Once upon a time, fairy tales existed not for children, but for adults. They contained adult themes like rape, dismemberment, heartbreak and heroes that failed to triumph. Fairy tales were a means of historical and cultural preservation, which is what the Grimm brothers initially set out to do. At a time when the grown-ups grew bored of the fairy tale, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm sought to preserve their Germanic traditions by amassing a collection of them. Ironically, the first edition of their collection was deemed too inappropriate for children, so each successive edition continued to edit out the adult content until the final edition we’re familiar with today existed. Disney heavily borrowed from the Grimm brothers in sanitizing the fairy tales, washing away the deep historical context and oft cautionary tales in favor of happier fare. Yet, dark times call for dark art, and a resurgence of fairy tale films geared toward adults might be the reminder of the past that we need to get us through our future.
Director Agnieszka Smoczynska’s stunning feature debut, The Lure, relies heavily on Hans Christian Andersen’s version of The Little Mermaid but is imbued with Poland’s cultural climate during the 1980s under Communist Russian rule. That the narrative is centered around this particular fairy tale is no small coincidence considering the significance of mermaid lore to Warsaw. Mermaid sisters Golden and Silver’s longing to see the pristine shores of America serves as a metaphor for immigration, but their journey also rings true on an emotional level when it comes to the highs and lows of first love. The nuanced layers of Robert Bolesto’s screenplay are rendered even more complex by the defiance to stick to any one genre. The result is a richly compelling Siren’s song of carnal lust, blood, and singing mermaids in a cabaret act set against a real setting of nightclubs and sadness.
Quietly released last year was Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone’s adaptation of fairy tales by seventeenth-century poet Giambattista Basile. Well, more like a partial adaptation; his book has 50 stories and Garrone adapted only three of them in Tale of Tales. With much of Basile’s work overshadowed by Grimm’s adaptation, Garrone took the tales back to their medieval beginnings, honoring the Neapolitan history behind the stories. Whereas The Lure took on a more modern aesthetic, Tale of Tales retains a 17th century vibe. Despite appearances, though, Garrone’s film connects with modern audiences because the problems faced by the film’s characters are still just as relevant today as they were centuries ago. You know, except for the giant flea, cave monsters, or unwitting sea creature, but still. The three female-centered tales featured in Garrone’s film still apply to the modern woman - feelings of inadequacy or jealousy in both love and lust, the yearning for motherhood and the inability to let go, and the brutal sting of exposure to the outside world during the transition from childhood into adulthood. Not only did Garrone realize fairy tales are effective because they play off of common archetypes, but the real magic lies within the actual telling of the tale.
On the other end of the live-action fairy tale retellings lies Disney, an empire known for animated fairy tales far removed from their origins in favor of saccharine wish fulfillment. Good always triumphs over evil, and the princesses always get their happily-ever-after, nearly always in the form of a prince. For all of Disney’s messages about being unafraid to reach for your dreams, they seem afraid to detour from the blueprints of their animated classics when it comes to their live-action retellings. 2015’s Cinderella brought us a sweet yet by-the-numbers rehash of the 1950 animated version. As did 2016’s The Jungle Book, despite the talented cast behind it. While I have no doubt that audiences will flock to the theater in March for Beauty and the Beast, I can’t help but notice that it too mirrors its animated counterpart in every way. Disney takes more risks with their original properties, like Enchanted, but they still pay heavy homage to the classics. Disney’s fear of change isn’t baseless, though. Their intent to attract an older audience works against them, as those clinging to nostalgia likely won’t want their favorite tales altered. This is precisely the reason why we need that change.
The world is a dark place right now, and it seems to grow just a bit dimmer each day. Fairy tales bring harsh truths and cautionary tales in a digestible format while still reminding us that the world is bigger than we could ever know. They remind us that while things may seem dire, there’s still hope. Even more than that, fairy tales remind us of our heritage and bridge cultural divides. We need fairy tales like The Lure or Tale of Tales. These dark, violent, and horrific stories can allow for reflection of the past and potential course correction for the future. They can bring new truths and traditions with each subsequent telling, if we allow that growth. In a time where listening is sparse and voices are loud, the world needs more killer mermaid musicals.