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On the heels of January’s Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, the Jack and the Beanstalk tale gets its own cinematic treatment with Jack the Giant Slayer on March 1st. With several more fairy tale-based films on the horizon, it seems more than just a coincidence. While fairy tales have been mined for source material in entertainment for decades, it seems like in the last few years their popularity have skyrocketed. Just how did they become such a white-hot trend in movies and television?

One reason why Hollywood feels comfortable investing in these films is their built-in familiarity (all the easier to market). Fairy tales are a strong fixture in children’s literature, and are commonly integrated into our young bedtime rituals. Even if you grew up in a household with few storybooks, Disney has taken care of introducing these stories to several generations.

In fact, with Disney being so ubiquitous in children’s lives, many view their adaptations as the definitive versions. However, fans of fairy tales know that the squeaky-clean Disney films aren’t the end of the story. Many of the original folk tales that the Grimm brothers collected in the early 1800s included dark sexual elements, as well as some downright gruesome violence.

The tagline for Hansel & Gretel, “Classic Tale New Twist,” could describe most of these new movies. While the revisionist twists are often different from what we’re accustomed to, one might say that fairy tales are coming full circle as adult entertainment.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

Much like the Grimm Brothers sanitizing their stories to make them more marketable for children, it is easy for moviemakers to adapt the stories to whatever audience they like, whether it be a cutesy kid’s flick, a sexy drama, or a family-friendly adventure film. Not being required to pay the rights for a public domain work is also appealing to filmmakers.

But why have we seen an increase of fairy stories flying into theaters? Part of this phenomenon can be explained with the huge success of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland in 2010. While the film had some initial buzz because of Burton and Johnny Depp’s devoted followings, the movie exceeded beyond expectations, ultimately raking in over a billion dollars worldwide.

This worked hand in hand with the Twilight tidal wave that swept teen girls’ hearts in 2008. While the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings franchises ushered in an interest in fantasy, Alice and Twilight proved that female-led fantastical tales could also turn in profits. Their influence could be seen in 2011 with the release of Red Riding Hood and Beastly (a modern teenage retelling of Beauty and the Beast). It is interesting to note that Red Riding Hood’s marketing boasted “the director of Twilight” (Catherine Hardwicke), had werewolf elements, and considered casting Taylor Lautner in a lead role. Similarly, the producers of Beastly expressed wanting a Robert Pattinson-type for the “Beast” role.

Red Riding Hood

Red Riding Hood

While both movies didn’t exactly yield magical box office results, the trend got a surge of life in television. By fall 2011, both Once Upon a Time and Grimm made a splash on the small screen. The creative spinning of classic yarns intrigued viewers. Grimm fits enchanted characters into a crime procedural format, while the first season of Once tied the modern-era characters with flashbacks of their forgotten fairy tale lives.

Both series continue to do well — Grimm is one of the only hits for the struggling NBC network, and fans of Once are comparable to comic book enthusiasts. Many viewers get wrapped up into the mythology and constantly speculate what fairy tale character will pop up next — hoping that Ariel or Aladdin will make an appearance.

Once Upon a Time

Once Upon a Time

Back on the silver screen, not one, but two Snow Whites were in production and released in 2012. The two films each featured high-profile evil queens (Julia Roberts and Charlize Theron) and were battling to be the first one released. Confirming the genre’s adaptability, the films had contrasting tones: Mirror Mirror was a whimsical family comedy while the more gothic Snow White and the Huntsman was heavy on the action.

Fellow Academy Award-winning actresses are following suit and are set to play juicy villainous roles. Angelina Jolie will be Maleficent, the supposedly misunderstood nemesis of Sleeping Beauty; and Cate Blanchett will portray the stepmother in Kenneth Branagh’s upcoming Cinderella adaptation.

Maleficent

Maleficent

The trend is not showing any signs of slowing down. Other fairy tales in production include:

  • Arabian Nights, with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson possibly playing Sinbad
  • A dark, stop-motion animated Pinocchio, directed by Guillermo del Toro
  • A sequel to Disney’s Enchanted
  • Two Peter Pans: one inverting hero Peter into a modern killer while Hook (Aaron Eckhart) and Smee (Sean Bean) are on the case; and another that will be an origin story, with Peter and Hook being brothers
  • The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty, another Snow White, and a few Oz films (not even including Oz the Great and Powerful coming out in March) are also currently in development

For a while it seemed commonly believed that audiences, even young ones, were too sophisticated for fairy stories — the only acceptable way to present them was via a Shrek-like parody. However, the current resurgence has proven that people are still charmed by the nostalgia of their youth and crave a little magic into their lives. And besides, if it keeps getting Ian McShane film work, it can’t be a bad thing.