Grimm Ordeals: A Brief History of Grimms’ Fairy Tales on Screen

Once upon a time... Hollywood tried these adaptations.


Over the weekend, Walt Disney released Cinderella, Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of the long-loved Grimm fairy tale to the tune of $70 million. You know the story: Cindy-relly has a case of dropsy with her shoe, finds the man of her dreams to rescue her, and gets a sweet pumpkin carriage ride. But do you really know the story? That’s just one very popular take on a tale made classic by the Brothers Grimm. Jeez, I didn’t even know “Cinderella” was a European folk tale that could be dated back to the 1600s until writing this intro. The Brothers Grimm didn’t create the story, but they popularized it. They brought tons of fantasies like these to the mainstream with their famed Grimms’ Fairy Tales (1812), and Hollywood’s been adapting them for a long time. Public domain makes for cheaper optioning rights, I suppose.

To reflect on the literal, spiritual, and sometimes just downright weird films inspired by Grimm, CoS took a minute to look back at the wildly diverse world of Grimms’ fairy tale movies. Specifically, the live-action ones like the new Cinderella. Some are sweet. Some are nasty. Either way, we chose live action as a means to avoid yet another nostalgia-laden list of 15 animated Disney films. What we found is that Grimms’ fairy tales are more flexible than you’d think.

–Blake Goble
Staff Writer

Rebecca (1940)


Adapts: “Cinderella”

Is It Faithful? Officially, this is a Daphne du Maurier adaptation. A sensational, beautiful, altogether haunting one. Yet, the film is inspired by the legend of Cinderella. Oh sure, lots of Pygmalion-esque tales of wishful marriage could be seen as that particular Grimm tale, but few capture the bittersweet mystique of the Grimms like Hitchcock’s classic Rebecca. The film’s drawn numerous comparisons, and it prompts the question: what now, Cinderella? You got your Prince Charming. Is it everything you ever hoped for? This is a fantasy of a hauntingly melancholy variety.

Joan Fontaine plays the starry-eyed young girl who falls madly in love with a moneyed, moody widower, Maximilian de Winter (Laurence Olivier). A typhoon romance, and POW, they’re married. Typical of courtship and its rapid timeline in old stories. Fontaine becomes the second Mrs. de Winter only to become plagued by memories of Max’s first wife, Rebecca. Oh, and there’s a crazy, wicked housekeeper who keeps egging on Mrs. de Winter part two. It’s a gothic good time and a well-deserved Best Picture Winner at the Oscars. Sad but true fact: Olivier didn’t care much for Fontaine, because he wanted his real-life squeeze, Vivian Leigh, to star. Hitchcock knew this. He capitalized on this. Hitch got Fontaine to believe that everybody on set hated her, thus the uneasy performance. Hitchcock, you wicked devil. –Blake Goble

La Bête (1975)

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Adapts: “Beauty and the Beast”

Is It Faithful? Conceptually, absolutely.

Finally, a great excuse to talk about this “erotic fantasy horror film.” What? That’s how Wikipedia classifies it. It was the mid-‘70s! Walerian Borowczyk’s bestial, perverse take on “Beauty and the Beast” is borderline pornographic, but it scars as a work of perverted fear scenarios and graphic mystery. It looks at the Grimm story of Helsinki syndrome love and subverts it with the creepy notion that Belle was likely in love, or even lust, with a wild animal. The physiological considerations alone make this a must-really-think-about-for-a-while-before-watching movie. It’s gross, but still very curious.

