Fairy Tale Films: Visions of Ambiguity

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In the second chapter I consider the migration of the fairy tale in the cinematic fields and the rise of the Walt Disney Company in the Twentieth century - along with its criticism. Finally in the third chapter, assuming 11 For example the well-know the arab collection One Thousand and One Night. Herein, after giving a general description of the socio-cultural landscapes in which these products circulate, I move to an analysis of the American TV series Once Upon a Time, 14 taken as emblematic of contemporary fairy-tale practices, especially in its ambition of breaking conventions and disrupting fixed meanings associated to traditional fairy tales.

It is not easy to tell whether new fairy-tale cinematic adaptations truly cross their traditional framing or not, but with the help of the notions collected all along the previous chapters, I will try to critically address this issue, in an attempt to reach a better understanding of how fairy tales are adapted and function in our contemporary world. Television Series. In fact, there is a huge difference between how people perceive fairy tales and the way scholars do. What to a normal public is nothing more than a narrative for children, to scholars it is a complex form of popular culture that has a specific structure and specific stylistic features, is apt to receive multifarious interpretations, and, most of all, has a long and complicated history.

They continued to be told until the modern era, so that we can say that fairy tales - in their motifs and themes - are as old as the human practice of telling stories. However, as a set of literary conventions perfectly recognizable by the reader, their origin can be traced to Western Europe during the last few centuries: what was just a narrative commonly 15 Teverson, Fairy Tale, Upon the presence of the fairy tale in the antiquity see also Pisanty, Leggere la fiaba, Hence it comes the great importance attributed by him to the socio-historical context in which fairy tales originated, were told and spread.

This is the only way to understand their characteristics and values. Starting from its recordable beginning, thus, the literary genre of the fairy tale configures itself as A genre that enables writers to hold a mirror up to their society, reflecting the anxieties and preoccupations of the era, but it also furnishes writers with a means of responding to their society indirectly, using the fabulous and otherworldly qualities of the genre as a mask for social satire, and, more affirmatively, as a means of speculating, about how things might be different.

During its evolution through time, many attempts to dress the narrative with ideology weakened if not silenced its potentially subversive nature. Fairy tales thus fulfilled a wide spectrum of functions one has to be conscious of once one delves deeper into this subject. A wider discussion on the fairy tale as means to express and re-elaborate concerns and anxieties in Italy during the Seventeenth century can be found in Zipes, Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion, Lo cunto de li cunti was a great vehicle of dissemination of the literary fairy-tale and it did inspire French writers of the s, but the farcical, vulgar and obscene declination of its stories was soon abandoned.

Consult for examples. Indeed, if before women occupied a prominent place in the mundane life of the court, by the end of the Seventeenth century they were more and more relegated to the households, seen mainly as mothers, and often stuck in arranged marriage. At the same time, due to its structural simplicity, to its immediacy, and to the marvel and absurdity of its contents, since its first appearance in the literary world, the fairy tale has often also been considered a product for children.

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In this early stage, 27 Ibid. The key to better understand the shift in audience is that fairy tales became a narrative explicitly for children just when the idea of childhood appeared, as both Pisanty 31 and Zipes32 point out. It is useful to remark, in fact, that until a certain period, adults and children were not really considered different categories to address oneself at, and their worlds were not separated, especially among the poorest classes.

They do speak of unlikely circumstances and magic, yet even without reading too much between the lines, we can remark the dreadful realism of the social context of the pre-modern societies in which these tales are rooted. French historian Robert Darnton,34 in his examination of the 31 Ibid. Moreover, legally speaking children did not have any rights until the beginning of the Twentieth century. He claims folktales served to represent the peasant world, describe the struggle for survival and point out adequate strategies to face the harshness of life, a strategy that according to Darnton corresponds to shrewdness and wit.

During the Seventeenth century, among the upper classes, childhood begins to be considered a crucial moment of life: children were then seen as innocent and pure beings, and parents, with the help of pedagogues, focused on moralistic teachings, removing any inappropriate content that could upset or misdirect their children. He wrote in an economic style38 , rationalizing and morally exploiting his fictions. Nonetheless, Perrault kept addressing himself towards two audiences, the children and the adults, sometimes denying the educative purpose of his own tales.

