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Fairy tales return to their dark origins

| Friday, March 11, 2011

Get ready for a string of movies about child abuse, murder and cannibalism.

They're also known as fairy tales.

Braced by the success of the "Twilight" and "Harry Potter" franchises -- as well as Tim Burton's mega-grossing "Alice in Wonderland" -- Hollywood is stoking what it sees as the public's appetite for enchantment.

The French tale "Beauty and the Beast" recently was given a modern reboot in "Beastly." The film stars Alex Pettyfer as a prep school bully who must find true love in order to reverse a witch's spell. The film surpassed expectations by raking in nearly $10 million on its opening weekend last week.

"Red Riding Hood," which opens Friday, is a moody Gothic thriller directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who helmed the first "Twilight" movie. It stars Amanda Seyfried as the title character, whose medieval village is stalked by a big bad werewolf.

In the next 18 months, expect grown-up adaptations of "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Hansel and Gretel" and three versions of "Snow White."

Fairy tales might represent the ultimate high-concept story. Audiences are familiar with their plots and themes, and Hollywood needn't pay rights to Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen or Frenchman Charles Perrault, who created the most popular version of "Cinderella."

"Those stories are great for a reason," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of, which tracks box office data. "They stand the test of time for a reason. They all have a life lesson or moral to the story.

"Like the best superhero movies, the best fairy tales have a lot of pathos to them. They have a lot of humanistic themes and things that people can relate to."

With "Red Riding Hood," Hollywood obviously is hoping to capture the same young audience who drank in the brooding vampires of "Twilight," Dergarabedian says.

"They're kind of creating this fairy tale for teens. If you look at the stars, they're all these younger stars who have teen and 20-something appeal."

Unlike the animated Disney classics that most associate with big-screen adaptations of fairy tales, these films emphasize the dark elements of the original Hausmarchen or "Household Tales" collected by the brothers Grimm in the early 1800s.

Consider that "Cinderella' was based on a Grimm tale titled "Aschenputtel" about a girl whose stepmother makes her sleep in the ashes by the hearth. When the prince brings a golden slipper to their home, one of Aschenputtel's wicked stepsisters cuts off her big toe so her foot will fit. The prince sees the blood trickling from the shoe and spurns her as a false bride.

"We think of them as children's stories, but in their original stories, they're grim," says Matthew Day, curator of the Film Kitchen Series at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. "They're tales from a time when people had it pretty rough. When you read some of the original stories, it's surprising how scary they are."

Bruno Bettelheim, an American psychologist born in Austria who worked with emotionally disturbed children, wrote "The Uses of Enchantment" (Vintage, $16), in which he argued that fairy tales help children learn about danger at a safe remove.

Hollywood is banking on that nostalgic scare formula, says Paul Friday, chief of psychology at UPMC Shadyside.

"The past is always safer," he says."If you can conjure up things that you not only experienced but survived and also enjoyed, that makes the 'now' easier. I think that's the key."

Fairy tales in your future

Hi, ho, hi ho, it's off to work they go ...

Here's a list of live-action, adult adaptations of fairy tales that are set for release next year.

"Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters": The title characters are played by Jeremy Renner ("The Hurt Locker") and Gemma Arterton ("Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time"). As children, they broiled the cannibalistic witch in the gingerbread cottage. Fifteen years later, they've grown up to become bounty hunters who dispatch witches with extreme prejudice. Famke Janssen reportedly will play the leader of a witch coven. Paramount Pictures plans a March 2012 release.

"Snow White": Directed by Tarsem Singh for Relativity Media. After her father is killed, Snow White bands together with seven ornery dwarfs for some payback. Julia Roberts has signed to play the Evil Queen. Set for release in June 2012.

"Snow White and the Huntsman": Sulky "Twilight" actress Kristen Stewart plays Snow, who has a contract put out on her by the evil queen, played by Charlize Theron. Viggo Mortensen plays the man sent into the woods to kill her, and who becomes her mentor instead. Universal Pictures plans a December 2012 release.

"Jack the Giant Killer": English actor Nicholas Hoult ("About a Boy") will climb vegetables and swing an ax in this adaptation of "Jack and the Beanstalk." The film, from New Line Cinema, also stars Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci and Bill Nighy as the leader of a band of giants. Release date to be announced.

"Snow and the Seven" : A martial arts makeover from Disney, in which the seven dwarfs are recast as warrior monks. The film reportedly is set in 19th century Hong Kong, where Snow White journeys to attend her father's funeral. When her evil stepmother threatens her, Snow White fights back with the help from the seven. Release date: TBA.

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