Films incorporating fairy-tale narratives, characters, titles, images, plots, motifs, and themes date from the earliest history of the cinema, beginning with director Georges Méliès’s made in 1896, the year after Auguste and Louis Lumière’s first public showing of their “cinematograph” in Paris in 1895. Fairy tales can be oral (told by people in different geographical locations and at various historical times up to the present) and/or literary (created by known authors) in origin, but they manifest in numerous media, including film. While the Disney formula of innocent persecuted heroines, handsome princes, and happy-ever-afters has dominated popular understandings of such narratives (at least in the English-speaking world), fairy tales need not contain these elements. They concern the fantastic, the magical, the dark, the dreamy, the wishful, and the wonderful.
Short and feature length, animated and live action, produced in film stock, video, and digital formats, fairy-tale films have appeared in movie theaters and more recently on television and computer screens. Using Kevin Paul Smith’s classification for literary fairy tales, fairy-tale filmic intertexts can include explicit reference in the title—for example, Duane Journey’s Hansel & Gretel Get Baked (2013); implicit reference in the title—for example, Tarsem Singh Dhandwar’s Mirror Mirror (2012); explicit incorporation into the text—as when Micheline Lanctôt’s Le piège d’Issoudun (2003) includes a play of “The Juniper Tree”; implicit incorporation into the text—as when Steven Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) has the mechanical child David’s human mother abandon him in the woods, as do Hansel and Gretel’s parents; discussing fairy tales, as in the “Once Upon a Crime” episode of the American television show Castle (2009–2016), when the writer and police talk about what fairy tales really mean; and invoking fairy-tale chronotopes (settings and/or environments)—as in the portions of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) set in the heroine Ofelia’s father’s magical kingdom. Alternatively, filmmakers may re-vision a story, sometimes with new spin, as when Matthew Bright’s Freeway 2 (1999) relocates “Hansel and Gretel” to 1990s America, with two delinquent teen girls fleeing to Mexico, or may create an entirely new tale—like Pan’s Labyrinth, not based on any specific previous literary or traditional fairy tale. This article focuses on the cinema—movies made for theatrical and/or video release—but draws on television and Internet films when they offer telling illustrations. Most examples are from English-language media.
Although classic works like director Jean Cocteau’s La belle et la bête (1946) have received considerable attention from cinema studies and the fairy-tale structural analysis of Vladimir Propp (1968) has greatly influenced film analysis, only since the beginning of the 21st century has fairy-tale scholarship merged with film scholarship. Scholars of fairy-tale film often consider adaptation and intermediality in cinematic versions of tales. This article uses the example of director Tarsem Singh Dhandwar’s The Fall (2007), which draws on and references fairy-tale magic to collapse, expand, and generally fictionalize time and space to invoke the postmodern and postcolonial as well as the transnational and transcultural.
Julia L. Mickenberg
Children’s literature can be radical in its form, its content, or both. At the most basic level, radical children’s literature challenges conventions and norms—about society and, often, about childhood—and it inspires change, especially movements for social and environmental justice.
Radical children’s literature represents a paradox. On the one hand, some of the most enduring works of children’s literature are in some way subversive. Yet because of the persisting ideal of childhood innocence, “radical children’s literature” might be seen as an oxymoron, an impossibility: if it is radical, it cannot really be children’s literature. And yet, not only is “subversive children’s literature” a core thread within mainstream children’s literature, but radical children’s literature has also been an adjunct to nearly every social movement of the modern era, from abolitionism to socialism, communism, civil rights, Black Power, feminism, environmentalism, and gay liberation.
The history of radical children’s literature is tied closely to the history of children’s rights (within whose history the impulse to protect and the impulse to liberate children have sometimes been at odds: with each other, and with the real needs of children). Radical children’s literature, like the children’s rights movement, is both a reaction to “childism,” or prejudice against children, and is also vulnerable to it. Like the romantic ideal of the essential Child, the child subject or object of radical children’s literature is almost always an adult projection, thus liable to serving adults’ needs over those of children.
Within this dialectic, however, children’s literature has been a powerful force of positive change in many parts of the world, responding to and for the most part advancing the place of children in society. This has been the case even in repressive climates and under regimes hostile to change, both because children’s literature has tended to be a marginalized field, controlled by women and not seen as worthy of attention, and because of various institutional factors, from educational policies to children’s book awards that have inadvertently or actively helped promote the production and dissemination of radical children’s literature.
