- Film and Fairy Tales: The Birth of Modern Fantasy by Kristian Moen
Kristian Moen’s fascinating book provides a worthy addition to the growing number of publications investigating the convergence of fairy tales and cinema. As a film historian interested in the relationship between early cinema and modernity, Moen draws his fairy-tale framework from Jack Zipes and Marina Warner and infuses it with theory from film scholars such as Miriam Hansen and Vachel Lindsay. A refreshing archival contribution to fairy-tale studies, the book is tightly knit, innovative, and well researched and provides a historical context for thinking about a wide expanse of fairy-tale films.
Moen focuses on the earliest years of cinematic production, 1900 through 1940, to draw conclusions about the very foundations of the medium. He argues that cinema’s hybridity and intermedial tactics were mobilized in the earliest adaptations of fairy tales, rendering filmgoing even more fantastic. With a focus on the formal mechanics of early film, Moen does not simply argue that “cinema made fairy tales modern” (xiii); he proposes that the medium expanded fairy tales’ association with transformation, which helped a viewing public negotiate and contend with modernity.
Apart from the introduction and afterword, Film and Fairy Tales is divided into six chronological essays. The first chapter chronicles the popular rise of the féerie, late nineteenth-century French theatrical productions that merged spectacle and technology and predated the visual marvel of early cinema. When Moen contextualizes the féerie within its contemporary reception by noted dramatist and critic Théophile Gautier, it quickly becomes apparent that Moen’s principal focus on form over narrative adaptation is influenced by Gautier’s own exaltation of the féerie’s technical feats of transformation. This restriction to form, however, means that most of Moen’s examples are related to the fairy-tale genre only through their shared etymology and general emphasis on transformation. He outlines a more precise connection in the second chapter. Tracing the influence of the féerie through Georges Méliès’s early work, Moen explores how the substitution splice technique in films like Cinderella (1899), Bluebeard (1901), and Kingdom of the Fairies (1903) built on the féerie’s technical feats and stood as a metaphor for the chaotic transformation that marked early modernity.
The third chapter draws on contemporary critical, news, and fan publications to demonstrate that fairy-tale motifs of transformation were integral to the development of early cinema. Through the critical work of Lindsay, Hugo Münsterberg, and Émile Vuillermoz, Moen argues that The Blue Bird (1918) used aesthetics from the modernist tradition alongside its scenes of transformation to create an intermedial cinema fantasy through which the public could begin to grapple with modernity. [End Page 129]
Chapter 4 presents Moen’s more compelling observations: that the rhetoric of celebrity culture and film promotion in the early 1900s utilized fairy-tale tropes to capture consumers’ imagination. Through Mary Pickford’s roles in such films as Cinderella (1914) and The Little Princess (1917), Moen illustrates that by reinforcing nostalgic ideals of femininity on-screen, Pickford assuaged pervasive concerns about modern femininity. Moen also points to the discourses of stardom surrounding Marguerite Clark as support.
Chapter 5 covers the presentation of fantasy, masculinity, and consumerism in The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Reviewing Douglas Fairbanks’s role and the film’s framing narratives, Moen pinpoints how the film’s promotion, presentation, and press coverage focused on fairy-tale elements. The film capitalized on a burgeoning consumer culture while also imbuing the cinema-going experience with fantastic characteristics, influencing films of the era to emphasize spectacle over narrative and wonder over morality. Moen’s coverage of paratextual elements in this chapter is exceptional; he illustrates how the film’s exhibition enhanced its romantic, exotic, and fantastic elements alongside the gendered rhetoric manifest in the popular press.
In Chapter 6 Moen presents a close reading of Disney’s Snow White (1937), arguing that the film limited its fantastic marvels in an effort to present...