Once upon a time there were lots of very rich, very greedy film producers. They spent their lives looking for films that would make them even richer than they were before. One day, not so very long ago, they all came up with the same exciting idea. They would find old fairy tales and dress them up in new clothes for boys and girls, mummies and daddies everywhere.
It is true. This Spring will see two new film versions of Snow White – a romantic comedy called Mirror Mirror with Julia Roberts, and an adult fantasy Snow White and the Huntsman, starring Charlize Theron. Also on the way is a Tarantino-esque Hansel and Gretel, while Bill Nighy and Ewan McGregor are to appear in Jack and the Beanstalk. Already out, are retreads of Red Riding Hood and a high-school comedy version of Beauty and the Beast, called Beastly.
One can see why retelling old folk tales works for Hollywood. They appeal to audiences who liked Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Directors see an easy pitch: “OK, so here’s the concept: Cinderella meets Pretty Woman.” There is even good news for the money people. Fairy tales are safely out of copyright. The discovery of this hot new genre says less about Hollywood, which has belatedly cottoned on to what fiction has being doing for years, than about its audience.
The vogue for films which take adults back to the sun-dappled certainties of childhood shows no sign of letting up. It was JK Rowling who first released the inner child in her readers; over the past decade or so, it has become commonplace for grown people to converse seriously about Hogwarts, muggles and the rest.
The optimistic view of this willed regression is that audiences have belatedly rediscovered their sense of childhood wonder and innocence, but no intelligent grown-up, however wide-eyed, could seriously believe that. There is not the slightest sign, with the possible exception of the popularity of Frozen Planet, that we are more appreciative of life’s daily mysteries.
What fairy tales offer is a black-or-white world without tricky moral ambiguities. Good is good (and looks good), bad is to be punished. Young women and children are vulnerable; men are either heroes or deadly villains. Old women have hooked noses and are evil. In these stories, it is fine to laugh at ugliness, to cheer the killing of giants, to glow with pleasure when a helpless princess is brought to life with a kiss from a handsome man.
Even when Hollywood retells these stories, providing gender switches and in-jokes to subvert the archetypes and allow modern audiences to feel sophisticated, the moral certainties behind them remain. In other words, fairy tales are the perfect entertainment for times in which there is a longing for a simple world of good and bad, the deserving and the punished. Responding to this year’s British Social Attitudes survey, which revealed a startling decline in empathy towards others, a spokesman for the Policy Exchange think tank summed up the mood: “People’s idea of fairness is reciprocal – something for something.”
No wonder fairy tales are in vogue. Today, many people are too busy, too cynical, to see those in public life as messy, flawed humans; they want villains (bankers, hackers, politicians) and heroes (the celebrity of the moment). The attempts of our leaders to come up with some greyish compromise of a solution appeals not one bit.
With the easily earned sentimentalism of a folk tale, there is, balancing it out, a brutal form of justice. Hollywood’s version of one famous fairy tale is called Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters, and follows the young heroes on a trail of vengeance, as they kill witches all over the world. The director’s last film was about Nazi zombies. It may be a fair way from the Brothers Grimm and their gingerbread house, but it accords perfectly with the mood of the moment.
Where are our chest-baring intellectuals?
There have always been reasons to be jealous of the French, but a new area of potential jealousy has recently emerged in the figure of that ever-amusing celebrity-intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy. Tousled yet impeccably groomed, the philosopher-clown has been promoting Public Enemies, a British edition of a book based on his rows with Michel Houellebecq (in itself quite a funny idea). His two great passions, as one might possibly have guessed, are writing and loving women.
A liberal, he has expressed contempt for “la meute”, the pack. Famously public, he has claimed to treasure privacy above all. He is so unworldly that he keeps nothing for himself – moving house, he leaves his books behind him, he told one interviewer. As for his insistence on wearing tailored shirts, casually unbuttoned to reveal his manly chest, there is a philosophical reason for that, too. “It’s a form of my will to freedom. I like to be free in every sense of the word.”
What a marvellous character he is – a sort of French version of Howard Kirk in Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud. How Britain could use a public intellectual like Monsieur Lévy.