Fairy Tale as Format [March 12-16, 2012]
by Alisa Perren — University of Texas at Austin
March 11, 2012 – 23:00
Monday, March 12, 2012 - Lindsey Kempton (Independent Scholar) presents: Fairy Tales And The Sophisticated Viewer
Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - Michael Besozzi (Georgia State University) presents: A Dream Walking: Desire and Fantasy in Catherine Breillat’s “The Sleeping Beauty”
Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - Amanda Landa (University of Texas at Austin) presents: Anime Fairy Tales: Fighting Fate and Convention
Thursday, March 15, 2012 - Mattie Tanner (University of Texas at Dallas) presents: The Root of Evil—ABC’s “Once Upon A Time” Makes Evil Characters More Human
Friday, March 16, 2012 - Lisa Schmidt (Bishop’s University) presents: “Grimm”: Old School Genre Dressed in the Latest Fashion
Theme week organized by Maria Boyd (Georgia State University).
Traditional fairy tale narratives are not made for today’s TV. Among a steady increase of smart, narratively complex shows that utilize attributes of the televisual medium, such as seriality and reflexivity, to their fullest, the conventional fairy tale falls flat. Their structures are too linear, too episodic, their worlds too limited, and their characters too static. At the very least, fairy tales’ self-contained stories and one dimensional protagonists would have to be altered to work for TV. But savvy contemporary TV audiences that embrace, and to a certain extent, expect complicated narratives would yawn at a simple retrofitting of the tales. More significant changes on a narrative and structural level are required to entertain today’s sophisticated viewers.
Fortunately, fairy tales have an inherent quality that makes them particularly amenable to adaptation. Spun from a long tradition of oral storytelling, fairy tale narratives are naturally fluid, easily allowing the stories to morph and evolve into whatever the storyteller desires so long as key narrative hallmarks remain recognizable. In part, it’s this fluidity that has allowed TV shows like Grimm and Once Upon A Time to mold the classic stories into a format fit for contemporary TV and TV audiences.
Once Upon A Time, in particular, has taken bold and interesting license with the conventional stories and structure of fairy tales. Emboldened by the fact that their parent company is Disney, ABC’s freshman hit has merged all of the fairy tales into one storyworld, opening up the new possibility of weaving them together to create new stories. The result is an intertextuality that transforms Once Upon A Time into a so-called “Easter egg hunt” with the viewer constantly searching for allusions to traditional fairy tales, Disney renditions, and occasionally other shows, such as Lost. Structurally, Once Upon A Time’s story exists in duel universes that operate on parallel narratives, each informing the events in the other. This can be seen in the accompanying clip, where Rumpelstiltskin’s words in the fairy tale world foreshadow the events in Storybrooke.
While Once Upon A Time has recently veered into incorporating non-fairy tale content (King Midas and The Mad Hatter), the show’s foundation lies in cleverly transforming the structurally simplistic stories we know and love into a complex narrative able to enchant the sophisticated viewer.
There is a sinister and tragic element that underlines popular fairy tales. Elements of the fantastic become interspersed with anxieties and desires revolving around identification. At the core of many of Hans Christian Anderson’s reinterpretations of various folk tales was an aura of melancholy surrounding the personal sacrifices made for the sake of dreams. Stories such as “The Little Mermaid” become all too familiar as the macro tensions of social expectations and cultural roles obstruct the dreams of the individual. The fantasy becomes all the more cruel and heartrending as individual hopes and goals prove to be unattainable.
Director Catherine Breillat reconstructs these elements of the fairy tale by emphasizing the necessity of consistently shifting identities. The Sleeping Beauty (2010) incorporates elements of satire, horror, and pornography to reassess the dormant protagonist of Charles Perrault’s classic story. Unlike Julia Leigh’s film of the same name, Breillat is less interested in a distanced clinical examination that reaffirms and lingers on elements of rape and necrophilia permeating the tale (in earlier Italian variants, a king rapes the sleeping princess and abandons her, and only after birthing several children does beauty eventually awake). Instead, much of the film centers on the internalized desires of tomboy Anastasia (based loosely off of tsarina Anastasia, considered a tomboy in her day). Her dream becomes a quest utilizing elements of Anderson’s “The Snow Queen” to save her brother, yet this heroic journey is disrupted by the inevitable kiss. The film deemphasizes the curse of sleep as Anastasia looks forward to her fantasy adventure and the ability to skip through adolescence. Her awakening is even less dramatic as Breillat makes no separation from the waking world, fantasy, and the passing of time. Instead, Breillat centers on the need for reformulating desires.”Prince Charming” proves to be an irresolute teenager that eventually leaves Anastasia pregnant. Anastasia is forced to negotiate between her desires and external heteronormative pressures. By updating the provincial nature of the tale, The Sleeping Beauty suggests that the failure of dreams to contend with reality is not tragic, but inevitable.
Many anime series and films utilize fantastic generic structures which feature magic, alternate worlds, heroes, heroines, princes and princesses, to varying degrees. For this theme week, I decided to go back to one of my favorite shoujo titles which plays most clearly with typical “Western” fairytale structures. Princess Tutu is one of many anime series which feature a magical girl heroine in a seemingly normal high school setting that actually obscures dark secrets and alternate realities of the attendees’ real identities.
