Film Studies lecturer Mikel J Koven explores fairy tales' dark and twisted roots, far away from what you've seen in Disney films.

The Disney Corporation seem to have a monopoly on fairy tale films. The images we associate with tales such as Snow White or Cinderella are most often from the classic animated films we’ve all grown up on.

But the fairy tale was never originally intended as a “children’s genre”; and these six films I discuss below are intended to introduce some more adult versions of the fairy tale genre. None of these movies are intended for children. 

La Belle Et La Bete film still

La Belle et la bête/Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau, 1946)

Jean Cocteau’s masterpiece, made in the ashes of the second world war, attempts to remind a shell-shocked French audience what it is like to dream again. Cocteau’s surreal imagery in the enchanted castle are remarkable.

Arms holding candelabras extend from the walls (and occasionally give directions by pointing), faces in fireplace mantles exude smoke, and another arm wraps itself around the candlestick on the table, moving only to pour a magical glass of wine. So much of Cocteau’s imagery is shamelessly ripped off by Disney in, first, their animated (1991), and then live action (2017), versions. But the original is still a beauty to behold.

A man in black defends a woman in red with a sword in a forest

 The Princess Bride (Rob Reiner, 1987)

Based on screenwriter William Goldman’s 1973 novel, Rob Reiner’s film is less an adaptation of a particular fairy tale than it is a pastiche of fairy tale tropes, interwoven with commentary about the fictional author of the “The Princess Bride”, S. Morgenstern. Today, we’d probably call the novel “post-modern” as it comments on its own creation, continually calling attention to its own invention: a fiction that knows it’s a fiction, while telling a fictional story.

The film itself cleverly invents its own device for calling attention to itself, as a grandfather (Peter Falk) reads Morgenstern’s book to his sick grandson (Fred Savage). Despite not being based on actual fairy tales, The Princess Bride evokes the fun, excitement, and romance of the genre.

A man and a woman enter a dark and dingy cabin

Les Amants criminels/Criminal Lovers (François Ozon, 1999)

Ozon’s films tend to polarize audiences: some love his work, others despise it. Les Amants criminels is a brutal and deeply disturbing adaptation of Hansel & Gretel, where two young lovers take it on the run after thrill-killing a friend of theirs. They wind up trapped in the dark cellar of a man known simply as “the Man in the Woods” (Miki Manojlovic) who uses young Luc (Jérémie Renier) as a sex toy while fattening him up for an impending cannibalistic feast, while starving Alice (Natacha Régnier) trapped in the basement.

Ozon’s film is clever reminder that, not matter how sanitized “Hansel & Gretel” may be for children, it is a deeply unpleasant story 

A pale goat-like creature address a young girl with a bob haircut

 El laberinto del fauno/Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)

I could just as easily list de Toro’s equally magnificent, Oscar winning The Shape of Water (2017) here, but I think El laberinto del fauno is the slightly superior film. Like The Princess BrideEl laberinto is not based on a specific fairy tale, but is an amalgamation of several motifs: young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is sent with her mother to the country outpost of her new stepfather, the brutal Capital Vidal (Sergi López), an officer in the newly won Fascist Spain.

Escaping the horror of her new life, Ofelia befriends a faun (Doug Jones) who tells her that she really is a princess from an enchanted realm and must complete three tasks in order for her to properly return to her kingdom. Moving between the two worlds – the reality of Fascist Spain and the fantasy world of the faun – creates a powerful parallel between them. Both are terrifying, but, in keeping with del Toro’s films, the reality is always more frightening than the fantasy.

A film still from Sleeping Beauty

 Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh, 2011)

Feminist author Julia Leigh’s debut film is not, under any circumstance, an adaptation of the fairy tale. Instead it explores male desire for female sexual passivity through a young university student, Lucy (Emily Browning), who takes a job at an escort service where she is put into a deep drugged sleep while men use her sexually.

While Lucy is the “sleeping beauty” of the title, the film evokes the fairy tale’s coyness about female beauty and passivity while simultaneously challenging these social assumptions which persist today.

Tale of Tales film still

 Il racconto dei racconit/Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone, 2015)

Based on three of Giambattista Basile’s fairy tales published in the Pentamerone (or “The Tale of Tales”) between 1634-36, Garrone’s film returns the fairy tale tradition to its full-blooded, bawdy roots.

These stories are violent, sexy, gory, and strange. Garrone brings an almost neo-Realist aesthetic to the film, at odds with the fantasy of the narratives themselves. He films many of the sequences on location in a variety of castle across Italy, only slightly dressed up to evoke the 17th century. But the themes of obsession and desire cross cultural, as well as historical, lines demonstrating that people today are not so different to those of the historical past.

I could very easily have listed a different six films here; we’ve only really scratched the surface of non-Disney fairy tale films.

Some films are made with children in mind as the primary audience, while others are definitely for a more mature, adult viewer. Some are funny, some are frightening. Some are deeply disturbing. But this was the world of the fairy tale, with which oral storytellers entertained generations of listeners across millennia. Before these stories were collected, re-written, and sanitized to be safe for the middle-class nurseries of Victorian-era children.

Dr Mikel Koven teaches on the Film Studies BA (Hons) course at the University of Worcester. His module “Film & Folklore” considers fairy-tale films, as well as myth and legend films.