As a beautiful young woman visits the manor of the wealthy man she’s about to marry, things get hairy as she becomes aware of a legendary beast that may still creep around the premise. Lurid and languid, the furry fairy tale is told in flashbacks as The Beast himself is a wily, turgid creature that rapes a woman in the woods – thus creating a wealthy bloodline of monsters. It’s disturbing to say the least, yet it’s a fascinatingly explicit failure of genre-mixing and tone. Can a comical, manners-driven satire of inbreeding and blue bloods coalesce with a huge-donged monster explicitly raping a woman in the woods? No, it’s awful, but the attempt is shocking, and the film’s never boring. It’s not a Cocteau take, or a Disney one, that’s for damn sure. –Blake Goble

Pretty Woman (1990)


Adapts: “Cinderella”

Is It Faithful? Better question: do you think Garry Marshall cared? This Cinderella sleeper swept the box office in 1990, practically giving birth to the cliché “hooker with a heart of gold.” It’s a formulaic recreation, not an official adaptation of the male-dependent princess story for dreamers and those who hope for rich hubbies. Richard Gere’s credit card and hair dye got the chance to play Prince Charming.

Pretty Woman came out almost exactly 25 years ago this month, and it’s lived on as the sexy, scuzzy Cinderella story set on Rodeo Drive that brought Julia Roberts to the masses. And she never left us alone. Roberts traded in wicked stepmothers and cutesy critters for pimps and cash and Richard Gere’s oversized wallet and earnest rescue complex. Equally enchanting and enraging, Pretty Woman is a big-hearted fairy tale scenario in this crazy mixed up world of ours. Take it as romantic comedy, and you’re having a ball. Leave it for the wishful, regressive salvation that it embraces, and you’re annoyed to death by this Cinderella story.

Either way, singing, sewing mice become irrelevant when you’re grossing $178 million domestic. –Blake Goble

Freeway (1996)


Adapts: “Little Red Riding Hood”

Is It Faithful? Well, kind of, yeah. You’ve got the naïve young girl, the predator preying upon her, and the nasty comeuppances, all because of a badly timed visit to Grandma. It’s “Little Red Riding Hood” for the Tarantino ‘90s, dawgs.

Hey Macarena, it’s 1996 and Reese Witherspoon was still a glimmer in pop culture’s eyes as she starred in Matthew Bright’s startling debut, Freeway, a twisty, modern take on “Little Red Riding Hood”. Witherspoon was Red, or Vanessa Lutz, just an LA kid off the streets looking for a ride to her Grandmother’s house. Of course, she runs afoul of Bob Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland), a guidance counselor with not only an obvious name, but a penchant for murdering young girls on the interstate. From there, Freeway gets delirious, transforming into a parable about men’s abuse of power, states of perversion, and other such things.

Freeway was a blip that looked poised for cult status, but has faded from recent memory. It holds up and captures the nasty, giddy, gleeful spirit of Grimms’ fairy tales. Dark comedy is almost too perfect a contemporary genre for adaptations of their stories. –Blake Goble

Snow White: A Tale of Terror (1997)


Adapts: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”

Is It Faithful? This 1997 feature, which aired as a telefilm in the US (and was nominated for three Emmys, including Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie for Sigourney Weaver) is definitely dark and does a decent job of staying true to some of the original tale’s most twisted details – an all-seeing mirror, a poison apple, and the fact that the Queen eats what she thinks are Snow White’s organs for dinner after the huntsman brings them back to her – but it’s almost too much. If the most famous Grimm adaptations of our time are guilty of glossing over the more sinister origins of the brothers’ stories and making modern-day fairy tales toothless, happily-ever-after confections, then A Tale of Terror is guilty of going too far in the opposite direction. If you add too many random rape threats, stillborn babies, and insect hallucination-induced suicides to an already disturbing story, you end up coming dangerously close to unintentionally bad camp. And no charming prince can wake you up from that nightmare. –Sarah Kurchak

Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998)

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Adapts: “Cinderella”

Is It Faithful? There’s an evil stepmother (Anjelica Huston) and ugly stepsisters. There’s a fairy godmother or magical willow tree of sorts in the form of Leonardo da Vinci (Patrick Godfrey), a guest appearance by the Brothers Grimm, and a missing slipper. There’s also some actual agency on the part of Cinderella, better known as Danielle (Drew Barrymore) in this version. Giving the gist of the Grimm plot a feminish touch, Ever After creates a heroine whose value comes from her intelligence, ingenuity, kindness, and resilience, not just her beauty. It was a revelation for girls (and many boys) who had been raised on both the Disneyfication and objectification of princesses when it came out in 1998 and still holds up almost 20 years later. –Sarah Kurchak

Hard Candy (2005)

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Adapts: “Little Red Riding Hood”

Is It Faithful?: About as faithful as an unintentional reimagining of a fairy tale can get.

