It's Grimm in Hollywood

In keeping with the economic mood, fairy tales are inspiring a crop of distinctly dark new films

Once upon a time in Hollywood, movie producers went back to the fantasy world of fairy tales and mined them for a crop of big budget blockbusters to be released this year. But these are no sugar-coated stories with happy-ever-after endings: just as the Grimm Brothers' original stories were deemed unsuitable for children, the new, dark fables are targeting an older audience with angst-ridden films that draw on the darker subtexts of well-known plots.

Think fairy tales for the Facebook generation, with bounty hunters and werewolves replacing evil stepmothers and dwarfs – and some looking beyond the Grimms for inspiration.

First off the starting block is Red Riding Hood, starring Mamma Mia!'s Amanda Seyfried. The action revolves around a teenage love triangle and, yes, a werewolf, in a distinct echo of the Twilight franchise; no small coincidence, given that the same director, Catherine Hardwicke, is at the helm.

In Beastly, due out in April, Alex Pettyfer gets a ghastly makeover via a curse in a fantasy romance set in New York. Meanwhile, Snow White is getting three fresh interpretations. Relativity Media, the studio behind The Social Network, revealed that Julia Roberts would play the Evil Queen in its forthcoming version.

Experts say the scramble for grim entertainment reflects a growing desire for escapism, drawing parallels between today's uncertain economic climate and the period 200 years ago when the Grimms were writing. Professor Bill Gray, director of the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy, said: "A lot of Grimm tales came out of a really difficult time, when Germany was under occupation during the Napoleonic wars. Fairy tales can open up possibilities for survival; they are utopian."

Mitzi Szereto, author of In Sleeping Beauty's Bed: Erotic Fairy Tales, said studios were milking a public appetite for the paranormal that started with the latest crop of vampire films. She added: "Fairy stories are enduring; normally we see these stories as trite, but they can be spun in different directions, and we like to see what's been done with them."

Snow White and the Huntsman

Universal is going straight for the Twilight crowd by courting Kristen Stewart to play Snow White in its version, which won't hit cinemas until the end of 2012. Here, the twist is that a huntsman, rumoured to be played by Viggo Mortensen, hired to kill Snow White instead teaches her how to fight back against the Evil Queen – possibly to be played by Charlize Theron.

Oz: The Great and Powerful

Again, not a fairy tale, but a fantasy nonetheless, this Disney number will be a prequel to the 1939 classic. The focus is on an illusionist who flees a travelling circus in a hot-air balloon, which is caught up in a tornado and swept to the land of Oz. James Franco is in talks to replace Robert Downey Jnr as the wizard after he dropped out.

Snow and the Seven

Another Disney project, this is the third of the Snow Whites on the cards. The action takes place in 19th-century China, with a rogue band of Shaolin monks replacing the dwarfs. The warriors shelter Snow White – tipped to be played by Natalie Portman – who has escaped from her stepmother's plots against her. Toy Story 3's Michael Arndt is writing the script.

Red Riding Hood

Timing is everything, and Warner Bros will win plaudits for being quickest off the mark with its Catherine Hardwicke-directed remake. Amanda Seyfried helps to fight the werewolf that has killed her sister, while a love battle for her heart rages between Shiloh Fernandez and Max Irons. Out in April in the UK.

Maleficent

Still very much in the draft stages, this live-action remake of Sleeping Beauty comes from Disney and is intended be told, Wicked-like, from the evil fairy godmother's perspective. It's still early days for casting, but Angelina Jolie is rumoured to play Maleficent herself, while Disney would like Tim Burton to work his directorial magic on the story.

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

This offering, which starts shooting next month, proves that the innocent sibling duo know how to bear a grudge. The action-adventure horror catches up with Hansel and Gretel (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton respectively) 15 years on, after the pair have become bounty hunters with, you guessed, witches in their sights.

Beastly

Another trailblazer is Beastly, also out in April, from CBS Films. Here, Alex Pettyfer plays an egomaniacal New York teen, Kyle Kingson, whose punishment at the hands of his classmate-cum-witch-in-disguise is his transformation into a grotesque monster. The fantasy romance is based on Alex Flinn's 2007 novel, which itself derived from the traditional tale of Beauty and the Beast.

The Brothers Grimm: Snow White

This one of three current Snow White remakes stands out for attracting Julia Roberts to play its Evil Queen. Its producers include Ryan Kavanaugh, who is fresh from his success with The Fighter, and Tarsem Singh is directing. Due in June 2012, it promises a comedic retelling of the tale.

Jack the Giant Killer

Although not one of the original Grimms, the story of Jack is getting a fresh outing courtesy of New Line and Legendary Pictures. A young farmer – Nicholas Hoult was offered the lead last week – sets out to rescue a kidnapped princess and mend relations between the humans and the giants. Shooting, with X-Men director Bryan Signer at the helm, is due to begin next month.

Alice in Wonderland

Not technically a fairy tale, but the Tim Burton global hit, which took more than $1bn worldwide, is credited with kick-starting the fairy story gold rush. Where Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Mia Wasikowska trod, others are dashing to follow, especially now that special effects and 3D are upping the creative possibilities for film-makers.

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