Although many of the fairy tales still in oral, written, and visual circulation today have a long history and lineage back to various corners of the world, the authors often (mis)credited for their creation are a famous German duo — Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. The Grimm brothers were gatherers and editors rather than authors of many oral traditions and, indeed, were not the original tellers of the many tales familiar from childhood. The brothers spent many years collecting various iterations and tellings of regional folktales before eventually compiling and publishing them in the seminal edition of recorded fairy tales: Children’s and Household Tales. However, these tales did not all stem from Germany but were amalgamations of various stories from around the globe of which parts eventually made their way into the mouths of Germans. However, their cultural permeation clearly reached beyond Germany and is currently retained in the shape of bastardized and sanitized bedtime stories on children’s bookshelves (or e-readers) as well as Hollywood’s CGI spectacles.
As time passes and we drift farther away from the time the tales first took their shape, a certain tendency has made itself apparent in their most mainstream treatments and renditions. The stories found in the original Grimm’s volume were overtly moralistic, often brutal, and surely had the potential to instill disturbing imagery into the minds of their readers. The moralism and brutality were inextricable within the story and also rendered each other effective. In Grimm’s Cinderella, the evil stepsisters decide to cut off their toes for their feet to fit the slipper and, consequentially, have their eyes picked out by birds as punishment for their cruelty and lies. The message couldn’t be clearer and is imparted effectively by way of instilling disgust and fear. Indeed, it was the universal “messages” of these stories that rendered them socially useful and applicable on an international scale — specifically in the West. But as our distaste for moralism has increased — especially as overt as that of Grimm’s tales — the content and function of the stories have undergone similar changes.
Many children and adults today will primarily be acquainted with Disney retellings. Although retaining similar story beats, the Hollywood renditions have tamed and domesticated the tales’ content significantly. The term “domestication” is often used when talking about literary translation to describe the act of translating a foreign text in such a way that highlights what is familiar rather than different for the reader of a different time or place than that of the original. In the case of Cinderella, the term applies. With each filmed retelling, the tale as it was found in Grimm’s has increasingly become an excuse for flashy diversion. Rather than telling a story, Disney’s first retelling from 1950 buffered much of its runtime with musical numbers and hijinks with talking animals. Although the moralistic messages about female aspirations towards marriage and purity were unfortunately still very applicable in the United States during the 1950s, the story found itself reduced to escapism and relegated to children’s fare.
Fairy tales, despite their current reputation, were never intended (just) for children. J.R.R. Tolkien, in his writing on fairy stories, even argues that a (fairy) tale of any merit or value must be equally as fascinating to adults as to children. This was the exact reason for their broad appeal before their eventual Disney-fication. Any interest or enjoyment still harvested by adults from the animated film usually stems from feelings of nostalgia or fascination with form, but surely not with the content. Once a film or story is reduced to nostalgia rather than remaining thematically relevant it shows its functional value as depleted and its revival justified by sentimentality. Indeed, tales must adapt and be remain informed by the realities of the time they are told within. In a sense, the Cinderella of the 1950s does reflect the time and place it was told within – superficial, puritanical, and implicitly moralistic — leaving us to reflect on it critically. However, it is Disney’s live-action Cinderella (2015) that is more perplexing.
2015’s Cinderella seems to have no defining narrative updates from the version released in 1950. Whereas the antiseptic bath given to the animated film was appropriate for the time of release, the 2015 version surely does not reflect the social progress made in the sixty-five intermittent years. Rather, it reflects the progress made in special effects while reducing its fairy tale content further towards vapid nostalgia. The film’s achievement lies within making the dress bigger, the shoe shinier, and the plot falser. Certainly, it has sucked it dry of any narrative or thematic elements appealing to adults — and possibly even the kids — familiar with the 1950 version. It’s a cold business decision on behalf of Disney to capitalize on the desire for comforting nostalgic content while “domesticating” their property to the technical advancements of 2015. The 1950 version is outdated, but for Disney, only in one sense.
The live-action film was an international hit. But unlike the Grimm’s tale which was universally resonant due to its content, Disney’s version is resonant due to the lack of it. It begs the question of whether or not these fairy tales are dead if they have stagnated. Amidst the failed fairy tale mashups like Brother’s Grimm (2005) or Into the Woods (2014) and horror-action spin-offs like Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013) or Jack: The Giant Slayer (2013), it seems that fairy tales, at least within mainstream cinema, have been bastardized to become genre films. Instead of attempting to become universally successful by virtue of good storytelling, Hollywood has decided on neutral tactics of spectacle to attract audiences. This puts us into the position as those of centuries past. With nothing on the big screen but a increasingly blank canvas, we must become our own storytellers. Or, like Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, begin collecting and recording the tales we hear around us.