Friday, July 4, 2014

Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales at the Movies

As a child, I had a gorgeous over-size edition of Andersen's fairy tales, with a gold-embossed green binding and stunning color illustrations. It was far from a complete anthology, but I do recall that it contained "The Little Mermaid," "The Ugly Duckling," "The Snow Queen," and "The Fir-Tree," among others. I had a number of other books containing Andersen tales, including "The Little Match Girl" and "The Nightingale." Andersen's fairy tales have a delicate and ethereal quality, even when the events described are fairly violent, and they are set in a decidedly eighteenth century world, divided into three classes, strongly influenced by bourgeois values. Contrasted with Perrault's elegant and ornate fairy tales and fables or the Grimms Brothers' rather blithely brutal and pseudo-medieval stories, Andersen is decidedly a horse of a different color. Though "The Little Mermaid" is by far the most influential and frequently adapted of Andersen's works, a good number of his stories have been successfully adapted for the screen.

One of the saddest of Andersen's tales, "The Little Match Girl," has proved rather resistant to successful adaptation, perhaps because of our current cultural allergy to sentimentality, but probably more due to its unmitigated tragedy and the deep discomfort of a story that portrays poverty in all its bleakness. Originally meant as a plea for suffering children, the story is intended to discomfit the reader, but such serious subject matter has been increasingly hounded out of children's literature as too upsetting. Nevertheless, in 2006, the Disney Studio released a stunningly gorgeous adaptation, set to a piece by Borodin and without dialogue, that qualifies as an art piece rather than a cartoon. It's a lovely piece of work, proof that the Disney animators are capable of a far more varied style than their recent feature efforts might lead one to believe.

Decades earlier, in 1939, Disney released another short cartoon based on an Andersen tale, "The Ugly Duckling." The last in the Silly Symphonies series, "The Ugly Duckling" is a superlative example of the power of animation to inspire potent emotional responses. Although the ugly duckling's desperate striving for a family and acceptance is accompanied by the sort of highly visual humor typical of the cartoons of the series, the story's tragic elements give the nine minute piece an unusual depth and pathos. It is in this portrayal of genuine emotional pain, even in the context of a minor cartoon, that the Disney work differentiates itself from the animated output of other studios of the time.

Most decent adaptations of Andersen fairy tales are to be found in Shelley Duvall's marvelous television series, Faerie Tale Theatre; out of the twenty six fairy tales in the series, six of them are Andersen adaptations. One of the finest of these is "The Emperor's New Clothes,"  starring Alan Alda and Art Carney as the two swindlers who take the vain emperor (Dick Shawn) for a ride. It's a deliciously witty rendition of the fairy tale, my particular favorite addition being the army - consisting of one man due to the high expense of the ludicrously ornate uniform. Andersen's original tale is quite short and this adaptation creates a charming world, one that still manages to reflect seriously on money, class, and privilege. The best episode of the unfortunately short-lived series is a witty and highly stylized adaptation of "The Princess and the Pea," starring Liza Minnelli and Tom Conti, with Beatrice Straight and Tim Kazurinski in supporting roles. Though too short to be considered a feature film and clearly made on a low budget, the screenplay (by Rod Ash and Mark Curtiss) and the performances make up for it in grand style. "The Princess and the Pea" may be my favorite fairy tale adaptation of all time.

Less successful is the Faerie Tale Theatre adaptation of "The Nightingale,"a bizarre version of Andersen's exotic Oriental fantasy. The strangest choices made for the adaptation are the almost exclusive casting of white actors in the major (Asian) roles, including Mick Jagger as the emperor and Bud Cort as a courtier that seems to have epilepsy, and Shelley Duvall lisping away as the voice of the Nightingale in a voice that seems to have been plumbed from the depths of The Shining-induced nightmares. Also less successful is "Thumbelina," starring Burgess Meredith and Carrie Fisher. The limited budget of the series is particularly evident, and, although the production team makes a valiant effort to create a convincing world for the diminutive heroine, the actors costumed as animals lack the magic they might have had on the stage. Nevertheless, "Thumbelina" has some delightful moments, particularly when Burgess Meredith as the classically inclined mole sings a song about his loathing of progress, both philosophical and technological.

The series' adaptation of "The Snow Queen" stars Melissa Gilbert, Lee Remick, and Lance Kerwin and veers between an eerily beautiful rendition of the strange story and an overly whimsical depiction of the mischievous devil who breaks the cursed mirror that is perhaps too reflective of the 1980s, but it is overall a strong adaptation that embraces many of the more fanciful elements that wouldn't normally make the cut in a conventional Hollywood production. (Though I have not actually seen Frozen due to the sickening cultural over-saturation of that nauseating song which I will not deign to name, even a cursory glance at a synopsis reveals only the most tenuous of connections with Andersen's "The Snow Queen.")

The Faerie Tale Theatre adaptation of "The Little Mermaid" has some very amusing dialogue (though perhaps not always for the reasons the authors intended). Pam Dawber as the mermaid and Treat Williams as the prince are unfortunately rather weak, but Helen Mirren as the human princess and rival for the prince's affections and Karen Black as the sea witch both give lively and entertaining performances. The episode's main strength is that it has Andersen's original tragic ending, as well as Andersen's differentiation between the soul-less merpeople and human beings, essential to understanding the enormous moral courage required of the mermaid, who bargains not only for a human body but for a human soul.

Disney's The Little Mermaid has proved to be one of the most popular of their films. It diverges from the original fairy tale in numerous ways, like most of their fairy tale adaptations, but the most significant change is the ending. Disney rejects completely the tragic ending, instead giving the sea witch more complicated and villainous ambitions and ensuring that the prince heroically defeats her, thereby, in the logic of fairy tales, "earning" the little mermaid, who has in turn "earned" his love. The Disney adaptation is thoroughly conventional, eschewing any religious overtones, particularly any of Andersen's allusions to souls. That being said, The Little Mermaid is a great work of animated cinema, though not a great adaptation of Andersen.

The greatest film, however, inspired by an Andersen story is without doubt Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger's The Red Shoes. The producer-director duo created many masterpieces, including The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, and The Canterbury Tale, but the most enduringly popular of their films (and the favorite film of Martin Scorsese) is The Red Shoes. The fairy tale operates as the metaphorical telling of the literal plot of a young ballet dancer, passionately devoted to her art form and her desire to pursue it, but torn by the demands of her love for the composer who has composed the ballet that has made her famous - an adaptation of the Andersen fairy tale. The twenty minute ballet at the center of the film is one of the single greatest cinematic sequences of all time and it is incontestably the greatest cinematic ballet of all time.

While certain fairy tales seem to invite constant adaptation, Andersen's fairy tales, with the exception of "The Little Mermaid" (both Joe Wright and Sofia Coppola have announced plans for live-action adaptations), have not been embraced like of those of Perrault or the Brothers Grimm. Many resist happy endings, many are sentimental, but they are all lovely stories, and though they may pose challenges to filmmakers, they are wonderful subjects for cinematic adaptation.

1 comment:

  1. No thoughts about the biography pic, "Hans Christian Andersen", with Danny Kaye? I think it's a lovely movie, and the Frank Loesser songs are beautifully integrated. Kaye was far more talented than anyone ever gave him credit for, and this movie proves it.

    "The Red Shoes" did nothing but scare me as a child, and I never looked at ballet the same way after seeing it.

    Nice to find another fan of "Faerie Tale Theatre"!!