So Snow White and the Huntsman is not getting great reviews, huh? Inspired by a recent Op Kino podcast, in which the hosts ask why the dark and gritty fairy tale adaptations of the past few years have sucked, I mount a qualified defense of Disney princesses below the break.
Hollywood studios seeking to make a buck by modernizing fairy tales seem to be under the assumption that modernity is about confronting the world as an “adult” in all its darkness and grittiness, as if we as a culture are above the archaic coming-of-age narratives that make up the core of classic fairy tales. The Disney films, for all their faults and questionable gender politics, recognized that fairy tales are fundamentally about the promise and peril of adolescence, particularly for young girls who have to undergo the fraught process of sexual initiation. Almost every Disney fairy tale turns on a moment in which the hero or heroine is required to pass through some kind of liminal stage between innocence and adulthood. Very often, the person initiating her—with good or evil intent—is an older woman, who typically embodies all that one can either gain or lose by making the journey.
the film squanders the dramatic potential inherent in the ancient fairy tale, which is at heart about the tricky handoff of sexual power from one generation to another, and what happens when one side is unwilling to let go.
Of course, because of the messages it sends to young girls, we tend to regret that the process of growing up in fairy tales in the “Disney princess” mold tends to revolve around pairing off. And while I too would prefer my hypothetical daughters to imagine themselves as more than prospective wives, there’s no denying that romance has long served as a useful metonym for the fraught process of adolescence and generational torch-passing. (Disney princes, after all, are usually little more than narrative devices, barely registering as characters in and of themselves.)
Ariel’s “I wish” song in The Little Mermaid, “Part of That/Your World” is about romance only in its second iteration. In its first, it’s about all of the other stuff that growing up entails: leaving home, discovering that your values diverge from those of your parents, and entering a larger world. And the conflict arises not from the romance itself but from adult authority figures who attempt to thwart the coming-of-age process, forcing the protagonist to seek out surrogate parent figures who will be willing to facilitate their entrance into adulthood. For Ariel, of course, surrogate figure takes the form of the Sea Witch, a kind of anti-fairy god mother who, like the heroine’s father, has no real intention of allowing that “tricky handoff” to happen and, like Snow White’s Evil Queen, rigs the game and positions herself as Ariel’s sexual rival in order to prevent her from successful traversing the space between childhood and adulthood, mermaid and human.
Of all the attempts to adapt classic fairy tales to our cynical times while retaining their twin senses of adolescent wonder and fear, the best examples seem to come from Broadway musicals. Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, in particular, ought to be the work that every would-be fairy tale modernizer. It helps that musicals already trade in big archetypes and a heightened sense of unreality. But Sondheim also understood that fairy tales are about the process of arriving at sexual maturity. This theme is most explicit in Little Red’s story, of course. High school theatre departments tend to eschew the original show’s decision to use an anatomically correct Big Bad Wolf, but his big number, “Hello, Little Girl,” is essentially innuendo set to music. When she is rescued, the song she sings, “I Know Things Now,” isn’t about sex precisely but about post-adolescent disillusionment and moral awareness. Likewise, Jack’s song about his visit to the castle at the top of the beanstalk talks about his strangely intimate relationship with the wife of the giant who is about to lose his life when the beanstalk is chopped down. I could go on. Even the story of the baker and his wife (ostensible adults) is about the passing of a torch from one generation to the next.
I just got around to seeing Wicked for the first time on Broadway (nearly a decade late, I know), and while that musical is an adaptation of a 1995 novel that is itself a re-envisioning of a 1939 novel and not, strictly speaking, a fairy tale, it does deal with a lot of fairy tale tropes, including adolescent girls and wicked witches. While far from perfect, one thing that Wicked the musical does to brilliant effect is strip away a lot of the mythology of Maguire’s novel (I recognize that this is also a choice that some fans hated) in order to focus on the relationships among the young women who would become Oz’s famous witches—Elphaba (The Wicked Witch of the West), Nessarose (The Wicked Witch of the East), and Galinda (eventually Glinda, the Good Witch of the North)—as they navigate the uneasy waters of early adulthood. The relationship between Elphaba and Glinda is, I would argue, the central romance of the story. The larger thrust of the narrative concerns their ambitions and their radically different responses to political awakening and the shifting affections of the Prince Fiyero, a virtual non-entity in both the book and musical who serves solely to provide a link between the two women’s initiation into romance and sex and their growing political and moral consciousness.
In short, would-be modernizers need to recognize that at the heart of all fairy tales is a set of pretty much timeless metaphors for growing up, and that process really can be depicted in all its gritty, dark “reality” without sacrificing the sense of wonder that accompanies it.