Deep down, we want certain fairy tales to come true. We are told from a young age that if we wish on a star, our greatest fantasy or adventure could begin. At any moment, something will whisk us away from our mundane life towards some epic adventure, possibly to fight a dragon or troll. That hope sustains us, and its something which film continues to facilitate. Escapism is one of the main reasons we tell stories, as it lets us imagine alternative versions of our reality, narratives which are beyond the ones we experience.
That is certainly true for those who listen to stories, but what about those who share them? Who is the storyteller and where did they find their stories? More pressing, why do they continue to tell the same stories over and over again?
In The Brothers Grimm, we meet the famous storyteller duo as they take advantage of folklore and superstition. They make money by tricking towns into believing that they are plagued by trolls and demons, and that only the Brothers Grimm can save them. The Brothers not only make up the story, they perform it, even hiring actors to play fairy tale monsters so the Brothers have something to defeat. Although their fame and livelihood are all lies, Jacob Grimm secretly wishes that these stories were true. He keeps hoping that they will encounter something which is both real and fantastical, something which will prove that they are a part of a story, and not just the inventors of one.
The film suggests that the reason we tell stories is because we want to be a part of them. The storyteller is someone who can become several different people, someone who can control a narrative and understand where it is going. Yet they never get to experience the things they talk about. They are always stuck between reality and fantasy. The Brothers Grimm addresses this dynamic multiple times. When the Brothers come across real folklore, they have to overcome the boundary between reality/responsibility and magic/fate.
When they were children, Jacob was tricked by a man into selling their cow for ‘magic’ beans, a choice which ultimately led to the death of his sister. Because Jacob chooses fantasy over reality, his family starved, and no magic came to rescue them. This moment is a huge conflict in the film, as Jacob continues to choose fantasy and hope that it will save him or provide some reason for why the Brothers faced adversity and poverty. If his actions were all leading towards some monumental quest, then every sacrifice and mistake he made was just leading him to this victory. If not, then it was all for nothing.
Eventually, the Brothers become involved with real magic and folklore, and the film combines many of the Grimm’s most famous stories. This positioning implies that what the Grimm’s wrote about actually happened, and that the fairy tales they describe are important documents which should not be dismissed. Stories like the Gingerbread Man and Snow White come from a true place, not just a fantastical but a real. The film thus combines the realms of fairy tale and reality to suggest that fairy tales contain lessons which are applicable to all, even to those without a magic mirror or destiny.
Instead of simply adapting the material from one of the Grimm stories, The Brothers Grimm examines the very structures of storytelling, and what it means to tell a story. The film argues that the greatest stories are those which combine fantasy with reality, specifically those which find magic within the mundane. This is the gift of the storyteller, as they can find meaning in a seemingly meaningless world. Just because a story did not happen should not suggest that it is worth any less than something which did. At the same time, the film illustrates that its important to maintain a sense of reality when faced with fantastical circumstances, otherwise, what you thought was fantastic is in fact just a bag of worthless beans. So, while it is fun to enjoy fairy tales and learn from them, do not bet your life on their existence, because while you need fairy tales, the tales do not necessarily need you.