June 5, 2012
This weekend, Snow White and the Huntsman, a twist on the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale, hit theaters with a star-studded cast: Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron and the Twilight trilogy’s Kristen Stewart, among others. But, what would the Grimms think if they were around for the premiere? Smithsonian.com’s K. Annabelle Smith spoke with Jack Zipes, one of the most prolific authors in fairy tale and folklore studies, about the newest of the mainstream fairy tale adaptations.
There seem to be a lot of fairy-tale-themed television shows and movies coming out—“Once Upon a Time,” Mirror Mirror, Jack the Giant Killer, Snow White and the Huntsman—what’s your initial reaction to this influx?
First, it’s a mistake to say that there is a recent surge—there has been interest in fairy tales since the 1890s. All of this spectacular talk is not really a new interest in fairy tales, but a new way to exaggerate and embellish productions that cost millions of dollars. What’s new is the hyping—films that are just absolutely mindless can make it seem like you are going to be sent into a world that will astonish and delight you for a couple of hours while you eat your popcorn.
What’s your opinion on the adaptations that have come up over the years?
We have every right and should adapt tales because society changes. But the Grimms would flip over if they were alive today. They were better known during their time as scholarly writers; they were in the pursuit of the essence of story telling. By collecting different versions of every tale they published, they hoped to resuscitate the linguistic cultural tradition that keeps people together—stories that were shared with the common people. In these adaptations you can gain a good sense of whether artists are writing to make money or to celebrate themselves. As critics, we owe it to our culture to dismiss 95 percent of the stuff we see.
What from the original versions of fairy tales seems to remain?
We don’t really know when fairy tales originated. I’ve tried to show in my most recent book, the Irresistible Fairytale, that in order to talk about any genre, particularly what we call simple genre—a myth, a legend, an anecdote, a tall tale, and so on—we really have to understand something about the origin of stories all together. What the Greeks and Romans considered myths, we consider fairy tales. We can see how very clearly the myths, which emanated from all cultures, had a huge influence on the development of the modern fairy tale. These myths are not direct “Snow White” tales but already they have the motif of jealousy and envy of a woman that one character wants to kill. In any of the Greek myths that involve female goddesses, you see the same thing: Who’s more beautiful? Who is more powerful than the other? These themes—jealousy of the mother or stepmother regarding the beauty or power of a younger, mortal woman—are what drive “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
Fairy tales have changed a lot—so much so that if children heard the original versions today, they might be surprised. What might people find shocking about the originals?
The Grimm collections were never intended for children. Not because kids were excluded, but because the division we make today of children’s literature didn’t exist then. The idea of protecting children from tales with violence didn’t occur until the earlier part of the 19th century. In [the original] “Cinderella,” birds peck the stepsisters’ eyes out after the girls cut off their heels and toes to try to fit their feet into the glass slipper. In the 1812 and 1815 editions of “Children’s and Household Tales,” there is a story in which children pretend to be butchers and slaughter the child who plays the part of the pig. The Grimms didn’t eliminate sex and violence, but they sugar coated some of it in later editions. In the 20th century version of “Red Riding Hood”, for example, the wolf never gets to eat Grandmother. That would be considered indecent.
What about the Brothers Grimm? Why do you think their name has remained a staple in American storytelling?
The Grimm tales stick because they were good artists—consummate writers, even if they made [the stories] easier to digest over time. It’s not their sexism in “Snow White”, it’s the sexism of the time. The way children were beaten to adhere to moral guidelines, the way women are portrayed [in the fairy tales] were ideas that were a product of the era in which they were written. When the Grimms began gathering the first versions of “Snow White” before it was published, it was a tale about a mother who is jealous of her daughter and wants to have her killed. The Brothers Grimm went through seven revisions and by the second edition in 1819, Wilhelm Grimm began embroidering the story, making it more sexist. He has Snow White saying ‘I’ll be your good housekeeper’ to the dwarves; he changed the mother to a stepmother. It changes a lot.
What was your first reaction to Snow White and the Huntsman?
This movie represents a backlash to the feminist movement. “Once Upon a Time,” Mirror Mirror—those shows and films focus on women and their conflict with one another. What the heck is going on in contemporary fairy tales? Women are not dominating the world; they are not evil. Why are we redoing the Grimm tales in a retroactive way that doesn’t understand the complex problems women have today? These films have nothing to say to the world today.
What message do you think comes through with the female characters?
There is always a touch of faux feminism, or false feminism. Snow White becomes a warrior, but we still have this glorification of the virgin princess.
Why do you think these stories have stood the test of time?
Fairy tales in general stick because they are relevant to us in adapting to society. The tales help us understand complex topics like child abuse, rape, even sibling rivalry. They tend to offer a counter world to our perverse world where things are resolved or, at least, a sense of justice occurs. We come back to these tales because they help us navigate our way through the world. Almost all the modern fairy-tale films and prose fairy tales have strayed far from the originals, and hey, that’s all right. The question is whether the adapters make a new work of art that provokes us to think and dream and want to make the story our own.