Snow White and the never-ending franchise options

Once upon a time, studios decided to reboot classic fairy tales. Sarah Hughes wonders if the results will fare happily ever after
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The Independent Culture

We've had sparkly vampires, half-naked werewolves and increasingly weary teen wizards. Now, film and television executives are hoping that they can spin box office gold from the good, old-fashioned fairy story. With three versions of Snow White in pre-production, teen re-imaginings of Beauty and the Beast and Little Red Riding Hood due in cinemas soon, and all-action spins on Jack and the Beanstalk, Pinocchio and Hansel and Gretel coming next year, Hollywood is clearly betting that a revitalised "Once Upon a Time" format will turn beans into big bucks.

And they're not the only ones. This year's television pilots also have a fairy-tale theme, with shows such as NBC'S Grimm, described as a dark cop drama in which "characters inspired by Grimm's Fairy Tales exist", and ABC's Once Upon a Time, billed as a modern day take on the fairy-tale genre.

So why all the sudden interest in evil queens and wicked witches? In part, it's because these stories are in the public domain and, thus, the rights are free. As Catherine Hardwicke, the director of Red Riding Hood, told Entertainment Weekly: "They [fairy tales] are known all over the world. Studios are enamoured with making something that already has built-in name recognition or a fan base."

Not, however, that these are the sort of films that you might take your children to see. We're not talking about Disney's animated princesses or a Shrek-style reworking of old stories for a young audience but rather about dark and distinctly gothic tales told with an older audience in mind.

Take Red Riding Hood, which opens in the UK on 15 April. Featuring Amanda Seyfried in wide-eyed ingénue mode, and a pair of just-the-right-side-of-hammy turns from Gary Oldman and Julie Christie, Hardwicke's atmospheric film nods more to Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves, a darkly enjoyable adaptation of short stories by Angela Carter, than it does to the original source material.

Spun off from an idea by Leonardo DiCaprio, who suggested that the Little Red Riding Hood story could work as a romantic thriller, and written by by David Leslie Johnson, who also wrote the superbly creepy Orphan, this Red Riding Hood is as concerned with the beast within as it is with the dangers of straying off the right path.

"These stories were told for adults, and they were bawdy," Johnson told the New York Post. "In some original versions, Red is not a hapless victim... not a fairy-tale heroine waiting for Prince Charming to swoop in. This was a young woman who went into the woods, got into trouble, and figured it out for herself."

The belief that the traditional fairytale is ripe for a return to its Grimm roots and ready to kick some ass also informs the three mooted Snow White productions, which are slated for late-2012, early-2013 release dates. There's Disney's Snow and the Seven, which relocates the fairy-tale to 19th-century China and recasts the dwarves as Shaolin monks; Universal Pictures' Snow White and the Huntsman, where the young princess, no longer a damsel in distress, learns about weapons and how to wield them from the man sent to kill her; and there's the Brett Ratner-produced The Brothers Grimm: Snow White, which returns to the source material for what Ratner has called an "edgier" take on the tale.

All three projects have attracted heavyweight cast rumours, with 2011's Best Actress Oscar-winner, Natalie Portman, apparently wanted by the makers of both Snow and the Seven and The Brothers Grimm: Snow White. The makers of Snow White and the Huntsman have approached that other ivory-skinned, dark-haired actress, Twilight's Kristen Stewart, to be their princess.

They've also been in talks with Viggo Mortensen to play the Huntsman (though they are reported to have fallen through), while Charlize Theron has signed on as the Evil Queen, a role to be played by Julia Roberts in the Ratner film, which Tarsem Singh will direct. The original porcelain princess also features heavily in ABC's much-anticipated fairy-tale pilot from Lost's executive producers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, this time in the guise of Big Love's Ginnifer Goodwin.

As if the proliferation of Snow Whites wasn't overwhelming enough, there are also two Pinocchio movies potentially facing off: a stop-motion animation from Guillermo del Toro as well as a live-action version scripted by Bryan Fuller, creator of Pushing Daisies, and produced by Dan Jinks, who claims to Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland inspired him to come up with a "fresh approach".

The director Bryan Singer is also hoping to give a new twist to an old tale with his big-budget reworking of Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack the Giant Killer, which has a strong cast including Nicholas Hoult, Ewan McGregor, Bill Nighy and Stanley Tucci, and, perhaps more importantly, an inevitably complex script from Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote Singer's breakthrough hit The Usual Suspects.

Yet while both Jack and the Snow White remakes are concerned with the darkness at the heart of Grimm's tales, not every fairy-tale remake is quite so serious. Take Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (yes, really). The high-concept action-comedy-thriller, which is slated for release next March, is set 15 years after the whole Gingerbread House incident, with our hero and heroine now working as bounty hunters and tackling mystical creatures somewhat in the manner of the TV series Supernatural. It sounds utterly ridiculous, although the fact that the brother/sister duo are to be played by Hollywood's psycho du jour Jeremy Renner and the ever-luscious Gemma Arterton, with Famke Janssen co-starring as their nemesis, at least means that there will be plenty of scope for some crazy, over-the-top acting.

If the movie fairy-tales are all about big-name casts and high concepts, the television reworkings are more concerned with getting the feel just right, unsurprisingly so when you look at the teams involved. Damon Lindelof, Lost's co-creator, has taken a consulting role in Kitsis and Horowitz's Once Upon a Time, while Grimm is the work of David Greenwalt, the co-executive producer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and co-creator of its spin-off Angel. Consequently, both shows look likely to be heavy on mythology and detailed world-building, with Once Upon a Time in particular expected to combine a (perhaps overly) complicated mix of fantasy, mystery and science fiction.

But the possibility of over-egging the pudding is not the only pitfall present in fairy-tale adaptations, where the potential for unintentional hilarity is high. Indeed, the teams behind all these new adaptations need only look at Beastly, the reworking of Beauty and the Beast for a teen market that opened in the US last week and is slated for a summer release in the UK, to see what can go wrong.

Intended as a high-school updating in the style of the slew of late-Nineties, early-Noughties Shakespeare reimaginings, such as Get Over It and 10 Things I Hate about You, Beastly stars High School Musical's Vanessa Hudgens and the British hopeful Alex Pettyfer. But it manages to miss every target it aims for, from its risible dialogue (sample: "You come near me, I Taser your ass") to its dreadful performances (most notably from Mary-Kate Olsen, who stars as a goth-styled teen witch out-acted by her own facial tattoo).

Proof that sometimes it doesn't matter how strong or dark or emotionally resonant the original source story is, without the right cast or strong dialogue you still end up with a kitschy, unwatchable mess.

'Red Riding Hood' opens in the UK on 15 April; 'Beastly' opens on 22 April