This week’s reading for my individual study was Black Swan, White Raven, an anthology of fairy tale retellings. As is generally the case with anthologies, some stories were stronger than others, but the ones that really struck me tended to recontextualize the source material in a wholly unexpected way. We’re used to retellings from the villain’s point of view, excusing his or her actions. We’re also used to feminist reworkings of popular stories like “Sleeping Beauty” and “Cinderella” in which the heroine is given a much less passive role. These are not the kind I’m talking about.
In “Sparks”, Gregory Frost retells Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Tinder Box”1 with a decidedly film noir feel, if a bit surreal. Reading it, I was reminded of movies with twisting plots and surprising villains, like “The Big Sleep” and “Laura“. The femme fatale is alive and well in Frost’s retelling, but becomes a wicked stepmother figure, a comparison that I’d never thought to make.
Don Webb‘s “Three Dwarves and 2000 Maniacs” is a bizarre retelling of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” that–among other things–explores the connection between fairy tale violence and film violence. Like “Sparks”, the atmosphere is close enough to modern-day life to produce a very strange, uneasy feeling when fairy tale elements are inserted. The prince, in this case, is the head of a mental institution. And, in a way, it makes sense to approach a fairy tale from the perspective of the insane.
“Steadfast” by Nancy Kress (a version of Andersen’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier“) is set during the Napoleonic Wars. It contains no magical fairytale elements, and is almost painfully realistic. It reimagines the story from a much more jaded perspective, with obsessive and unhappy characters.2 The first-person account from the soldier’s perspective is framed by a journalist’s much later interview with the aging ballerina. This technique produces a sort of dual narration, as well as a strange dialogue between the two characters and their stories. From one of the interview sections:
It was said–and I quote from Le Journal de Paris–that you “dance as if pursued by wolves. Savagely, relentlessly.” Was that so?
Not wolves. Fire. Fire and blood.
I beg your pardon?
You do not have it.
You make no sense, Mademoiselle. Dancing is not war.
So all these stories have gotten me thinking more and more about fairy tales/mythology and intertextuality. What happens when an adaptation becomes more than a simple reworking of the story? Some narratives, like “Into the Woods” and “The 10th Kingdom“,3 weave together many different stories, and some, like “Pan’s Labyrinth” use common fairy tale elements to create an experience that is familiar, but a little uncomfortable in its unexpected realism. Sadly, many people think of the Disney versions when a common fairy tale is named, but it’s important to remember that Disney movies are also recontextualized. They may be faithful to the basic elements of the fairy tale, like characters and setting, but the stories are certainly reshaped for a different demographic.
Even B movies and creature flicks do creative things with mythology. In “She Creature“, mermaids are closer to their ancient Greek counterparts rather than Andersen’s, not only wrecking ships but actually devouring the panicked sailors. Film history abounds with vampires, werewolves, and all sorts of other monsters from mythology and folklore. (Evil snakes are also been a popular theme for years, all the way from the Bible to “Boa“.)
And before you scoff at my B movie enthusiasm,4 just think: Which is closer to the source material, violent creature flicks or sanitized Disney movies? And, as the protagonist in “Three Dwarves and 2000 Maniacs” suggests, perhaps we need a good dose of gore to keep ourselves sane:
“A very small percentage of the world’s crazies don’t respond to the standard Spencerzine therapy. They need careful balancing of the secretions of ductless glands, electrolyte balance, and, above all, movie therapy. Gore films work well.”