Who doesn’t love a well-told fairytale? These age-old fantasies consistently and succinctly express our deep desires for love, adventure, beauty, truth, and the triumph of good over evil. Walt Disney certainly recognized their power: it’s no accident that he chose Snow White for his first full-length animated classic. And the recent live-action versions of fairytales Cinderella (2015) and Beauty and the Beast (2017) attest to the genre’s continuing appeal.
It’s hard not to be entranced by the delightful characters, clever special effects, and gorgeous soundtrack of a good fairytale adaptation. But how long has it been since you’ve picked up a copy of the Brothers’ Grimm, Charles Perrault, or Hans Christian Andersen, and read the stories these films are based on? If your answer is “not since childhood,” or “never”…well, you’re missing out! A closer acquaintance with these stories is a must if you want to get the most out of their movie derivatives. More on that in a moment.
But first, a disclaimer and a recommendation.
Disclaimer: Very few fairytales can be traced back to their true “origin.” Charles Perrault and the Grimm brothers certainly added their own unique stamp to the folktales they collected, but in most cases, they weren’t the original authors. And of course, even their versions have gone through numerous adaptations and translations before reaching your local library! Still, I think you’ll find that there’s nobility, elegance, and a sense of sheer magic in their renditions.
And a recommendation: If you can, look for an edition like the Dover Calla series, which feature illustrations from late 19th century “Golden Age” artists like Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac. It makes the reading experience that much more enjoyable.
Now, what will you gain from reading the print versions of your favorite fairytales?
You’ll pick up on hidden “tributes.”
Often, the authors and screenwriters of fairytale retellings include delightful details that you’ll only recognize if you’re familiar with the story’s original incarnation. I love these hidden acknowledgements: they’re like buried treasures waiting to be found.
For example, in Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 remake of Cinderella, the heroine asks her father to break off a branch as a reminder of their home, and bring it back safely to her. He snaps off the twig as requested, but it’s not from just any old tree: it’s a hazel branch. Why does that matter? Well, just take a look at the Grimm Brothers’ “Cinderella”! Cinderella plants a hazel branch (a gift from her father) on her mother’s grave. There, it magically grows into a tree. In the Grimm version, it’s this hazel tree (and the birds roosting in it), rather than the fairy godmother, that’s the source of all the ensuing magic.
Bill Condon’s 2017 Beauty and the Beast has some hidden gems, too. Did you notice that Belle’s village is finally given a name? In a conversation with LeFou, Gaston refers to it as “Ville Neuve.” At face value, this seems rather ordinary (ville neuve means “new town” in French)…unless you’re familiar with this fairytale’s history. If you are, you’ll likely know that Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (1685-1755) authored the earliest printed version of Beauty and the Beast. It was later adapted and published by Madame Leprince de Beaumont. (Click here to read my post on three recent versions).
It’s details like these that can really enrich your experience of a fairytale retelling!
You’ll also recognize what’s missing.
One example of a film adaptation that’s very different from the original is Disney’s Frozen (2013). Although I love the film and can sing the soundtrack by heart, it could hardly be more unlike the story that inspired it: Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen.
The Snow Queen is one of my favorite Andersen tales. It revolves around a girl named Gerda and a boy called Kay, who are inseparable friends. The trouble begins when fragments from a demon’s mirror lodge themselves in Kay’s eyes and heart. The slivers of glass slowly turn his heart to ice and distort his perception of the world. Everything beautiful becomes ugly to him; he loses all his sense of wonder, caring only for mathematical perfection. Come winter, Kay’s icy heart and skewed vision make him easy prey for the evil Snow Queen, who carries him away to her ice palace in the North. It’s up to faithful Gerda to find and rescue him, before he turns completely into ice.
Of course, this is all quite different from the story of Elsa and Anna; in fact, just about the only common link is the concept of a snow queen who lives in a palace of ice. (That, and they both feature a talking reindeer). Anyone who sees Frozen and believes they’ve experienced Andersen’s fairytale is sorely mistaken. In fact, Disney’s Once Upon a Time miniseries actually comes closer to the original tale: Elsa’s sweetly sinister aunt is much more like Andersen’s Snow Queen, and the show uses the distorting mirror to great effect.
You’ll have verbal expressions for all the visuals.
Most movie directors rely heavily on action sequences, and cinema is an inherently visual medium. I agree that it’s sometimes best to “let the camera do the talking.” Still, when I’m watching a book adaptation, I love to hear the voices of earlier authors in my head. Often, their description of a scene is so much more poetic or precise than what my brain could come up with.
When I watch Ever After, for example, I think of how Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm aptly described the stepsisters as “beautiful and fair of face, but vile and black of heart” (The Complete Grimms’ Fairy Tales). When I witness the final transformation scene in Beauty and the Beast, I’m always reminded of Madame Beaumont’s description of “a prince more beautiful than Love itself” (The Sleeping Beauty and Other Classic French Fairy Tales). And I’m still holding out for a more faithful rendition of Andersen’s poignant Little Mermaid that will show me the underwater palace, “bathed in a wondrous blue light,” and the faraway sun shining dimly through the water “like a purple flower with a stream of light radiating from its calyx” (Stories from Hans Christian Andersen).
So, before you watch your next fantasy flick, try reading one of its earlier incarnations. Then enjoy the fun of spotting parallels and contrasts, as the voices of authors from centuries past echo in your ears.
Do you have a favorite fairytale? What is your favorite movie adaptation of a classic fairytale, and why?