix these two types of stories together in a collection, as the Brothers Grimm did, and you have a truly fantastic anthology of enchanting, romantic, disturbing and brutal stories.

Back to the Pied Piper though, one of the most intriguing facts about this fairy tale is that it is based on an actual event in history. In the story Hamelin town is infested with rats. A stranger comes through the town and offers to rid them of their rats for a small fee and they accept. Playing his pipe, the piper lures the rats out of the town and takes them to a river where they drown. However, the town refuses to pay and the piper leaves promising they will regret that decision. Later that night he returns and, like the rats, lures the town’s children away and takes them to the same river where they drown. More sanitized versions have the piper shut them away in a cave until the townspeople paid up. It is quite a dark and hypnotic tale of revenge.

In the 1300s in Hamelin, Germany, it is recorded that the town “lost” their children. There was recorded to be a stained glass window in the church depicting a “pied piper” taking the children away. How they were really lost has never been verified. Some speculated that the children died, the pied piper being a manifestation of death, leading them away from this world. The inclusion of the rats in the tale naturally led to the argument that the children died of the plague. Some have even suggested the children did not die but merely emigrated or were recruited. Whatever happened to the children, their disappearance was referenced in 1384 in the town chronicles which states:

“It is 100 years since our children left.”,

The tale itself is therefore given more substance and depth, being based on a true story.

The story of a strange man luring hundreds of rats from a town through music, then returning for the town’s children to punish the adults for not paying what was owed is truly a haunting premise. What makes it more sinister is the peculiar character of the piper. It is never explained who he is, where he came from or exactly how he could lure animals and people by his music. The ambiguous and haunting nature of the tale just made it all the more fascinating to me and that is why I chose The Pied Piper to be the second in my ‘Fairy Tales in Rhyme’ series on kindle. I wanted to capture that mysterious and evocative atmosphere of the story and give it that hypnotic rhythm that only rhyme can achieve. So for those of you who, like myself, find yourself drawn to piper’s tune, please check it out at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Piper-rhyme-Fairytales-Rhyme-ebook/dp/B007GPYMEC/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1332498255&sr=8-2

….Walking through the empty streets, lit by soft moonlight,

The cobbles shone a silver blue, the houses fringed with white.

And as he walked he played a tune, an eerie, haunting sound,

A ghostly mist like bony fingers crept along the ground.

 

The tune it echoed through the streets, it hung upon the air,

It spread through sewers into houses, up and down their stairs.

The tune caressed every corner within old Hamelin town.

Its melody like flowing water, within which you could drown.

 

When he reached its very edge, the town, in moonlight shone,

Thomas Bard lowered his pipe, but still the tune played on.

Tiny shadows began to move, little dots of black,

Scampered from both house and sewer, though each and every crack.

 

A thousand paws so lightly tapped a soft and rhythmic beat,

They joined together, moved as one as one, a rippling black sheet.

Thomas Bard began to walk towards the distant woods,

He wrapped his cloak around his chest, pulling up its hood….

Kissing the frog…

The Frog Prince wasn’t always one of my favourite fairy tales, in fact it was quite low down on my list. The princess always came across as selfish, childish and a little spoilt. I never understood why the frog wanted her so badly and the overall story lacked sentiment in my opinion. For those of you who are thinking of the Disney versions and modern retellings you would of course disagree with me. But I am referring to the original telling of the story. The Brothers Grimm bought that usual darkness to the tale which I love, but as a “romance” it really falls short. Then again, I believe it was never intended to be told as one. These days, however, the story is often used as a point of reference for romance in general, for women struggling to find love: “You have to kiss a lot of frogs before finding your prince!”

Whilst playing with a golden ball, her favourite toy, the princess drops it into a pond. Incredibly upset, she attracts the attention of a frog who offers to retrieve it for her if she promises to let him stay with her. She makes the promise knowing she has no intention of keeping it and runs away when she has her ball back. The frog follows her to the castle and begs her to keep her vow. Initially she tries to ignore the “disgusting frog” but her father, learning of her promise, forces her to keep it. After a few days of the frog following her around he turns into a prince and they marry. The end. Different versions have it happen in different ways. In some he merely changes, in the Grimm version she throws the frog against the wall in disgust. But the most famous of course is the kiss – leading to the more romantic interpretations.

For me I always assumed the story was about never judging a book by its cover. But I believe that Beauty and the Beast delivered this sentiment far more sympathetically than the Frog Prince. Although initially shocked by the Beast’s appearance and tempestuous character, Belle learns to love him for who he is and would have stayed with him even if he had never reverted back to his human form. In the Frog Prince there is a distinct lack of such sentiment. The princess never really grows to love the prince until he has changed into a far more attractive form. Naturally this is not the case in modern retellings which aim to make the story much more romantic and moralistic like Beauty and the Beast. But with regards to the original tale, The Frog Prince has never “grabbed” me as much as the others in terms of sympathy for the main characters and the moral message that they try to convey.

However, when I started to rewrite it in rhyme I began to appreciate it more. There is an understated darkness and sorrow to the tale which I had never appreciated before. The sadness and desperation of a prince trapped in a frog’s body. A lonely princess who is no stranger to solitude, starved of love and affection, finally finding companionship in the strangest of places. And then it occurred to me. A fervent champion of the Brothers Grimm over Disney, I actually discovered that the tale worked better when the two “types” were mixed together. Separately they do not work for me. The Brothers Grimm version is too unsympathetic and unsentimental. The “Disney-fied”, romantic versions are too idealistic and sugary. But a mixture of the two really works, combining the Grimm’s customary darkness and bittersweet outlook and the romance of the newer and better known versions.