He never renounced, in fact, to wink at his adult readers with sexual innuendo and with allegorical references to the current political context. Just recently they have been re-discovered by scholars, and it has been demonstrated how subversive their values were; female writers in France at the court of Louis XIV used the marvelous stories of the fairy tales as a vehicle to re- discuss the role of women and the importance of love at that time, and as a way of searching for more options in an era that tended to close opportunities to women.

Indeed it was closer in style and plot to the oral tradition it pretended to be inspired by, but it was also accompanied by a consistent work of censorship, cuts, and increasing in didactic contents. Teverson, Fairy Tale, The brothers, who were not alone in their yearning for collecting oral tales from the German people in that period, approached with scholarly intentions.

The reception among the public was positive enough to motivate the brothers to proceed with a second volume filled with 70 other tales and published by the end of However, the fact that the collection obtained a reasonable success among the public, also thanks to its appealing title, the scholarly response, which was actually the more important one to Jacob and Wilhelm, was not as warm. Five more editions were successively printed and over the years the brother never ceased working on their repertoire, adding, subtracting and adjusting the tales. Nevertheless, the major changes have been realized between the first and the second edition, the latter now being the point of reference for any translation into foreign languages.

On the one hand feminist criticism highlighted the patriarchal messages and behavioral norms embedded in the tales - focusing for instance on the passiveness of the female characters versus the activeness of the male equivalent. At the same time, however, [ In parallel, several authors kept creating literary fairy tales; in this regard it is impossible not to mention the figure of Hans Christian Andersen , the danish writer who created a great number of fairy tales, both inspired by the oral tradition and invented anew, that were translated in more than languages.

And without a recorder they could not remember every word the storyteller said.

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Since I assume that what mainly constitute our cultural heritage in terms of printed orally-derived fairy tales43 are the collections by Charles Perrault and the Grimm brothers, I will not drive my historical recollection further. Rather, it is worth analyzing how fairy tales were transformed during this journey, what they have lost and which new features they have gained. As already noticed regarding previous fairy tales collections, the stunning presence of cruelty is historically intrinsic to the folktale, but seemingly contradictory just once fairy tales, for their fantastic elements and their structural simplicity, were assigned to nurseries, when the idea of childhood became established.

If this violence can surprise a contemporary and uninformed reader and scholars contemporary to the Grimms , it has not worried people for many years. Most of all, it does not disturb children. Rather, they sense the most dreadful aspects of fairy tales either as entertainment or as a sort of initiating experience.

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For all these reasons, surely until the Nineteenth century grisly episodes were quite welcomed in fairy tales and seen as integral and functional part of the stories. However, even if the brothers Grimm rightfully maintained untouched the coarseness of the tales they collected, more problematically they altered other important aspects of their stories, in order to receive a more pleasing critical response upon the second edition. Cutting offending and embarrassing moral content: premarital sex, incests and pregnancies 46Cf. Here the texts, with key passages in bold: 1.

At first Rapunzel was frightened, but soon she came to like the young king so much that she agreed to let him visit every day and to pull him up. This, I would add, goes to the detriment of the narrative intrigue itself.

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In fact, why should Rapunzel spontaneously reveal that she has a visitor, knowing that the fairy does not want her to see anybody? It is far more plausible that she would not be up-to-date about the consequences of sex, as it was not uncommon in pre-modern societies. The educative value that probably has been stressed the most by the brothers is the ethic of hard work.

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This specifically affects relationships between male and female characters, often seen as contractual, their gender representation and the expected behavior of female figures. Characters disobeying the standards are heavily punished by the development of the narrative.

