Fairytale Hell. It’s a place where cinema goers have found themselves trapped many a time over the past few years. But, like Orpheus, it’s only those of us unfortunate enough to look back that seem to notice the darkness. It’s a long, twisting, macabre line of unashamedly bad acting and cringeworthy dialogue wearing a mask of glorious CG and promising concepts. Way back when, there was Snow White: A Tale of Terror. The Brothers Grimm arrived a little later on, then Red Riding Hood. Then last year we had the titanic competition between Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman to see who could suck the most. And finally, this year, we have that paragon of senselessness Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters and Jack the Giant Slayer, which looks to be a badly-written mess abounding with stereotypes and awful one-liners (but it’s not out yet, so I shouldn’t judge). So hello Hollywood: will somebody please explain to me what the fuck is going on?
The worst thing about these movies is that each one of them could have been good. Spectacular, even. Each one of them was born of a brilliant idea. All three Snow White concepts could have worked exceptionally well through the presence of great themes, like the fear of ageing, as well as the refreshing potential for genuinely strong and complex female principal characters. The same fact is true of Red Riding Hood; the sexually-charged/coming of age atmosphere of the original fairytale only increasing its prospects as great cinematic material. The concept of The Brothers Grimm has everything you need for a terrific origins movie and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters everything you need in a mash-up movie. All these films already have great cinematography, and we could talk for years about the wisdom/madness of some of the casting decisions. So what exactly is my problem? My problem is script.
Acting apart, every single problem with each of these films ultimately stems from the producers spending so much time acquiring trending actors and seeing how much money they can blow on CG, that script, which was never foremost in their minds to begin with, gradually begins to decline in importance until their attitude becomes ‘Well, everyone’s gonna go and see it anyway, so…’
So. You think up a bunch of characters that are glaring stereotypes. There’ll be the persecuted royal who wants to have an adventure; the yawn-inducing bad guy who wants…something; two pretty boys with chests bared in a sub-zero climate who are after the same girl and most complex of all, the chick with the sword, complex because nobody seems to know what they want out of putting that sword in her hand. Either she makes a fuck-up of it so she can be rescued by some punchable alpha-male, or she proves a pro at it despite there being no evidence of such a thing being the norm in her family life, culture or social milieu. So is this stereotype a commendable reversal of gender roles, or isn’t it?
Once you’ve finished not-deciding about this, you then proceed to write the script, which you will then saturate with as many nauseating clichés as possible so that your film resembles deep-fried Mars Bars covered in gold glitter glue: ‘I’ll do anything to be with you,’; ‘I’ll wait for you,’; ‘I’m so sorry I failed you,’; ‘I want you to believe in me,’; ‘I hate to break this to you, but – ’; and the worst culprit of all ‘if you love her, you’ll let her go.’ Having at last acquired something for the actors to say, no matter how ridiculous and predictable it may be, you get down to the business of shooting and the infliction of sub-standard work on fee-paying audiences.
But, we shall not rant and rave without proposing a solution to this gigantesque problem, so let’s load our lemons into our thinking caps and mull it over together. The most obvious solution is to simply hire writers who can actually…you know…write, and if you have 250 million dollars to blow on everything else, it is not an unreasonable thing to take some of that money to spend on a writer, award-winning or not, who knows what they’re doing. If ‘taking some of that money’ is out of the question, then hire somebody completely unknown to do it. Keep a sharp eye on the blogosphere. Pick a top film school or university out of a hat and ask for their most promising screenwriter. Chances are the kid will blow all the shitty writers you guys usually hire completely out of the water, win tons of awards, and, best of all for greedy studios, you can pay students peanuts. If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, found a project out of it. Do competitions, organise mentorships. It’s a great way to get the best young writers onto the market, and thus to ensure that the quality of scripts stays high. And yes, I know fairytale movies are just a passing trend and you can’t start an entire movement because of a trend (says who?), but when they’re out of fashion, there’ll be another genre that needs saving from the crap that people write.
Then, of course, there’s the possibility of changing direction entirely and treating fairytale movies as serious material. Why not revive the vividly psychological, gruesome and grotesque features of the stories these movies are adapted from? Create fairytale worlds like those of Angela Carter in The Bloody Chamber (or better still, make a film of The Bloody Chamber); worlds in which you can taste the earth; feel human nature at its most primal. But perhaps I’m being idealistic. Most people don’t watch fairytale movies to think. They don’t even watch movies to think.
That being said, you might argue that having a good script is not the point of this type of movie. It is a good argument. But just think for a second about other movies in which ‘a good script is not the point’ that have been significantly enriched by an above-average script. Quantum of Solace (screenwriters Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade) is an art movie disguised as an action movie, in large part thanks to a surprisingly poignant script on the nature of loss and the futility of vengeance. The same holds true for Underworld: Awakening (screenwriters Len Wiseman, John Hlavin, J. Michael Straczynski and Allison Burnett), possibly the last film in the world you’d expect to have a good script, but which nevertheless, apart from the cop-out ending, boasts some spectacular writing gems on love, loneliness and the fear of extinction, as well as an unexpectedly strong storyline. Both of these films could have had the worst script in the world and still have made a lot of money. But they don’t have bad scripts. And look how good they are.
In the meantime, let us continue to walk the long, dirt road of Fairytale Hell and pray that a prince or princess of words will someday come to our rescue, bearing gifts.