December 5th 2011
Fairy Tale Business
It’s instructive, right now, to compare the methods of building on fairy tale tropes as practised by the TV shows “Once Upon a TIme” and “Grimm”.
Let me just say at the outset that I started watching both, from the pilot on up. I lasted two episoes with “Once Upon A Time.” I am STILL watching “Grimm”. So – what’s different?
Starting with the bad news. “Once Upon A Time” is… well, the word that comes to mind and that I haven’t seen used very often these days is ‘twee’. Oh look, we had the lush and the cute – the whole original Snow White thing complete with the kiss in the glass coffin scene because you know viewers are DUMB like that and they wouldn’t really have picked up on the background for the modern-day aspects of the tale unless these were rubbed into their faces hard, until they SCRAPED, by the producers who don’t think that your average viewer has two brain cells to rub together. Well, actualy, in a lot of ways they may have a point – but they weren’t PITCHING this show at the viewers of late-night infomercials or Amercian Idol or even Jersey Shore. I would have thought that most people switching on to something like “Once Upon A Time” have, yanno, a PASSING FAMILIARITY WITH THE STORY OF SNOW WHITE. (no, really, I mean it, just how shocking is THAT? SOmeone might actually remember a childhood fairy story…?) And that’s partly what bothers me – that my naivete and ignorance and downright dumbness are outright assumed here. I am someone who needs her hand held. ALL the way. Because, you know, otherwise I might stumble if left to walk by myself.
The fairytaleness of this particular show is… grafted on. It’s a contemp show with a Hey! Look! Shiny! FAIRYTALE! gloss painted on top – and not only that, but it is, unforgivably, the Disney fairy tale gloss. Down to the character named Maleficent (remember Sleeping Beauty, anybody? As though they could top THAT villain with a live-action version – now, really!) Down to the manner of the fairy princesses. This is Snow White in much the same manner in which Miss Ariel Disney and her Caribbean Lobster Steel Band were ‘The Little Mermaid’ – right down to the original “council” in the pilot episode where the fairy-tale kitchen sink is emptied out and we have Jiminy Cricket sitting around the same table as Snow WHite’s Prince Charming – and was that TINKERBELL? – yes, I know what they are trying to do here, but I have never bought the lovely little fantasy that hey here’s Childhood’s Country and this is where ALL fairytales ever told live… sorry, no, Gepetto. Go back to your own corner and stop trying to butt into Sleeping Beauty’s private life where you and your Pinocchio ventriloquist act has no business being, and same goes for you, Red Riding Hood, and double that for you, Rumpelstiltskin. Before long I was reduced to yelling ‘SNAP!’ when they pulled out yet another obvious fairy tale trope was being pulled out of a hat – and the rest of it simply bored me. So I quit. And I don’t miss it. The Eight Deadly Words come to mind here – I DON’T CARE WHAT HAPPENS TO THESE CHARACTERS (no, even when I kind of know what happens to them because the story is so ineptly (re)told…)
Now, “Grimm” is a horse of a different colour.
The fairy tales here are not grafted on or “reimagined” – they are simply treated… as true. As part of our world all along. All the weird creatures that we know from the nursery books are sortakinda real and roam the streets – and there are creatures called Grimms, one of whom our protagonist turnst out to be, whose task is to kill “the bad ones” out there. But it isn’t just oh, let’s go slaughter in the enchanted woods. The storyline is poignant, and sharp, and sometimes downright funny (I adore the werewolf sidekick. He’s snarky in the BEST WAY.) Our protag is an inexperienced Grimm into whose lap the whole thing fell without prior training or knowledge and he’s learning on the job – but I very much get the idea that he is learning an existing body of lore and not just making stuff up as he goes along or “Retelling” something in a way that is simplified so that us uncouth viewers who don’t know better could just, you know, follow along. The worldbuilding in this one is solid. It works, for me. It gives me the sense that I have just stepped INTO that world, and that I am learning its ropes right along the new-hatched Grimm (who is so out of his depth, poor bastard…) but that there are in fact ropes there to learn, already established, a world in which all these other creatures already live, exist, and are established..
This all-immersive worldbuilding really works for me in the written word, too. I like to feel that the world I have been invited to enter – or which I myself am inviting others to enter, having created it myself – is solidly built on something. If I am retelling an old story (and I’ve done it a few times, with fairy tales) then I will rebuild that story from scratch and not just graft on another layer (like the “Once Upon A TIme” show) and throw it at my readers like a wax apple painted an enticing Red Delicious colour insisting all the time that it is the real thing just take a bite you’ll see.
I think what it comes down to, for me, is respect – from the story creator to the story consumer. I don’t ever write DOWN to my reader (be my intended audience 12 or 92). In fact, quite often I expect quite a bit from them, actually – they have to stretch to get everything, and absolutely nothing has been homogenised and fed to them through a straw. There are times I might mix in a familiar taste into an unfamiliar story drink – but part of the joy of it, for me, is the knowledge that they’ll pause after that first sip and frown and go, “what WAS that? I am perfectly positive I know it, and yet…” and then be forced to take another drink, and maybe another, and have the sweetness or the bitterness of it blooming full-flavoured upon their taste buds before they completely realise what it is that they’re sipping. Telling a good tale, building a good world, is an awakening – you lure the reader inside and then, slowly, you let them realise that there are certain things that surround them that they may,in point of fact, have met before – just not here, not now, never quite like this, and before they know it they’re suckered into finding out more more more more. This is quite different from building it all for them, handing them a finished Lego house and asking them to move in. That’s missing the point in a painful way – part of the fun of Lego is BUILDING IT YOURSELF. Same goes for the story. Give your reader the pieces and let the reader find the weight-bearing walls, the trusses, the eaves, the capstone, the shingles for the roof. Let them sit back and look at the gingerbread house they have just built and reflect with perhaps a little surprise at teh familiarity of the edifice, which they had possibly seen or experienced before – but then look down at their own hands, and see that they’ve got those hands dirty, and feel some satisfaction at having been involved on a personal level in the raising of this house.
Trust your reader. Yes, even with fairy tales most of us have known from infancy. The joy is not the once-upon-a-time-and-then-happily-ever-after-but-you-know-all-this-even-though-you’re-being-told-again-anyway. The joy is finding yourself on a road leading down to the deep dark woods, and neither THIS road nor THOSE woods, in particular, do you imemdiately know – but you slowly, slowly realise that you recognise them, that you’ve ALWAYS known them, that not only have you been here before but you’ve ALWAYS been here.. The joy is looking at something you’ve seen every day for the last decade and seeing it new and shiny and dangerous and beautiful and bright like you’ve never seen it before.
This is hard to do, for the tale creator.
But the rewards… ah, the rewards are immense. For both creator AND consumer.
Go now, and find your story. Turn the last page, and imagine what happens AFTERWARDS, in the aftermath of the happily-ever-after. You’ve been here before. Welcome back. Welcome home.
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Alma Alexander is a Pacific Northwest novelist whose new YA trilogy, "Worldweavers", debuted with "Gift of the Unmage" in March 2007 ("Spellspam" follows in 2008, and "Cybermage" in 2009). Her other books include the internationally acclaimed "The Secrets of Jin Shei". Visit site.
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