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The Enduring Power of the Fairy Tale

Fairy Tales by randisOver the last two weeks, my kids and I have begun watching Once Upon a Time on Netflix. What is it about the classic fairy tales that have kept the collective conscious enthralled for centuries? I ask that question a bit facetiously. There is no denying the simple power behind The Brothers Grimm and their ilk. And certainly, scholars have shown that what we refer to as fairy tales have transcended ages, languages and economics. They are ubiquitous in the Western world.

We seem to be in bit of a fairy tale revival period. Whether in prose, comics, film or television, the classic fairy tales are being aired out on a regular basis. I’m sure this has happened several times over the course of even the last 35 years, but it has never seemed so mainstream before.

What follows is a list of my favorite fairy tale reinterpretations over the last few years. Intended to be neither comprehensive nor definitive, these are reflective of what I’ve watched/read and what I’ve liked the most.

Fables by Bill Willingham (Vertigo Comics)

Fables (cover)Fables is a monthly Vertigo comic written by Bill Willingham and beautifully drawn by Mark Buckingham and a bevy of other artists. The premise of Fables is simple: the characters of fairy tale and folklore have been driven out of their respective worlds—and into our “Mundane” world.

Equal parts mystery, adventure, romance and comedy, Fables tells an ongoing story that, while not perfect, has kept many a reader captivated over the course of 130+ issues and various one-shots, spin-offs and even a recently released video game. One of the forerunners of the current fairy tale revival, Fables has all of your favorite characters (and even more that you’ve forgotten) in a fish-out-of-water tale told on a grand scale. Many people pass on Fables because it is a comic. Don’t. Even if you don’t “read comics,” Fables is definitely worth checking out. Smart, funny and sly in its delivery, Fables offers a truly unique take on the old stand-bys.

Grimm

GrimmShown on NBC in the US, Grimm is a primetime supernatural police procedural. Drawing heavily upon European folklore for inspiration, Grimm is a darkly entertaining tale of good vs. evil brought to us by some of the former producers and writers of shows such as Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. With that kind of pedigree behind the camera, and a talented cast of actors bringing the stories to life, it is no wonder that Grimm is a bona fide hit now entering its third season.

Ostensibly the story of Portland, OR Detective Nick Burghardt, Grimm introduces the viewer to “wesen,” supernatural beings living among us trying. Most of the wesen are variations on classic fairy tale characters—mostly, but not always, monsters. Burghardt is the heir to the legacy of the Grimms. Endowed with an innate ability to see wesen when normal humans cannot, Nick is charged with both policing Portland and protecting its citizens from wesen who fail to assimilate.

Very much a “monster of the week” show, in the vein of Buffy or X-Files, Grimm also has an overarching plot that continues to twist and turn in unexpected directions. A healthy dose of humor, along with the makeup and prosthetic houses that worked on Buffy and Angel give the whole affair a decidedly Whedon-esque feel. Grimm is one of the few TV shows I make sure I watch live, or as near to it as possible.

Once Upon A Time

Once Upon A Time - TitleAnother US network television show, Once Upon A Time—like Fables—tells the story of classic fairy tale characters transported to our world. This time, instead of NYC, the setting is Storybrooke, ME. The premise of Once Upon A Time is difficult to expound upon without spoiling things, but the main plot involves the efforts of a child and his mother to end the curse brought on by the Evil Queen (yes, that ubiquitous evil queen) that transported the characters of fairy tales and folklore to Maine.

Similar to Grimm, Once Upon a Time benefits from Whedonverse alumni behind the scenes, particularly the writing and producing talents of Jane Espenson. Where Grimm is dark and gritty, Once Upon a Time is lush, colorful and far more family friendly. Semi-standalone tales focusing upon the citizens of Storybrooke are interspersed with flashbacks to the storybook worlds the characters inhabited prior to the curse. While the show can meander a bit at times, it is definitely entertaining. And my kids absolutely LOVE it.

Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow (poster)The newest entry into the folk/fairy tale revival, Sleepy Hollow takes the classic Washington Irving story of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman and spins it on its head. Transported from Revolutionary War-Era America to modern day Sleepy Hollow, NY (a real city, for those of you that didn’t know). Crane finds himself embroiled in a supernatural tale involving the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. With only five episodes aired, Sleepy Hollow has already been renewed for a second season. The acting and writing are superb and the slow-burn story will absolutely keep you tuning in week after week.

Those are my four current favorites. Honorable mentions go to Frank Beddor’s Looking Glass Wars novels, Alan Moore’s salacious Lost Girls graphic novel and Disney’s Enchanted. Yes, Enchanted. Amy Adams is HILARIOUS. I look forward to reading the comments to hear about your favorites.

Title image by randis.

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar Overlord says:

    Awesome article, I’ve been meaning to check out the Fables Comic Book for a long, long time!

    One to consider adding would be Sarah Pinborough’s latest series where she is doing a humerous / sexy take on some of the classic disney-style fairy tales like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.

  2. Avatar Zack Matzo (@perch15) says:

    Thanks Marc. In between the time I submitted the article and when it was posted, Bill Willingham announced that he was ending Fables at issue 150. I’m bummed out, but if you haven’t ready yet you’ll have the ability to digest the whole kit and kaboodle, which is always fun. There are highs and lows as with any long-running comic series, but the stories and art are, by and large, excellent. You’ll really like it.

    I’ve got the Pinborough stuff on my to-read list.

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