Fairy Tales Started Dark, Got Cute, and Are Now Getting Dark Again

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The action-packed Snow White and the Huntsman is less a subversion of an old story than a return to one.

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Universal Pictures

"I guess you think you know this story.

You don't. The real one's much more gory.

The phoney one, the one you know

Was cooked up years and years ago,

And made to sound all soft and sappy

Just to keep the children happy."

–"Cinderella," by Roald Dahl

In the first minute of the trailer for Snow White & the Huntsman, Charlize Theron's evil queen Ravenna strips naked, sucks the "youth" out of a teenage girl, and plots to rip Snow White's heart from her chest. Given that most people think of Snow White as an innocent girl twirling through a forest, singing about the someday when her prince will come, this is less a trailer and more a statement of purpose: This story isn't for children anymore.

Snow White & The Huntsman is, yes, another fairy-tale film adaptation aimed at adults, coming on the heels of this year's Mirror, Mirror, last year's Red Riding Hood, and dozens of other works in the past decade. They're the latest in the long but accelerating trend that's undoing Disney's 20th century work of transform horrifying folk stories into genial animated musicals. While such retellings may seem subversive, they're actually throwbacks, marking a return to what these tales originally were—before, even, the Brothers Grimm got their hands on them.

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The contemporary idea of the fairy tale can be traced to 1812, when Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm published a collection of folk stories called Children's and Household Tales—now much more commonly known as Grimm's Fairy Tales. From "Rapunzel" to "Hansel and Gretel," from "Cinderella" to "Sleeping Beauty," and all the way up to "Little Snow White." By contemporary standards, the Grimms' original stories are packed with violence and sex: "The Juniper Tree" features a stepmother killing her stepson and serving him to his father in a stew, and "Darling Roland" features a mother-to-daughter axe murder, to name two of many examples. (No word on a Disney adaptation of those two stories yet.)

But despite the often-disturbing content of the stories, the Grimms' primary contribution to fairy tales was making them tamer. As author and scholar Maria Tartar notes in her seminal book, The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales:

Wilhelm Grimm rewrote the tales so extensively and went so far in the direction of eliminating off-color episodes that he can be credited with sanitizing folktales and thereby paving the way for the process that made them acceptable children's literature in all cultures.

If the Grimm brothers can be credited with the beginning of fairy-tale sanitation, there's another man who gets credit for carrying their standard into the 20th century: Walt Disney. When Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—the first feature-length cartoon by the company, and the 10th highest-grossing film of all time, when adjusted for inflation—it began a genre that would keep the company afloat for decades (and of course, it doesn't hurt that the vast majority of fairy-tale characters are in the public domain, making them free for anyone to use—that's how we can get two "Snow White" movies and one "Snow White" TV series within the same year). But it also set the template for the contemporary concept of the fairy tale: a whimsical, animated story appropriate enough for the entire family. In the years that followed, the company released its sanitized animated versions of Grimm stories like "Cinderella" and "Sleeping Beauty"—and its take on more recent stories like Alice in Wonderland—to significant critical and commercial success. (There's a reason, after all, that the colloquial term for sanitization is "Disneyfication.")

Despite the often-disturbing content of the stories, the Grimms' primary contribution to fairy tales was making them tamer.

Nothing breeds parody like success, and it didn't take long for self-aware riffs on Disney's earnest fairy-tale adaptations to emerge (see Rocky & Bullwinkle's "Fractured Fairy Tales" shorts for a brilliant example, and Warner Brothers' "Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs" for a particularly awful one). But while the older, un-Disney fairy-tale parodies were intended for children, the newer versions that have come to prominence in recent years are meant for adults.

It's no coincidence that the adultification of the fairy tale happened over the same time period in which the children who'd originally enjoyed the Disney versions grew up, and surprisingly little needs to be changed to turn a children's story into an adult-oriented (and adult-rated) film. Despite the best efforts of the Grimm brothers, Walt Disney, and their contemporaries, fairy tales can never be completely separated from their darker origins. Stories like "Little Red Riding Hood" have barely-concealed themes about violence, sex, and the loss of innocence that can never be fully expunged. All it takes is a filmmaker like Neil Jordan (The Company of Wolves) or Catherine Hardwicke (Red Riding Hood) to bring them to the fore.

But there's a final wrinkle to the subversive fairy-tale trend: From movies like Snow White & the Huntsman to TV shows like Grimm and Once Upon a Time, a twisted fairy tale only works if the audience has enough knowledge of the original stories to appreciate how they're being subverted—a knowledge that contemporary children are getting further and further away from. From the Shrek franchise to lesser imitators like Hoodwinked! and Happily N'Ever After, and up to Disney's own Enchanted, contemporary children have grown up with more subversive fairy tales than actual fairy tales. Pixar, the best and most prominent studio currently making animated films for children, has one pivotal difference from Disney: It has never made a movie based on a previously-existing story.

In many ways, the reverse-sanitization of the fairy tale is a return to the origins of stories that were, in their earliest forms, only "related at adult gatherings after children had been put to bed for the night." As adults turn on an episode of Grimm after reading their children to sleep, or see Snow White & the Hunstman while their kids stay at home with a sitter, they're embracing a concept of the fairy tale that predates even the Grimm Brothers—a trend appropriate enough for the oldest stories of all.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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