Interview with Tom Albanese: Director and Writer of Fairy Tale Film Charming

Charming is an independent short film about the ever-present fairy tale hero, Prince Charming. In many popular stories, he swoops in to save the princess by aiding her escape from a tower, providing true love’s kiss, vanquishing the monster, or finding the foot that fits the slipper. But what about his story? Why does he save all these princesses, and what is his happy ending like?

charming short film

Pondering these questions led Tom Albanese to write and direct Charming. After no success with the script in Hollywood, he wasn’t about to give up. Instead, he recruited help from some friends to bring it to life. If you ask me, this was infinitely better than anything Hollywood could have done! Charming is the result of a dedicated, caring, and passionate group of people, and whilst watching it you can see their enthusiasm. This film was made because they were determined for it it to exist, which is a story just as inspiring as Prince Charming’s quest for true love.

I was able to interview Tom about his journey with Charming to learn more about his ideas behind the film and his thoughts on fairy tales and storytelling.

So Charming was originally a feature length film. I’m assuming it had to undergo a lot of change to become a short film. What was that process like? How did you go about rewriting the script?

Yes, my writing partner (Christopher Jones) and I got the rights back to our feature script Charming after optioning it to a production company several years ago. It was tricky adapting a 105 page feature to a 15 page short, which ultimately became a much different story. What I wanted to keep in tact from the feature was intertwining characters from different fairy tales, the King’s pact with the witch (which kicks the story into gear) and the theme of ‘true love’ coming around in an unexpected way. 

In some ways, I think writing a short is more challenging than writing a feature because you have such a short amount of time to A) Develop your characters and B) Tell a good story. Things that worked in the feature weren’t working in the short because while we had 105 pages to explore Charming’s problems, now we only had 15 to wrap that all up. But there’s nothing I love more than figuring out how to solve a story problem (besides the possibility of a date with Daisy Ridley), so I had a blast figuring it all out.    

What was it like working alongside with friends to make Charming? Do you think you will work together again on other projects?

Totally. I have a production company with Tiago (who Assistant Directed Charming) and Francisco (Captain Hook). We have several projects in the pipeline. Joey Long (Charming’s Assistant Director & Aladdin) is my story guy, so whenever I’ve got something written that I need some thoughts on besides my own, he’s the man. We brainstormed how to frame Charming so we got more of Charming’s POV in a clever way, which ultimately led to the story being told to his big fan Gus (Lucas Royalty).

Tom Albanese Charming
Tom Albanese as Prince Charming and Lucas Royalty as Gus

From watching Charming, it’s clear that you all had a lot of fun making it. I really enjoyed the funny, creative scenarios, like the witch pretending to be an estate agent and King Triton in his retreat. What was your favourite scene to film, and why?

Thank you!  Ah, favorite to film. Well, haha there was a lot of stress that came with directing/producing and acting in most every scene (you can’t make it too easy for yourself), but the most fun was shooting the Snow White bits. We had a full day for that, so it allowed us to joke around and come up with stuff. Poor Bea (Snow White) had to put up with me kissing her for 8 hours, but I think she understands that it was all in service of a beautiful story  (love you Bea!) And poor Joey had to try to move that day along in between all the outtakes. But at least I had fun!

I love the idea of Prince Charming being the same person in multiple fairy tales, just going around trying to save princesses. What made you think of this? And what first interested you in Prince Charming as a character?

I was studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City when we put on a performance of Into the Woods. I played Cinderella’s Prince. I had a blast and was shocked to find out not many people had really tackled the Prince Charming character or given him a well-rounded backstory (save for maybe Shrek) on screen. I loved the idea of taking existing public domain stories and their characters (Snow White, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, etc.) and tying them into his own tale. Because really, what the hell is going on with this guy who’s running around kissing all these princesses? 

Charming Lex Kilgour
Lex Kilgour as Rapunzel

Charming makes references to many well-known fairy tales, including Snow White, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, and Beauty and the Beast. Why did you choose to use these particular fairy tales?

It came down to “how many references can I get in here without being annoying?”  Haha, the ones I chose had to be well-known enough for people to get quick references, could somehow tie into the story, and, most importantly, be affordable and/or doable. We had to skip The Frog Prince.  

What is your all-time favourite fairy tale, and why?

