Once upon a time the humble fairy tale was a bedtime staple, lulling countless children to slumber with visions of golden-haired princesses, enchanted frogs and wicked stepmothers. The stories had been around forever, and -- once the kids were asleep -- no one thought much about them.

Then a strange wind swept over the land, and the stories were transformed: Some were sanitized of all meaning, some were stripped of any vestige of sexism and brutality, and some tumbled forth onto the stage, the screen and the television set.

But if it's boom time for fairy tales, that doesn't mean the quality is high. Bookstores and libraries are stacked with retellings and anthologies of differing value -- and values. In movie theaters, Cinderella is the sixth-highest-grossing film in the country, but the Disney reissue has been criticized for its stereotyped characters. Another popular film, the 12th-ranked Princess Bride, is a recasting of the captive maiden plot that is funny but soulless.

On television, there's Beauty and the Beast, which faithfully adapts a classic tale to contemporary New York, and The Charmings, a sitcom that uses fairy-tale motifs in such an irritating fashion you will want to feed it to the big bad wolf. And many Y-parents are spending hours with their kids watching VCR tapes of Faerie Tale Theatre.

The most sophisticated fairy tale is now on Broadway, courtesy of Stephen Sondheim. His Into the Woods brings together in musical form Cinderella, Jack (of Beanstalk fame), Rapunzel and other familiar folk, all seeking to deal with an up-to-date question: How do you make it through the treacherous woods when you've used up your supply of magic wishes?

These productions have different levels of ambition and achievement, and it would be a mistake to bind them too carefully into a thematic knot. Yet, along with the lively academic debate -- usually centering on the Grimm brothers' motives and methods -- they indicate the degree of interest these once-neglected stories are exerting.

Not all fairy tales are created equal, and not all reach their intended audience. Creative Education, a small firm in Mankato, Minn., published a series of 20 fairy tales four years ago. It was a bold attempt to restore some of the complexity and mystery that Creative felt had been lost in Disney-esque treatments over the years -- and it ended in commercial failure. The books are still available, but they've never caught on.

"My intention was to do fairy tales for adolescents -- people who are faced with changes and going through difficult times," says Creative Publisher George Peterson Jr. "It's at that time that all of us confronted our first concepts of evil, sexuality, lying. I felt kids still needed a framework of reference, something to help them deal with moral decisions. Fairy tales do that, if they're not watered down."

Creative's tales are the undiluted stuff. Even the weakest of the $11.65 plastic-bound books -- Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel or The Snow Queen -- effectively and colorfully retells its tale. Others, however, such as Little Red Riding Hood or Cinderella, are also startlingly innovative.

Cinderella is one of those tales that, courtesy of Disney, have been ingrained into the modern consciousness. The Creative version, with illustrations by Roberto Innocenti, regains a sense of the unfamiliar by transplanting the setting to an English village during the Roaring Twenties. Showing the evil stepsisters as vain flappers is an effective twist, as is the bittersweet ending: an aged Cinderella, now a heavy drinker, staring out the window and remembering the glorious day she was married to her prince.

By far the most audacious Creative story is Little Red Riding Hood, a tale that has been told in many ways over the ages (a 1983 book included 30 variants). Most modern versions end with the wolf vanquished and the girl triumphant. Not Creative's. Illustrator Sarah Moon has moved the story out of the woods into its modern equivalent, the dark streets of the big city. The wolf is never seen until the climax, and then only in shadow. Neither is the ending exactly cheerful. The last words: "This wicked wolf fell upon Little Red Riding Hood, and ate her all up." There's no helpful woodsman in this cautionary tale; there's no help at all.

It was a controversial approach. "It was faithful to the original interpretation of Perrault's tale, but people do not like to look at their icons with new and fresh eyes," says Peterson, the publisher. "They want Little Red Riding Hood to have a bonnet on, to be taking biscuits to grandma, to escape. That's not what the tale is about."

What would an adolescent -- the reader, remember, for whom these books were designed -- gain from Creative's version?

"A recognition of the truth -- that life does not always end happily," says Peterson. "Life is tough. It's beautiful too, but we aren't going to be whole, ever. I don't think we are ever going to be able to say 'no' to drugs, for example, unless we confront our problems. But the society we live in wants at all costs to avoid the difficult."

