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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

why so many movies about folktales?


Maria Ivanova of Worldwide News Ukraine contacted me recently to ask me what the deal is with folklore movies. The piece she quotes me in is here, and starts like this:

While most people look for novelty when they enter a movie theatre, film industry perseveres in offering the audiences a bite of the dusty past every so often. A good old folk tale seems to be one of the top sources for writers’ inspiration. Last year saw the release of not one, but two films on Snow White. Folklore-based The Lone Ranger, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Jack the Giant Slayer were some of the most publicized releases of 2013. King Arthur, Robin Hood, Hercules and the like consistently populate our TVs and cinema theatre screens. Some of the most iconic film characters are Brad Pitt’s Achilles (Troy, 2004) and Gerard Butler’s King Leonidas (300, 2006). We asked 15 film critics what was it about an ancient tale that drew the audience in, and they came up with 4 main reasons.

The reasons (and you should go to Worldwide News Ukraine to read the reasons behind the reasons, including my glorious and wise quote) are:

1. Folklore is marketable.

2. Folklore is time-tested.

3. Folklore is original.

4. Folklore looks good.

And now I’m going to ask you:

Why so many movies about folktales? What is it about folktales that appeal to us? What elements of folktales do you particularly like or hate, especially as Hollywood deals them out?

(If you have a suggestion for a Question, feel free to email me.)

  • Kirk Aplin

    two reasons i think:
    a) it’s much easier to sell something people already know about (same reason for all the movies based on old TV series), and…
    b) we’re at the point technically where we can make movies with fantasy elements without looking totally fake.

  • Kirk Aplin

    ‘course, it could also be that ‘Hollywood’ simply has no imagination or creativity of its own

  • Danielm80

    I was just reading an old article about the Coraline musical:


    I think the last paragraph kind of sums it up:

    In Coraline’s epigraph, Gaiman quotes G.K. Chesterton on why we believe in fairy tales: “Not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” The stage version has a moral too. In this quintessentially theatrical world, there’s a tacit argument for resourcefulness, imagination and valor. “We put four new numbers in last week during the day, and did a preview at night,” says Silverman, about to dash back with notes for the cast. “Jayne will turn to me right before she goes onstage and quote the show: ‘Be wise, be brave, be tricky.’ And every time, I think: Exactly!?”

  • Froborr

    Like comedy, fantasy does well when the economy is lousy. But Hollywood hates original ideas, and will do remakes and adaptations whenever possible. Solution: Adapt folktales.

  • Jonathan Roth

    Might I also point out that because they are in the public domain, there no need to pay author royalties to tell a story everyone is familiar with.

  • Bluejay

    Basically I agree with the reasons you give in the article. The Old Stories that survive are those that still speak to us on a primal level, and so we continue to tell and retell and reinvent them, deconstruct them, dress them up in new ways. This is true not just of folktales but of Shakespeare, Austen, myths, and Bible stories (which are a subset of myths, of course ;-)). It’s not a new or recent trend, either; filmmakers have been adapting from these sources since film’s earliest days — not necessarily because filmmakers are unoriginal, but because humans like to retell and transform and pass on some of our oldest and most powerful stories.

  • Matt Clayton

    Classic folktales really capture the imagination, and the story and character simplicity.

    Hollywood just seems to scratch the surface, regurgitating the familiar tropes. There’s numerous stories in Grimm’s Fairy Tales that are great fodder for cinematic storytelling, without omitting the gruesome and darker aspects like Cinderella or Snow White.

  • RogerBW


    They have the brand recognition of a family-friendly big-name property, and no fees to pay.

  • singlestick

    The Lone Ranger is not folklore; it was a work of fiction that may have become mythic over time. King Leonidas is not a folk character; he is an actual historical figure (about whom not much is really known) whose story, again, has gained mythic character for some. And, as others have noted, aspects of Snow White have re-entered the public domain (as is also the case, I think, with the upcoming Sleeping Beauty film). So, there is money in them thar’ folk tales, which Walt Disney taught us with Cinderella, Snow White, etc.

    That said, aspects of folk stories are universal. Robin Hood, King Arthur, Siegfried are both larger than life, but also primal in some way. The same may be true of some modern stories which may become iconic and part of the pantheon of folk myths: Luke Skywalker, Buffy, James Kirk, Jean Luc Picard. And of course, Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman.

  • RogerBW

    We’ll never find out in a film how Luke Skywalker has become a folk myth until Luke Skywalker isn’t owned by a single company that can determine what stories are told about him.

  • Danielm80

    You may not be able to find out in a studio film, but it’s really easy to see what kind of folk myth Luke Skywalker has become. Just go to Google and type “Luke Skywalker fan fiction.” You can also find fan films online, some of them approved by Lucasfilm.

    I don’t read a lot of fanfic, but if you read the stories based around Harry Potter or Twilight, you’ll probably find a folk mythology as elaborate and complex as the stories derived from Greek and Roman myths.

  • singlestick

    Luke Skywalker kinda transcends the company that now owns him, and stories, official and fan fic, are blossoming like the variations of Arthurian legend (which, for example, did not originally include Lancelot). It kinda reminds me of the 2002 movie, “Reign of Fire,” in which kids tell fables based on Star Wars characters.

  • Adam Stevenson

    I think storytellers of all types have been telling roughly the same stories and so we can’t blame all unoriginality on Hollywood as much as on the limitations of the human brain and interests. The trick is always how a story is told then what the story is.

    I also think folktales appeal to film-makers for two reasons.

    The first is that a folktale is concise. There is no agonising need to work out what to include and what to cut, the whole story is there in it’s entirety and can be adapted and filled with detail easily.

    The second is that a folktale is often comes from an oral tradition and so in it’s written form is told in a transparent style, an almost style-less style. This is originally for the storyteller to add as they wish but has the added bonus that with the exception of a few simple emotions, everything that is told happens on the surface. This simple, surface-based way of telling a story is far easier adapt to the visual and time-limited medium of film then a complex novel where the reader spends many hours with the characters.

  • singlestick

    RE: In Coraline’s epigraph, Gaiman quotes G.K. Chesterton on why we
    believe in fairy tales: “Not because they tell us that dragons exist,
    but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”

    Great quote. Thanks for this.

  • Danielm80

    I believe it’s actually a misquote. Gaiman said, years after the book was published, that he wrote the epigraph from memory and forgot to check the phrasing. That hasn’t stopped me from quoting it on a regular basis.

    I like movies based on folktales because, while I’m watching them, I believe that dragons really do exist. I secretly think–in spite of all the evidence to the contrary–that magic is not only possible but useful in everyday life. Even if dragons don’t exist, there’s a tremendous need for imagination, resourcefulness, and valor. The flood of folktale movies makes me really happy, because–in my opinion–those values aren’t emphasized nearly enough in the real world.

  • singlestick

    Now I am curious about the source of the quote. I’ve found a reference to Sabina Dosani’s “Raising Young Children: 52 Brilliant Ideas for Parenting Under 5,” although I do not know if it originates with her.

    “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

    Chesterton wrote an interesting essay on fairy tales and morality:


    This great idea, then, is the backbone of all folk-lore – the idea that all happiness hangs on one thin veto; all positive joy depends on one negative…. If I have drunk of the fairies’ drink it is but just I should drink by the fairies’ rules.

    I don’t believe in magic or see a need for it in the real world, but I agree with you about the need for imagination, resourcefulness and valor.

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