Ah, tough one, but I have to go with ‘Beauty & the Beast.’ The original is much darker (as most of these fairy tales are) than the Disney version most of my generation grew up with, but I love the idea of two people who are at each other’s throats, have a million outside forces keeping them apart and absolutely shouldn’t fall in love… still do. In my mind, that’s a fairy tale and a great story. And that prologue from Disney’s version in 1991 still blows me away.  The music, voiceover, images, everything.  It’s an incredible introduction to a fairy tale. 

Charming Matt Cordova
Matt Cordova as the Beast

The set design of Charming is very realistic, but also unmistakably fantastical. For example, you can tell the buildings and rooms are just ‘normal’ places, but the decor, props, and costumes give them an unquestionable fairy tale feel. What were your artistic decisions behind the sets? Did you have a vision for them, or did you just create them naturally with your given resources?

The apartment complex I lived in at the time was built in the 1920s (give or take a few years) and a bunch of creatives/artist types made it their home before Hollywood’s Golden Age, so it naturally had that ‘fairy tale’ feel to it.  It was one of those things where the pieces were all there and I thought ‘it’s stupid not to do this’. We had nickels and dimes to shoot the film, so, yes, while I would’ve loved an actual ‘castle’ and spinster’s shop, we took advantage of the resources we already had, or else the film probably never would have never been made!  

Also, a major shout out to our costume designer and make-up designer Irving Green.  He went above and beyond putting together the wardrobes and greatly helped give the film its ‘fairy tale’ feel.

The witch is a great character, and I would have liked to have seen more of her! Why didn’t you expand her role, or show her defeat? Personally, what do you think happens to her at the end of the story?

I love the witch. Particularly in that she’s not your typical, evil villain. She’s really a hot mess who just wants to get out of her crappy hut. My friend Patricia Castello-Branco nailed it on the head with that role. She plays a much bigger part in the feature version Chris & I wrote. As for not expanding her role — in the short, she’s a villain, but needed to get the plot rolling. She’s like the bad boss in a romantic comedy, a thorn in the hero’s side, but the real problem is the hero’s relationship with his co-star(s). Expanding her role would’ve been fun, but ultimately unnecessary to Charming’s quest for true love. We shot a longer scene with her trying to trick Snow White with the apple that’s hilarious, but at the end of the day it stopped the movie instead of pushing it forward.  

I think at the end of Charming, she throws on a bunch of make-up, goes to Captain Hook’s brothel, downs ten fairy dusts and tries to seduce a Merry Man.

Charming Lucas Royalty
Lucas Royalty as Gus

Regarding the ending, without giving away any spoilers, I love that you left it so open. Why did you choose to leave the story like this, instead of going for the traditional fairy tale ‘and they got married and lived happily ever after’ ending?

I love stopping a story early. I read Dracula a couple months ago for an upcoming project, and it just ends. I wanted more, but eventually realized, yeah, that’s it. The story’s over. (Dracula spoiler alert) It’s called Dracula and Dracula’s dead. The rest is just filler. Leave the audience to fill in what happens afterwards. There’s nothing worse than watching something knowing it should’ve ended 10 minutes ago.

I think whatever your ending is, it needs to solidify the story’s theme and wrap things up in a way we didn’t see coming but makes sense.  Whether that be ‘happily ever after’ or leaves an ellipsis or is a combination of the two, which I think Charming is.  

Karla Bucker Charming
Karla Bucker as Cinderella

What are you planning to do in the future – another fairy tale project, or something different?

I’m shooting a comedy pilot in May/June that my prod. co’s planning to pitch to networks later this year. It’s called No Actor Parking and explores the hysterical madness of the ‘wannabes’ stuck on Hollywood’s bottom rung as they all struggle to ‘make it’. As for fairy tales, I’ve got a short about a demon, a feature about a vampire, and one about a mythical creature. We’ll see who bites first.  

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A massive thank you to Tom for providing some wonderful creative insight into this project!

After months spent touring international film festivals and racking up awards (just look at how many are on the poster alone!) Charming is now available on the Charming Short Film website and you all totally need to go and watch it! You can also follow @CharmingTheFilm and Tom Albanese on Twitter, and check out Adam’s post on Fairy Tale Fandom and Gypsy’s post on Once Upon a Blog for more behind the scenes information.

Fairy Tales in Hanna

When I watched this film for the first time back in 2011, I didn’t really know what was going on and or think much of it. However, watching it again recently, I quite enjoyed it and picked up on a lot of fairy tale references.

I’m sure other people have blogged about this film and fairy tales before now, but whatever. I’m chucking my thoughts into the pot!

