The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films

By Jack Zipes. 2010. Clifton, NJ: Routledge. 456 pages. ISBN: 978-0-415-99062-2 (hard cover), 978-0-415-99061-5 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Jeana Jorgensen, Butler University

[Review length: 1283 words • Review posted on February 18, 2013]

This colossal book offers a thorough and yet whimsical overview of the foundational role of fairy tales in filmmaking. Zipes, with his usual acerbic wit and inspiring expertise, takes readers on a journey through the historical facets of fairy-tale films, ranging from major studio productions to little-known art pieces. While the scope of Zipes’ research and the acuity of his analysis alone are breathtaking, the passion with which Zipes writes about this subject impressed me deeply. The themes to which Zipes returns again and again in his interpretations—home, the uncanny, the family—provide powerful explanatory frames that help make his case that “most fairy-tale films have deep roots in oral and literary tales and re-create them with great imaginative and artistic power” (xi). Indeed, Zipes demonstrates this point and in so doing, provides the rest of us (fairy-tale scholars, film scholars, and scholars in adjacent disciplines) with an essential companion for research, teaching, and entertainment (in case we run out of ideas for what to watch on a rare free evening).

The book is divided into three sections. The first addresses the history of the fairy-tale film, with chapters on adaptations and appropriations of the fairy tale, Disney and the development of the fairy-tale film, the contributions of George Méliès, short fairy-tale cartoons, and feature-length fairy-tale films. The reason for Zipes going into so much detail on the historical background of fairy-tale films is that there is a surprising lacuna in scholarship on this area, discounting work specifically on Disney or on a handful of well-known directors. Pauline Greenhill, in her review of The Enchanted Screen, provides a helpful overview of recent fairy-tale film scholarship while also documenting the need for more research in this area. [1]

Highlights of this first section include definitions and theoretical orientations. Zipes’ working definition of a fairy-tale film is: “any kind of cinematic representation recorded on film, on videotape, or in digital form that employs motifs, characters, and plots generally found in the oral and literary genre of the fairy tale, to re-create a known tale or to create and realize cinematically an original screenplay with recognizable features of a fairy tale” (9). It’s a pretty broad definition, but it allows Zipes to include works that are more tangential than straightforward retellings of well-known tales. The notion of appropriation that Zipes employs also opens up dialogue rather than enclosing it. Focusing on how the appropriation process is always a translation of sorts, Zipes approaches the filmmaker’s labor as “seeking to make something his own while taking away or perhaps giving away something of his own, expropriating what one has appropriated to share with others, to share in a struggle of understanding” (13). Also helpful in this first section is Zipes’ overview of the evolution of the fairy-tale form (17-20), which I especially hope non-folklorists picking up this book will peruse.

The second section is devoted to chapters on retellings of specific tales and clusters of tales. These include “Snow White,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Bluebeard,” “Cinderella,” tales of abandoned/abused children (including “Hansel and Gretel,” “Tom Thumb,” “The Pied Piper,” “Donkey-Skin,” and “The Juniper Tree”), tales about animal spouses (“Beauty and the Beast” and “The Frog Prince”), and lastly, films based on the tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Throughout these chapters, Zipes advances his argument that fairy-tale films channel a complex dialogue about the nature of art, power relations, and gender and class roles. In the case of “Little Red Riding Hood,” for example, Zipes investigates how filmic discourse surrounding that tale “has employed every possible means—script, voiceover narration, puppets, drawings, music, and digital composition—to question whether Red Riding Hood herself is at fault for her repeated rape” (135). The broad array of cartoons, live-action films, and experimental films that Zipes surveys in this section give the reader a good sense of why filmmakers and audiences are so drawn to this tale: it artfully (though not always subtly) evaluates desire and culpability from the perspectives of men and women, the young and the old. In a sense, this is what all fairy-tale films do, and why we continue to be drawn to them. (Readers familiar with Zipes’ work on memetics will note that certain ideas about the survival of the tales being interlinked with our survival appear here, though in toned-down form.)

In the third and final section of the book, Zipes addresses filmic adaptations of fairy-tale novels; films from central and eastern Europe (including Russia, the former East Germany, and Czechoslovakia); and recent innovative films that address childhood, utopia, and hope. I found it a treat to revisit with Zipes as my guide familiar works such as Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and The Wizard of Oz (along with the many permutations of those plots found in various films), as well as to learn about unfamiliar works from central and eastern Europe. The final chapter, Zipes acknowledges, is less of a conclusion than a beginning, a hopeful gesture toward a possible future containing “more thorough explorations of fairy-tale films that are worth being conserved and woven into the global culture of the humanities…the vital fairy-tale films [that] have been obfuscated by banal Disney films and their imitators” (350).

Zipes’ writing style enlivens the book, with amusing tidbits such as “However, it does conjure up a powerful druid in a white gown, who looks a bit like Jesus on a pedestal” (42). Zipes also does a wonderful job of contextualizing the makers and audiences of fairy-tale films alongside other historical factors. He reminds us, for instance, that “it is important not to underestimate the role of theater, vaudeville, and opera in the development of the cinematic discourses of particular fairy tales” (180, italics in original). I wouldn’t expect anything less than a factually comprehensive and nuanced account from Zipes, and this is what he delivers. The wide-ranging filmography at the book’s end is an extra perk, too.

Perhaps it’s just the ethnographer in me, but I would have liked to see more about Zipes’ process of recovering, locating, translating, and interpreting these films. After all, this book is touted as an unknown history of fairy-tale films, so how did Zipes come to know about it? Through scrupulous research, of course, but I’m left with more specific questions. Since so many of the films discussed are silent films, how did he arrive at his summary of their plots? For the foreign films that have not yet been translated into English, how did Zipes get them translated, or which translations or translators did he use? He notes some of the difficulties of working with records of films that have been lost or damaged (135-136), but I would have liked to see more detail on this topic.

On the whole, however, these minor concerns do little to detract from the enjoyment or usefulness of the book. I expect it to become a standard reference work in fairy-tale studies, film studies, and related fields. Its historical focus complements nicely what I would consider the other major book in this area, Pauline Greenhill’s and Sidney Eve Matrix’s anthology Fairy Tale Films: Visions of Ambiguity (2010), which has a less comprehensive aim, but which is thus able to delve deeper into the complexities of specific films and filmic traditions. Zipes made so many allusions to films that he was unable to include due to time and length constraints that I sincerely hope he will continue to act the role of the donor figure and guide us to more insights on the transformative qualities of fairy-tale films.

[1] Pauline Greenhill, review of The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films, in Marvels & Tales 26 (2012): 126-129.

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