Fairy Tales on Film: Original Fairy Tales Part 2

OK, so my “Fairy Tales on Film Week” is kind of being spread over a fortnight but hey ho! This is Part 2, looking at two more recent original fairy tales on film. There were a few to choose from but there is one film that simply cannot be left out – Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). This film is and will remain in my top ten films of all time and, coming from someone who watches a ridiculous amount of films that is quite high! (I have a film studies degree if that makes me sound a little cooler…I doubt it though)

Pan’s Labyrinth starts off with a fairy tale about Princess Moanna (daughter of the King of the underworld) who becomes curious about the world above. Blinded by the sunlight, she loses her memory, becomes ill and dies. The King, lost in grief, believes that her spirit will return to the underworld someday. The film then cuts to post-Civil war Spain with young Ofelia and her pregnant mother travelling out to meet her new stepfather: a cruel and sadistic fascist. She meets an array of unusual mystical creatures including a fairy (which looks like a large stick insect) and a faun. The faun gives her 3 tasks to complete to prove she is the princess Moanna in essence. Her first task is to retrieve a key from a giant frog (which was visually fantastic!), then to retrieve a dagger from a child-eating monster with eyes in his hands who nearly catches her. Her final task is to rescue her baby brother from her stepfather and take him into the labyrinth. This is the most dangerous task of all as her stepfather is now viciously out of control having brutally murdered a number of rebels and even caused the death of her own mother. Once in the labyrinth with her brother Ofelia refuses to harm him (the faun wants blood from his finger to open up the portal to the underworld). Her stepfather catches up to her and shoots her, and is then killed himself coming out of the labyrinth. Ofelia’s blood opens the portal and she is reunited with her family as Princess Moanna. Sacrificing her own blood was in fact the final part of the faun’s test, proving her essence was complete.

This film has all the building blocks of a fantastic dark fairy tale. A child with her head full of fairy tales clashing with a wicked and tyrannical step parent, a task/mission with 3 steps (3 being the magical number in fairy tales – things always come in threes!) and a significant increase in the danger as the stories progress. The film has a happily ever after but it is somewhat bittersweet, as Ofelia has to die to return to the underworld. I also loved the coupling of a fantasy world with post-war Spain– the contrast was really effective. Guillermo del Toro really is a gifted director. His films are so full of atmosphere and tension and that line between fantasy and reality is never quite clear e.g. The Orphanage and Devil’s Backbone.

I honestly have not met a single person who has watched Pan’s Labyrinth and did not like it! Even those who steer clear from subtitled films as a rule. With its mix of magical legend, violence, danger and sinister atmosphere coupled with fantastical and dangerous creatures and a war-ravaged setting it truly is an original and classic fairy tale on film. 

My second film is a lot more light hearted: Stardust (2007). Adapted from a book by Neil Gaiman, it is truly just a lovely, colourful and enchanting film. The author even described it as such: “It’s a fairytale. It’s like an ice cream. It’s to make you feel happy when you finish it.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/oct/13/film.fiction)

Stardust is a rip roaring love story with witches, feuding princes, protective unicorns, a quest for a fallen star in human form and pirates in a flying ship catching lightening for a living. Add to the mix Robert De Niro dancing to the can can in a tutu and what more could you really ask for?

Stardust proves that “fairy tale” films don’t have to necessarily be dark and sinister like Pan’s Labyrinth, or have a deeper psychoanalytical/sexual subtext like Company of Wolves or Black Swan to appeal to adults. Stardust is a perfect fairy tale film for adults and children alike, much like the Shrek series. Silly in places (the can can and Ricky Gervais playing the part of Ricky Gervais for example) it is also very sweet with just the right amount of cheese. It reminded me a lot of The Princess Bride (1987), which was another contender for original fairy tale film of the 80s, with its comedy characters and snappy script.

A relatively unknown fairy tale (when compared to the likes of Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood I mean) this film could not rely on familiarity with the tale to bring in audiences. Instead, along with a star studded cast and vibrant special affects (which can’t hurt!), it achieved its success as a fairy tale on film through its exciting, enchanting and romantic plot. As such it ranks very high as a contemporary fairy tale on film!

So there you have it: fairy tales on film, both from the 80s and from more recent years, all of which tell highly original and enchanting tales. Some are darker and more gruesome than others, some are brighter and more fun, some are even quite twisted in their own way but all of them are fantastic fairy tales on film that will keep on enchanting audiences, both old and young for many years to come.


Fairy Tales on Film: Original Fairy Tales Part 1

So I have looked at adaptations of Little Red Riding Hood and later on I will be looking at fairy tales such as Snow White and Hansel and Gretel and how they have been translated on film. For this post, however, I would like to look at original fairy tales on film, so films which have created their very own unique fairy tale. There were too many to choose from so I have split this post into two parts. The first part will be two films from the 80s and the second part will cover two more recent original fairy tale films.

