‘Happily Ever After’?: Modernizing Fairy Tales for a New Generation

[Cross-posted from Beneath the Brand blog].

Recently, my boyfriend and I started watching Once Upon a Time. Other than the brief plot synopsis I’d read online, neither of us knew much about it. But we are both products of the ‘80s and ‘90s, so we were familiarized with storylines within the series, because hey — we’d seen Disney movies. This sort of sugar-coated narrative was how most kids of that generation generally became acquainted with the fairy tales, and in terms of popular media consumption, Disney had a monopoly on the production of fairy tales for many years.

So, with that in mind, we sat down to a surprisingly nuanced and dark story. In this tale, almost the entire cast of characters doesn’t realize that they hail from a fantasy realm, because a dark queen has cast a curse on them, banishing them to live in a prison (which is the small town of Storybrooke, Maine), all the while oblivious to their former lives.

One little boy is convinced that he knows their true identities, and embarks on a quest to get his birth mother to help him break the spell. The only catch? His adoptive mother is the evil queen (or, in her present incarnation, the mayor of Storybrooke), and she doesn’t take too kindly to anyone foiling her plans.

And I’m hooked — it’s modern, weaves together familiar tales in such a way to be comforting, and then retells them in a contemporary, action-packed manner that you won’t soon forget.

So watching Once Upon a Time brought up some memories for me, and it made me think about the history of fairy tales — and the joy we get from retelling them time and again, each generation putting its own twist on them.

Considered by many to be the godfathers of modern fairy tale lore, the Grimm brothers collected a wealth of German folklore and published the stories in an anthology. Many of the stories were exceedingly dark and violent, but kids read them anyway. The books retained their popularity surprisingly well, and in the 20th century, a large portion of the tales was thought to be too dark and violent for children. So, when Disney pulled inspiration and storylines from the Grimm’s tales, they deliberately chose to overlook the allusions to sexuality, as well as the descriptions overt violence and cruelty that were present in so many of the fables. This left us with the sanitized, moralistic good-triumphs-over-evil stories that we know so well today.

But the kids who once dreamt of the Disney versions of fairy tales have grown up now. Today, they are the story weavers, working on blockbuster movies and writing the hit television shows like Once Upon a Time. And so we are seeing the retelling of old German folktales in shows like Grimm, a story that features the Grimm brothers as cops, fighting modern, real-life versions of familiar fairytale creatures. Jack and the Beanstalk turned into Jack the Giant Killer, an updated story of the bravery and heroism of an unlikely “giant killer.” Snow White’s soft-spoken, naïve demeanor has vanished in favor of the valiant warrior we see Snow White and the Huntsman, Hansel and Gretel are now cunning Witch Hunters rather than helpless, abandoned children, and even the Rise of the Guardians chronicles popular contemporary fairy tale characters like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, who just so happen to possess some previously-unknown superhero powers — though it’s still child-friendly, of course.

So what is it that drives us to modernize these tales? Many times, we choose to reimagine characters like meek, fragile Snow White or little, gullible Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk as characters who are now powerfully in control of their destinies — presently, they are unlikely heroes at worst and completely bad-ass action heroes at best. In some of the new stories the women, who were formerly relegated to droll, feminine passivity, have advanced to meet their male counterparts as equals in battle: Snow White adorns herself in a warrior’s armor and fights alongside her male friends, and eventually squares off woman-to-woman to win back a kingdom. In Once Upon a Time, the female characters actually drive the story with their own set of decidedly un-princess-like desires.

Yes, it seems that modernizing these fairy-tale brands is a full-blown trend that has everyone’s attention. Today, people who grew up with the same old narrative of prince-meets-princess-and-they-live-happily-ever-after are creating worlds where our childhood heroes can be as powerful, flawed, and as nuanced as we always wanted them to be. And the whole point of fairy tales is to pass on these timeless stories to the next generation, even if it’s in an updated format, isn’t it?

So which tales would you like to see redone? I’ve personally always liked Little Red Riding Hood and Bluebeard — strangely enough though, both of those tales are from the French author Charles Perrault rather than the Brothers Grimm!

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2 thoughts on “‘Happily Ever After’?: Modernizing Fairy Tales for a New Generation

  1. Interesting thoughts. Way back in June I was thinking somewhat along the same lines and concluded that we do not always need to be seeking happiness…
    The post is here if you are interested:
    http://mauriceabarry.wordpress.com/2012/06/25/in-pursuit-of-what/

    On your question–I generally feel that a view at the original versions of old stories are the absolute best way to look into ourselves as a people. They demonstrate, better than and modern narrative, the people we WERE, for better or worse.

    • I agree re: we do not always need to be seeking happiness. This piece was done for another blog that focuses on branding and marketing, and I had length requirements to meet, so I didn’t get to delve as deeply into it as I would have liked. Your article was very interesting!

      In reference to advertising, I think we are taught to always seek happiness — or someone’s definition of happiness, even if it isn’t our own. This way we’re always seeking to better ourselves, our lives, or our situations, and we’re primed to spend money in an attempt to reach that goal. Your post went much deeper than that, of course, but I do agree that we don’t always need to be seeking happiness.

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