Hanna is an action film directed by Joe Wright. It’s about a teenage girl, named Hanna, who lives with her father, Erik, in the snowy wilderness of Finland. Erik has trained her to be an assassin, and explains that when she wishes to leave home, she must flip a switch. This switch will send a signal to someone called Marissa Wiegler, who Hanna has been told by Erik that she must kill. Well, of course she flips the switch. Cue lots of fight scenes, running, murder, and uh… repeat that cycle several times.

Here’s the trailer, to give you more of an idea:
From watching that, it’s clear there’s a fairy tale theme going on here.
 
Personally, I linked fairy tales to two aspects of the film: Family, and Hanna’s understanding of the world.
 
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
 
Firstly, family.
 
Hanna’s birth mother is dead. I don’t need to tell anyone familiar with fairy tales that dead mothers are a common thing, and as a result, so are passive fathers and evil stepmothers. Think ‘Cinderella,’ ‘The Juniper Tree’ and ‘Hansel and Gretal.’ Hanna lives with her father, and although he teaches her all the assassin skills she could ever need, he fails to prepare her for what the world is like and how to interact with other people. Then he sends her off, leaving her without guidance and subject to danger. In the film’s climax, he can’t even protect her from Marissa – Hanna has to face the final battle alone.
 
Marissa fits several fairy tale character archetypes. Sticking with the family theme, she can be seen as the evil stepmother. Especially since she killed Hanna’s mother because she wanted Hanna for herself — that’s going to extreme evil stepmother lengths! Marissa is possessive and determined. If she can’t have Hanna, then no-one else can. And Hanna makes it clear that she doesn’t want to be owned my Marissa (trying to kill her is a bit of a giveaway, who knew?) Marissa also fits the stepmother role because she had a hand in Hanna’s birth. Hanna was an experiment. Marissa’s company modified her DNA to make her stronger and more fearless — in other words, a perfect assassin. Which she is.

The other two characters which parallel Marissa are the wolf and the witch. In Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf is a hunter. He makes a game out of reaching grandma’s house, and enjoys the chase. Marissa is similar in that she enjoys tracking Hanna and her father, and picking off their accomplices. When she finally catches up with Hanna, their final showdown takes place in an abandoned fairy tale-esque theme park (which is a real place in Berlin called Spreepark. Urban exploring, anyone?!) Marissa walks out of the mouth of a wolf to meet Hanna, reinforcing her fierce personality.

Berlin Spreepark Hanna
I’m wondering why this wolf is even in a children’s theme park in the first place. It’s terrifying! Image from The Movie Club.
As for the witch, after Hanna kills a body double of Marissa believing it to be her, she sends her father a postcard saying nothing but ‘the witch is dead.’ Joe Wright also said in an interview that he picked Marissa’s shoes for some scenes because they looked ‘witchy.’ Marissa is the antagonist of this film, as so many witches are in fairy tales. This is an easy link to make, and especially for Hanna who grew up in isolation with only an encyclopaedia and a book of Grimm’s tales to tell her about the outside world.
 
Which brings me to Hanna’s understanding of the outside world.

Hanna has a book of Grimm’s fairy tales, which she is seen reading from as a child and also just before leaving Finland. Fairy tales have a reputation for teaching children morals, but Hanna has a distinct lack of these implying that fairy tales alone are not enough to educate a child. Having had no contact with the outside world until she goes on the run, despite her ruthless assassin persona she is very innocent. Everything is strange to her, and she is curious and wants things she does not understand such as friends, music, and electricity.
Hanna
Hanna befriends Sophie, an English teenager travelling with her family. They are very different, but manage to get along. Image from Wired.

In an interview, Joe Wright compared Hanna to Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale ‘The Little Mermaid:’

‘Well, The Little Mermaid is the story of Hanna. The idea that she grows up under the surface and imagines the world above as this beautiful, romantic place. And of course she gains legs and they are painful, and she discovers the world is quite cruel. Personally, growing up in this puppet theatre, this very romantic environment where everyone was painting and making puppets, then suddenly being told I had to go to school where kids bullied you and it was terrifying — in a way I identify both with The Little Mermaid and Hanna. The only thing I could accuse my parents of after years of therapy was that they led me to believe very sweetly that the world was going to be beautiful — and, often, it’s not.’

Full interview can be found here.

