Over the course of the past month I’ve had the (arguable) pleasure of seeing three new films adapted from fairy tales. First was the new teen drama “Beastly,” which I reviewed here; it’s flawed at best, with few redeeming moments. I liked more of “Red Riding Hood,” and reviewing it got me thinking about what one needs to successfully adapt one of these classic stories to the screen in the 21st century, with or without an “update” in setting. I also caught Catherine Breillat’s new film “The Sleeping Beauty,” which is a resounding success. With these movies in mind, I’d like to jump one step further from Chris’s post on the trouble with adapting Beauty and the Beast, and talk about what these three movies seem to show us about adapting fairy tales in general.
The problem, it seems to me, is one of balance. The strength of the genre is one of tone, a simplicity of narrative and a naturalness of magic that make these stories so compelling and genuine despite their entirely unrealistic plot content. That magical atmosphere should be preserved. At the same time, however, the age of the stories presents a problem; Sleeping Beauty and Red Riding Hood were both originally put to the page by Charles Perrault in the 17th century, and the first publication of Beauty and the Beast was back in 1740. The time period introduces moral and ethical issues, primarily around the definition of womanhood but also on a wide variety of other issues (good and evil, religion, etc). The 21st century film adaptation needs to preserve the tonality of the story, its magical beauty, while at the same time updating its themes so that a contemporary audience can relate.
So how did “Red Riding Hood” fare? Well, I would argue that the movie actually succeeds in addressing the thematic issues, complicating the morality of the tale. Despite much of the criticism (which seems to depend on the logic of: “Red Riding Hood” is “Twilight,” and “Twilight” is sexist, so…), the movie gives its heroine personal agency. She isn’t swooning after boys the whole time, does not get eaten, and is capable of fending for herself. She does get help, certainly, but she’s effective enough on her own that you don’t get the impression she would be entirely useless (in a Bella sort of way) if she were left alone without the help of some strapping young gentleman. The film also turns the good vs. evil morality upside down, making the wolf into a werewolf, and addressing that as an affliction. Gary Oldman’s religious fanaticism becomes the more threatening villain, and there’s a degree of moral complexity that faces the characters in this afflicted town that is a welcome method for adapting a simplistic fairy tale to the more confounding perspective of the 21st century.
Unfortunately, Catherine Hardwicke and screenwriter David Leslie Johnson completely botch the tone. There is an admirable effort put in by the visual team of the film, but the plotting of the movie is so complicated it’s distracting. There are too many extra characters, most of whom do essentially nothing to further the narrative. The dialogue tends toward the absurd, and any hope of retaining the virtue of simplicity so crucial to the telling of a fairy tale is gone within the first few minutes. The magic itself is also needlessly expounded upon; a red moon means a different sort of bite, the wolf can telepathically communicate with Valerie (Amanda Seyfried), it can’t come near a church, etc. etc. Hardwicke certainly tries to make this a thoughtful homage to the original story, with the red cape and some of the original language of the tale, but it’s really just a mess.
“Beastly” has the same sort of problems. Daniel Barnz’s unfortunate “update” of the classic Beauty and the Beast story is more focused on modernizing the scenery than it is in bringing the actual content of the story to life in a modern world. As far as creating a female lead with any degree of independency or agency, it’s a disaster. Kyle (Alex Pettyfer) essentially blackmails Lindy’s (Vanessa Hudgens) father into letting him kidnap her, and then she falls in love with him. It’s embarrassing. There’s a passing attempt at giving her enough spunky dialogue to fix the problem, but given the broken core of the plot it’s almost worse for the effort.
And this complete disaster of screenwriting makes it even more shocking that the film actually succeeds in the one area that “Red Riding Hood” can’t quite get right. Miraculously, the magical elements are effectively integrated into the story. While the tattoos are kind of dumb, the witch herself (Mary-Kate Olsen) works. Not only is the performance a hoot, but Daniel Barnz makes sure that she’s seen as weird but not inconceivable or shocking by the other characters. It’s interesting to note here that this crucial part of the tone of a fairy tale, the naturalness of its magical elements, is not easier to accomplish with a period film. It isn’t dependent upon the externalities of the setting, but the way in which it’s visually presented and more importantly in the way it is acted, both by the magical creatures and their victims. More points for Mary-Kate.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film is terrible. But in a way that almost doesn’t matter, because of what they offer to this conversation regarding how to effectively adapt a fairy tale. And that brings me to what I consider a wonderful and entirely successful film, Catherine Breillat’s “The Sleeping Beauty.” The French director works directly from the original stories of Charles Perrault, which allows her to sidestep the other pre-existing adaptations (notably the Disney film, which is beautiful but doesn’t have much to its plot).
As far as tone is concerned, the film is restrained and beautiful, accommodating the fairies and their work with little ado. Moreover, the actors and particularly Carla Besnaïnou who plays the young Anastasia (not Aurora) are entirely unfazed by the presence of fairies and magical intervention in their world. The setting itself is almost irrelevant here, as Breillat sort of slides in between the period piece and the contemporary “update”; Sleeping Beauty sleeps for 100 years, and so while the story begins as a period piece, it becomes a modern tale upon her waking up. The visuals in the film are pitch perfect to the irreverent approach the film and its protagonist take to its surreal elements, as Anastasia moves through her dream from a castle to a gypsy camp, and off into the frozen north on little deer.
A word on that dream. Breillat’s response to the problematic portrayal of the female protagonist in the original story is particularly brilliant. There are few heroines in fairy tales with less personal agency or independence than Sleeping Beauty; she’s asleep for a century, and then wakes up when kissed by a Prince. The way out? Here, those 100 years of sleep are not simply an inert period for the heroine, but a beautifully executed dream sequence through which Anastasia grows and develops as an active and complex character. Moreover, when she wakes up, her relationship with the prince is hardly a perfect happily-ever-after scenario, but deals with the realities of a love affair held in a castle entirely away from the modern world. She’s been dreaming, and in a way learning the world, but she’s still an adolescent who has not at all experienced real life. Breillat acknowledges this, and doesn’t try to run away from it.
That willingness to confront the difficulties of adaptation instead of skirting them, incidentally, also characterizes the director’s other fairy tale film: “Bluebeard”, which is available for streaming on Netflix. These films are of course only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to fairy tale adaptations, taken from just a couple months of recent cinema history. What are your favorite films in the genre? Or rather, what are your favorite noble (or ignoble) failures? What do you think it takes to make a successful live-action fairy tale in the 21st Century?