Once upon a time…fairy tales were just bedtime stories, but recently these stories have grown up, gotten darker (plus a CGI makeover) and are taking over screens, big and small. ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” is getting a spin-off this fall: “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland.” Angelina Jolie’s role as “Maleficent,” Sleeping Beauty’s nemesis, has been widely talked about, and the film hasn’t even see the cutting room floor.
So what is it about fairy tales that keep us coming back for more? Maria Tatar, Harvard University folklore and mythology professor, explains why fairy tales and their fans are timeless.
Why are fairy tales taking over TV and movie screens?
They are staging a comeback but they never really went away. In the second half of the 20th century, Disney dominated when it came to fairy tales. But historically, men and women told the tales to the rhythm of labor. They were full of passion, poetry, sex, violence and melodrama — often the melodrama was needed to keep the interest. We tried to give them different names. Cinderella became “Pretty Woman” or “The Princess Diaries.” Today, they’re becoming much more symbolic of adults using them to work through aspects of life.
Which characters/stories have relevance with a key issue we’re facing right now in society?
In place of the passive woman is the warrior woman. In the “Hunger Games,” Katniss has to survive using her wits. It gives us what folklore has always been fascinated by: A trickster, someone who knows how to turn the tables on the rich and powerful.
With “Sleeping Beauty,” we really have to try and figure out that story. What is it about beauty that makes it so attractive? Who is going to help her? Can she do anything at all? It’s the deeply empowered woman versus the completely helpless figure.
In the upcoming film “Maleficent,” Angelina Jolie plays the witch that spells Sleeping Beauty. What is the value from telling the story from a different character’s perspective?
We’re calling the tale “Maleficent” not “Sleeping Beauty.” It shows how we’re drawn to the dark side. Is that something to worry about? Why are we making this film or [Pedro Almodovar's] “Talk to Her,” which has two sleeping beauties? We can look at these stories that show a mix of innocence and seduction and see who is who and how to get out of a situation like this.
In “Once Upon a Time,” it turns out Little Red Ridding Hood is the wolf.The killer. What we’re doing today is mixing things up and producing a hybrid. “Once Upon a Time,” “Shrek,” “Into the Woods.” Looking at it from a different point of view, making it new and fresh, and looking at all the wonderful archetypes that we still go back to. How can we take what’s in the story and apply it to our daily life? If you think about those terms you are working out our own values and how you think about the world.
“Once Upon a Time” has spin-off coming this fall, “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland,” why “Alice and Wonderland”?
It’s our story about disorientation, being in a world that feels like nonsense. How do you manage, cope and survive? I think of my fourth-grade teacher sternly telling me that it’s not a story for children. Alice faces a deep existential crisis. She’s assaulted verbally. She’s constantly losing control and having to regain control.
That we’re taking up that story seems really important. Everyone thinks they’re in a world of crisis, especially with new technology. There’s a divide between digital natives and the rest of us. We use tales like “Alice and Wonderland” to teach us how to move forward. They take us to other worlds but also propel us forward to think about who we are and how we think about things in our own time and place and crisis situations.
Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Alice, what fairy tale do you think will be the next to have a comeback?
The giant — he’s making a comeback — so are more male figures.
J.K. Rowling has a wonderful story about the three brothers whose father abandons the sons. I’m waiting for that story to be revived. It reveals that [fairy tales] are not just for women and children.