Greenhill, Pauline and Sidney Eve Matrix, ed. Fairy Tale Films: Visions of Ambiguity. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2010. p. xiii + 263. List of tale types, bibliography, filmography, index. paper $24.95; ebook $20.00
This book is a collection of ten essays by a variety of scholars centering on how Western European fairy tales continue to play a role in contemporary North America through film. There is a foreword by Jack Zipes and an introduction by editors Pauline Greenhill and Sidney Eve Matrix. Translating a fairy tale into cinema always involves interpretation, and the essays in this book offer criticism of those interpretations, ranging from how Disney removes fairy tales from their original contexts to propagate a specific value system to how Tim Burton twists the expected fairy tale plotline to present a new value system.
According to the book jacket, Fairy Tale Films: Visions of Ambiguity is targeted toward scholars in the performing arts, film studies and fairy tale studies. I would postulate that the book strongly fits into feminist and gender studies, folklore, and literature. Each fairy tale film addressed in the book is targeted toward North American culture of one brand or another. In general, the essays seem to praise the films that subvert traditional archetypes and criticize the ones which propagate old clichés.
Throughout the book, Disney is lambasted as a backward, patriarchal, conservative monster of a corporation. For example, “Disney’s Enchanted: Patriarchal Backlash and Nostalgia in a Fairy Tale Film” by Linda Pershing with Lisa Gablehouse contends that Enchanted was falsely advertised as Disney laughing at itself for its own clichés and stereotypes. The end product, however, was a campaign to advertise sexist, homophobic, and racist values to children. “Building the Perfect Product: The Commodification of Childhood in Contemorary Fairy Tale Film” by Naarah Sawers, which constrasts Disney’s Pinocchio with Steven Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence, likewise harps on Disney for trying to sell an idealized version of childhood to adults as a means of propagating the aforementioned value system. In “Tim Burton and the Idea of Fairy Tales” Brian Ray mentions that Burton once worked for Disney, and his strong reaction to the company’s pressure to sell certain values fueled his own animating career in opposition.
The book’s strongest contribution to the social sciences seems to be its bridge between the fields of folklore and gender studies. “Fitting the Glass Slipper” by Ming-Hsun Lin, for example, is an engaging comparison between the princess archetype in fairy tales, specifically Cinderella, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga. Cinematic fairy tale archetypes are discussed in greater detail in Pauline Greenhill and Anne Brydon’s “Mourning Mothers and Seeing Siblings,” about Nietzchka Keene’s film adaptation of The Juniper Tree by the Brothers Grimm. This essay, among others in the anthology, discusses the tension between speculation about possible interpretations and wanting to respect the filmmaker’s approach to the tales as stories alone, without needing to be symbolic. Several authors mention the interpretive flexibility in the original fairy tales which is lost in translation to the screen, including Ming-Hsun Lin in her essay on the Harry Potter films, Brian Ray in “Tim Burton and the Idea of Fairy Tales,” Kim Snowden in her essay on Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves,” and Tracie Lukasiewicz in her essay, “The Parallelism of the Fantastic and the Real.”
Fairy Tale Films provides a fresh exploration of the age-old question as to whether art imitates life or life imitates art and what happens when narrative tradition becomes filmic. The reader is invited to think about how older stories take on new meanings when presented to a contemporary audience. The commodification of values such as nostalgia for childhood and patriarchal ideology is explored in several of the essays in relation to the consumerism which surrounds cinema. The reader is left to wonder whether the book’s subtitle “Visions of Ambiguity” is more a reflection of the films themselves or of the attitudes of North American viewers toward their objects of consumption.