Films such as Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters deny audiences the capacity to suspend disbelief. Instead, they use technology to make the impossible look real and the magical seem as this-worldly as an old screen door.
By Jackson Braider
Some 200 years after their first collection of stories was published, the brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm have been experiencing a cinematic renaissance of sorts. Not that the tales they collected from German peasants were ever, exactly, out of fashion, but the urge to make Grimm tales into films has nonetheless seemed to ebb and flow with the decades.
In this decade, fairy tales are making steady appearances, via multi-million dollar vehicles, on the silver screen. Scarcely a year has passed since Charlize Theron played the evil stepmother in Snow White and the Huntsman, and now we are learning about Hansel and Gretel’s vengeance-driven life after their escape from the gingerbread house with the release of Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.
As a folklorist, I suppose I could address in some way the authenticity of these latest portrayals, but that really isn’t necessary. In the real world, where these stories were originally told, there were probably as many different versions of “Snow White” and “Hansel and Gretel” out and about as there were people telling them. One or two new variants don’t make much of a difference.
But one thing that strikes me particularly in this age of industrialized cinematic storytelling is the curious way in which filmmakers have recently been recasting known and established versions of such wonder tales as “Snow White” and “Hansel and Gretel.” They are introducing cinematic sequels that bust the traditional wonder tale narrative wide open, often by way of heightened violence.
Bruno Bettelheim, Freudian practitioner and author of The Uses of Enchantment, made use of S.T. Coleridge’s wonderful phrase to explain the power of these tales on both the storytellers and their audiences. These stories endured among the preliterate peasants of Bavaria because they triggered “the suspension of disbelief.” It is inspiring testimony to the compelling nature of the narratives, told time and again across the centuries, that they survived the transition into print and still managed to capture the imagination of their readers.
What Bettelheim was talking about, of course, were the magical events that often occurred in such tales. In “Seven Brothers,” for example, if a sister wants her brothers transformed back from swans into human beings she has to knit them special sweaters under the pressure of an arbitrary deadline. The deadline passes, and she has only knit six complete sweaters. The seventh lacks a sleeve. The result is that six brothers return fully restored, but one brother finds himself with a swan’s wing in the place of an arm.
In the pre-cinematic world of storytelling, the magic of such stories occurred only in the minds of the performer and his/her audience: that is to say, the storyteller/writer, the listener, and the reader. If one has not seen a real man with a swan’s wing for an arm, one needs, in Bettelheim’s words, to “suspend disbelief” in order to imagine the possibility of such a thing. As is to say, “Okay, I know people don’t, as a rule, have a swan’s wing in place of an arm. But for the sake of this story, I am willing to imagine it.”
Film has changed all that. When Walt Disney took on such timeless narratives as “Snow White” and “Sleeping Beauty,” animation was used as a means to depict visualize the unimaginable. Sure, we can go down the elevated road of film criticism and note Jean Cocteau’s 1946 filmed version of Beauty and the Beast, in which “real-life” moments of magic were filmed in black and white. But hey, this art house approach is the exception and not the rule in commercial filmmaking, which is about making the magical as seamlessly ‘real’ as possible.
Fifty years on and film has once again altered our relationship with the wonder tale—as evidenced by the likes Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters and Snow White and the Huntsman. Where Bettelheim saw the suspension of disbelief as our way to engage imaginatively with this body of lore, filmmakers now have the power to portray blood and guts in high-def, cinematically detailing events that were once only meant to be dreamed in the minds of young readers, figments of childish fantasy.
So, gone is the wonder tale of the kid-orientated cartoon movie, and in its place, the “R”-rated wonder tale turned into blood porn. Now, the auteurs of such films may claim that the stories as originally collected by the Grimms were often grizzly, featuring decapitations and other forms of bloodletting. All they are doing is righting Disney’s wrong of domesticating violence, making nightmares tepid.
The problem is that these filmmakers deny audiences the capacity to suspend disbelief. Instead, they use technology to make the impossible look real and the magical seem as this-worldly as an old screen door.
It is, as Sony Electronics now boasts in the advertising for their many media devices, “Make. Believe.”