In the DVD extras for Hard Candy, producer David W. Higgins says that the similarities between “Little Red Riding Hood” and Hard Candy are purely coincidental. The film was actually inspired by a newsmagazine piece he saw about gangs of teenage Japanese girls who would lure older men to hotel rooms and then mug them, and the red-hooded sweatshirt that the main character wears was simply a touch of sartorial serendipity. But it’s easy to see why Hard Candy has been absorbed into the greater Grimm cannon. The cat-and-mouse game that happens when a seemingly innocent young woman (Ellen Page) turns a predatory pedophile and murderer (Patrick Wilson) into prey has an undeniable Grimmness to it and couldn’t have been a better reversal of Red and the big bad wolf’s roles if they’d planned it. –Sarah Kurchak

Red Riding Hood (2011)

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Adapts: “Little Red Riding Hood”

Is It Faithful? To a point. All the hallmarks of the Grimm tale are present in Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood. There’s the doe-eyed innocent (Amanda Seyfried) who heads off to her grandmother’s house, and there’s a big bad wolf out to get her. That’s where it stops, though, because unless the story has changed dramatically over the years, at no point did the brothers Grimm imagine Gary Oldman forcing Little Red’s hunky love interest into a giant steel elephant in an attempt to slow-cook him alive, nor was the wolf a lycan-esque creature straight out of the Underworld franchise. It’s very much an update of Little Red’s tale for the Twilight generation, and it’s the kind of cash-in that nobody really needed. However, if you like your fairy tales campy, this is pretty great cable viewing. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

Hanna (2011)

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Adapts: Grimms’ Fairy Tales

Is It Faithful? Joe Wright’s Hanna is a much, much looser adaptation of Grimm stories than many we’re discussing here, but it’s also among the best. It’s a mixture of a government escape thriller and several Grimm stories, stories invoked directly throughout in ways small (the book of Grimm fairy tales that Saoirse Ronan’s Hanna favors) and large (the Grimm theme park around which much of the film’s finale takes place). In telling the story of a young woman who’s forced into adulthood after coming into being in a particularly unusual way, Hanna speaks most powerfully to the larger themes that the Grimms handled so well: that the world can be a place full of wonder, but that there are things in it that will always be out to get you. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

Sleeping Beauty (2011)

sleeping beauty movie poster 01 Grimm Ordeals: A Brief History of Grimms Fairy Tales on Screen

Adapts: “Sleeping Beauty”

Is It Faithful? Refresh my memory: Was Sleeping Beauty named that as a result of heavy drugging to maintain a coma state while wealthy businessmen creepily play with her naked, fragile body? And was true love’s kiss actually just a nice way of saying mouth-to-mouth resuscitation before emotional realization?


Gotcha. Gonna write that down. “’Sleeping Beauty’ had no weird sex stuff. Grimms’ ‘Sleeping Beauty’ to be sure.”

I kept wondering why this Sleeping Beauty didn’t have cherub-like, feisty, funny fairy godmothers, or a horn-headed woman for that matter. Julie Liegh’s arty, clinical take on repressed emotions and intimacy was a strange thing. It’s a conceptual parable that is interested in the notion of sleep, attractiveness, and repressed feelings, but it has little else to do with the original fairy tale. It’s too cold to be sexy, too creepy to have a hidden heart, and too avante to be seen as anything but a name-only Grimm take. But boy does it give you the willies and make you worry about how safe you can be when you’re unconscious. –Blake Goble

Mirror Mirror (2012)

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Adapts: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”