Fairy tales often have coming-of-age themes, where characters go out into the world alone to seek their destiny. Like the mermaid who is restless and wants to see what is above the water, Hanna also wants to see what is beyond the snow. But they both learn that it’s not what they expected. Hanna can handle the assassin-y stuff fine, but boiling a kettle or going on a date? Not so easy. Like in a fairy tale, she must overcome these challenges to get her happy ending.

The locations used also connote fairy tales. I’ve mentioned that Hanna and Erik live in isolation, well take a look at their cabin. If this doesn’t scream ‘fairy tale’ then I don’t know what does:

Hanna cabin the the snow
In the woods: Hanna and Erik’s cabin is straight out of a fairy tale picture book. Image from Pushing Pixels, which has some great information about the set design of Hanna.

It’s got everything – snow, quaint slanted roof, glowing windows, and is surrounded by a spooky forest.

Then of course there’s Spreepark, which has many fantasy and fairy tale elements:

Berlin Spreepark Hanna
House where Hanna goes to meet a friend of Erik’s – whose name, oddly enough, is Mr. Grimm. Image from Worstist.
Berlin Spreepark Hanna
Swan-shaped boats. Hanna and Marissa run across these. Image by Sebastian Niedlich on Flick River.
Berlin Spreepark Hanna
Abandoned pirate-style ship with a dragon’s head (and creepy swan in the background!) Image from Ceo World.

Visually, Spreepark makes the atmosphere of Hanna very surreal. As a symbol, for me it feels like Hanna wants to go back to when her life was simple, when she was reading fairy tales, instead of living them. But now everything is broken and it’s too late for her to return.

There’s a great article about the set design of Hanna here.

Speaking of symbols, the final point I want to make about Hanna is the deer. The opening scene of the film is Hanna hunting a reindeer, and then near the end she sees a young deer in Spreepark. Again, deers are common creatures in fairy tales. For example, ‘Little Brother and Little Sister‘ and Andrew Lang’s ‘The Enchanted Deer.’ They also feature heavily in Scottish and Irish folklore. Deers are symbols of peace and innocence, as well as wisdom, strength, and sensitivity.

Saoirse Ronan Hanna
In the snow, Hanna is the perfect hunter (also thought it would be nicer to have this picture than one of her with a dead deer…) Image from Plugged In.
Here’s my interpretation: Hanna killing the reindeer at the beginning shows she is strong in that environment. She can take down one of the most powerful creatures that lives there. However, the small deer later on is almost like it’s taunting her. By this point, Hanna is weak and tired of chasing Marissa. In a new environment, she’s not so sure of herself. I already said that Hanna lacks morals, and she’s not the only one — even the ‘normal’ people in this film kill mercilessly. Given its symbolic meaning, it’s almost like the deer is standing in judgement. All the characters are one-dimensional, again similar to fairy tales, and so the deer is a reminder that this world lacks feeling.
 
Overall, Hanna is undeniably a strange film. It grew on me second time around, and if you watch closely there’s a lot to read into (hence this blog post). Aesthetically, is’s very artsy and uses some interesting camera angles, so it’s good if you’re looking for something different regarding style. Also, Saoirse Ronan’s acting is flawless as ever.
 
Joe Wright said he wanted to make a film that was a kind of fantasy, but not CGI, Hollywood fantasy. A lot of fairy tale films claim to be ‘dark’ and look adult and cutting-edge, but somehow manage to be none of these things. Hanna is the real deal.
 
What did everyone else make of Hanna? Let me know in the comments!
 

 

Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella: A Different Kind of Heroine

I’ve never been a huge fan of ‘Cinderella,’ but all the studying of fairy tales I’ve done for my dissertation has made me warm up to it a bit. I was willing to give it another chance, and so yesterday I went to see Disney’s new live-action version, directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Not gonna lie, a big part of what drew me to it was the costumes. I’m a sucker for pretty dresses…

Actually, I’m going to discuss the dress first. In case you missed it, there’s been a massive controversy over the corset and how small Lily James’s waist appears. Just… really? It’s a freaking corset, the whole point of it is to exaggerate the shape of your body! Plus, look at the cut of that gown. When compared with a skirt that puffy, anyone’s waistline would look a bit lost. Both Branagh and James have also denied claims that her body was airbrushed. Whether that’s true or not who knows, but does it really matter? This is nothing to do with body image. Clearly people these days are just clueless about what a corset actually makes you look like.

