They'll huff and they'll puff

The Brothers Grimm's fairy-tale legacy has been celebrated by true artists, but also perverted by Hollywood hype, says Jack Zipes

June 16, 2011

Credit: Warner Bros/Kobal

The year 2012 will see countless celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the first edition of the Brothers Grimm's first collection of fairy tales, published as Children's and Household Tales.

But would Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm have been pleased by all the conferences, books and papers that will honour their work? Actually, they are more likely to be turning in their graves, if they weren't already, at the mass-mediated hype of fairy tales. Were they alive today, they would surely be concerned that the tales of the folk are being turned into trivial pulp for the masses by the globalised culture industry.

The brothers revered fairy tales, especially the oral "wonder tales", or märchen, which they saw as innocent expressions and representations of the divine nature of the world. For them, the simplicity of the pristine spoken tales was historically profound, and the Grimms saw themselves as cultivators of lost relics whose essence had to be conserved and disseminated before the tales vanished. The wondrous fairy tales, they firmly believed, enabled people to get in touch with both their inner selves and the outside world. It was because "genuine" fairy tales ran counter to the real world that they served as moral correctives and introduced unique learning processes through exquisite metaphor.

The Grimms promoted the collecting of all sorts of folk tales, and they were certain that if other educated men and women began gathering tales from the common people, these stories, especially fairy tales, would resonate among the young and old in all countries of the world.

To a great extent they were right. The 19th century, especially in Europe and North America, became a golden age of fairy-tale collecting and the founding of folklore societies. In the 20th century, the fairy tale thrived not only by word of mouth and through print as it had done for centuries, but also via radio, postcards, comics, cinema, fine arts, performing arts, wedding ceremonies, television, dolls, toys, games, clothes and the internet.

Today we are inundated with fairy tales, in the home and nursery and through primary and secondary school; they are also taught at most universities in the UK and North America. They are found in all walks of life, and to some degree we even try to transform our lives into fairy tales. They have become second nature, or as Roland Barthes might say, fairy tales have become mythic in a negative sense because they are artificially produced to appear to be universal and natural stories of the way life should be, all the while concealing their artistic constellations and their basic history and ideology.

In my book, Fairy Tale as Myth/Myth as Fairy Tale (1994), I remarked that it is impossible to grasp the history of the fairy tale and the relationship of the fairy tale to myth without taking into consideration the manner in which tales have been manipulated, revised and duplicated either to reinforce dominant ideologies or to subvert them.

To be more precise, the evolution of the fairy tale as a cultural genre has been marked by a process of dialectical appropriation involving duplication and revision that has set the cultural conditions for its mythicisation, institutionalisation and expansion as a mass-mediated form through radio, film, television and the internet.

However, newly produced fairy-tale films, books, musicals and other products are hyped as extraordinary achievements, a hype that serves to cheapen the meaning of fairy tales that the Brothers Grimm and other 19th-century collectors sought. This hype carries on the Brothers Grimm's programme of promoting fairy tales, but in a perverse way.

Some recent fairy-tale films produced by mainstream corporations in the culture industry can serve as telling examples of how high-tech hype mythifies the fairy tale through misleading, over-the-top publicity. These films appear to be part of a surge in interest, or seek to pique our interest, in the spectacular re-creation of fairy tales.

For instance, in 2010, Walt Disney Pictures released an animated adaptation of the Grimms' Rapunzel with a new title, Tangled, billing it as "a new twist on one of the most hilarious and hair-raising tales ever told".

In fact, Disney should have called it Mangled, given the way it trampled over the Grimms' and other versions of the Rapunzel tale. Rapunzel is anything but hilarious. Nor is the film hilarious, for that matter. When viewed closely, Tangled is another inane remake of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in which the major conflict is between a pouting adolescent princess and a witch.

For some reason, Disney films tend to demonise older women and infantilise young women. In the end, there is always a fairy-tale wedding, not unlike the recent royal wedding in London, in which a commoner marries royalty and we are all expected to rejoice and acclaim the happy couple. Gone are any hints that Rapunzel might reflect a deeper meaning and history: the initiation ritual of young girls led by older wise women who keep them in isolation in order to protect them.

Gone, too, are any hints that the tale Little Red Riding Hood is a serious and complicated story about rape or violation in Catherine Hardwicke's 2011 film, Red Riding Hood.

On 16 November last year, the Los Angeles Times proclaimed: "Catherine Hardwicke understands impetuous teen heroines the way George Lucas reverse-engineers robot sidekicks. In March, the director of Twilight and Thirteen will unleash her newest troublemaker upon the world with a dark, sensuous spin on Red Riding Hood."

But the only trouble that this inane, thoughtless, trite film caused was boredom for the audiences that failed to warm to it. Hardwicke understands neither teens nor fairy tales, and her theme-park sets, stereotyped characters and father-turned-werewolf "twist" only make her convoluted plot appear more ridiculous than it is.

Among other ridiculously hyped films is Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs Evil, an animated film released in 2011 after a year's delay because of financing problems. The film's official website is festooned with blurbs from reviews proclaiming it "Innovative. A superb sequel. A delicious and entertaining treat for the whole family." In fact, it is an uninspired sequel to the 2005 offering Hoodwinked!, which features Red Riding Hood and the wolf as sleuths who are called on to work together to rescue Hansel and Gretel from a witch. As Jake Coyle, entertainment writer at the Associated Press, observed: "Six years later, the fractured fairy tale has returned with 3-D graphics, more polished animation and less wit...Such mash-ups of fairy tales have become commonplace since Shrek and children's books (such as) David Wiesner's The Three Pigs."

What is commonplace, of course, is hype. Ever since the end of the Second World War, advertising and publicity have exaggerated and distorted the value of all products. We live in a world of hype, but it is also a world that manages to produce works of art that take fairy tales and the Brothers Grimm seriously - and not only the Grimms, but also the writers of classic fairy tales such as Charles Perrault, Madame d'Aulnoy, Hans Christian Andersen, Carlo Collodi and Lewis Carroll, whose works' longevity does not rely on hype.

Film-makers including Michel Ocelot and Catherine Breillat in France and Garri Bardin in Russia have recreated fairy tales with such verve and imagination that they do not depend on hype to appeal to audiences. The same can be said for some of the remarkable fairy tales written by talented authors such as Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie, A.S. Byatt, Marina Warner, Tanith Lee and Philip Pullman in the UK and Robert Coover, Jane Yolen, Donna Jo Napoli and Francesca Lia Block in the US. None of them require promotional juggernauts to be recognised as storytellers whose work is in the great tradition of the Brothers Grimm.

In fact, the Grimms' fairy tales have never needed hype, for they have spurred the imagination for two centuries now. And what they certainly don't need are commercial hacks who produce artifice for profit.

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