Hollywood is obsessed with fairy stories. Of course, it always has been: rags-to-riches tales with glass slipper endings will be a cinematic mainstay for as long as real life continues to short-change us on crocks of gold and pumpkin coaches. But in recent months the film industry has become hooked on folklore and fantasy, with studios collecting up popular fables and reworking them for mass consumption like corporate versions of the Brothers Grimm.
At least 15 major live-action films based on fairy tales are currently in production, with who knows how many more floating around in the early stages of development. So this is as good a time as any to issue a word of warning: much of what follows may read like an elaborate satire. It isn’t. Unlike the many far-fetched stories with which Hollywood is about to bombard us, this one is entirely true.
Mirror Mirror: the Untold Adventures of Snow White [released in India on April 20] is a light-hearted, lavishly costumed adaptation of the German folk tale, directed by Tarsem Singh in a style that appears to owe equal debts to British pantomime and The Singing Ringing Tree. The film stars Julia Roberts as the wicked queen and Lily Collins, daughter of Phil, as her beautiful, fair-skinned daughter.
The desperately serious-looking Snow White and the Huntsman [released in India on June 1] stars Twilight’s Kristen Stewart as an armour-clad princess in exile and Chris Hemsworth as the axe-toting ranger who is sent into the woods to bring back her still-beating heart. The casting here is wonderfully prosaic: Hemsworth has form for swinging enormous metal implements around his head, having played the lead in last summer’s blockbuster Thor, and when it comes to moping around in pine forests, well, Stewart has no equal.
Disappointingly, it could then be another 18 months before a third film based on Snow White is released, although Disney plans to have The Order of the Seven, its own loose adaptation of the tale, in cinemas before the end of 2013. The premise should appeal to anyone who liked the Seven Dwarfs but only wished they were taller and more violent: here, they are an elite fighting unit of average height who come to the rescue of a banished English maiden in 19th-century China.
While Snow White gets three films, Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan and Cinderella have to make do with two apiece. Hailee Steinfeld, the 15-year-old actress nominated for an Oscar for her role in True Grit, is attached to a feminist take on Sleeping Beauty in which the princess Aurora fights her own way out of the dream world rather than waiting for a handsome prince to pucker up.
Meanwhile, Angelina Jolie will play the wicked queen in Maleficent, a reworked version of the Disney animation, told from the villainess’s point of view.
Then there’s Pan, which recasts JM Barrie’s boy who never grew up as a baby-faced kidnapper pursued by Detective Captain James Hook, played by Aaron Eckhart. And indeed Peter Pan Begins, which reveals that the hero and his one-handed nemesis are in fact estranged brothers, with the former fashion model Channing Tatum attached to play either Peter, or Hook, or possibly both. A third script for a Twilight-inspired take on the story called The.Never.Land is currently unoptioned, but the threat remains that it may yet be made.
A live-action version of Cinderella has been developed for Disney by Aline Brosh McKenna, the writer of The Devil Wears Prada, which itself was a modern-day Cinderella story of sorts. When news of this adaptation broke, Universal instantly announced that it too was working on its own production.
This is not The End. Emma Watson was recently cast in a new version of Beauty and the Beast. Joe Wright, whose thriller Hanna was dotted with references to Red Riding Hood, is planning a live-action Little Mermaid. Bryan Singer’s take on Jack The Giant Killer, starring Nicholas Hoult, will be released in the 2013 post-Oscar lull, which does not bode well. The Will Ferrell-produced Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters will star Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton.
Sam Raimi’s Oz: the Great And Powerful boasts James Franco as a young version of L Frank Baum’s Wizard. Chuck Russell’s Arabian Nights boasts former wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Sinbad. The combinations of stars, plots and settings sound like the results of a strange Hollywood parlour game. “Liam Neeson as Rumpelstiltskin, in an action thriller! Justin Bieber as the Clever Little Tailor, in space!”
SOMETHING BIG AT THE ROOT
So where, exactly, has this mania come from? Hollywood has been known to double up on ideas in the past: in 1998, Deep Impact and Armageddon, both meteor-themed action films, were released within weeks of each other, as were Antz and A Bug’s Life, two computer-generated animations starring insects. But while a pair of films can be written off as sheer coincidence — or, more probably, one studio getting wind of a rival’s project and hastily dashing off a copy — in this case, there must be something big, and probably money-related, at the root.
Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland is a likely culprit. Although it was released with a hasty post-production 3D conversion and was met with reviews that ranged from lukewarm to downright frigid, the film was an enormous, unexpected success, taking more than £600million worldwide: a number that will make any studio executive sit up and take note. Burton’s film used Lewis Carroll’s original work merely as the jumping-off point for a commercially minded fantasy blockbuster with a girl-power message and a hallucinogenic sweetshop aesthetic, all of which struck a deafening chord with its young, female target audience. Notably, it was in the three months after Alice’s February 2010 release that many of the impending crop of fairy-tale films were hurried into production.
And then, of course, there’s Twilight: another surprise box-office phenomenon about a teenage girl who strays into the woods against the express advice of friends and family. The series has made £1.5billion so far, with the final instalment still to be released, so it’s no wonder many of the films above share its brooding, indie-gothic look and seem to have modelled their alienated teenage heroines after Bella Swan. In fact, the director of the original Twilight film, Catherine Hardwicke, has already beaten Hollywood to the punch with her own take on Red Riding Hood, which was released last April; although it fared significantly less well at the box office than either Alice in Wonderland or the teenage vampire saga did.
Whether Red Riding Hood’s relative commercial failure is an ill omen for the many fairy-tale films in development remains to be seen — although unlike Hardwicke’s film, which was made for a relatively modest £55million, many have blockbuster budgets and will be backed by equally blockbuster publicity drives. (With its £110million budget, Snow White and the Huntsman is one of the three most expensive films Universal has produced this year, alongside its summer blockbuster Battleship and 47 Ronin, a 3D samurai epic starring Keanu Reeves.)
As with most fairy tales, there is a moral to this story: if audiences tell you that they like something, keep giving them more of the same and you will probably make a fortune. While it might not be particularly edifying, it’s one by which Hollywood abides wholeheartedly, as evidenced by the spate of films based on ’70s and ’80s childhood crazes over the last five years. The Karate Kid remake made £228million; Star Trek, £245million; The A-Team, £110million; the three Transformers films, £1.69billion.
With that much money at stake, the industry can afford to be as unoriginal as it likes. We might well ask if any of the studios’ executives are familiar with the story of The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs, although given it’s not currently being made into a blockbuster, it seems unlikely.