A lot of people also seem to be criticising this film because Cinderella is too much is a passive heroine, especially when compared with Disney’s recent feisty females in films such as Brave and Frozen. I think this a very unfair and naive perspective to take, and one which misses the whole point of the film. Cinderella is not, and never has been, an active character. But that doesn’t mean she’s weak, either. Her story is about endurance, about remaining strong and hopeful through bad times. Branagh’s Cinderella certainly does that, and never once does she complain about her life. She just gets on with it in the best way that she can. Her lack of complaint isn’t a weakness — if anything, it just displays how solid her willpower is. A lot of people could do with taking a leaf out of her book. Too many of us like to moan about inconsequential things, when there is always someone who is worse off.

Kenneth Branagh Cinderella
Lily James even makes collecting water look glamorous! Cinderella may not have the most amazing tasks to do, but she just gets on with them. That’s life. We can’t always do what we want. Image from Huffington Post.

Kristin over at Tales of Faerie wrote this fabulous post a few months ago exploring what is expected of Cinderella. She points out that realistically, if Cinderella had been defiant then she would probably have received a beating. Which, if you think about it, is true. ‘Cinderella’ is an old fairy tale. To put it into context, think of the thousands of servant girls throughout history who were just like her. They had no way out of their situations, no chance to be the active, feisty heroine. Sometimes real life just doesn’t work that way. In this respect, Cinderella’s perseverance is quite remarkable. Many would have despaired much sooner. As Kristin says, ‘her courage makes her a good role model.’ Just a different sort of role model. Those who criticise her for being passive are not paying attention to this. It’s all in the mantra repeated throughout the film: ‘Have courage, and be kind.’ It will pay off in the end.

Kenneth Branagh Cinderella
Cinderella and Prince Kit meet in the forest, where else? After all, this is a fairy tale! Image from Collider.

One thing I will say, though. Whilst I don’t believe she’s weak, Branagh’s Cinderella is sickeningly good. I know this is a stereotypical trait of fairy tale heroines, but he’s taken it to the extreme. Cinderella spends her days feeding and playing with animals. She reads to her father, and hums or sings all the time. Her hobbies include sewing and gardening. None of this is bad, but it just gives her character too much of a perfect image. It wouldn’t hurt to give her a few flaws, or a few grittier skills to make her more interesting.

Of course, her sickening-goodness means that when she meets the prince (who is called ‘Kit,’ and considering I’ve recently watched the asylum season of American Horror Story I’m sure those familiar with it can imagine what my mind conjured upon hearing that name!) she is suitably awkward. And so is he, for that matter. It works, because it fits their characters, although after awhile it feels a little too twee. However, I do like that they meet in the forest before the ball and spend a lot of time alone together on the night itself to get to know one another. This somewhat banishes the insta-love vibe of Disney’s original 1950’s film.

Story-wise, Branagh’s adaptation stays very true. Thankfully, the stepmother isn’t given too much backstory. Just enough to make her sufficiently malicious. Any more would have been straying into Maleficent territory, and the less said about that the better. The whole giving-villains-backstory-thing is getting a little wearing.

When the stepmother and stepsisters leave for the ball, Cinderella cries in the garden and calls to her mother. I thought this was a nice touch, as it harks back to the Grimm Brothers ‘Ashputtel.’ In this story, instead of a fairy godmother appearing the girl cries on her mother’s grave and leaves offerings, and is helped by her mother’s spirit in the form of a bird.
Cinderella Elenore Abbott
The spirit of Ashputtel’s mother helps her to go to the ball. Artwork by Elenore Abbott. Image from SurLaLune.

Speaking of the fairy godmother, she also narrates the story throughout the film. Personally, I thought this worked really well. It made it feel like a fairy tale; like it was being told instead of us just seeing it happen.

The final thing I have to say about this film is that the imagery is stunning. The sets and costumes are so realistic, it’s like watching a period drama. Compared to Maleficent, Disney’s other live-action offering so far, Cinderella is far superior in terms of visuals. Maleficent looked very CGI and fake, but there’s none of that here. The fairy godmother’s magic looks natural — not overdone, just pretty. I hope that their future live-action remakes follow suit.
Kenneth Branagh Cinderella
The ballroom scene looks very grand yet authentic. Image from Bails of Hemp.
Overall, I really enjoyed Cinderella. It’s a great feel-good film, and is very bold in that it offers a new kind of heroine. Okay, she’s not as interesting or outspoken as Merida, Rapunzel, or Elsa, but that doesn’t mean her story is any the less significant. See for yourself. As a previous Cinderella skeptic, I think I’ve been converted…

 

Oral Tradition to Modern Media: Are Fairy Tales Being Devalued?

