“Once Upon a Time”: Convention and Reinvention in Film

“Once Upon a Time” is so perfectly unspecific that it opens itself to so many possibilities. When did the story occur? Once. Where did it happen? Not important. This lack of information makes the story accessible to all, meaning anyone can personalize or develop it. Because stories are always changing, a storyteller can only momentarily possess a story before it passes to the next person. This means that fairy tales like Snow White and Red Ridding Hood are universal, they belong to everyone, and no version is more ‘authentic’ than another.

Fairy tales are made to be changed, as they have for countless generations and cultures. Take Beauty and the Beast, which stems from France, Germany, and Greece, just to name a few. Stories pack well, and film is one of the easiest ways to track the way fairy tales change and grow over time.

Fairy tales and film have a similar purpose, as both are extensions of our culture. Each offers a way to demonstrate good versus bad behavior while also allowing us to escape to a different reality or perspective. What makes fairy tale films so incredible is that they modernize traditional storytelling methods while also commenting on what these traditions mean. By adapting a common fairy tale like Snow White, a film anticipates that its audience will already be familiar with the story. This context allows a film to both tell a story while also adding new elements to that story, allowing it to grow alongside our culture. As a result, fairy tales and folklore are not some dusty artifacts hidden away, nor some sacred or preserved document, they are an everchanging reflection on what it means to be human and to what it means to share a story.  

This week, I will be focusing on films which retell popular fairy tales. I am not interested in projects which claim more authority over a story than anyone else (cough cough Disney’s use of the public domain while never contributing to said public domain cough cough). Instead, this week’s discussion centers on films which highlight the transient nature of folklore and stories. My goal is to illustrate how fairy tale films keep stories open and ready for the next storyteller.