The Tug of Twisted Tales


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In
the last few years the popularity pendulum has swung back from realism to
fantasy.  In literature, the genre
is topping not just YA, but also adult best-seller lists.  Every network and cable television
station has added at least one new fantasy series, with everything from urban
to epic fantasies appearing on the small screen.  In just the last year, though, a new genre has overtaken
both: fairy-tale based fantasy. 
Though present in literature for a while now, twisted fairy-tales have
just recently exploded on screen, in blockbuster movies and hit new television
shows.  I have to admit I was
equally intrigued and leery at first, wondering how creators would make
children’s classics into something that appealed to adults.  Visions of sexed-up Disney movies
swarmed my brain.  But the writers
and producers of these works proved to be far more creative.

When someone from my generation thinks
of fairy tales, we picture a parade of animated Disney princesses with pearly
white smiles and puffy-sleeved gowns. (The more feminist tales like Mulan
weren’t out until we were well past our Disney-watching days.)  Even the old picture book of Grimm’s
fairy tales that my grandmother read me, with creepy trolls and haggard witches
were still relatively mild with happy endings for the heroes and glossed-over
fates of the more wicked creatures. 
There’s a reason for that: censorship.  The original book of Grimm’s tales, titled as a work for
children, was deemed too violent for the innocent youth of the time, so the
tales were revised.  After numerous
versions, what was left were the slightly more acceptable tales we were read as
impressionable kids.  (Did it not
bother people that Hansel and Gretel burned an old lady to death?)  The new twisted tales go back to the
roots of these stories, which examined the darker side of human nature:
jealousy, power, lust, and evil. 
They are not the stuff of bedtime stories, but they are terrific tales
for a more mature audience. 

The
real magic of these stories, though, is not what the modern creators maintained from
these tales, familiar characters and timeless themes, but what they added.  Some like NBC’s Grimm or ABC’s Once Upon a Time use a modern setting to suck in today’s audiences,
while Hollywood maintained more traditional settings in
Red Riding
Hood
and this summer’s hit, Snow
White and the Huntsman
.  Setting aside, though, all these
stories delve deeper into the back-story of the tales from which they are
derived.  These new twisted tales
have done for fairy tales, what Gregory Maguire’s
Wicked did for The Wizard of Oz, bringing them to life by adding layers of
sophistication and depth.  They
examine characters’ motivations and histories.  They explain why witches turned wicked and how pretty
princesses are anything but innocent. 
They turn the tales we thought we knew on their heads.  What these new versions add to the
well-known canon of the fairy tales of our childhoods is what makes them
terrifically entertaining as adults. 

As
paradoxical as it may seem, it takes an extraordinary amount of creativity to
re-envision tales the whole world knows into a new story audiences will watch
or read with baited breath, wondering just how it’ll all turn out.  Although I’m sure some who just want to
jump on the bandwagon will deliver some mediocre renditions, the tales out
there now are well worth reading and watching.  So next time you see Snow White on the big screen or flip
through the channels and come across a version of Rumpelstiltskin, don’t be so
quick to pass it off as child’s play. 
The world of fairy tales has been reclaimed by the adults!

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Tug of Twisted Tales

  1. I listened to a lecture a wile back on Tolkien and his theory of fantasy stories, or what he termed “fairy stories.” They way he thought of them was that fantasy allows the reader to review his own world from the “perspective” of an alternate world. He thought that one’s unquestioned assumptions might be recovered and changed by seeing them from a fantastical point of view.With this in mind I wonder if the era when these types of stories become popular is significant. For instance, Tolkien and Lewis introduced modern fantasy as the world was going through global war and depression. The need to re evaluate was paramount. To a (thankfully) lesser degree we are again at a time of re evaluation. Of course it might all just be a coincidence, but its interesting to think about.

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  2. Lauren's Blog

    No, Steve, I think there’s something to this.  I’ve always thought of fantasy as the perfect means of examining our own world, because we’re forced to decide how we relate to the values and culture of the new world the author creates.  It makes sense that readers and viewers would be more open to doing that in times when our collective values and culture are in flux.
    Great comment, as usual!
    ~Lauren

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