Fairy Tale Television

Every now and then, an old idea will seem to pop back up in producers’ imaginations with the cliche, “Bringing it back…” hope. The strange thing about the film and television industry, though, is that these ideas rarely pop up in just one person’s head at a time. Indeed, we can all think back to moments of seeing commercials for two television shows that looked oddly similar. In fact, they were basically the same show but on different networks. It happens in film as well. Consider, for example, No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits, which had the added weirdness of each top billing costars Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis from Black Swan. It was weird. I’ll add some more strange in: the tagline for No Strings is “Friendship has its benefits,” and the original title for the No Strings screenplay was “Friends With Benefits.”

It’s just weird. Especially when you try to find a point of commonality to explain it and cannot. Alas, these things happen in an industry where everyone is trying to take the newest, or the oldest, cool thing and spin it into a successful product. When you are dealing with copyrighted material, like Superman, you don’t have these mixups because the stories are pushed through a single channel. Not all stories are copyrighted, however. Biblical stories and fairy tales, most commonly, are not. And currently, Hollywood seems to have a kink for Snow White.

I’m thinking of four different projects that revolve around childhood fairy tales, three of which are directly shaped around Snow White. One wonders where the link between these ideas originates. I can imagine some producer reading a news article about the action-adventure Snow White and the Huntsman and thinking, “Boy, what about the families that just want to laugh?” Enter Mirror, Mirror. Our two television candidates are not as closely linked but do share a common fairy tale theme, each coming at it from a different genre. Let’s review.

Same classic fairy tale character, different interpretations (top left: Once Upon A Time; top right: artist rendering; bottom left: Mirror, Mirror; bottom right: Disney

Snow White and the Huntsman – Here’s the heavy hitter, though admittedly Once Upon A Time was conceived back in 2004. Universal decided it was time to bring back Snow White, but this time as an action star. It’s the same tale: Evil Queen (Charlize Theron) wants the heart of Snow White (Kristen Stewart) so she can remain the fairest of them all, so she hires the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to cut it from her. Those are the three heavy hitter characters the initial trailer pumps up, but the rest are there: Prince William in battle attire along with eight dwarves (including Ian McShane, Eddie Izzard, Ray Winstone, and Nick Frost).

As is hopefully apparent, this production is heavy duty, as in over $100 million budget heavy. Judging by the trailer, it’s loaded with special effects and battle sequences, and I’ve read that Universal hopes it will be successful enough to turn into a sequel (I don’t know the specifics here, nor can I guess). That’s really all we have to go off of until more trailers release: it’s big budget, it’s filled with A/B-listers, it’s a fantasy action/adventure take on the fairy tale, it hopes to draw the 18-35 demographic (like most things).

Mirror, Mirror – I like most people are hesitant when a film goes into production without a title yet, and such is the case for Untitled Snow White Project now called Mirror, Mirror. One can only imagine a producer heard about Huntsman and thought it would be a good contrast to release a more comedic Snow White film just before it, and in 3D to boot (doubtful it was shot in 3D, though)! It’s a tad disappointing that Julia Roberts is in this one, but then my feelings towards the projects may be wrong. I’ve only seen one trailer, but I wasn’t impressed. It just looks stupid, like another “From the Producers of Scary Movie” movie. I’m going to defend the originality of these projects later, but I can’t defend the laziness of a bad movie. Releases 16 March 2012.

Once Upon A Time – This new ABC series isn’t specifically about Snow White, but she certainly seems to be an A-plot for at least this season. The opening narration tells us “There is a town in Maine where every storybook character you’ve ever known is trapped between two worlds.” Ohh, mysterious. It’s actually a fairly good show, and does a particularly good job of the overarching plot lines (what is it about ABC shows and mysterious season arcs?). It has the added bonus of airing on a channel owned by Disney and hence having access to Disney characters and iterations of them. So far there’s Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Gippetto, the list goes on. The main character, Emma Swan, is the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, though, so Snow White’s presence is large. It’s pulling over ten million a week and has been picked up for the full season, so it’s worth checking out on Hulu.

Grimm – This new NBC series, which is barely holding on for renewal, both gets let off the hook a little while also being fouled for a different penalty. It’s not about Snow White but rather Grimm fairy tale creatures. Indeed, it’s a much darker take on fairy tales than the kid-friendly Disney stories we’re use to, so props there. However, it’s also “a cop drama, with a twist…a dark and fantastical project about a world in which characters from the Grimm’s fairy tales exist.” Yep, it’s a cop drama, a genre we could spend hours talking about and evaluating. As far as Grimm is concerned, I enjoy the cop drama side of it, but that’s not relevant here. Where it concerns fairy tales, it decides to take a darker look at the Grimm Brothers’ stories, and does a fairly good job at it besides being very formulaic and predictable. The lead character, a cop, is also a Grimm, a family that for hundreds of years have kept the bad creatures from killing everyone. Of course, one of those bad creatures ends up being the “killer” in each episode. Audiences haven’t responded overwhelmingly, however, no doubt in part because Once Upon A Time is a tad more watchable, so we’ll see whether Grimm lasts through the spring season or is stopped short during the holiday hiatus.

Even I’ll admit it’s oddly suspicious that four stories revolving around Snow White/Grimm fairy tales are being released within twelve months of each other. Admittedly, Grimm stories are very popular for adaptation, but still. It’s weird. Some will look at this as the unoriginality of Hollywood continuing to beat a horse dry for all its worth, in this case Snow White. That does happen, but I don’t think that’s the initial reasoning beyond occurrences like this. As I’ve argued before, originality is not a matter of initial idea but how you go about interpreting it. A story as popular as Snow White is going to be re-imagined over time. The only question is how people will interpret it through the ages.

Now we find ourselves with a very action-heavy interpretation in film while another decides to take a more humorous look at things (admittedly, I won’t work very hard to defend Mirror, Mirror). Meanwhile, television is giving us both a dark, cop-oriented Grimm drama while ABC gives a more family friendly mystery with an intricate plot and questions of which only some will be answered at season’s end. There is absolutely nothing wrong with different interpretations of the same central story. That’s the point of creativity. The only oddity is in how close together these adaptations are, but you can’t blame studios for wanting to catch hod of what people are into right now. Some will succeed (Snow White and the Huntsman, probably) while others fail to get hold (Grimm).

In the end, generating creative ideas is no different from Edison inventing the lightbulb: it’s about discovery a thousand ways people don’t want to be entertained and the one way they do.

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