Within the bruising constraints of television, Beauty and the Beast (Friday at 8 p.m. on Channel 9) is trying to do something difficult: present a fairy tale in contemporary terms. The Beast really is a beast, a furry, fanged superhuman named Vincent who lives underground. And Beauty really is a beauty, an assistant district attorney named Catherine. As with Creative's Little Red Riding Hood, one factor making the whole thing work is its setting. "If there is a primeval forest in our culture, it's New York -- full of wonders, terror and miracles," says the show's supervising producer, Ron Koslow.

The series is modestly successful in real-world terms, winning its time slot against weak competition and getting picked up for another nine episodes. In artistic terms, it sometimes degenerates into chase scenes, with Vincent busting down the door and saving Catherine from peril. What sets the show apart is the relationship between the two main characters -- a connection that is all-consuming but nonsexual. "We have a bond stronger than friendship or love," says Catherine. "And although we cannot be together, we will never, ever be apart." Moonlighting, this ain't.

By setting a human character up against a mythical one, the show is "trying to address contemporary issues in classical or mythical terms," Koslow says. "Their relationship is challenged by all of the things that challenge everyone's relationships -- jealousy, class distinctions, career, parents, issues of trust."

Plus, of course, the happenstance that one looks like a monster. "In contemporary terms there are no epic obstacles in the paths of lovers, and that tends to diminish and make mundane the adventure of being in love," the producer says. "Vincent being a beast lends an element of impossibility and of wonder at the same time. That's part of the power of this myth, of looking behind the surface to inner beauty and the transforming power of love."

In the usual adaptations of the tale, Beauty's love for the Beast turns him into a prince. That won't happen here. "Vincent will always remain Vincent," says Koslow, "and everyone who comes in contact with him will be challenged to see him as he is." These days, it seems, even the all-powerful love in fairy tales has its limits.

One reason for bothering with fairy tales, for taking the time to find good ones to read to your child, lies in their idealism. Jack Zipes, a leading critic of the field, points out that a lot of the stories "are very utopian. They give hope to the small person that he or she could overcome bad treatment, injustice, child abuse.

"Hansel and Gretel, for instance, tells children that they will one day be able to grow up and be masters of their destiny. And fairy tales respect cunning. They say it's very important to know how to use your head, to think creatively, to look for alternatives. You don't have to have power or weapons: smaller heroes use their brains to get out of predicaments."

Zipes, a professor of German at the University of Florida at Gainesville and author of Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales, finds that the mass-marketed fairy tales are usually of poor quality. "Faerie Tale Theatre has very good actors and is very witty, but they don't change the version. Their Little Red Riding Hood is one of the most oedipal, saccharine, stilted productions I've seen." As for Disney, "I recently saw Snow White, and I was horrified. It's terrible in terms of its stereotypes."

He would like kids to be exposed to many different renditions of a tale, which is also an excellent way for encouraging parent-child interaction. This is the advice he follows with his 3-year-old daughter. "Even when I have a book in front of me, I'll veer from the plot. What I hope to do is give her the option, to say there's no one set version of any tale," he says.

Jane Yolen, author of many children's books and editor of the Favorite Folktales volume in Pantheon's Fairy Tale and Folklore Library, has as much trouble with the perennially popular Disney as Zipes does.

"Almost always the girls are wimps. Cinderella is a totally useless creature. She gets locked in the tower, and the mice have to come let her out. In earlier versions, she's a very inventive, sometimes even vindictive heroine. It's not 'Someday my prince will come,' but 'I'll go out and find him.' "

Yolen's advice echoes Zipes: Read many versions to your children, and talk to them about each one. "Disney's is not the only way the story can be told," she adds, "and it's a mistake for parents to think that."

One reason parents enjoy reading fairy tales to their children is that they, too, may find themselves affected. "Growing up in New York City, the big warning was, 'Don't open the door to strangers.' So for me, Snow White was keyed around the part where she sees the old witch, lets her in and is done in," remembers Yolen. "But I didn't read it that way when I was 42 and had a 16-year-old daughter.

"In rereading it, I identified with the queen rather than Snow White, because now I was the queen, and had my own beautiful young daughter. I saw in her my own aging. I could look in the mirror and say, 'Who's the fairest of them all?', and it wasn't me anymore. Because I was older and different, the tale was different."