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date: 25 May 2017

Fairy-Tale Films

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Please check back later for the full article.

Films incorporating fairy-tale narratives, characters, titles, images, plots, motifs, and themes date from the earliest history of the cinema, with director Georges Méliès’s Le manoir du diable [The house of the devil], 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 (written by known authors). While the Disney formula of innocent persecuted heroes and heroines 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 many aspects of 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 theaters and, more recently, on television and computer screens. Fairy-tale filmic intertexts can include explicit reference in the title—for example, Hansel and Gretel Get Baked (director Duane Journey, 2013); implicit reference in the title—for example, Mirror, Mirror (director Tarsem Singh Dhandwar, 2012); explicit incorporation into the text—as when Le piège d’Issoudun (director Micheline Lanctôt, 2003) includes a play of “The Juniper Tree;” implicit in the text—as when A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (director Steven Spielberg, 2001) has the human mother abandon her mechanical child, David, in the woods (as do the parents of Hansel and Gretel); discussion of fairy tales, as in the “Once Upon a Crime” episode of the TV show Castle (director Jeff Bleckner, 2012), when the writer and police talk about what fairy tales really mean; and setting and/or environment, as in the portions of Pan’s Labyrinth (director Guillermo del Toro, 2006), set in the magical kingdom of heroine Ofelia’s father. Filmmakers may re-vision a story with new spin—Freeway II (director Matthew Bright, 1999) relocates “Hansel and Gretel” to 1990s America, with two delinquent teen girls fleeing to Mexico), or they may create an entirely new tale—like Pan’s Labyrinth, not based on any specific previous literary or traditional fairy tale. Although classic works like director Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête [Beauty and the beast] (1946) have received considerable attention in cinema studies, and the fairy-tale structural analysis of Vladimir Propp has greatly influenced film analysis, only since the beginning of the 21st century has fairy-tale scholarship merged with film scholarship from the perspectives of criminology, cultural studies, discourse analysis, ethnography and auto-ethnography, feminism, folklore, historiography, political economy, postcolonial theory, and queer theory, among others. Scholars of fairy-tale film have considered adaptation, auteurs, genres, intermediality, and seriality, as well as particular movies and cinematic versions of tales.