Laurie Anderson campfire
Campfire image by Jeff Souville. Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

Originally, fairy tales were shared orally. They were told amongst adults, and passed on simply by being remembered and retold. However, nowadays such gatherings are less mainstream. The invention of new media, such as the print, the internet, and films, has provided us with a variety of alternative ways to obtain stories. So, how has this affected fairy tales?

In the book Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales, Max Lüthi claims that ‘the fairy tale today – like the bow and arrow, the tomahawk, and the feathered headress – has sunk to the level of the children’s playroom.’

Fairy tale castle classroom
Many schools feature fairy tale-themed areas where children can play, like this fabulous castle made by Lyn Goff.

Outside of literary circles and the study of folklore, fairy tales are usually associated with children. Almost everyone will recognise a fairy tale from their childhood, they contain memorable elements which appeal to children such as talking animals, adventure plots, and magical objects. Fairy tales provide escapism, but at the same time their fantastical nature reassures children that they are not real; it’s okay to act them out and be afraid of the scary ogre, because it doesn’t really exist and once playtime ends they can return to the safety of reality.

Lüthi’s book was published in 1970, making the ‘today’ he mentions in the above quote some time ago. Since then, fairy tales have somewhat returned to adults. Lüthi’s book came before Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, a landmark publication for the adult fairy tale market, and the numerous others which have followed in its footsteps such as A.S. Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye and, more recently, novels such as Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens and The Wild Girl. It appears that adults are reclaiming fairy tales, but in written form instead of oral.

Angela Carter's Book of Fairy Tales
Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales – definitely not for the ‘playroom.’

Of course, fairy tales have been written down for hundreds of years — more so since people like Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected and published them in the nineteenth century. Through books, fairy tales have been preserved indefinitely. Print has rescued them from the danger of being forgotten, and made them available to new generations. 

But fairy tales were created with the intent told, not read. Lüthi goes on to discuss how ‘our present era of newspapers, magazines, radio and television’ has ‘practically destroyed’ the oral tradition. Even since Lüthi’s time the media has moved on — now we also have digital means of getting our fairy tale fix such as video games (check out Child of Light, The Wolf Among Us, and Never Alone) and the internet. Whilst this means the default way to consume fairy tales may no longer be telling and listening to them, it also shows their versatility. Instead of dying out, they have evolved with technology. The non-specific time settings of fairy tales lends them a sense of agelessness, allowing them to be reproduced in new forms.

Besides, the oral tradition is still very much alive in the world of performance and theatre. Some theatre companies, such as The Wrong Crowd, perform fairy tales in innovative ways for multiple age groups. This is the trailer for one of The Wrong Crowd’s productions, The Girl with the Iron Claws. It is a retelling of the Norwegian fairy tale ‘White Bear King Valemon.’

The UK also has thriving communities of performance storytellers, so much so that there is even a national Society for Storytelling. Coming together to hear stories is still a popular activity, shown by the many festivals throughout the country which encourage performance storytelling such as Winchester’s Hat Fair, the Hay Festival, and Edinburgh FringeOral storytelling seems to be a special event rather than an everyday occurrence, so what status it has perhaps lost in frequency it has gained in prestige. 

As well as performance, another visual way to access fairy tales is films. Despite both being visual mediums, films create more distance between the story and the audience. When watching a live show, there is a different atmosphere compared to watching a film alone in your room. Sometimes theatre offers opportunities to participate — I’m sure most of us can recall yelling ‘he’s behind you!’ seemingly hundreds of times at the annual Christmas pantomime (which is more often than not a fairy tale, too).

Winchester Hat Fair
Performers at Winchester Hat Fair in 2015. Image my own.

Fairy tale scholar Gypsy Thornton from Once Upon A Blog says that ‘when fairy tales are put on film, especially in “live form”, there is rarely room for us to add our own details, our own flavour, our own emphasis and importance. We are told: “this is how the story is, looks, goes and if you didn’t see it there, it didn’t exist/happen” and we are not engaged except as observers. We have nothing to do with shaping the story.

