By Olivia Bono
“Get ready for a twisted take on a classic tale,” boasts the description of the official Amazon listing. The trailer is all blood splatters, men exploding, and rock music. Hansel and Gretel brandish big ol’ guns as Jeremy Renner narrates, “People will say that not all witches are evil …. That their powers could be used for good …. I say …. Burn ‘em all.” This isn’t your great-grandma’s fairy tale.
But isn’t it though? Movies like Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (Wirkola, 2013) are marketed as gritty, exciting blood-fests—a deeper, darker retelling of the stories you may already know.
I was too busy being 14 when the R-rated Hansel and Gretel came out and didn’t watch it until it became one of the SyFy channel’s staple afternoon movies, like Van Helsing (Sommers, 2004) and Ghost Rider (Johnson, 2007). (Perhaps an article for another time, but I inexplicably love the Nic Cage Ghost Rider movie. He’s a skeleton man who eats jelly beans out of a martini glass! Specifically only fire-colored jelly beans! Out of a martini glass!)
Hansel and Gretel takes the classic Grimm Brothers story—where two children are abandoned by their parents in the woods, almost eaten by a cannibal, and escape by burning the witch alive in her own oven—and tries to give it a dark twist.
This dark twist comes in the form of long scenes where Jeremy Renner’s Hansel bashes in the skulls of witches and Gemma Arterton’s unconscious Gretel gets fondled by the kid who played the hapless best friend in Beautiful Creatures (LaGravenese, 2013).
The movie’s weird sexuality is best summed up by the scene in which the brother-sister duo introduce themselves to the ignorant townsfolk, interrupting an unjust witch trial. They stride into the scene, posing as they go. Remember the “Hawkeye Initiative” from the year before, when internet artists protested the “sexy superheroine” pose by drawing The Avengers’ Hawkeye (also played by Jeremy Renner. This man is inescapable) in pinup poses? That’s what this scene felt like, with both siblings posing seductively with their big weapons. Meanwhile, Hansel’s soon-to-be love interest, Mina, is about to be burned at the stake. The siblings have to prove to the mob of townspeople that Mina can’t be a witch since she’s hot. But it’s okay! She’s into it! Because Jeremy Renner is posing with his definitely-not-phallic, oversized guns and is hot and broody because he has a dark secret (the secret is that he has diabetes).
For years, I’ve heard a lot about people criticizing Disney movies for being too candy-coated, for covering up the darker tales that they were based on. I admit, even I spent a good chunk of my adolescence reading up on these “secret” versions that the Internet claimed Disney “didn’t want” me to know about. In an old Italian version of Sleeping Beauty, she conceives and gives birth to twins .… while she’s under the sleeping curse, and is almost boiled alive upon awakening. In the original Little Mermaid, the titular mermaid dies and becomes sea foam after her prince doesn’t kiss her. Centuries later, Disney added cheerful songs and talking animal friends, the source of so much hate from fans who’d rather experience the darkness and grittiness of medieval stories.
Honestly though, one of the best fairytale-adaptations of the moment is a show that utilizes an absurd amount of cute animal friends. Disney’s Rapunzel’s Tangled Adventure devotes an unusual amount of time to the exploits of a chameleon, horse, raccoon, monkey, and crow, but also gives its human characters depth and angst. It doesn’t need sexy poses or Jeremy Renner threatening to “blow your sheriff’s brains all over these fucking hillbillies” to present an interesting, fresh take on an old story. It just needs another Jeremy, Jeremy Jordan, singing about how he wants his dad to love him. The show uses its animal sidekicks and songs to tell a complex story about identity and betrayal and self-examination, and it doesn’t need to show a single woman getting groped in her sleep!
Fairy-tale adaptations can still use sex and gore and be good, of course, but when that becomes the main selling point, it just seems unnecessary. Especially when it’s less “embracing sexuality” and more Whedon-esque closeups of a teen ogling the female protagonist’s boobs. A good adaptation doesn’t even need to be “art,” or take itself too seriously. A lot of Hansel and Gretel’s campy spirit could have worked in a different context (just look at so many other campy bad SyFy movies. Look at Nic Cage’s jelly bean martini!) But a 21st-century fairy tale still needs an emotional core in order to make it special. And, following the Tangled model even further, it doesn’t hurt to throw in a famous Broadway actor or two.
Traditional fairy tales provide enough questionable content to fill twelve high-budget HBO shows. If modern-day adaptations want to incorporate sexuality and violence in their interpretations, they should go for it—more power to them—but when that becomes a game of “how far can we push it for edginess’s sake,” that’s where they lose me. A good fairy tale adaptation doesn’t need fetishization and gore to draw in its audience. “Edgy” doesn’t always equal better, nor does “more faithful to the source adaptation.” Sometimes it’s the ones with the annoying animal sidekicks that have the most depth—the originals were edgy enough.