TOM DAVENPORT doesn't see himself as a "children's filmmaker," but much of his output over the past seven years has centered on the retelling on celluloid of children's folk tales. The 43-year-old independent filmmaker and distributor (his Delaplane, Va., farm/studio has evolved into something of a cottage industry) adapted his first Grimm Brothers tale in 1975 following the illness and convalescence of a son. Davenport had kept up the son's spirits with the telling of "Hansel and Gretel." The 16-minute film it inspired was a stark, Depression-era Appalachian tale using local people as actors (the county dogcatcher was the father), with a hand-built hippy dwelling subbing as the gingerbread house. The New York Public Library called it "the best fairy-tale film made for children in the last 40 years."
Davenport's approach has been innovative and somewhat controversial. Adapting classic tales to various periods of American history, he uses live-action realism instead of the more customary animation or puppetry. Yet while the stories are recast in terms of American culture, there is no alteration of the significant aspects of the originals.
The films deal with issues ranging from sexist stereotyping to the use of potent sexual symbolism and religious overtones, and critics claim those elements could be damaging to children, who may be unable to tell the difference between fantasy and reality in a live-action film. But the criticism reminds Davenport of the initial reaction to the source material itself.
"When the Brothers Grimm first published their collection in 1812, they did so in a period when people who collected folk tales felt they should be altered to conform to the contemporary standards of taste and beauty. That was a period of 'Enlightenment' when these tales of and by peasants were looked on as superstitious, improper, uncouth and vulgar."
"The Grimms were very faithful in transcribing these stories just as they had heard them, for which they were subjected to a lot of criticism; initially the tales were banned in some countries, but they became popular and survived. It's interesting to me that you get the same kinds of problems today with contemporary morals and attitudes about what is proper and improper . . . and people make the same judgments of the tales."
Since "Hansel and Gretel," Davenport has completed five more short films: turn-of-the-century versions of "Rapunzel, Rapunzel" and "The Frog King" (and a charming documentary about its making); "Bristlelip" (a version of "King Thrushbeard" set in 1815 Virginia) and "Bearskin: Or the Man Who Did Not Wash for Seven Years," a post-Civil War retelling of problems arising from a pact with the Devil. The latter two films had their premieres at the Kennedy Center's American Film Institute last weekend; they'll be shown at the Biograph Sunday afternoon at 1:30 and 3:30. Davenport will be on hand to discuss the films.
In the works are "The Goose Girl," "Jack and the Dentist's Daughter" (an Appalachian version of "The Master Thief") and another story not yet chosen. The last five make up "From the Brothers Grimm: American Versions of Folktale Classics," a $250,000 project funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and private foundations. Davenport says the package will be available to public television stations next January. "Meanwhile, the films will be released individually to the only market independents really have, the school and library market," he says.
Believing that in folk tales it is drama rather than characterization that is essential, Davenport adapted Sergei Eisenstein and Alfred Hitchcock's principle of typecasting, in which looks and bearing are more important than voice or acting ability. "In 'Hansel and Gretel,' there is hardly a line of dialogue," he points out. "When we edit these films we don't ever use sound until the very end. We edit them totally in picture. In dealing with dancers who have the leads in both 'Frog King' and 'Bristlelip' , you're dealing with people who use their bodies very well. If you're telling the story with a movement or a gesture, a dancer can sometimes do it better than an actor. Hitchcock uses lots of odd characters, but he doesn't develop them--he just puts them in odd, dreamlike plots that are a lot like fairy tales."
The films use the well-preserved homes and countryside of historic Fauquier County as a giant pre-fab set, which allows great latitude in choosing a setting. The time frames are equally important. The more modern the adaptation is, Davenport says, "the less likely people are to accept the irrational premise of a story. When there are things that are strange and illogical, we just accept them because there's a difference between the daylight world and the poetic world. And it doesn't take much to set things back far enough that it becomes a 'once upon a time' period."