Fairy-Tale Adaptations: It's Ever After, All Right

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With NBC's Grimm, the ABC series Once Upon A Time makes two new fairy tale-based shows premiering on network television within a week. That, plus a movie release schedule peppered with fairy tale remakes, raises a question: What's put them in the zeitgeist?

Maybe it's because of Harry Potter and Twilight. The studios behind those franchises have made piles of money. But just think about how much they'd have to pay Stephanie Meyer for a Twilight TV series. Fairy tales have the advantage of being free.

"Todd had an idea about six years ago," said Grimm co-creator David Greenwalt, appearing on a panel with collaborator Todd Milliner at ComicCon in San Diego last summer. "And his idea was, 'What can we do that's in public domain?' "

Grimm is named for the Brothers Grimm, of course, but in this show they're not just two guys who collected folk tales. The conceit is that they were the first criminal profilers, and that they just happened to have had mystical abilities: They could see evil wolves and gingerbread-baking witches within killers and child molesters. Grimm is about one of their descendants, a police detective who learns he has inherited their powers from his kindly old aunt.

"We have the ability to see what no one else can," she tells him in the pilot, after a fearsome attack from a werewolf-like creature. "They lose control. They can't hide, and we see them for what they really are."

Maria Tatar, who chairs the folklore and mythology program at Harvard University, says the real Brothers Grimm "would have been horrified."

"They were two scholars, two philologists"-- linguists who concentrate on written texts — "who were just trying to capture the voice of the people," she says.

Tatar has taken note of the flood of fairy tale adaptations — from last spring's Red Riding Hood movie to big-budget competing takes on Sleeping Beauty and Snow White that are in production now. Tatar says perhaps this need to reconnect with stories passed down through powerful oral traditions is not unrelated to how we communicate now. When she sees her students sitting around in groups, they're usually texting.

"I think we need the melodrama of stories," she said. "There's so little affect in our daily lives that we need the sensory overload, the emotional overload of fairy tales more than ever."

Filmmakers have been experimenting with fairy tales since at least 1899, when Georges Melies adapted Cinderella. That story has remained a Hollywood favorite, even when it gets a godmother-style makeover — Tatar mentions Two Weeks' Notice, The Princess Diaries and of course, Pretty Woman as examples.

Along with Snow White, it's one of the inspirations for ABC's Once Upon A Time, which begins with a curse that transports Prince Charming, the Evil Queen and an assortment of other fairy tale regulars into the real world, as real people. Which, its creators would point out, is harder than it might sound.

"You know, the Evil Queen can't just be evil because she's evil," says Executive Producer Edward Kitsis, talking about the need to develop character arcs and back stories. "She was made evil. In fact, she's more tortured and sad than she is just evil."

Adapting fairy tales can be treacherous. They can come across as corny, campy or childish in a culture that loves snark and shock. But Harvard's Tatar says you can't argue with their primal symbolism. And she says all kinds of stories can be interpreted through their lens.

"I always think of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn story," she says. "We couldn't stop talking about that. Because it gets to the issue of innocence versus seduction."

As for the Hollywood fairy-tale adaptation Tatar most looks forward to? Hansel and Gretel.

As it happens, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is due out next year.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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