Reimagining Fairy Tales: Grimm, Once Upon A Time and Their Modern Spin On Fantasy
There’s something about fairy tales that resonates throughout the generations. We remember the stories from our childhood -- the princesses and princes, the grotesque creatures and devious villains, the near triumph of evil, defeated by good just at the end -- and we pass them on to our children and grandchildren. They’re timeless stories we love to hear (and tell) over and over.
For years, television producers have tried to reframe fairy tales in new ways. In the early ‘80s, actress Shelley Duvall gathered an astonishing array of actors and directors for her star-studded Showtime anthology series Faerie Tale Theatre. Later in the decade, ABC put Snow White, Prince Charming, the Evil Queen, and the Magic Mirror in Los Angeles after a thousand-year sleep in the cute sitcom The Charmings. And CBS turned the story of Beauty and the Beast into a dark-hued romance for three seasons. This year, two new series are placing familiar fairy tales in a modern context.
NBC's Grimm, which airs on Friday nights, is set in Portland, where homicide detective Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli) develops the ability to see supernatural creatures. He discovers that he is descended from a group of hunters known as Grimms. The Grimms have taken charge of preserving the balance between the physical and mythological worlds and protecting humanity from otherworldly forces.
Burkhardt learns that his abilities as a Grimm relate to the cases he must solve. He begins to make the connections between the grisly crimes in Portland and the fairytale creatures behind them. He teams up with a "reformed big bad wolf” named Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell) who helps him solve the cases and make sense of the fantastical realm, and he discovers more about his destiny as a Grimm.
Grimm is a dark program, rooted in more literal interpretations of the Brothers Grimm's frightening fairy tales than most adaptations. Additionally, the show tackles some of the more obscure stories in the Brothers Grimm canon. The program relies on moody cinematography, grotesque makeup, and special effects to tell the show’s tale. The production design on Grimm goes a long way toward establishing the series’ dramatic tone.
The producers and writers have gone to great lengths to create a complex fairy tale mythology on Grimm. Many of the creatures have menacing German names -- terms like Blutbaden (literally “bloodbaths”) for the wolves like Monroe and Hexenbiests (hexen = “witch” and biest = “beast”) for the witchlike beings who appear as attorneys in Portland. The show’s scribes have developed elaborate backstories for the characters, such as intense rivalries between certain creatures and archenemies for others. The Grimms also have a deeply layered history which Burkhardt continues to discover.
Though Grimm’s critical reception has been mixed, the show has found a loyal audience, and NBC has given it a green light for the full season. Time will tell if the series’ edgy spin on fairy tales will generate long term success.
ABC has also entered the fantasy-themed programming fray with Once Upon A Time, which airs on Sunday nights. Lost writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz conceived the series, which centers around the residents of Storybrooke, Maine, who are in reality the classic characters from fairy tales and victims of a curse by the Evil Queen, though they do not know their true identities.
As revenge for Snow White's (Ginnifer Goodwin) marriage to Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) enacts a curse banishing all the residents of the Enchanted Forest to "someplace horrible" where only she is guaranteed a happy ending. In the present day, ten-year-old Henry Mills (Jared S. Gilmore) travels to Boston to track down his birth mother Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), who gave him up for adoption. She agrees to drive him back to his home in Storybrooke. On the ride from Boston to Storybrooke, Henry shows Emma his book of “real” fairy tales and explains the town’s curse to her. He mentions to Emma that she is the one who is destined to break the curse.
The lives of the residents of Storybrooke parallel their identities in the Enchanted Forest. The Evil Queen is Regina Mills, the mayor of Storybrooke and Henry’s adoptive mother, while her Magic Mirror (Giancarlo Esposito) is newspaper reporter Sydney Glass. Snow White turns into Mary Margaret Blanchard, Henry’s favorite teacher, and Jiminy Cricket (Raphael Sbarge) becomes Archie Hopper, Henry’s counselor. Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle) is Mr. Gold, the town’s mysterious “owner” and wealthiest citizen, who may or may not be the only other person besides Regina who is aware of their enchanted former life.
Once Upon A Time relies on a device similar to the flashback/flash-forward sequences that made Lost so distinctive. The show’s narrative shifts between modern day Storybrooke and the Enchanted Forest. This method of storytelling allows viewers to see the back stories of each of the fantasy characters and connect the dots of similarity between the characters’ fairy tale setting and modern existence. It’s an effective device, and it allows the series a bit of variety in its pace.
Because it is an ABC production, Once Upon A Time takes full advantage of its access to Disney’s stable of characters. Though the fairy tales on the show are largely in the public domain, the producers and writers rely on Disney’s versions of the stories. Characters like the Seven Dwarfs go by the names from the Disney film, as do Jiminy Cricket and the Blue Fairy. Archie Hopper even has a pet dalmatian named Pongo (after the patriarch in 101 Dalmatians). In addition to the main plot centered around Snow White, the writers are employing other fairy tale subplots involving Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Beauty and the Beast along with others throughout the season.
Once Upon A Time debuted to generally favorable critical reception and gave ABC its highest Sunday night ratings in three years. Ratings have been relatively stable since the show’s debut, but the question is whether the program can sustain its premise over the long haul.
Grimm and Once Upon A Time have joined the long list of television series based on well known and beloved fairy tales. Why do producers keep going back to these stories? Why do they resonate with so many people? Mary Margaret Blanchard offers an answer in the pilot episode of Once Upon A Time:
What do you think stories are for? These stories are classics. There’s a reason we all know them. They’re a way for us to deal with our world, a world that doesn’t always make sense.
I gave the book to him because I wanted Henry to have the most important thing anyone can have -- hope. Believing in even the possibility of a happy ending is a powerful thing.
Perhaps she's right. It's possible that, in difficult times like these, people need the escape that fairy tales offer. Maybe that’s why these shows have garnered such a following.