The term “realistic fairy tale” gets thrown around a lot these days, used to describe gritty books or movies that take a Disney-style fairy tale and un-Disney it. For an example, look no further than the soon-to-be-released movie musical Into the Woods. The first act is all traditional fantasy tales, told as you expect them to be told. But, by the second act, reality has taken hold and fairy tale characters are learning to deal with loss and betrayal.
Or take a movie like Ever After, which tells the “realistic” story of Cinderella. There’s no magic here, only a poor girl who meets a rich prince and falls in love. She has mud on her hem and ideas about social injustice – and don’t expect to see a fairy godmother creating carriages out of pumpkins with a swish of her wand.
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But there’s a real irony to the concept of a gritty fairy tale, because it implies that the Disney versions are the real stories. And it makes sense that we’d think that way. The cartoons have become a part of our childhoods and enduring pop culture. We’ve seen them all a hundred times: Cinderella’s first dress is made by birds and talking mice. Snow White is awakened by a magical kiss. But we can’t forget that these, just like Ever After, are adaptations of Grimm fairy tales. And the actual real tales are so dark they make the grittiest of “realistic fairy tales” seem like bedtime stories.
You can read these original fairytales in the lovely reprint of the complete first edition of The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, translated and edited by Jack Zipes. This volume (with haunting illustrations by Andrea Dezso) presents the Grimm tales from 1812 and 1815, before countless edits and reprintings changed the original stories. But readers beware – these are far from your Disney versions. Instead of a sweet happy ending filled with forgiveness, Cinderella’s stepsisters saw off parts of their own feet trying to fit into the slippers. In Snow White, a kiss doesn’t save her, a disgruntled servant slaps her on the back and the apple is dislodged. At her wedding reception, the evil queen is forced to wear burning hot shoes and dance until she dies.
With stories so gruesome, it’s clear why Disney made them a little more family-friendly. Still, it’s nice to indulge in the darker side of fairy tales – which is probably why so many gritty reboots have been popping up in the last few years. The newest one is the film adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim scored musical, Into the Woods, which opens Christmas Day, and stars big names such as Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick and Chris Pine. It’s a Disney production – another touch of irony when you consider how darkly realistic the original material is (in this case both the play and the book it was based on, by James Lapine). Into the Woods tells the story of four characters with wishes: a baker and his wife, Jack, and Cinderella. The four travel through the woods, encountering other fairytale creatures – a witch, Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf, Rapunzel, various princes, etc. But while the story seems to have a childlike premise, it slips farther and farther into the dark realities of desires, and what it means when they’re finally granted.
Will the film adaptation stay close to the original play? We won’t know for sure until it opens, though the trailer hints at darker possibilities:
The beauty of so many adaptations and originals and gritty retellings is that fairy tales can exist in whatever form you want them to, while the heart of the story stays the same. As a child, it’s fun to believe that pumpkins and mice can be transformed. As an adult, it’s more interesting to look at the Brothers Grimm or Into the Woods and compare them to our own childhood memories, trying to reconcile that gritty reality with the stories we know so well.