Why can’t Hollywood get it right when it comes to fairy tales? Films that allude to fairy tales or have fairy-tale subtexts are often more powerful than straight adaptations from source material. Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is one example, but there are many others ranging from Pil Sung-Yim’s Hansel and Gretel to Christoph Hochhaeusler’s Milchwald. Take a look at Jack Zipes’s Enchanted Screen for hundreds of great examples of fairy-tale films.
Sometimes it’s easier to do the lazy thing and just adapt from public domain material. As Charlie Jane Anders writes:
Fairytales don’t have a lesson at the end, unlike fables — but here’s a lesson anyway: Hansel and Gretel were a public-domain piece of intellectual property, with name recognition and a connection to the hot fairy-tale brand. They were, in other words, already fattened up. Also, these two versions of Hansel represent two obvious ways of tackling the material in a way that appeals to a PG-13 audience: campy send-up, or slack-jawed action.
And here’s Ethan Gilsdorf on Hollywood’s fairy-tale obsession:
After nearly a century of fairy-tale films targeted in large part at kids — starting with Walt Disney’s 1937Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs — there’s another, edgier treatment on the rise. Last year, moviegoers saw two versions of the Grimm Brothers’ Snow White story in Mirror Mirror with Julia Roberts and Snow White and the Huntsman with Kristen Stewart. Next year, Angelina Jolie will star as Sleeping Beauty’s nemesis in Malificent, and Disney is looking to release a live-action version of Cinderella directed by Kenneth Branagh. We’ve recently seen movies like Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters and Jack the Giant Slayer in theaters and Grimm and Once Upon a Time on TV. The list goes on and on. What accounts for this boom in adult-sized fairy tales?
Part of the answer is that the stories and themes of the Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen never really left cineplexes — they’ve just been in better disguises. Working Girl, Pretty Woman, and Maid in Manhattanall borrowed heavily from the rags-to-riches Cinderella story. Snow White, so concerned with beauty and aging and jealousy, can be seen in countless mother/daughter rivalry plots. “We use bits and pieces of fairy tales all the time to fashion new stories, but often in ways so subtle that they escape our attention,” says Maria Tatar, chairwoman of the Program in Folklore & Mythology at Harvard University. Even Quentin Tarantino’s bloody Django Unchained, Tatar points out, draws from the Sleeping Beauty tale.