Fairy tales with a twist
All grown up, Hansel and Gretel return to the forest to exact revenge on their childhood tormentors. Snow White escapes the Evil Queen and takes up with a group of Shaolin monks. And after leaving Kansas, carnival barker Oscar Diggs remakes himself as a wizard in the Emerald City.
Childhood classics as seen through a fun-house mirror? Well, yes. But for the film business, it’s also something far more consequential: its future.
Movie studios are taking timeless stories from authors such as the Brothers Grimm and L. Frank Baum and reimagining them with a modern, playful sensibility. And they’re using big stars to do it: Julia Roberts and Charlize Theron will each get to add “Snow White” to their resume — they’ll play the evil queen in two separate versions of the bedtime tale (distinct from the third version, with the monks, from Walt Disney Co.)
“What we have are stories that people have a general knowledge of but don’t know the specifics,” said veteran Hollywood producer Joe Roth, whose Oz movie, “The Great and Powerful,” has James Franco playing a wizard and Mila Kunis a witch. “We believe we can retool and reboot, work out a new story while using technology to our advantage.”
Roth helped kick-start the fairy-tale trend last year when he and Disney made “Alice in Wonderland.” On its face, the movie seemed like a Gryphon-sized gamble — Tim Burton took Lewis Carroll’s beloved book and turned it into a tale of battling computer-generated monsters. But after a billion dollars at the worldwide box office, studio executives believe Roth may be on to something.
Already, two Grimm retellings have hit theaters — “Red Riding Hood,” reimagined with werewolves and an older protagonist by “Twilight” director Catherine Hardwicke, and “Beastly,” essentially “Beauty and the Beast” set in a modern American high school with teen star Vanessa Hudgens.
Both movies were commercial and critical disappointments. But for the moment at least, that doesn’t seem to be slowing down the bandwagon. Other upcoming adaptations include the Snow White films (Kristen Stewart will star in the Theron version, titled “Snow White and the Huntsman,” and Lily Collins in the Roberts one, titled “The Brothers Grimm: Snow White”). Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton will play the adult brother and sister in “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters,” which is being produced by Will Ferrell’s company and is about, well, pretty much what the title says.
Further down the road are the Shaolin monk “Snow White,” a new take on “Sleeping Beauty” with Hailee Steinfeld, a separate new take on “Sleeping Beauty” with Angelina Jolie, and a Peter Pan origin story that Channing Tatum will produce. Once confined to the world of animation, fairy-tale movies are now big-budget, live-action movies with A-list stars and expectations.
The trend, say Hollywood insiders, comes in part from the need to appeal to younger filmgoers (or at least a sense of our younger selves) as well as the industry’s coveted grail of “pre-awareness” — the notion that a movie is better served if audiences are already familiar with the title. And what could be more familiar than centuries-old childhood stories?
But academic experts say the fairy-tale craze is born of more than a knee-jerk need for branding.
“The culture has always had a need to take classic universes and adapt them to what we care about now,” said Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson. “There’s a lot that’s brilliant about the Brothers Grimm, but feminism isn’t one of them. So new versions of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Snow White’ fill that void.”
The new takes mirror a literary phenomenon that began in the 1990s, in which novelists took classics such as “Moby Dick,” “Lolita” and “Gone with the Wind” and retold them from the perspective of other characters.
Kate Bernheimer, a professor at the University of Arizona and editor of a journal called Fairy Tale Review, says that all sorts of zeitgeist reasons are behind the fairy-tale revival. She cites a need, in a technologically-crazed time, to reconnect with the nature of fairy-tale environments as well as the “uncanny pull that the ‘ever after’ holds in an age of extinction.”
But she also says that while a fairy-tale renaissance does seem to come along every few decades — witness Disney’s resurgence two decades ago with “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast” — the plotlines never really go away. “So many kinds of stories the movies tell are fairy tales,” she said, citing “Pan’s Labyrinth” and the movies of David Lynch. “We just don’t always call them that.”
Indeed, one of the biggest film phenomena in recent years is, at heart, a fairy tale. Stephenie Meyer’s series of “Twilight” novels, which already has spawned three hit movies, takes many cues from the genre — there’s forbidden love, evil monsters, creepy forests and the promise of happily-ever-after. Classic fairy tales inspired the “Twilight” movies. Now the success of “Twilight” is inspiring fairy-tale movies.
Hardwicke, director of both “Twilight” and “Red Riding Hood,” says the two films come from the same place. “I love the symbiology of fairy tales and I like to see them reinterpreted,” she said. Hardwicke and other creators say the new movies cut closer to the dark heart of the source material than did the Disney versions of the 20th century.
One look at some of the filmmakers suggests that light and airy isn’t exactly on their minds. Sam Raimi, a director known for “Spider-Man” and a number of horror hits, is directing the Oz reboot from a script by David Lindsay-Abaire, writer of “Rabbit Hole.” “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunter” is directed by a Norwegian named Tommy Wirkola. His previous effort? A gorefest about Nazis who come back as zombies.
Unlike Hollywood’s fascination with disposable pop-culture names — say, “Transformers,” or the upcoming “Footloose” — fairy-tale movies toy with the sacred. In paying tribute to (and deriving marketing benefits from) these classic texts, Hollywood executives are, in a sense, hoping to have their gingerbread and eat it too. They want reinvention, but they also know they need tradition.
“People want to see these stories get subverted,” said “Beastly” director Daniel Barnz. “But certain things still need to happen in the film. It’s not like we could have allowed the beast not to be turned back into a beautiful guy at the end.”
Already, “The Great and Powerful” has caused an Internet firestorm as fans wonder why Hollywood is taking liberties with a classic — although supporters note that “Powerful” will hew closer to Baum writings than the classic 1939 MGM musical with Judy Garland, which sometimes ignored them. Those supporters also point to the successful and well-regarded Broadway musical “Wicked,” which cleverly reinvented Baum’s mythology with a story about the witches of Oz.
There is room, these advocates say, for new interpretations. “‘The Wizard of Oz’ is one of the greatest movies ever made. We’re not trying to compete with it,” Roth said.
But as so often happens in Hollywood, when executives take a gamble, they simultaneously try to hedge their bets. Disney, for instance, is now pushing the writer on its Snow White movie further away from its Brothers Grimm origins, according to a person close to the screenwriter, Jayson Rothwell. Hollywood fears audiences could soon become cynical about the very thing that once seemed so pure and innocent. And that would be a most unhappy ending.
Times staff writer Nicole Sperling contributed to this report.
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