Like the majority of historical children’s literature, contemporary children’s literature remains predominantly an agent of embourgeoisement. Even so, the range of radical children’s literature published, especially in the past few decades—challenging racism, sexism, and heterosexism; promoting environmental responsibility, internationalism, peace, and collective solidarity against injustice and the abuse of authority; and urging children to challenge childism and to imagine other possible worlds—has been vast.
Sandra L. Beckett
Crossover literature transcends the conventionally recognized boundaries within the fiction market, blurring the borderline between adult literature and children’s literature. Books may cross from child to adult or adult to child audiences, or they may be explicitly published for both audiences. Crossover literature is by no means a recent phenomenon, but it received a high profile and a great deal of media attention with the unprecedented success of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books in the late 1990s. It was at that time that the term “crossover” was adopted by critics, the media, and the publishing industry. New words were also coined in other languages to refer to this literature. Although the genre includes adult fiction read by young readers (adult-to-child crossover), which has a much longer historical precedent, the term is often used to refer only to children’s and young adult books that appeal to adults (child-to-adult crossover).
Crossover literature is an extensive body of diverse, intergenerational works with a very long history. Borders between children’s and adult fiction have been more porous, or even non-existent, in certain cultures and time periods. Fairy tales, Middle Eastern tales, and fables have always appealed to mixed-age audiences. Children have been appropriating adult books for centuries. Classics like Robinson Crusoe and Les Trois Mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers) virtually passed into the children’s library. While almost every genre can cross age boundaries, the novel, and in particular the children’s and young adult novel, has monopolized attention. Moreover, crossover fiction is often equated with the fantasy novel, which played a key role in drawing public and critical attention to this literature. In most countries today, fantasy remains the dominant crossover genre. However, other genres, including short fiction, fairy tales, poetry, graphic novels, picturebooks, and comics commonly transcend age boundaries.
Initially, many saw crossover literature as merely a marketing and mass media phenomenon, but it also received critical acclaim. Crossover fiction in the early 21st century is recognized as a distinct literary genre and marketing category. It plays a major role in the publishing industry and in contemporary culture. Crossover books are responsible for hugely successful multi-generation-spanning, cross-media franchises, such as Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The Twilight Saga, and The Hunger Games. Crossover literature is part of a broader cultural trend in which books, movies, television shows, video games, and so forth are increasingly reaching across age groups.
Simon J. Bronner
Folklore in the United States, also known as “American folklore,” consists of traditional knowledge and cultural practices engaged by inhabitants of North America below Canada and above Mexico, states of Alaska and Hawaii, and the territories of American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and U.S. Virgin Islands. Scholarly and public awareness of American folklore primarily in the contiguous United States followed corpuses of myths, folk tales, and epics in Europe during the 18th century. Although European scholars considered much of the American material, especially in ballads and songs, to be derivatives of European traditions brought by settlers, many traditional forms such as tall tales, hero legends, and indigenous native customs in North America appeared distinctive. In Euro-centered folklore theory, the United States purportedly lacked a peasant class and a shared racial and ethnic stock that fostered the production of folklore. Also affecting perceptions of American folklore was the status of the United States as a relatively young nation, compared to the ancient legacies of European, African, and Asian civilizations. Further, geographically the country’s boundaries had moved since its inception to include an assortment of landscapes and peoples.
Primary folkloristic attention in 17th-century colonial North America was the otherness of Native American groups and their various myths, songs, and rituals. A major question was whether these myths, songs, and rituals reflected a unified culture diffused from Asia or a varied indigenous tribal lore. In the 19th century, awareness turned to the persistence and adaptation of expressive songs and stories of European settlers, enslaved Africans, and Southwest Mexicans. Narratives and buildings appeared to show signs of transplantation from the Old World, although as the New Republic emerged in the 19th century, intrepid Americanists presented cultural evidence of ethnic mixing that formed New World hybrids such as folk tales, games, and barns.
Although folklore in the United States was popularly associated with localized rural practices, folklorists in the 20th century pointed out emergent American traditions that suggested urban, regional, and national identities. Notable examples of distinctive expressions in the United States included the cowboy and railroader song, urban legend, and regional food. The rise of industrialism, transportation technology, and digital communication in the United States raised concerns that commercial popular culture had displaced folklore, but folklorists found that residents maintained folklore as a significant expression of various small-group or subcultural identities. Among the contexts that fostered folkloric production are college campuses, summer camps, and slumber parties. In a society like the United States that lacks collective public rites of passage to enter adulthood, folklore in the form of narrative and ritual in these contexts functioned to guide youths to adult responsibilities. The digital culture of the Internet that became widespread in the 21st century also provided frames for folkloric communication through the conduit of the social network. Although often circulating globally, many combined visual-verbal “memes” and “creepypastas” projected national anxieties. In this period, Americans could be heard and viewed using folklore rhetorically to refer to the veracity and significance of cultural knowledge in an uncertain, rapidly changing, individualistic society. Folklore frequently referred to the expressions of this knowledge in story, song, speech, custom, and craft as meaningful for what it conveyed and enacted about tradition in a socially dispersed, mobile, and future-oriented country.
