I have a bad habit of trying to overhear what people are saying in movie theatres. I’m not typically a nosy person, but years of academia have taught me that what we write about film and people’s actual reactions to it can be widely divergent.
It’s participant research, not snooping.
So when a couple sat behind me at a screening of Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella last week, I didn’t make my typical, everywhere-other-than-a-movie-theatre attempts to not listen to what they were saying. They spoke in generally hushed tones, leaving me with only the occasional word or phrase, but there was a discernible cynicism in everything they said. A satisfied laugh followed by a whispered comment. Critics have generally praised Branagh for faithfully adapting the 1950 Disney animated version of the fairy tale, which acts as the film’s primary source material, but many of the film’s reviewers nonetheless felt the need to caution us about the straightforwardness of the director’s approach. “Cynics beware!” Rich Cline warns, after praising the film for offering “pure fantasy” in the face of the current tendency toward putting a “snarky, post-modern spin” on live-action remakes of animated fairy tales, while also acknowledging that this choice might “put off some audience members” due to its unabashed naïveté.
Fairy tale adaptations make more acute a curious difficulty inherent in the retelling of old stories that is often cited in genre theory. Genre filmmakers must perform a constant balancing act between familiarity and difference, since, as Thomas Schatz argues, “they must continually vary and reinvent the generic formula” in order to prevent audiences from getting bored, but still “exploit those qualities that made the genre popular in the first place.” For Leo Braudy, genre films essentially ask the same question of their audiences each time they appear: “‘Do you still want to believe this?’ Popularity is the audience answering ‘Yes’,” and the balance will remain tilted toward the familiar, though still with the requisite amount of variation to hold our interest. Change in a generic formula occurs when it becomes too familiar for an audience to accept it at face value, answering Baudry’s question with dismissals of a form that now seems too simple.
Beneath accusations of naïveté and traditionalism there is a sense of satisfied superiority: “I know what this is. You can’t fool me.” The formula is too familiar, its narrative strategies and themes too well-worn to get past our critical judgement. The turn to snark, to self-parody or satire, acknowledges that well-worn nature, with storytellers responding to “you can’t fool me” with “we’re not fooled either.” For Schatz, this turn is the last stage in the typical evolution of genres from the relatively straightforward or “classical” presentation of a generic formula, through increasing degrees of self-consciousness, and ending in the “baroque” stage, in which that formula has become so familiar it can only be performed as a formula.
There are a number of problems with Schatz’s model, namely that his stages don’t tend to follow each other in an ordered, evolutionary progression, but rather overlap and repeat. There are, for example, a number of parodic films from very early in cinema’s history in genres Schatz cites, too early for his model to account for since they far pre-date the classical stages of their respective forms. It also doesn’t account for the cultural status of generic formulas imported from literature or theatre, which have already gone through countless cycles of repetition and variation. Fairy tales come to cinema with the added weight of familiarity born of already being embedded in popular art and already subject to an established culture of belief. Baudry’s question becomes much more complex when it comes to fairy tales since their treatment in Western culture tends to attach the question of belief to the process of growing up.
Contemporary fairy tale adaptations therefore tend toward one of two approaches. With its sweeping parodies of the Disney tradition in every manifestation, from its theme parks to its impossibly pure heroines, Shrek is emblematic of a baroque, parodic approach, which unabashedly appeals to the satisfaction of the in-joke, of being aware, and therefore of being unable to be fooled.
That fairy tales may be too simple to be presented at face value, however, is not just a matter of the familiarity born of countless iterations in film or print, but years of study and critique into their social and ideological implications. There is a long tradition of pointedly political retellings of fairy tales designed to either critique the traditional version of a story, while also sometimes recuperating it for contemporary readers, or to bring topics in need of discussion into a publically available arena that hums with the significance of a well-known tale.
In place of parody, other adaptations therefore chose to revise, to take what’s objectionable or antiquated and change it to fit contemporary mores and tastes. These revisionist exercises, while not directly engaging in such polemics, participate in the general bent toward rewriting fairy tales in response to some of those critiques, particularly surrounding the representation of women, their helplessness and dependence on someone of the opposite sex coming to their rescue.
Rather than simply waiting for someone to release her from her tower, for example, Tangled’s Rapunzel coerces her prince equivalent into acting as her guide and escort to a festival she has always wanted to attend in a near-by village. Frozen simply does away with romantic love (for the most part), offering a rather pointed warning on the perils of being too quick to trust the handsome young man who seems poised to come to the rescue.
Yet there is a curious contradiction in many of these films between avowal and disavowal, between acknowledging that these stories are so well-known, so entrenched that they can no longer be told without an ironic wink, and a lingering faith that they nonetheless still have the power to move. Shrek pokes fun at the Disney fairy tale tradition, parodying its narrative and thematic conventions, but beyond the knowing asides it is also a ‘Beauty and the Beast’ story, earnestly investing in the basic spirit of that narrative and asking us to do the same. The film both dismantles the most pervasive form of filmic fairy tales represented by Disney and upholds it.