Is It Faithful? Tarsem Singh’s take on Snow White is a surprisingly fun one, even if coated in so much candy-colored gloss it’ll probably rot your teeth from your head. It hews fairly close to the original tale, except for the part where the queen (Julia Roberts) is far more charismatic and interesting than Snow White (Lily Collins). The dwarves are sassier than you may remember, and the prince is Armie Hammer in full, enjoyable pratfalling dork mode, but Singh styles the tale as a lush, Bollywood-style lark, and even if there’s little of the genuine menace and terror that the Grimms originally worked in, Mirror Mirror still finds the more romantic side of the story. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

Snow White & The Huntsman (2012)

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Adapts: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”

Is It Faithful? Now here is a Grimm adaptation that bears only the most passing resemblance to its source material. More remembered for the infidelity controversy surrounding its production than the film itself, Huntsman turns its evil queen (Charlize Theron) into a supernatural being of unlimited power, its Snow White (Kristen Stewart) into a warrior princess, and its prince into a supporting player with little hope of overcoming Chris Hemsworth’s strapping Huntsman, who helps lead Snow White into battle. The film is appropriately menacing, especially when it comes to Theron’s sadistic queen, but it’s a liberal take on the tale to say the least.

Also, unrelated but necessary: the Top Chef tie-in episode with the film’s release is one of the series’ best. Just saying. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

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Adapts: “Hansel and Gretel”

Is It Faithful? Tommy Wirkola’s Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters was a mild hit upon its heavily delayed release in early 2013, which is remarkable not only because of release delays to January usually spelling death for movies, but also because it’s not very good. Granted, it’s as blatant a studio hack job as you’ll ever see, which certainly warrants consideration, but Witch Hunters is only representative of the original fairy tale in the loosest sense. It retains the story of a young boy and young girl being duped by a witch, but loses all the cautionary terror of the source material otherwise, instead turning it into a phoned-in actioner with an irritating kid sidekick and a lot of CG violence and the theft of a magic wand setting up for a totally unnecessary sequel. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

Maleficent (2014)


Adapts: “Sleeping Beauty”

Is It Faithful? Maleficent actually is pretty faithful to the Grimm tale Little Brier-Rose, mostly because there’s very little in the original story about the villain. If you’ve got an uninvited evil woman who walks into a feast in celebration of the birth of a baby princess and throws a curse on said princess that will result in her spindle-related death when she turns a certain age, you’re about as good as you can get on that front.

The bigger issue here is how fast and loose Disney plays with its own “Sleeping Beauty” cannon in their live-action reimagining of the studio’s 1959 animated classic. Making a villain as iconic and captivating a sympathetic character is a brilliant idea, but it takes a careful reinterpretation of the source material(s) that Maleficent doesn’t always manage. At its most delicate moments, particularly the wing-cutting scene and its metaphorical implication, Maleficent offers a truly new take on the classic story. At its most ham-fisted, it devolves into a lazy fairy tale retcon that you could find in even your most basic fanfiction community. That said, Angelina Jolie is pretty much perfect as the titular character. –Sarah Kurchak

Into the Woods (2014)

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Adapts: “Cinderella”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, and “Rapunzel”

Is It Faithful? Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s legendary fairy tale-themed musical, which debuted in Broadway in 1987, is a great example of how much creative license you can earn when you’re true to a certain amount of your source material. Using faithful interpretations of the Grimm versions of “Rapunzel”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, and “Cinderella” (which is particularly well represented, down to the golden color of Cinderella’s non-glass slippers and the fate of the evil stepsisters’ eyes) and the old English version of “Jack and the Beanstalk” as a launching point, Sondheim and Lapine weave together a thoughtful portrait of growing up that packs about as much of an emotional and moral punch as the original tales likely did in their day.

Disney’s live-action film version, on the other hand, is a great example of the precarious nature of adaptations in general. Remove the wrong detail like, say, Rapunzel’s ultimate fate, and you can severely undermine the devastating impact of the story as a whole. –Sarah Kurchak