Films incorporating fairy-tale narratives, characters, titles, images, plots, motifs, and themes date from the earliest history of the cinema, beginning with director Georges Méliès’s made in 1896, the year after Auguste and Louis Lumière’s first public showing of their “cinematograph” in Paris in 1895. Fairy tales can be oral (told by people in different geographical locations and at various historical times up to the present) and/or literary (created by known authors) in origin, but they manifest in numerous media, including film. While the Disney formula of innocent persecuted heroines, handsome princes, and happy-ever-afters has dominated popular understandings of such narratives (at least in the English-speaking world), fairy tales need not contain these elements. They concern the fantastic, the magical, the dark, the dreamy, the wishful, and the wonderful.
Short and feature length, animated and live action, produced in film stock, video, and digital formats, fairy-tale films have appeared in movie theaters and more recently on television and computer screens. Using Kevin Paul Smith’s classification for literary fairy tales, fairy-tale filmic intertexts can include explicit reference in the title—for example, Duane Journey’s Hansel & Gretel Get Baked (2013); implicit reference in the title—for example, Tarsem Singh Dhandwar’s Mirror Mirror (2012); explicit incorporation into the text—as when Micheline Lanctôt’s Le piège d’Issoudun (2003) includes a play of “The Juniper Tree”; implicit incorporation into the text—as when Steven Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) has the mechanical child David’s human mother abandon him in the woods, as do Hansel and Gretel’s parents; discussing fairy tales, as in the “Once Upon a Crime” episode of the American television show Castle (2009–), when the writer and police talk about what fairy tales really mean; and invoking fairy-tale chronotopes (settings and/or environments)—as in the portions of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) set in the heroine Ofelia’s father’s magical kingdom. Alternatively, filmmakers may re-vision a story, sometimes with new spin, as when Matthew Bright’s Freeway 2 (1999) relocates “Hansel and Gretel” to 1990s America, with two delinquent teen girls fleeing to Mexico, or may create an entirely new tale—like Pan’s Labyrinth, not based on any specific previous literary or traditional fairy tale. This article focuses on the cinema—movies made for theatrical and/or video release—but draws on television and Internet films when they offer telling illustrations. Most examples are from English-language media.
Although classic works like director Jean Cocteau’s La belle et la bête (1946) have received considerable attention from cinema studies and the fairy-tale structural analysis of Vladimir Propp (1968) has greatly influenced film analysis, only since the beginning of the 21st century has fairy-tale scholarship merged with film scholarship. Scholars of fairy-tale film often consider adaptation and intermediality in cinematic versions of tales. This article uses the example of director Tarsem Singh Dhandwar’s The Fall (2007), which draws on and references fairy-tale magic to collapse, expand, and generally fictionalize time and space to invoke the postmodern and postcolonial as well as the transnational and transcultural.
The term “speculative fiction” has three historically located meanings: a subgenre of science fiction that deals with human rather than technological problems, a genre distinct from and opposite to science fiction in its exclusive focus on possible futures, and a super category for all genres that deliberately depart from imitating “consensus reality” of everyday experience. In this latter sense, speculative fiction includes fantasy, science fiction, and horror, but also their derivatives, hybrids, and cognate genres like the gothic, dystopia, weird fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, ghost stories, superhero tales, alternate history, steampunk, slipstream, magic realism, fractured fairy tales, and more. Rather than seeking a rigorous definition, a better approach is to theorize “speculative fiction” as a term whose semantic register has continued to expand. While “speculative fiction” was initially proposed as a name of a subgenre of science fiction, the term has recently been used in reference to a meta-generic fuzzy set supercategory—one defined not by clear boundaries but by resemblance to prototypical examples—and a field of cultural production. Like other cultural fields, speculative fiction is a domain of activity that exists not merely through texts but through their production and reception in multiple contexts. The field of speculative fiction groups together extremely diverse forms of non-mimetic fiction operating across different media for the purpose of reflecting on their cultural role, especially as opposed to the work performed by mimetic, or realist narratives.
The fuzzy set field understanding of speculative fiction arose in response to the need for a blanket term for a broad range of narrative forms that subvert the post-Enlightenment mindset: one that had long excluded from “Literature” stories that departed from consensus reality or embraced a different version of reality than the empirical-materialist one. Situated against the claims of this paradigm, speculative fiction emerges as a tool to dismantle the traditional Western cultural bias in favor of literature imitating reality, and as a quest for the recovery of the sense of awe and wonder. Some of the forces that contributed to the rise of speculative fiction include accelerating genre hybridization that balkanized the field previously mapped with a few large generic categories; the expansion of the global literary landscape brought about by mainstream culture’s increasing acceptance of non-mimetic genres; the proliferation of indigenous, minority, and postcolonial narrative forms that subvert dominant Western notions of the real; and the need for new conceptual categories to accommodate diverse and hybridic types of storytelling that oppose a stifling vision of reality imposed by exploitative global capitalism. An inherently plural category, speculative fiction is a mode of thought-experimenting that includes narratives addressed to young people and adults and operates in a variety of formats. The term accommodates the non-mimetic genres of Western but also non-Western and indigenous literatures—especially stories narrated from the minority or alternative perspective. In all these ways, speculative fiction represents a global reaction of human creative imagination struggling to envision a possible future at the time of a major transition from local to global humanity.