Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton in ‘Hansel and Gretel’/Image © 2013 Paramount Pictures
Within the next ten years, every single fairy tale will have been adapted into an action, horror, or comedy film -- in certain cases, all three. Let's just take a moment to fully absorb that dark truth.
If that prediction seems unnecessarily bleak, I have good news for you: The endless obsession with Euro-Germanic folklore isn't limited to America. Now that film studios in India, China, and Korea have begun reaching for a wider global audience, we can see many of our own fascinations reflected back at us in new ways. For every fairly unimaginative rendition we're dealt by domestic studios, we can look forward to seeing a fresh one that we barely recognize, a reflection of a reflection of the original tale.
What's more, in some cases they actually beat us to the punch. Take, for example, the upcoming "Hansel and Gretel," which opens March 1 and basically appears to be "Snow White and the Huntsman" with guns. Instead of lamenting how unoriginal it is, we should actually be impressed that it's not just an American remake of Korea's 2007 horror film "Hansel and Gretel."
If you watch this film (it's streaming on Netflix, or you can watch the whole thing on YouTube at the end of this article) prepare to be amazed by how widely it diverges from the plot of the traditional tale. After a car accident, a young man is led by a young girl to a remote house in the woods where he's delayed indefinitely, stuffed with cake and candy by a strange family who is obviously keeping a strange secret. But that's mostly where similarities end -- and the resemblance to other K-Horror movies begins in earnest. There also happens to be a lot of references to Santa Claus mythology.
If you're surprised that they went there, you shouldn't be. When I spoke with Sonya Moore, a fellow blogger and film fan who grew up in Korea, she informed me that Koreans are generally as familiar with Western fairy tales as we are. "Most Koreans are probably even familiar with the more obscure Hans Christian Andersen tales ... The Little Match Girl is referenced a lot in Korea and Japan. Another K-Horror film is 'The Red Shoes,' based on/inspired by the Andersen fairy tale. I think a lot of Westerners don't really know or realize that." She also pointed out that Japanese people flock to Prince Edward Island because the anime series based on Anne of Green Gables is basically a national childhood memory -- on par with something like "Sesame Street" in America. Clearly we have a lot of catching up to do on our end of the cultural exchange.
Regardless of its country of origin, movies loosely "inspired" by tales tend to be far more watchable than more faithful adaptations that simply follow a checklist of familiar story elements. Especially since fairy tales don't tend to have the nuanced characters or complex timelines that full-length novels do. And by filming a story that conforms so heavily to the original tale -- like the aforementioned "Snow White and the Huntsman" and its ilk -- don't the filmmakers ultimately make their own jobs harder? Suddenly small deviations from the plot seem quite glaring and contrived, whereas movies like "Pan's Labyrinth" (another foreign film that borrows liberally but creatively from familiar tales) seem to have free range to roam wherever they please.
As a storytelling enthusiast, I think it's possible to look at all of these films as just a continuation of the tradition that gave us these stories in the first place -- passing them from person to person, family to family, village to village, nation to nation, observing how they change and mutate. Korea's "Hansel and Gretel" is not any less "authentic" than, say, Engelbert Humperdinck's 1893 opera version (and if it's horror you're after, look no further than this early claymation attempt). As it ever was, everyone gets to have the version they think they deserve.