Now you may think that any fantasy film can fall under the umbrella of a ‘fairy tale’ but the choices I have made I have always considered as fairy tales due to their general storylines and the atmosphere they convey. The main connection between them is the suggestion of history behind the story and the foundations of myth, legend and folklore that push the narrative forward. Also their similarities to well known fairy tales in terms of the general themes and plot. Not to mention the many crazy, fantastical creatures, the enchanting but slightly unnerving atmosphere and that element of danger and impending darkness that runs through each of them. 

My first film from the 80s is The Dark Crystal (1982). I find it hard to find the words to express how fantastic this film truly is and how much I loved it growing up (and still do!). It’s such an incredibly dark story with a wealth of fantastical creatures. Some of them are cute and delightful like the Podlings or even beautiful and graceful like the Gelflings. The Mystics are enchanting with their aged fragility and gentleness. Then of course there’s the Skeksis, grotesque and vulture-like with their henchmen the Garthim: scary and soulless giant beetles.

The story is based on the legend of the Mystics and Skeksis who were once one race of beings but were split in two when the ‘Crystal of Truth’ was shattered: the best qualities going into the Mystics and the worst into the Skeksis. It is Gelfling Jen’s destiny to reunite them by completing the Crystal using the remaining shard. There is so much more to the story though, including the Skeksis’ sinister quest for youth by draining it from the enslaved Podling’s, the battle between them for who will be their new emperor, and Jen finding his soul mate Kira when he thought he was the last of his kind.

What truly makes this film magical is the (revolutionary at the time) seamless use of puppets for all of the characters. I strongly believe that this film is a perfect example of how CGI (no matter how much it has evolved) isn’t the be all and end all to achieve fantastical characters or situations. The puppeteer’s give their characters life and emotion through their movement. They are far more real than a CGI creation could ever be. The story itself is intricate and laced with the qualities that make dark fairy tales so captivating. A story which features an age old legend, a quest based on the main characters destiny, an evil which is scouring the land and a vivid, mystical landscape with unusual creatures and a life of its own. Partner that with the artistic genius of Brian Froud, who was the concept artist, the unique vision and style of director Jim Henson and finally a beautiful and at times dramatic soundtrack and you have a truly magical, enchanting and somewhat sinister fairy tale on film: The Dark Crystal

My second film, from the genius of Jim Henson and Brian Froud again, is Labyrinth (1986). Any film that can retain its “dark fairy tale” atmosphere whilst also accommodating David Bowie in tighter than tight leggings and ridiculously catchy pop songs is going to be classic! Significantly lighter than The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth still uses puppets for the majority of its characters, bar the stars Jennifer Connolly and David Bowie. This mixture really adds to the juxtaposition of real life and fantasy as Sarah (Connolly) enters Jareth’s (Bowie) world, which thrives within an intricate Labyrinth leading to his castle. Jareth has taken her little brother Toby in answer to a wish made by Sarah in a temper, and will turn him into a goblin unless she can solve the labyrinth in thirteen hours. The story is not as intricate or rooted in its own legend as with The Dark Crystal but it certainly retains the usual characteristics of a classic fairy tale.

Sarah, her head full of fairy tales, maintains in the beginning that she is a Cinderella-like character with a wicked stepmother who does not care for her. But in her case the wish granted to her does not end up so well as she is thrown into a world which really isn’t as wonderful as she had always dreamed it would be. Like Snow White and her seven dwarves, Sarah makes unusual friends during her quest. She is often confronted with bizarre obstacles and riddles within the Labyrinth much like Alice and her adventures in Wonderland (not strictly a fairy tale, I know!). There is even a nod to Hansel and Gretel, when Sarah tries to mark the stones with lipstick to ensure she doesn’t get lost in the labyrinth. Quite aside from fairy tales it even delves into Greek mythology, with Sarah as a modern day Persephone, being drawn into the underworld by Hades (in this case Jareth) who wants to keep her there forever. All of these themes within the plot, the cinematography and magical use of a labyrinth all contribute to another fantastic original fairy tale on film.

Both Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal were very significant influences with me when writing Faerytale and the world I wanted to create within it. Both films contain worlds which are not only mystical and fantastical, but have un unearthly presence which goes beyond the strange creatures which inhabit it. The Dark Crystal embodies a world divided in two: both light and dark, but which ultimately should co-exist together in harmony. Whereas Labyrinth depicts the classic “dreamer” who gets her wish but soon begins to realize that not all fairy tales are romantic and enchanting adventures of discovery: they can be twisted and perilous. Both fantastic examples of original fairy tales on film from the 80s with both of them capturing that quintessentially dark and disturbing fairy tale ethos.



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.


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!