Once upon a time, in a faraway enchanted kingdom called Holly Wood, there was a group of writers and producers who gathered, like a council of wizards, around a round table in the depths of their mystical headquarters. Together they talked for many days and nights, toiling away as suns set and moons rose, searching and racking their brains for a solution that would save the kingdom.
Suddenly, one of the wizards sat up straight, his hands hitting the table. “I have it!” he cried. The others gathered around him, shuffling excitedly and wearily in their robes. The wizard looked at all of them. “What if we take classic fairy tales,” he exclaimed into the hush that had befallen the room. “And make them… badass?”
There was a silence, then the wizards threw up their hands and cheered. They clasped their faces and laughed hysterically, they embraced and danced. They had done it. They had come up with something new and exciting. The kingdom would rejoice.
And they certainly wouldn’t notice if they repeated their new spell again and again…
Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters has just hit cinemas, leaving me blinking in the afterglow of blood-splattered badass fairy tale weirdness that it left on its burning path. The title really tells you all you need to know: Hansel and Gretel, those adorable little kids who got lost in the woods and found a cottage made of gingerbread and sweets, are all grown up and transported to a steampunk universe where they’ve made hunting down candyland-dwelling witches and the like their family business. Like a much more specific and less emotive Sam and Dean Winchester, as far as I can figure, and with much more Jeremy Renner.
‘Badass fairy tale adaptation’ seems to be its own genre now. Also coming out this year is Jack the Giant Slayer, which is Jack and the Beanstalk grown up and badass, and a while back we had Snow White and the Huntsman, which is Snow White grown up and badass… you get the idea. I will not waste both of our time by bleating titles at you. Though Red Riding Hood, Beastly, and Once Upon a Time spring to mind…
Why is this happening? Sure, it’s a pretty cool idea if you roll it around—fairy tales are often boxed in the category of children’s fare (God knows why, they are horrifying as hell… but I’ll get to that) so it’s an interesting and fun juxtaposition to see them reworked for adults. They are so well known, too, that their adaptations can be tweaked and twisted as much as the creators want and it will still be recognisable, and people will still go to see it.
Perhaps the shift is not as strange as it may seem. We may doll up the tales of princesses and magic and adventure for the kids, as Disney has done over the years creating many animated masterpieces that are held dear in everyone’s hearts, but let’s be blunt here, fairy tales can be bloody horrifying. The name Grimm was weirdly meaningful, and those brothers conjured up some nightmarish stuff, as did Hans Christian Anderson and the other known fairy tale authors, and those are just the named ones. Many fairy tales were folk stories passed by word of mouth and changed a little bit each time, naturally, leading to the mish-mash of adaptations and versions we have today.
Really, the only reason we should have felt the need to give Hansel and Gretel guns was to make us feel safer. Even in its original form, it’s a story about small children sent into the forest by their step-mother (or birth mother, or father, or they just get lost… as with many, it alters from version to version), distinctly ignore the ‘don’t take candy from strangers’ rule, and get trapped by a witch who then fattens them up to eat them. Parental abuse, entrapment and attempted cannibalism! What a charming bedtime story.
The main witchy villain in Witch Hunters is, as said by reviewer Simon Weaving, to have “some big plans involving the full moon, the children’s blood, and spells that were definitely banned at Hogwarts.” Occultist sacrifice may be immediately more horrifying than having a house made of biscuits, but it’s even scarier if you consider it’s not that exaggerated from the original.
That’s the thing; most fairy tales were intended to be ones that kids could learn from. Red Riding Hood teaches us not to talk to strangers or venture from the main road into shady areas. Snow White shows it’s not always wise to take food offered from strange old ladies, lest you end up drugged. The Frog Prince tells us not to judge by appearances, and Cinderella gives us hope that if you’re stuck somewhere crappy with an emotionally abusive stepfamily you don’t necessarily have to be there forever. A lot of them hold messages that are still relevant today, which is one of the reasons fairy tales are still so popular and ingrained in our culture.
So, I think reinventing the classic tales to be badass action movies is no worse than reinventing them as teen dramas… when done well. Which really goes for any movie concept. What I’m personally finding, and I’m sure I’m not the only one, is that the magical kingdom of Holly Wood is repeating itself a bit. Granted, when you’ve re-adapted one fairy tale it doesn’t mean you’ve done them all, but isn’t it a bit of a stretch having two of them released within a few months of one another?
Especially when there haven’t really been any that have been completely stellar… Snow White and the Huntsman had amazing cinematography, but that alone couldn’t carry off the cliché-riddled storyline all about Kristen Stewart’s powerful purity and Chris Hemsworth’s toned figure. Beastly, a Beauty and the Beast adaptation (which I have wryly mentioned before), was poorly done and everyone was far too attractive for the story, and far too angsty. Ditto to Red Riding Hood, which I’m reliably told had a great plot full of suspense and was spoiled by a soppy love triangle. And the reviews coming in for Witch Hunters have been fairly mixed, too.
I suppose they’ll just keep pumping them out until they’ve used up the last of the fairy tale stock, and we’ll just have to weather the storm until it’s over, wondering if a generally good one is going to come out. In the meantime, however, I think the most promising new adaptation sounds like Hansel and Gretel Get Baked, which promises from synopsis alone to be both horrifying and hilarious at the same time.