Frozen rejects the ease of fairy tale love-at-first-sight as the heroine’s primary avenue of freedom or escape, but it nonetheless remains invested in the idea of the redemptive power of love that subtends that trope, simply replacing romance with the bond between sisters. The narrative still hinges on an act of true love, like a Prince’s kiss, it’s just an act of true love redefined.
Even seemingly more extreme retellings of familiar fairy tales, like Disney’s Maleficent, suggest the ongoing appeal of their sources simply by virtue of retelling them. The film may drastically reshape Sleeping Beauty, but the filmmakers must have thought the story had some enduring appeal to warrant the effort.
Beneath the ironic tones, the poking fun, or the revising, there is a continued faith in the validity of these stories, if not in all their features, then at least in part. The revisions often act as permission, allowing us to be affected by something that we know is “pure fantasy” or antiquated in its narrative strategies and politics by giving us more acceptable gender representations, or by acknowledging the basic cynicism we might be carrying with us by poking fun at that fantasy before asking us to believe in it nonetheless, as irony or snark gradually gives way to genuine appeals to our hearts and minds.
Branagh’s Cinderella simply does away with the double-dealing, with the skein of revision and irony designed to appeal to, and then break through our pride in not being fooled. There are, of course, some revisions: Cinderella is more assertive than in the Disney animated film; she and her Prince meet on common ground and develop an affection for each other based on her willingness to challenge his beliefs before any suggestion of marriage or happily ever after; other than the requisite fairy godmother interventions, magic is largely replaced with the power of kindness; animals are anthropomorphised, but only to a degree that doesn’t allow for speech or pointy red hats.
Otherwise, Branagh wholeheartedly presents the basic story in all its familiar detail without a hint of irony. Instead he uses our knowledge of the story, and particularly of the animated version, to infuse some of his shots with an added thematic weight that would be impossible without that familiarity. Close to the beginning of the film, for example, young Ella is left alone in the hallway as a doctor examines her ailing mother. As she is perched on the edge of her chair with her head down, waiting for the door to open, Branagh gives us a close-up of her feet, which she has slipped half out of her blue slippers. I used to do this as a kid when I was bored or nervous, but here the position of Ella’s feet, slightly raised as if she were wearing an invisible pair of high-heel shoes, and the soft blue of her slippers, which matches the colour of the ball gown her animated counterpart wears, triggers our familiarity with what’s to come at the very moment that story is set in motion. That familiarity is acknowledged, but without cynicism or any concomitant attempt to let us know that the filmmakers are in on the joke. It becomes an affective asset Branagh can press into the service of creating more meaningful images, using visual cues that draw on our memories of past versions of the story to enrich his own.
At the end of the film, the couple behind me filed out, still joking to each other in hushed tones. No matter how much respect the filmmakers treated the story with, how much Branagh and his team invested in telling it with a straight face, the couple were not going to be fooled. I understand that reaction, whether it has its roots in the need to prove we know the rules of the game or in an attempt to find something to enjoy in a movie that isn’t working for us on whatever level the filmmakers intended.
Yet, there is something to be said for just letting a story be what it is, to entirely invest in the tale and in the telling. I’m in no way suggesting that revisionist interventions aren’t necessary, or that I didn’t laugh when Shrek made a particularly insightful jab at the Disney tradition, but rather that there is a third approach to telling an old, familiar story that has little to do with appealing to the sense of satisfaction that arises from acknowledging our lack of naïveté. Simply tell it and make a virtue out of our familiarity, meet “I know what this is” with letting the material be what it is, with, “So do we… and here it is.”
There is no possibility of doing away with our familiarity with a narrative form, especially one as pervasive as the fairy tale. But as the double dealing of some contemporary adaptations suggests, familiarity doesn’t necessarily invalidate that form, even if it has been covered over by years of parody or critique. In adopting this third choice, some filmmakers have realised that to get us to invest in the familiar or the seemingly outdated, the film itself has to demonstrate the same level of investment, to embrace rather than subvert. Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, with its contemporary reinvigoration of the Kaiju film – movies like Godzilla, now perhaps more known, and therefore parodied, for bad dubbing than anything else – is a case in point. The film treats its material without irony, even as del Toro demonstrates an obvious familiarity with the genre, which he distills down to its basics – giant monsters vs. giant robots. The film may be naïve, but knowingly so.
So, when the credits had rolled on Cinderella I turned to my designated movie companion and said, intending nothing but praise, “I know this is usually meant derisively, but that did exactly what it said on the tin.”
Leo Braudy, The World in Frame: What We See in Films (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
Rich Cline, Review of Cinderella, Contact Music, March 26, 2015 http://www.contactmusic.com/film/review/cinderella
Thomas Schatz, Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System (New York: Random House, 1981).