Ahiru (meaning duck), is a duck in love with prince who has lost his emotions and memories. Ahiru makes a wish to be near her love, and through Drosselmeyer, a doomed storyteller with magical powers, she becomes magical-girl-cum-prima-ballerina, Princess Tutu. It is soon revealed that Drosselmeyer has trapped all the characters in a storybook tragedy. The players resist their former roles and struggle against what seems to be inevitable. Princess Tutu is the only one who can enact real change, using selfless love and determination to fight the doomed fates of those around her.
Each episode begins, “mukashi, mukashi,” or “long ago,” and each episode is themed with orchestral pieces from famous ballets. Clearly the premise is a playful perversion of Swan Lake, but the show also touches on Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, The Nutcracker, and others. In the beginning, Duck/Tutu’s primary opponents are the dark princess Rue and Mytho’s bodyguard, Fakir, who both hold secrets as to the role they play in Mytho’s shattered heart and thus his tragic ending. Ahiru/Tutu can never be with her prince and knows her time as a human is only temporary, so how will she defeat the curse? (Watch it! It’s on Hulu.)
I especially appreciate this series for inverting the prince/princess structure of who saves who, featuring a girl heroine who takes up the mantle of active savior for herself and those she loves. Princess Tutu even goes one step further and inverts the typical fairy tale happy ending. Semi-spoiler: As the audience takes leave of our favorite little fowl her future is unknown, but there is the hint of a possible new story and a new love.
In ABC’s “Once Upon A Time,” they have put a twist on our familiar fairy tale stories by placing them all in a town (without any recollection of their fairy tale past) in our modern-day world where “there are no happy endings.” Each episode of the show focuses on a certain character, who they are in this modern day world, and what fairy tale character they actually are. But, they put an additional spin on these fairy tales by retelling them differently from their traditional stories, and in doing this, the show tries to make these fairy tales more real and the characters in them more human as opposed to fantastical and imaginary.
More specifically with Snow White’s evil queen and Rumpelstiltskin we are given a glimpse as to why they became evil. As you can see from the video, the evil queen wanted to enact revenge on Snow White, and in her view, this is the only way she can be happy. By showing that the evil queen was capable of love, for both this unknown person and her father, she becomes more human instead of just an evil being out to destroy good, as she would be in the original fairy tale.
The same holds true for Rumpelstiltskin. He was trying to protect his son, and because he can see no other way, he takes this power and becomes evil. Knowing that Rumpelstiltskin was a desperate man, a coward even, who was only trying to save his son, we become more sympathetic to his character because he’s more human to us through his back story.
In getting the background on these two evil characters, it changes how we view them in the modern setting in the show. But not only that, it changes our opinion on evil in general. Evil no longer becomes an abstract idea that is the opposite of good, but rather the people that have embraced evil did so because they saw no other way or were hoping to use this evil power for good. These two characters become more human to us through these portrayals, making us feel sympathetic towards them, and allow us to hope that perhaps they don’t have to be destroyed entirely like they are in the original fairy tales, but that they can be changed for the better and be redeemed.
Every time the entertainment industry gets on a genre trend, there are critics who announce that the trend has some connection to current cultural/social/political/economic anxieties. Witness the review by Ginia Bellafante of The New York Times; discussing the plethora of new fantasy offerings on television (Terra Nova, Grimm, Once Upon a Time), Bellafonte draws vague but unsubstantiated parallels to paranoia, debt-ceilings and, inevitably, the post 9/11 world.
I have something of a bee in my bonnet regarding this type of genre criticism. Of course genres have relationships to their surrounding cultures but this all-too-easy “cultural anxiety” commentary offers little actual insight into the reasons that certain kinds of stories arise and return. I want suggest that we consider the idea of “fashion,” by which I mean that sometimes story-telling trends develop without a traumatic socio-psychoanalytic origin story. A trend can manifest in a given season for no other reason than that it seems to be the popular (and profitable) thing.
The NBC series Grimm is a case in point. A lifelong aficionado of the fantasy genre, I have watched most of Grimm’s first season, initially with hope but mostly with a waning determination to see it through. Grimm is an old-fashioned police procedural with a fantasy gloss. The premise is that police detective Nick Burkhardt is a “Grimm,” possessing a special sight that enables him to distinguish humans from various fantastical creatures disguised as humans. Naturally, these monsters will run afoul of the law.
Critics have described Grimm as (yet another) reimagination of fairy tales, which it is, yet everything about this series says “classic police procedural”: Nick has a crotchety (albeit mysterious) captain, an African-American sidekick, and a lovely live-in girlfriend. His special sight gives him virtually no advantage in solving crimes (with the exception of the pilot, seen in the video above). The fairy tale element, although often clever, has limited narrative purpose. In fact, most of the cases are solved by straightforward investigation and team work – the trappings of the procedural. It just so happens that there is this “other” world accessorizing the (also conventional) gritty urban landscape; likewise the fantasy elements are draped over the procedural.
Is there anything wrong with this? In principle, no, but let’s call Grimm what it is: an old genre spinster tarted up in the latest hipster chic.
Mon, 12 Mar 2012 04:00:00 +0000