Fairytales are inspiring a new generation of filmmakers looking for a happy ending
The legend of Snow White gets a major overhaul in a new film that opens here next Friday. The heroine of an ancient German folk tale, Snow White has inspired numerous movies down the years but has often been portrayed as a fey and drippy female who basically hangs around on street corners waiting to be rescued.
Not in Snow White and the Huntsman, however. Kristen Stewart plays the young princess, Charlize Theron the evil stepmother who sets out to destroy her and eat the girl's heart in order to remain forever young.
But instead of lying down and waiting for someone else to save her, Stewart's Snow White joins forces with a mysterious huntsman, becomes a warrior and leads an armed revolt against the odious Queen.
Snow White and the Huntsman's special effects look spectacular, and the film is a far cry from traditional tellings of the story. Only a few months back, Julia Roberts starred in Mirror, Mirror, another film based on the Snow White story, but that was rather wishy-washy by comparison.
But the fact that two films based on the same yarn have appeared within months of each other shows how enduring the appeal of fairytales is to filmmakers.
In the early days of cinema, primitive effects meant that most movies based on fairytales were animated. But that has changed as the language of film has expanded, and the advent of CGI has opened up a whole new world of possibilities for the live-action fairy tale.
Like the majority of fairytale movies, Snow White and the Huntsman is based on the work of the Grimm Brothers, two 19th-Century academics who did Germany and the world a great service by writing down and preserving hundreds of ancient central-European folk tales.
Thanks to them, stories like Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel and Puss in Boots became known and loved everywhere. In the 1930s the Nazis tried to purloin them, but Walt Disney did a much more successful job.
The young animator had made his name in the late 1920s with the Mickey Mouse character, and in the early 1930s he became obsessed with the idea of making a feature-length animation based on the Grimm brothers' story, Snow White.
Disney dramatically improved his animation techniques and special effects using innovative technology such as the multiplane camera, but his obsession with perfection drove his budgets through the roof.
Both his wife and brother tried to talk him out of making Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and, after almost three years of work on it, Walt ran out of money. He showed a rough cut to bank officials to help raise more cash, and released the finished film in time for Christmas 1937. The effort was worth it: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became the most successful film of 1938.
Disney used the proceeds to build his own studio in Burbank, and began pumping out classic animations like Bambi. But he only recaptured the box office success of Snow White when he returned to the Grimm brothers in 1950, and produced perhaps the definitive film version of Cinderella.
These classic Disney animations were enchanting, but tended to sugarcoat the fairytales they were based on, and remove the violence and Freudian undertones common in European folk tales.
But other filmmakers were not so squeamish. In 1946 the French poet and dramatist Jean Cocteau used an old French fairytale to explore the deepest and darkest human drives.
His sumptuous, groundbreaking Beauty and the Beast starred Jean Marais as a hideous wolf-like creature who falls in love with a beautiful, pure-hearted girl who eventually sees beyond his problematic appearance.
Cocteau's film showed how cinema could realise the wild vision of ancient stories, and Powell and Pressburger's Red Shoes (1948) did something similar. The British film was partly based on Hans Christian Andersen's brutal and macabre fairytale The Red Shoes, and starred Moira Shearer as a young dancer whose talent seems to be unnaturally enhanced when she wears a red pair of ballet pumps.
What both those films lacked, though, was a sense of humour, and in more recent times fairytale films have been laced with subversive comedy. The humourous potential of fairytales was brilliantly exploited by Rob Reiner's 1987 film The Princess Bride.
Cary Elwes was brilliant as Westley, a farm hand and swordsman who takes good manners to ludicrous extremes.
His love affair with the beautiful Buttercup (Robin Wright) is constantly thwarted by pirates and assassins, and at one point Westley seems lost altogether until a character called Miracle Max (Billy Crystal) tells Buttercup Westley is "only mostly dead" and manages to revive him.
We might now laugh at them, but the influence of the old fairy stories persists. Tim Burton's breakthrough film Edward Scissorhands was essentially a modern retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Disney's recent live action film Tangled recycled the plot of the Grimm brothers' Rapunzel, and the story of Little Red Riding Hood has inspired numerous screen adaptations, from Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves to Catherine Hardwicke's Red Riding Hood.
Cinema's interaction with Irish myths and legends, however, has tended to be more problematic. At the upper end of the quality spectrum, films like John Sayles' Secret of Roan Inish and Neil Jordan's Ondine were inspired by old Celtic legends about the 'selkies', seals that could shed their skins and become human.
Most Irish-inspired fairytale movies, though, have been ghastly pantomimes involving pots of gold. Darby O'Gill and the Little People, for example, is not without its admirers, but is pretty hard to take if you happen to be Irish. Released by Disney in 1959, it starred Jimmy O'Dea as the king of the leprechauns, and was heralded by the publicity tagline 'A touch o'blarney, a heap o'magic and a load o'laughter!'
But fairytales continue to inspire quality films as well. In Guillermo del Toro's wonderfully imaginative 2006 film Pan's Labyrinth, a young girl escaped the repression of Franco's Spain by retreating to a magical world of fauns and fairies that may or may not be a figment of her imagination.
Darren Aronofsky's 2010 Oscar winner Black Swan was based not only on Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake but also on the dark Russian folk tale that inspired it.
The fairytale has even inspired pornographers. In the 1973 German short film Snow White and the Seven Perverts, a heroically proportioned Snow White is bathing in the forest when the seven dwarves show up and proposition her, leading to a mutually satisfying but most unsavoury arrangement. Don't go looking for that title in your local video store.