The modernisation of fairy tales

Most European regions are rich with folklore dating back to the “beginning of times”. These stories are a key element in most traditions, reflecting the kind of moral and ideological foundations local cultures are rooted in. In the early 19 th century, two German brothers took these bits of folklore and weaved them into well-loved classics that would soon be generally known as fairytales. Today, in 2013, the tales spun by the Brothers Grimm a couple of centuries ago, live on. Almost everyone in the current generation grew up listening to bedtime stories or watching Disney adaptations of classic fairytale stories such as Cinderella, Snow White, and The Little Mermaid. Among adults, however, there has emerged a trend and thereby a market of classic folk stories with a “modern twist”. As a matter of fact, in the past three years, Hollywood has churned out several notable fairytale-themed commercial films such as Red Riding Hood, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Black Swan, and the recent Snow White and the Huntsman.

While this topic may seem petty and trivial at face value, such “childish” tales are actually rich with underlying social commentary and insights about the standards during the period of  their authorship. For instance, the Grimm brothers’ original story versions are often criticized for their overtly violent and graphic content (the more popular Disney versions are subdued); but some scholars attribute this element to the traditions of their time (i.e. people during that time place very high regard on discipline). Furthermore, other literary experts argue that most of these folktales are highly didactic and were intended to inculcate the moral standards of those times in children. The aforementioned obsession of giving classic tales a “modern twist”, therefore, offers insight in the modern human psyche and how moral and cultural standards have evolved over the years.

One remarkable thing about modern fairy tale renditions is that they are often dark. For instance, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, loosely based on mythical folklore, has been acclaimed by critics as one of the best ‘dark fantasy’ films of its time. The more recent films such as those listed above (Red Riding Hood, Alice in Wonderland, Black Swan, Snow White and the Huntsman) also exhibit the same dark theme, peppered with copious amounts of violence and sensuality. My theory is that these fairytale renditions are representative of the current generation’s heightened awareness of danger. For one, a notable difference between these “darker” fairytales and their predecessors is that modern fairytale characters appear to have a greater sense of agency than earlier versions. While most of the more traditional versions feature an innocent, helpless protagonist who is unexpectedly attacked by an “evil witch” of some sort and is rescued by a higher and more able being, modern adaptations make use of characters that have a higher sense of control and power over their lives. The protagonists are often presented with their own darker sides, and they eventually overcome the story’s conflict by help of their own devices. I think this is highly representative of how the modern man is aware of the evil he is exposed to, but at the same time she is equipped with a strong sense of will and capability to survive.

This then opens the age-old debate about the validity of interpretation. If a modern version or “re-imagining” of a literary piece diverts largely from the original text;is it thereby disparaging the intended meaning of the text? Is there really such a thing as an accurate interpretation of literature? How does one identify the “real meaning” of a story? These are only some of the questions that have divided the field of literature into numerous different schools and camps.

Entering into this debate would require an entire article of its own, but notwithstanding the many different opinions with regard to literary interpretation, one thing is clear: a literary product (traditional or modern) can speak volumes about the cultural context in which it is produced. This is why it was so essential for literature scholars to study and dissect the classic folk tales of the Grimm brothers, and it should be equally imperative to cultural experts of today to explore how dark, modern, fairytale adaptations reflect the nature of the current world.

Knut Harald Nylænde is the founder and CEO of Moxie AS, an investments group based in Oslo. He has a keen interest in the relationships existing between culture and business.