Reviews 2015

Fairy Tale and Film: Old Tales with a New Spin

Fairy Tale and Film: Old Tales with a New Spin. Sue Short. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. 218 pages. $95.00 (hardback).

The intricate interrelationship between fairy tales and film is as old as the medium of film itself. From enchanting trick films of Georges Méliès to modern blockbusters which use the genre’s penchant for the supernatural as a platform for displaying technological marvels, the cinematic fascination with fairy tales has never waned. While folklorists, literary and especially fairy tale scholars have shown extensive interest in the aforementioned fascination, the same cannot be said for film scholars. However, if the new book by Sue Short is any indication, this trend is changing.

In the tellingly entitled Fairy Tale and Film, the author explores how generically diverse contemporary films adapt, interpret and transform fairy-tale plots, motifs, characters, themes and tale types. Encompassing films that employ "motifs, characters, and plots generally found in the oral and literary genre of the fairy tale, a known tale or...create and realize cinematically an original screenplay with recognizable features of a fairy tale" (9), Short’s corpus falls within the scope of the definition of fairy-tale films found in Jack Zipes’s Enchanted Screen (2011). However, it should be noted that she does not consider fairy-tale films to be a distinct genre.

The aims of Short’s engaging book are manifold: by looking beyond straightforward adaptations and focusing on "unusual, wayward and unorthodox examples" (15), she challenges our understanding of the links between fairy tales and film. Her discussion thus encompasses not only "standards" such as The Company of Wolves (1984) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), but also movies one would hardly expect to find between the covers of a study on fairy tales, such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) and Inception (2010). Furthermore, by focusing on commercially successful but critically derided films and detecting positive and progressive features in them, Short challenges what she perceives to be the "snobbery and elitism" (19) of folklorists/fairy tale scholars who, she claims, automatically dismiss popular films as commercial "trash."

The book is divided into six chapters complemented by a preface, introduction, epilogue, bibliography, filmography and index. Primarily informed by feminist criticism, chapter one focuses on the genre of romance in general and romantic comedy in particular. Short is especially interested in films inspired by "Cinderella" and "King Thrushbeard," such as Never Been Kissed (1999) and The Devil Wears Prada (2006). In chapter two, the focus shifts from female-centred films to coming-of-age comedies about male transformation, inspired largely by "Beauty and the Beast." Films featuring protagonists who mature and learn valuable life lessons such as Groundhog Day (1993) and Bruce Almighty (2003) are contrasted with those featuring Pinocchio-/Peter Pan-like heroes who cannot/refuse to grow up, like Edward Scissorhands (1990). Short considers the former category to be especially progressive as it promotes not only a non-traditional view of masculinity, but also the notion that gender roles are not immutable.

Focused on crime films, chapter three opens with a discussion of the questionable morality of fairy tales, which often feature protagonists who secure their happily ever afters through deceit and trickery (e.g. "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Aladdin"). Examples of triumphant underdogs are contrasted with crime-doesn’t-pay narratives, as featured in movies such as Shallow Grave (1994) and No Country for Old Men (2007). Taking her cue from Maria Tatar’s comprehensive study Secrets Beyond the Door (2004), Short devotes chapter four to modern cinematic versions of "Bluebeard," typically found within the genres of thriller and horror (e.g. The Silence of the Lambs, 1991).

Situated within the theoretical framework of Freudian psychoanalysis, chapter five discusses tales which depict dangers lurking within the home and the family unit (e.g. "Hansel and Gretel") and their interpretations and adaptations within the genre of horror film (e.g. The Shining, 1980; A Tale of Two Sisters, 2003). Chapter six abandons generic preoccupations of the previous chapters in favour of a discussion of postmodernist fairy-tale re-imaginings and the strategies they employ. Despite her criticism of what she perceives to be academic derision towards popular cinema, Short nevertheless concedes that a substantial portion of contemporary cinematic fairy tales give precedence to special effects over storytelling and characters.

Short’s decision to expand the scope of her study to include a variety of genres effectively demonstrates her comprehensive knowledge of contemporary popular cinema and prompts readers to think outside the (narrow) confines of fairy-tale adaptations. However, the breadth of her discussion and sheer number of examples have a somewhat negative bearing on the depth of the analyses, which often remain on the level of motif/theme-spotting. In addition, such an (overly) inclusive approach is rather problematic since, as Jack Zipes notes in his review of Shortʼs book, "there is not a film under the sun that does not contain a fairy-tale or folktale element" (n.p.). Seeing that outright adaptations are discussed alongside films that (in)directly draw on fairy-tale lore, I would have appreciated some reflection on how these relationships (adaptation/borrowing) influence the way individual tales/tale elements are transferred onto the big screen. Other (minor) complaints include some factual mistakes (e.g. in the Grimmsʼ "The Maiden without Hands," the heroine’s mother-in-law is not "maliciously seeking to divide the couple," but actually saves the heroine’s life; 132) and questionable interpretations (seeing that the transformation from frog to prince in the Grimms’ "The Frog King" is initiated by the heroine’s refusal to keep her promise and comply with the frog’s requests, I wonder whether she truly "learns a lesson in humility"; 32).

Although flawed, this thought-provoking and jargon-free study offers a stimulating and refreshing look at fairy tales on film. Short is a highly knowledgeable and reliable guide through modern cinema, continuously inviting readers to draw their own conclusions and providing tale/film summaries, so that even those who have not read/seen the titles under discussion can easily follow the text. Thanks to its accessible and engaging prose, as well as the inclusion of popular films, the highly readable Fairy Tale and Film is likely to appeal to a wide readership and promote further inquiries of film scholars into the intersection of the titular elements.

Nada Kujundžić
University of Turku, Finland
University of Zagreb, Croatia

Works Cited

Zipes, Jack. The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films. New York and London: Routledge, 2011.

Zipes, Jack. Rev. of Fairy Tale and Film: Old Tales with a New Spin, by Sue Short. Journal of Folklore Research. 25 Mar. 2015.