- Gold into Straw:Fairy Tale Movies for Children and the Culture Industry
Following the jubilee of Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1987, it seems not only proper but useful to begin a consideration of fairy tale cinema for children by recalling some of the controversy surrounding Disney's influential fairy tale adaptations. In 1964 Frances Clarke Sayers articulated one of the most famous and most trenchant criticisms of Disney's adaptations of traditional fairy tales. Her primary complaint was that Disney destroyed "the proportion in folk tales" (177). Sayers argued that "folklore is a universal form, a great symbolic literature which represents the folk. It is something that came from the masses, not something that is put over on the masses. These folk tales have a definite structure. From the folk tale, one learns one's role in life; one learns the tragic dilemma of life, the battle between good and evil, between weak and strong. One learns that if he is kind, generous, and compassionate, he will win the Princess. The triumph is for all that is good in the human spirit" (117-18). Disney, Sayers maintained, distorted this moral purpose and proportion by sweetening the folktale: "He misplaces the sweetness and misplaces the violence, and the result is like soap opera, not really related to the great truths of life" (124).
"The great truths of life . . ."—inherent in Sayers' critique is the popular belief that folk and fairy tales teach timeless truths. This notion, which is shared by celebrated scholars such as Bruno Bettelheim,1 privileges the "original" text of a fairy tale because of its alleged nearness to the folk tradition and its pristine expression of timeless values and truths. While Sayers is correct that Disney distorts Grimms' "Snow White," this is not so because the original text's eternal verities have been destroyed. It contained no such eternal truths to begin with. Like any cultural document, Grimms' "Snow White" reflects the specific values of its creator—or in this case creators. Because the Grimms were involved in the active editing and rewriting of tales that had already passed through many transmitters, who in turn filtered them through their own social and moral consciousness, their stories—which are only in a very limited sense "original" folktales—are layered repositories of diverse sociohistorical and moral realities. [End Page 193]
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In an iconoclastic essay on the development of the fairy tale, Rudolf Schenda not only states this view succinctly but draws some radical conclusions about the role of the fairy tale in modern media and in the contemporary marketplace. He observes that fairy tales are neither timeless nor ahistorical, but rather incorporate
local color and reference to social conditions, especially concerning children, and are full of peasant world views and biographical bits; they are influenced, furthermore, by the norms and value judgments of bourgeois editors, for instance, with reference to paternal authority, acceptance of poverty, or the punishment of criminals. In a word, fairy tales have their specific, historical frame of reference. And because that is so, as one recognizes more and more today, it is utterly incomprehensible why fairy tale texts from a specific historical framework, which deal with communal work and communal social facts of a particular milieu and which were [End Page 194]
once the cultural possession of the people, should be torn from their frame of reference and served up to children in every possible counterfeit form . . . .(81)
Schenda further argues that because the contemporary child's problems are different from those addressed by suffering heroes and magical helpers in traditional tales, their pedagogical, therapeutic value is suspect:
Fairy tales offer children . . . such a thick packet of long outdated familial, social, and conjugal norms that their divergence from actual patterns of living can lead to powerful disorientation. In contemporary reality more and more children deal not with happy weddings but with marriages gone to pieces and unmarried siblings. Children of today hear and read about emancipated women and about feminist ideas, and they see the old patriarchal...