When reading or listening to a fairy tale, we create images in our minds. We imagine the settings and characters, and whenever we reread or are retold the same tale, our thoughts instantly go back to that same imaginary world. Films take away the need to do this, because everything is already there for us to see. Often it’s different to what we initially imagined, so we have to adopt the new look of the story. In doing so, the personal aesthetic we imagined gradually fades. As story consumers, we become more passive.

However, not everyone is naturally imaginative. For those people, films are a way to access the worlds which they cannot build in their minds, and to experience things they previously might not have done (such as fairy tales). And it has to be said that some films are extremely pretty! They may devalue our own individual interpretations of fairy tales, but they also allow them to stay prevalent in popular culture and make them available to a wider range of people.

Tangled lantern scene
The lantern scene in the Disney film Tangled, which is a retelling of ‘Rapunzel.’ This is so pretty that is made me want to go and light hundreds of lanterns! Image from Disney Wiki.

Fairy tale audiences are continually shifting and encompassing new people, shown by how they circulate between adults and children. Fairy tales don’t belong with anyone indefinitely, which is a further display of their versatility. It can be argued that the move to the ‘playroom,’ as Lüthi put it, downgraded them, but it must not be forgotten that they do not reside exclusively in the playroom. They simultaneously live with authors, filmmakers, performers, and theatre goers — and this isn’t even scratching the surface when you take into consideration digital media and citizens of the internet (like us fairy tale bloggers!) as well.

The ways that we tell fairy tales are definitely changing, but personally I don’t think that this is harmful. Instead of relying solely on oral dissemination, there is now a host of ways to share fairy tales. The fact alone that we are still telling them, in whatever form, is enough testament to their value.

 

Sources

  • Max Lüthi, Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976)
  • Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber (London: Gollancz, 1979)
  • Gypsy Thornton, ‘”Maleficent” Fairy Tale 411‘ on Once Upon a Blog

 

Disney’s Version of Sleeping Beauty

When I was a child, this was one of my favourite films. It left me convinced that when I grew up, I was going to dance around a forest and meet my one true love. Didn’t happen exactly like that, but still, a girl can dream!

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS!

Disney’s version of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ was released in 1959. Of all the versions of the story I looked at in my previous post, this one mostly follows the Grimm Brothers ‘Little Briar-Rose.’ There is no second half involving cannibalism, which is probably a good thing since this film is aimed at children. Although, the addition of a vicious dragon which breathes green fire is very welcome (love me some dragons!)

The girl in this version is a princess, and her name is ‘Aurora,’ reminiscent of the name ‘Dawn’ which Perrault gives to the princess’s daughter in his story. Aurora is also given the alias ‘Briar-Rose;’ which is a nice nod to the Grimm story.

However, Aurora is betrothed to Prince Phillip, differing to all of the previous versions I have looked at. This adds a new dimension to the story, as both sets of parents try to control their childrens’ fates. Despite this, the pair meet and fall in love on their own terms, and their relationship is consensual. So when Aurora falls asleep it’s not just any old prince she wakes up to, it is indeed her one true love. And she’s not raped and doesn’t have any children whilst unconscious, either. Compared with her predecessors she gets off pretty lightly, and gets the boyfriend she wants out of it, too!

But Aurora doesn’t really do much.

Aurora sings to animals in the forest. Image from Fanpop.

She doesn’t fight for herself or have any adventures (unlike more recent Disney princesses such as Tiana, Rapunzel, and Merida). Then again, her life goal to find love doesn’t really require anything like that. However, she is defiant in small ways, and she is not domestic and dull, either.

Aurora befriends animals in the forest, and tells them how she has defied her fairy guardians (more on those later) by meeting someone in her dreams. Aurora wants to be treated like an adult, although when she first meets Prince Phillip she is hesitant and awkward, showing that perhaps she is not yet ready for the relationship she craves — a feeling which the sleeping beauties of old can also relate to.

Aurora leads an almost solitary life in the forest, with only the fairies for company. They keep her hidden in an attempt to protect her from the curse. Taking this into account, I can slightly forgive her for having no other ambitions than to find a lover. Only slightly though — I’m sure there are other things she could find to aspire to! I mean, look at Rapunzel in Disney’s Tangled. She’s stuck in a tower all her life, but that doesn’t stop her from wanting to see the ‘floating lights’ or taking on the world with a frying pan. Even in the old versions of the story she gives the witch a run for her money.

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Aurora is hesitant when she first meets Prince Phillip. Image from Yify.

