Last Friday, NBC premiered the second of two primetime dramas that drawn firmly grounded in fairy tale lore, but Disney never told us about these fairy tales. ABC’s Once Upon a Time centers on a group of fairy tale characters cursed by a spiteful, evil queen to live where there are no happy endings–Storybrooke, Maine. The characters, including Snow White, Prince Charming, the seven dwarfs, Jiminy Cricket, and others, have no recollection of their real identities and their single hope of returning to fairy-tale land is Emma Swan, the rough and tumble daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming.
While ABC’s Once deeply delves into characters we thought we knew, NBC’s Grimm is a “grim” crime procedural drama with a fairy tale overlay. Homicide detective Nick Burnhardt sees things he can’t explain, then discovers that he is a descendant of the “Grimm’s”, an elite group of hunters who chase the monsters fictionalized by German brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the 19th century.
Different as they are, neither show resembles the shiny, saccharine Disney films that minimize both suffering and the full gravity of evil. In fact, it could be said that in this way, these modern shows are closer to the ancient stories than the tamer tales we are familiar with. Regardless, art is a mirror of culture, reflecting the guiding assumptions and worldview of a society, and I believe that Hollywood’s recent focus on the fairy tale says something important about the prevailing mindset of Americans.
For centuries, the fairy tale has served as a beacon of hope for dark times. During the Great Depression, many people did not have the money to pay for enough food in their household, but when Disney originally released Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1938, people resonated so much with the film that it made four times more money than any other film released in 1938, garnering $3.5 million in the U.S. and Canada. In a world demoralized by the horrors of World War II, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, respectively.
The appeal of fairy tales is not that they minimize suffering, but that they show a way through the darkest of times. “Fairy Tales are more than true,” wrote English journalist G.K. Chesterton, “not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
In producing two fairy-tale-themed shows in a single season, Hollywood is tapping in to an ancient recipe to soothe today’s anxieties about the world economy and civil unrest. “There is something comforting about these stories,” said Once producer Edward Kitsis when asked about a recent slew of fairy tale-based Hollywood product, such as Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots and others. In these “difficult times,” fairy tales “give people hope,” he added. And as the character Snow White says in the premiere of Once, “believing even in the possibility of a happy ending is a very powerful thing.”
Photo credits: ABC