Television
2:03 pm
Thu October 20, 2011

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

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/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: When it comes to Hollywood trends, this season fairy tales are in. The movie release schedule is filled with a fairy tale remakes. And not one, but two new TV series, starting within a week of each other, are based on fairy tales. ABC unveils "Once Upon A Time" on Sunday. And then next Friday, "Grimm" premieres on NBC.

NPR's Neda Ulaby took a look at both and she wondered why fairy tales are making such a comeback.

NEDA ULABY: Maybe because of "Harry Potter" and "Twilight." Just think about how much they'd have to pay Stephenie Meyer for a "Twilight" TV series. But fairy tales are free. "Grimm" is the show that starts next Friday. It's produced by Todd Milliner and David Greenwalt, who was selling the show to fans at San Diego's Comic Con last summer.

DAVID GREENWALT: Todd had an idea in the shower about six years ago. And his idea was what can we do that's in public domain.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ULABY: Fairy tales' cost effectiveness is great for financially fearful studios, premiering expensive dramas with high production values and special effects.

"Grimm" is named for the Brothers Grimm. They're not just writing down fairy tales in this show, they were the first criminal profilers with mystical abilities. When they looked for child molesters, they thought evil wolves and gingerbread-baking witches. The show is about one of their descendants, a police detective, who learns he's inherited their powers from his aunt.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GRIMM")

KATE BURTON: (as Aunt Marie) We have the ability to see what no one else can. When they lose control, they can't hide and we see them for what they really are.

ULABY: Grimm is "Law and Order" meets "Little Red Riding hood."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "GRIMM")

DAVID GIUNTOLI: (as Detective Nick Burkhardt) What do we know?

RUSSELL HORNSBY: (as Hank Griffin) Little girl on way to her grandfather's house and this showed up.

ULABY: Now, if Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm magically had a television in 19th century Germany, they would have been completely baffled by this interpretation of their work, says Maria Tatar. She's a Harvard professor who studies fairy tales and legends.

MARIA TATAR: The Grimms, of course, would of course have been horrified. They were the two scholars, two philologists who were just trying to capture the voice of the people.

ULABY: And not like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GRIMM")

GIUNTOLI: Hank, I got him.

ULABY: Tatar's taken note of the flood of fairy tale adaptations. From last spring's "Red Riding Hood" movie to upcoming competing adaptations of "Sleeping Beauty" and "Snow White." She believes this is partly because she sees her students sitting around in big groups texting.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: Putting fairy tales onscreen goes back to cinema's earliest days. Tatar mentions an 1899 movie version of "Cinderella." You can see it on our website. And she says fairy tales have always been grown up entertainment in one form or another.

TATAR: Consider the "Cinderella" story, which appears in "Two Weeks Notice," "Pretty Woman." For example, when Julia Roberts goes shopping, she marches into a store with two evil stepsisters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PRETTY WOMAN")

JULIA ROBERTS: (as Vivian Ward) Look, I got money to spend in here.

DEY YOUNG: (as Snobby Saleswoman) I don't think we have anything for you. You're obviously in the wrong place. Please leave.

ULABY: Stories like "Cinderella" and "Snow White" are the foundation of a new ABC show called "Once Upon a Time." It begins with a curse.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "ONCE UPON A TIME")

LANA PARRILLA: (as Evil Queen) Sorry I'm late.

ULABY: When an evil queen storms into a castle to disrupt the literally fairy tale wedding of Snow White and Prince Charming.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "ONCE UPON A TIME")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Character) It's the queen. Run.

GINNIFER GOODWIN: (as Snow White) She's not a queen anymore. She's nothing more than an evil witch.

ULABY: Developing back stories and character arcs for, well, archetypes was the job of "Once Upon a Time" executive producer, Edward Kitsis.

EDWARD KITSIS: You know, the evil queen can't just be evil because she's evil. You know, she was made evil. In fact, she's much more tortured and sad than she is just pure evil.

ULABY: In the show, the curse brings the Evil Queen and Snow White to the real world as real people. They've forgotten their actual identities. Snow White is a lovely young school teacher who has no idea that's who she is, even though blue birds flock to her classroom window adoringly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "ONCE UPON A TIME")

GOODWIN: (as Snow White) If you love them and they love you, they will always find you. We'll pick this up after recess. No running.

ULABY: Adapting fairy tales can be treacherous. They can come across as corny, campy or childish in a culture that loves its snark and shock. But Harvard professor, Maria Tatar, says you cannot argue with their primal symbolism. And all kinds of stories can be fairy tale-like.

TATAR: I always think of, for example, the Dominique Strauss-Kahn story. We couldn't stop talking about that because it gets to the issue of innocence versus seduction.

ULABY: Tatar says the next Hollywood fairy tale adaptation she's most looking forward to is "Hansel and Gretel." "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters" is coming out next year.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MELISSA BLOCK, host: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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