Within this context, violence against women appears thus to be legitimized just as a harsh fact of life. In the tales the fact of not speaking can stand for either a sign of female virtue or the way for expiating a punishment. The representation of women in the oral fairy tales has extensively been manipulated both by Perrault and the Grimm brothers. These latter in particular systematically chose the versions of the tales that better fulfilled their worldview, in order to encourage the set of founding values of their educated, christian and bourgeoise milieu.

The brothers Grimm did preserve in their collection the general atmosphere of the oral folktales, and at the same time they also made decisive changes regarding their subtexts, changes of which we, as readers and scholars, absolutely have to be aware of. To be more precise, Jacob and Wilhelm added subtexts in a narrative that functioned in a completely literary manner. I think it 57 Ibid. Inasmuch as the fairy tales were spread orally, without having anything to do with literature, they remained very stable in time. Indeed the storytellers added some changes, maybe resulting in a new variant, but the core of the tale remained unaltered.

There again, one could argue that the fairy tale does not own preexistent fixed values and that the specific connotations the tale takes on over time depend from its socio-cultural context, storyteller and audience.

Fairy tale films : visions of ambiguity /

I do believe, however, that the fairy tale is grounded in the human need for answers and improvement, but the real problem here, in my opinion, is that with the spread of the fairy tale in literature, less variants became available. In fact, in the oral tradition all possible versions of a single tale were alternately performed, without one prevailing over another.

As soon as fairy tales became properties of specific authors, they were conditioned by their likings and in printed form overpowered all the other existent versions. The authors, for their part, having the opportunity to add their own values and ideas to the narrative, normally opted for two different directions: some of them wanted to encourage liberating and subversive content, while others longed for fostering conservative messages.

Therefore, despite the changes made by the Grimm brothers within their tales may seem subtle, the issue originates from the fact that the stories they chose prevailed over other versions as the more suitable one. Because of authorship and mass literature, when fairy tales were less told by people - who instead read or watched them on the screen -, the multifarious variants of each tale became irrelevant and often forgotten, and the different undertones that used to 59 Tatar, The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales, In this way, reading events in a large diachronic perspective, Perrault and the Grimms, paved the way to the Disney corporation in tampering with folktales and filling them with ideology.

Jack Zipes, The Enchanted Screen60 2. However, it is worth recalling this fact because cinema also radically revolutionized the ways in which fairy tales were passed down and popularized. Due to their simple stories, which were well-known and loved by everybody, fairy-tale films and cartoons, from their beginnings until today, have always had a great success.

The corporation he founded is nowadays one of the biggest media corporations in the world. By the end of the Nineteenth century, in most Western countries fairy tales were a fully-fledged, socially institutionalized literary genre meant for a young audience. Moreover, fairy tales began to be successfully adapted for the theatre and they were used in schools as didactic material.

Yet, especially as far as experimental and performative adaptations were concerned, fairy tales were enjoyed by adults as well. In general printed tales, very often accompanied by illustrations, acquired more legitimacy than the oral tradition. With the advent of cinema, fairy tales were considered among the perfect stories to be adapted to the screen. Fairy tales were adapted to the format and codes of both live action movies and cartoons: hence the new cinematographic genre. These people, or the studio or the company they stand for, have in fact become our modern storytellers, especially if we consider how many fairy-tale films are watched and re-watched by children and by adults all over the world.

The sense of wonder his films provided at that time was incomparable.


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Disney contributed enormously to establishing the genre of fairy-tale films, and arguably became the most influential storyteller of the Twentieth century. Walt Disney invested all he had and asked for loans to finance the project. After its release in , the film gained such an overwhelming success that Disney could entirely pay back all the debts he made. From that moment on Company never stopped growing, despite its ups and downs. To limit ourselves to fairy-tale cartoon adaptations, 67 it produced Cinderella , Alice in Wonderland , Sleeping Beauty , The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast It also realized countless live-action movies and several computer-animated films in more recent times.

For all his life Walt Disney was remarkably attentive to new technological discoveries and quickly became a pioneer in his field. He superposed his name on everything he created, from movies to merchandise, and he advertised the movies and the Studios. After his death, in , the Company scrupulously followed his guidelines up to the present day.

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