An armour-clad Snow White wages war against her wicked stepmom. Hansel and Gretel are witch-killing bounty hunters. Little Red Riding Hood has undergone a Twilight makeover and is torn between two men, one of whom may be a werewolf terrorizing the village.
Move over, Disney. Snow White and her fairy tale mates are trading their shiny castles and glass carriages for cold, unforgiving landscapes filled with revenge and violence in upcoming films such as Snow White and the Huntsman and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters . On TV, the tributes include Grimm, a show about a Grimm descendant, a detective who battles age-old fairy tale villains.
With this surge in dark and brooding modern fables, it seems as if entertainment execs have drunk the same magic potion. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the first collection from the best-known purveyors of the genre, the Grimm brothers, and their tales continue to fascinate us.
Over the past two centuries, each generation has refashioned the collection of Germanic folk tales for their times. The sanitized Disney versions, with their focus on pretty princesses and happy endings, dominate our collective memory, but even Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm edited out some of the more unsettling elements in their later editions. So it's no surprise that many grown-ups find themselves conflicted: While we eat up these sexy updates in the theatre, we can be repelled as parents.
"Fairy tales are thousands of years old," says scholar Jack David Zipes, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota who has translated the Grimms. "And they were told in different social-cultural contexts as warning tales, initiation tales, celebration tales, ritual tales, worship tales and so on. The fairy tales or wonder tales were derived from all sorts of storytelling. They could be amusing and edifying at the same time."
We're certainly not sure if they're edifying for children any longer. Many parents blanch when they stumble upon alarming scenes in volumes they haven't vetted. Cinderella's stepsisters slice off their toes and heels to try fitting into the slipper? Red Riding Hood and her grandma actually get eaten by the wolf and a huntsman slices the wolf open?
A recent British study found that 50 per cent of parents pass on Rumpelstiltskin and Rapunzel due to kidnapping themes. Fifty-two per cent dismissed Cinderella as "outdated" because it's based on a woman doing housework all day (presumably they're referring to the less bloody versions). A wolf eating a grandmother disqualified Little Red Riding Hood.
"The attitude toward children was somewhat different," says Prof. Zipes of 19th-century parents. "They didn't think children should be protected,"
Writer Libby Copeland thinks today's children should be shielded, arguing forcefully in Slate magazine that Grimms-inspired tales are past their prime. "There's a tendency to jump to the conclusion that because modern parents are squeamish about violence in fiction we must be wussy and overprotective. But is it also wussy that we don't spank any more, or tell our children that they're wicked?"
Toronto mother of two Rebecca Brown says, "They are dark and scary for sure." Her three-year-old son, for instance, has asked her to stop reading Hans Christian Andersen. Nevertheless, Ms. Brown, who runs a parenting site called Bunch Family, recently ran a piece exploring our fraught relationship with what she calls "ur-stories" of the Grimms and others. She doesn't advocate avoiding or sanitizing iconic tales beyond recognition.
"What I don't like is this conservative movement within kids' books right now that really insists that kids' books toe the line and be super-PC and align with values in such a way that you're removing any complexity or contradiction or darkness from the story. Making kids' literature devoid of complexity is not a good thing."
In his 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, the late child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim argued that the frightening elements of fairy tales helped children "grapple with emotional problems," as Prof. Zipes puts it. Fairy tales give children a symbolic space, removed from reality, in which to deal with – and conquer – their anxieties safely.
But many feel that young children are too vulnerable to be exposed to the gory details from the original stories – such as Snow White's stepmother being forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she died. "As adults we can see the innocence in fairy tales, but a five-year-old with an overactive imagination could take things too literally," Steve Hornsey, of the television channel Watch, which commissioned the British study, told the Daily Telegraph.
No parent wants to knowingly conjure up nightmares or phobias. And since there's already a flood of upsetting news from war zones and natural disasters on TV screens and newspapers both in and outside the home – not to mention the casual violence of schoolyard bullying – parents may find cracking down on fairy tales as a direct way to stem the tide.
To Prof. Zipes, the notion that we should shield children from dark fairy tales is "hypocritical – the honest thing is to tell children violence does occur. The world is filled with struggle and conflict."
Ms. Brown, for one, says she sees evidence that children are more "robust" and can handle more than we give them credit for.
After watching the Disney remake of Rapunzel, the 2010 animated film Tangled, Ms. Brown noticed her four-year-old daughter and a friend re-enacting the movie – with one major edit. The girls objected to the evil Mother Gothel character, who had kidnapped Rapunzel and raised her as her own.
"There can't be an evil mother or their whole world view would be shattered. So when they acted it out, they made up a character named Good Mother Gothel who was actually the real mother," she says. "I thought that was fascinating ... they took the part that challenged them and they changed it."
Prof. Zipes says the key to reading the originals to young children is opening up the floor for discussion.
In story circles, he's read the Charles Perrault version of Little Red Riding Hood (which predated the Grimms' version) in which the wolf eats the grandma and the red-cloaked girl and no one saves them. There's also a harsh moral: Little Red Riding Hood gets what she deserved for going into the forest alone.
"Then we discuss: 'Do you think that's right?' " he says. Then, he'll read a "counter-tale," like Polly and the Wolf, in which a plucky girl repeatedly outwits a hungry wolf.
And if your child is scared by a story, "Put it away," Ms. Brown adds.
Just how gruesome were they?
A few classics to consider:
In the original Grimm version, the evil step-sisters maim themselves to fit into the gold (not glass) slipper. One sister chops off her toe and the other chops off her heel. Later, after Cinderella and her Prince are united, the stepsisters' eyes are pecked out by birds for their bad behaviour.
In the 1812 version of this classic, the evil queen is actually Snow White's mother – the Grimms changed this in subsequent versions aimed more at children. The idea that a mother would try to kill her child was deemed too upsetting – although other grisly bits remained. The queen asks to eat the lungs and liver of Snow White after the huntsman kills her. And when Snow White and her prince are married, the evil queen is forced to dance in poker-hot iron shoes until she drops dead.
Little Red Riding Hood (Little Red Cap)
In the Grimms' 1812 telling, the wolf swallows the grandmother whole and waits for Little Red Riding Hood. He then tricks her and eats her whole, too. A hunter comes to the rescue, slicing into the belly of the beast. They fill the wolf's belly with stones, so when he awakes, he collapses and dies. This version is tamer than earlier versions, which included rape and cannibalism themes.
In one earlier version, Sleeping Beauty is raped by a king while asleep and gives birth to two children after he has left her. When she and her children are reunited with him (after one of the babies suckles on her finger and loosens the splinter that caused her sleep), the jilted queen asks her cook to kill and feed all three to her husband (the cook hides them all instead); the plot is foiled and she is thrown to her death in a pit of vipers.
How Some Children Played at Butchering
In the 1819 edition of their tales, the Grimms omitted this gory account of brothers playing butcher. One unlucky child plays the part of the pig; the other slits his throat. This deed begets a number of other deaths – the child butcher is stabbed by the mother. While she's doing this, her other child drowns in the bath. She then hangs herself and her husband comes home and dies of grief.