My version of the tale is available on Amazon kindle through Kindle Direct Publishing, and here is a quick snippet from it below:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Prince-rhyme-Fairytales-Rhyme-ebook/dp/B0078K4GH8/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1332159600&sr=8-2

…She threw the ball into the air but on the balls descent,

It bounced right off her fingertips, into the pond it went.

With great dismay she watched it sink into the murky deep,

She could not reach nor even swim, and so began to weep.

 

“Alas! If I could have my ball, there’s nothing I won’t give!

My jewels, my clothes, my very crown – without these I can live.

But not my ball; my mother’s gift, please don’t say it’s lost!

I’d have it back safe in my hands, indeed, at any cost!”

 

By the pond she sat for hours, such bitter tears she cried.

Then with a shriek she jumped in fright: a frog was sat beside!

A slimy hand upon her skirt, with giant eyes he gazed,

Then hopped onto the poor girls lap. She stared at him, amazed…

Whose Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?…Anyone?

I saw this in the newspaper a few weeks ago and found it very sad.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-17024101

I think it’s such a shame these days that children are not getting to enjoy these wonderful fairy tales as they were originally written: as tales laced with danger and a sinister, dark atmosphere. In the world of the Brothers Grimm danger lurked around every corner. Children were not safe and rarely protected from evil by their parents, in fact in most cases their parents/step parents were the source of the evil. The bad guys had no shred of humanity and no back story to explain how they had become the way they were. Not all the characters were innately good, even the hero’s and heroines, and the bad guys could not always be “saved” in the end, be it through repentance or an act of self-sacrificing goodness. What’s more the main antagonists, more often that not, met with very grisly ends! The witch in Hansel and Gretel burned to death in her own oven, Cinderella’s evil stepsisters had their eyes plucked out by birds, Red Riding Hood’s wolf was brutally hacked to death by the woodsman and Snow Whites stepmother was forced to wear iron shoes and dance till she dropped dead!

Naturally it is quite right that some parents may consider these details too graphic for young children and may feel the need to tone them down, as they already have been over the years. But choosing not to tell them at all is just a bit too drastic in my opinion. These tales have been around for hundreds of years. Even the Brothers Grimm were not the original writers. They gathered their stories from various story-tellers, peasants, servants and even aristocrats who in turn had had these tales passed on to them. They really are timeless tales and they certainly didn’t do me any harm! The darkness and the danger made them more thrilling to hear and to read. These tales also convey important moral messages to children: the dangers of talking to strangers and straying from the path (Little Red Riding Hood), the destructive nature of vanity (Snow White), the repercussions of boasting and bragging (Rumpelstiltskin) and the consequences of failing to pay what is owed/ breaking a promise (The Pied Piper). 

I think one of the worst retellings I have heard so far is for Little Red Riding Hood, whereby instead of eating Grandma to snare his prey, the “Big Bad Wolf” has tea with her and Little Red Riding Hood and then goes on his merry way! Fairy tales should never be dull like that. Whilst they should always be enchanting, magical and even romantic, they should also be exciting, unpredictable, dangerous, scary, sinister and disturbing. It seems like a lot to ask from a short story doesn’t it? But trying giving Snow White, Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty another read (the original versions of course) and you’ll find all the above in those stories, which is really quite amazing isn’t it…?

Why rhyme? And why mice?

A lot of people have asked me that (the first question of course), especially because rhyme is not everyone’s cup of tea! But I started writing in rhyme a long time ago, more specifically in letters to my Grandmother and namely about the mice which lived in our house for the best part of a year. The problem got worse and worse so my mum, not wishing to be mean, used those humane traps and placed them in a cabinet under the bathroom sink (where they mainly used to congregate). I realized the problem was more complex than I initially thought when I got home from work one day to find my mum, dad and brother all holed up in our small bathroom, whispering. When I went in they were captivated, watching the mice “play” in amongst the shaving cream and deodorant cans. I left them to it, speechless. The next bizarre occurrence was the lengths they went to to get the mice away from our house without resorting to the “death traps”. Once the humane traps were full my mum would take them to the local churchyard (late at night) and set them free. This “Resident Mouse Relocation Programme” lasted as long as it took for me to tell her that the mice probably got back to our house before she did! I suggested she tie a blindfold around each one and spin them round to confuse them but she weirdly didn’t take my advice. However, strangely, they did decide to start driving to the next village and letting them out in a field. It was a valiant, albeit extreme, attempt on my parent’s behalf to solve their problem without hurting the mice.

However, the problem started to get out of hand. The turning point finally came when we started to notice heavily pregnant mice and baby mice running around. Another “significant event” would be when two mice fell out of the top kitchen cupboard and a third was found in dad’s cornflake box, munching away without a care in the world. So mum admitted defeat and reluctantly resorted to the real traps, although sometimes she would forget to set them once the peanut butter had been applied. Again, she was not amused when I informed her that technically she was putting on an all night buffet for house guests. Eventually though, the problem started to ease and the rest of the mice seemed to flee. Their “Haven” now seemingly a house of horrors.

When I wrote to my Grandmother to tell her our news and to tell her of the mice’s adventures in our house (of course from their perspective) I found that writing it in rhyme was much more fun. She in turn would then write back with further tales of their misadventures and it is something we have kept up to this day. And, in many ways, we have my mother’s resolute kindness and sympathy for our furry friends to thank for that. She was, for quite some time, the “Champion of the Mice” in our household.

Rhyme can give stories another layer; make them more exciting and descriptive. It gives a new rhythm (literally) to a story. I have found that, especially when coupled with fairy tales, rhyme can give a story a new lease of life and make it even more magical and enchanting. As I said before, rhyme may not be everyone’s cup of tea which is fair enough. But I would still recommend you to give it another try – you may be pleasantly surprised!