The term “speculative fiction” has three historically located meanings: a subgenre of science fiction that deals with human rather than technological problems, a genre distinct from and opposite to science fiction in its exclusive focus on possible futures, and a super category for all genres that deliberately depart from imitating “consensus reality” of everyday experience. In this latter sense, speculative fiction includes fantasy, science fiction, and horror, but also their derivatives, hybrids, and cognate genres like the gothic, dystopia, weird fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, ghost stories, superhero tales, alternate history, steampunk, slipstream, magic realism, fractured fairy tales, and more. Rather than seeking a rigorous definition, a better approach is to theorize “speculative fiction” as a term whose semantic register has continued to expand. While “speculative fiction” was initially proposed as a name of a subgenre of science fiction, the term has recently been used in reference to a meta-generic fuzzy set supercategory—one defined not by clear boundaries but by resemblance to prototypical examples—and a field of cultural production. Like other cultural fields, speculative fiction is a domain of activity that exists not merely through texts but through their production and reception in multiple contexts. The field of speculative fiction groups together extremely diverse forms of non-mimetic fiction operating across different media for the purpose of reflecting on their cultural role, especially as opposed to the work performed by mimetic, or realist narratives.
The fuzzy set field understanding of speculative fiction arose in response to the need for a blanket term for a broad range of narrative forms that subvert the post-Enlightenment mindset: one that had long excluded from “Literature” stories that departed from consensus reality or embraced a different version of reality than the empirical-materialist one. Situated against the claims of this paradigm, speculative fiction emerges as a tool to dismantle the traditional Western cultural bias in favor of literature imitating reality, and as a quest for the recovery of the sense of awe and wonder. Some of the forces that contributed to the rise of speculative fiction include accelerating genre hybridization that balkanized the field previously mapped with a few large generic categories; the expansion of the global literary landscape brought about by mainstream culture’s increasing acceptance of non-mimetic genres; the proliferation of indigenous, minority, and postcolonial narrative forms that subvert dominant Western notions of the real; and the need for new conceptual categories to accommodate diverse and hybridic types of storytelling that oppose a stifling vision of reality imposed by exploitative global capitalism. An inherently plural category, speculative fiction is a mode of thought-experimenting that includes narratives addressed to young people and adults and operates in a variety of formats. The term accommodates the non-mimetic genres of Western but also non-Western and indigenous literatures—especially stories narrated from the minority or alternative perspective. In all these ways, speculative fiction represents a global reaction of human creative imagination struggling to envision a possible future at the time of a major transition from local to global humanity.
Francisco Vaz da Silva
Because the marvelous elements in fairy tales call for an explanation, a cohort of bright minds have pored over the problem of fairy-tale symbolism. Models sharing the nineteenth-century penchant for genetic inquiries have assumed that symbols are the survivals of archaic metaphors. Thus, Max Müller proposed that myths and fairy tales stem from obscured metaphors about solar phenomena; Sigmund Freud speculated that fairy-tale symbolism is the fossilized residue of primordial sexual metaphors; and Carl Jung submitted that symbols express immanent archetypes of the human psyche. Such early approaches assume that symbols convey fixed meanings, and they disregard the effects of folklore variation on meanings.
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm did take variation into account. They conceived Märchen in terms of immanent blueprints incessantly recreated in myriad retellings, but they never tried to make sense of the themes by means of the variants. This path was taken by folklorists influenced by Freud. Alan Dundes proposed to harness tale variants to grasp symbolic equivalences, and he pioneered the study of folk metaphors. But Dundes focused on preset Freudian symbols, a trend that Bengt Holbek followed. To this day, the prospect of addressing fairy-tale symbolism beyond Freud’s assumption of fixed translations remains elusive.
Nevertheless, the basic tools are available. Maria Tatar remarked that fairy tales are metaphoric devices, and Claude Lévi-Strauss pointed out that metaphors—in switching terms that belong to different codes—lay bare the broader semantic field underlying each transposition. Müller, Freud, Dundes, Tatar, and Lévi-Strauss variously glimpsed metaphoric patterns in tale variations. The time is ripe to synthesize these intuitions in the light of contemporary cognitive research on conceptual metaphor, so as to address the creative dynamics of symbolism in fairy tales.