When the fairies reveal to Aurora that she is a princess and must return to the castle, she bursts into tears. She does this again when they arrive and she is presented with a tiara. It is shortly after this that she pricks her finger and invokes the sleep. Instead of the sleep being a metaphor for preparing for sexual awakening, as Bruno Bettelheim interpreted the older versions, I see it more as Aurora coming to terms with her new life. Everything she has known until this point — living in the forest as a peasant girl, dancing with her animal friends, and the prospect of love with Prince Phillip (whom she does not know the identity of at this point) — has been taken from her, which creates an emotional situation she cannot deal with. Pricking her finger is an act of defiance; a way of escaping her new royal title and a distraction from her current crisis. Sleeping provides her with time to come to terms with her new situation.

The finger pricking scene is very creepy, not in the least due to the music. It is taken from the score of the 1890 Sleeping Beauty ballet written by Tchaikovsky. However, in the ballet it is used for a comic scene which is a sort of mash-up with ‘Puss in Boots’ featuring dancers dressed as cats. I have to say, I love this! It’s fascinating how the music creates a completely different mood in each scene:

Now, about the aforementioned fairy guardians. There are only three of them, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, and before their first appearance they are introduced as ‘the three good fairies.’ That’s it. Just ‘good fairies,’ that’s all we’re given. That’s their only motive for giving Aurora the gifts of song and beauty, and for hiding her in the forest and caring for her. Same as the only motive the bad fairy, Maleficent, is given is that she is ‘evil.’ Simple as that. Makes perfect sense for her to curse the princess to prick her finger and die on her sixteenth birthday, because y’know, she’s evil. She even states that she’s not offended by her lack of an invite to the christening, so she’s not even slighted. Just evil.

Disney Maleficent
Maleficent, the ‘Mistress of all Evil.’ Image from Lasso the Movies.

Ah, Maleficent. She was always my favourite character as a child. I always went for the controversial villains (and still do!) There’s just something about her; the way she speaks, her posture, and her cunning nature. And she turns into a freaking dragon at the end. She certainly deserves her ‘Mistress of all Evil’ title, although it’s never explained what made her so. That’s part of why I find her such an intriguing character.

The most interesting thing about Maleficent and the fairies is that between them, they control all of the other characters. None of them have a say in their fate. Aurora is cursed to die, then sleep and only be awoken by true love’s kiss, and because of this, the king and queen are forced to give her up to the fairies. The residents of the castle are put to sleep against their will once the curse takes effect. Prince Phillip is another victim; he is taken prisoner by Maleficent, then released by the fairies’ magic, then given a magical sword and shield and sent off to use them to fight a magical thorn bush and dragon. And when all that’s over, he has to go and kiss Aurora to break the spell she is under. It feels like all of the characters are just pawns in the battle between good and evil fairies, and that this battle is what the story is really about.

As in the Grimm version, a forest of thorns grows around the castle. Only this time it isn’t to protect Aurora, but rather to ensure that she is not saved. But of course, it fails. Prince Phillip chops his way through, showing that he is willing to fight for his love. When he kisses Aurora, she awakens and they go and meet her parents and then dance together.

Happily every after (and just for the record, I think her dress looks so much better in blue than pink!) Image from Oh My Disney.

Aurora gets everything she wants quite by chance, without having to do anything apart from get a bit upset and be cursed. She is an extremely passive heroine, but not out of choice. She has no option but to follow the path magically set out for her, because she cannot do or see anything different. And okay yes, there are millions of other things out there to aspire to apart from finding love and settling down, but if Aurora is happy with doing that then fair enough. I can’t get annoyed at her too much, because her life in the forest is not bad so she doesn’t need to plot an escape from it. If she wasn’t so restricted, then perhaps she would want more out of life.

Overall, this is a pretty film that embodies everything associated with fairy tales. It’s got the magic, mysterious villain, enchanted forest, castle, love story, and happy ending. And a dragon (did I mention the dragon?!) It does a wonderful job of fleshing out the original story, but still isn’t quite all there. There are lots of unanswered questions (such as why Maleficent decides to curse Aurora in the first place) and room for plenty more plot points to be explored. Also, Aurora is still too meek. If anything, she is meeker than those who came before her. I must say, I am very interested to see if this changes in the new film, Maleficent, and what reasons are given for Maleficent’s actions.

Finally, researching this post led me to discover that Charles Perrault has a page on IMDB. I found this hilarious, and I’m not even sure why. Clearly all this fairy tale stuff is going to my head…