A Brief History of Grim and Gritty Fairy Tales
In one of those “there’s something in the water” coincidences that are strangely common in Hollywood, 2012 brought the release of two different reworkings of the Snow White tale. While Tarsem Singh’s Mirror, Mirror saw a tidy profit (undoubtedly helped by the presence of star Julia Roberts), the real moneymaker was Rubert Sanders’ Snow White and the Huntsman, which pulled in nearly $400 million worldwide. Capitalizing on the popularity of the hit franchises of the day, Snow White and the Huntsman featured Kristen Stewart (about to end her Twilight run) and Chris Hemsworth (just beginning his stint as the MCU’s God of Thunder) as the titular heroes — with Charlize Theron taking a villainous turn as the evil Queen Ravenna — and turned the classic children’s story into a dour action blockbuster. It wasn’t the first or last time we’d see this sort of grim and gritty take on a fairy tale: though the early 2010s may have been the pinnacle of the genre’s saturation, the groundwork was laid much earlier…
Apologies for relegating five decades to a single category, but the mainstream fairy tale adaptations during this era were fairly straightforward, partially because we see the first of Disney’s animated features that create the template for fairy tale movies going forward. What’s easy to forget is that those early Disneys are more in keeping with the darker underpinnings of the Brothers Grimm et al. — despite toning down the endings, films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), and Sleeping Beauty (1959) all have sequences that are downright terrifying, especially for children.
The live-action films of the time were even more willing to include the nastier elements of the source material: The Red Shoes (1948) transplants the action of Hans Christian Andersen’s story to a ballet company (in a bit of early meta-plotting, one that is performing “The Ballet of the Red Shoes,” itself based on the story), but keeps the bloody resolution to the central question of “art versus happiness;” and Donkey Skin (1970) is mostly a bright and fanciful musical romp in typical Jacques Demy fashion, albeit one that maintains the original story’s threat of forced father-daughter incest as its inciting conflict.
This is the period where you really start to see some experimentation with the form. Disney’s animated output was now essentially the archetype for fairy tale cinema, and would take on new life with the Disney Renaissance — the likes of The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and Aladdin (1992) would become the standard for a new generation of audiences.
But there was a section of the filmmaking world that pushed back against the idea that fairy tales could only be for children, and we began to see the natural bedfellows of fairy tales and horror enter the mainstream with new takes on Little Red Riding Hood (The Company of Wolves (1984), an early Neil Jordan werewolf feature starring Angela Lansbury as Grandma) and Snow White (Snow White: A Tale of Terror (1997), a direct-to-Showtime vehicle for Sigourney Weaver and Sam Neil). On the other side of the spectrum you have Ever After (1998), a Drew Barrymore-led revision of the Cinderella story that excises the magical aspects (no fairy godmother, talking mice, or pumpkin carriage) in favor of an approach more akin to historical fiction — a treatment that has seen little replication despite Ever After’s popularity.
Arguably it was the stage, not the cinema, however, that brought us the era's most influential piece of fairy tale revisionism. Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods (1986), a staple of high school theatre programs everywhere in the intervening decades, blended a murderer’s row of popular fairy tales into a meditation on fulfillment, consequence, mortality, and morality. It may have taken until 2014 for the production to be (lacklusterly) adapted for the big screen, but Into the Woods nonetheless set the stage (no pun intended) for future creatives to use fairy tale tropes to grapple with the shades of gray that make up much of the human experience.
Though the two couldn’t be more different in tone and maturity, Into the Woods’ closest analogue on a purely surface level is the one fairy tale mashup that can claim to be more broadly known. Shrek (2001), an irreverent animated farce — ostensibly about the importance of inner beauty — played like gangbusters: it was a hugely profitable box office smash, winning the inaugural Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and spawning three sequels, a spin-off film, and its own Broadway musical adaptation. At the time it felt like a breath of fresh air in an animated realm that remained dominated by Disney and the nascent Pixar (full disclosure, I’ve seen Shrek more times than I can count), but the effect of its popularity was such that making an earnest fairy tale adaptation became much more of an uphill battle.
While Shrek worked as a broadly appealing family film, fairy tales in the early 2000s also had some modest success when geared at adults — so long as it was a loose adaptation, as evidenced by 2001’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi take on Pinocchio) and 2005’s Hard Candy (starring Ellen Page as a teen vigilante out to inflict justice on Patrick Wilson’s pedophilic “wolf” in a dark Little Red Riding Hood update). There are a few oddities in the back half of the aughts (notably Terry Gilliam’s misfire The Brothers Grimm), but the true turning point for the genre was an adaptation of a different sort: Twilight.
The success of the Twilight saga sent studio executives scurrying to replicate the formula, and updated fairy tales made a certain degree of sense as having crossover appeal to fans of angsty vampire romance. Unfortunately for them, Twilight’s success was much harder to recapture than expected — both Beastly and Red Riding Hood were released in 2011 to mostly negative reviews and disappointing box office results despite the presence of Kristen Stewart contemporaries Vanessa Hudgens and Amanda Seyfried, respectively.
The next hugely successful YA franchise helped pave the way for a lateral move away from supernatural romance — like Twilight before it, The Hunger Games (2012) was a huge sensation and catapulted its leading lady into instant superstardom. Snow White and the Huntsman debuted that same year, seemingly cementing action as the direction in which to pivot. The very next year saw Jack the Giant Slayer (mediocre reviews, a write-off given the massive budget) and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (terrible reviews, surprisingly profitable), and then 2016 saw The Huntsman: Winter’s War, a much maligned sequel/prequel with no Kristen Stewart and disappointing box office returns. While the evolution made sense, the failure of Winter’s War seems like it could be the nail in the coffin for gritty fairy tale action.
So, what does the future hold? The best bet may be a return to horror: recent years have seen a resurgence in folk-tinged terror, with films like The Witch and Midsommar garnering both critical and commercial success on the arthouse circuit, and it’s not hard to imagine studios using classic fairy tales as a starting point as they continue to tap that vein — we’ve in fact already seen it happen, with this year's Gretel & Hansel. It’s too early to tell whether this is the beginning of a trend or merely a one-off experiment, but if we’ve learned anything it’s that fairy tales are too culturally entrenched to disappear from screens for long — they’ll always be back, it’s just a question of what form will be in vogue the next time around.