Fairy Tales And The Sophisticated Viewer

Curator's Note

Traditional fairy tale narratives are not made for today’s TV. Among a steady increase of smart, narratively complex shows that utilize attributes of the televisual medium, such as seriality and reflexivity, to their fullest, the conventional fairy tale falls flat. Their structures are too linear, too episodic, their worlds too limited, and their characters too static. At the very least, fairy tales’ self-contained stories and one dimensional protagonists would have to be altered to work for TV.  But savvy contemporary TV audiences that embrace, and to a certain extent, expect complicated narratives would yawn at a simple retrofitting of the tales. More significant changes on a narrative and structural level are required to entertain today’s sophisticated viewers.

Fortunately, fairy tales have an inherent quality that makes them particularly amenable to adaptation. Spun from a long tradition of oral storytelling, fairy tale narratives are naturally fluid, easily allowing the stories to morph and evolve into whatever the storyteller desires so long as key narrative hallmarks remain recognizable. In part, it’s this fluidity that has allowed TV shows like Grimm and Once Upon A Time to mold the classic stories into a format fit for contemporary TV and TV audiences.

Once Upon A Time, in particular, has taken bold and interesting license with the conventional stories and structure of fairy tales. Emboldened by the fact that their parent company is Disney, ABC’s freshman hit has merged all of the fairy tales into one storyworld, opening up the new possibility of weaving them together to create new stories. The result is an intertextuality that transforms Once Upon A Time into a so-called “Easter egg hunt” with the viewer constantly searching for allusions to traditional fairy tales, Disney renditions, and occasionally other shows, such as Lost. Structurally, Once Upon A Time’s story exists in duel universes that operate on parallel narratives, each informing the events in the other. This can be seen in the accompanying clip, where Rumpelstiltskin’s words in the fairy tale world foreshadow the events in Storybrooke.

While Once Upon A Time has recently veered into incorporating non-fairy tale content (King Midas and The Mad Hatter), the show’s foundation lies in cleverly transforming the structurally simplistic stories we know and love into a complex narrative able to enchant the sophisticated viewer.


You have a number of compelling insights here. I agree that OUaT's dual universe offers a freh perspective of otherwise rather simple narratives. As you noted I do not think these "classic" characters and stories could hold the attention of an audience who has become accustomed to more structurally complex programs such as Lost or Fringe. 


I'm actually curious on how the non-fairy tale narratives and characters are used on the show. How does the intertextual incorporation of other literary influences shape or provide new insight into familiar fairy tales or shape the show?

My upcoming post on Thursday might explain it a little better, but basically the fairy tale background given usually gives us better insight into how the character is the way he/she is in the non-fairy tale narrative. Usually the episode goes back and forth between the story of one particular story book character and then who that character is in the modern world. 

I will say that even in the telling of the fairy tales, they are no longer like the fairy tales we know. In the show, Snow White's character is less of a damsel in distress, but more of a fighter and hunter in her own right (it reminds me a great deal of how the movie Ever After changed Cinderella's story to be Cinderella saving herself rather than the prince rescuing her). Knowing this change and background of Snow White, when we see her in the modern world and she does or doesn't act like she is in her fairy tale past, it brings up questions as to why she is different or not and how the audience feels about that fact.

Examing the non-fairy tale influences on Once Upon A Time is interesting because there are so few. As Mattie pointed out, the parallel fairy tale narratives offer insight into the characters trapped in the "real" world and vice versa, but there are only two characters who don't have fairy tale equivalents, Emma and Henry.They start out as the protagonists of the show and are the catalysts for the plot. Essentially, they are the "every man" characters that initially bring the viewers into the story world. Lately, however, as the show builds its universe and introduces more characters to tease out the "curse" plotline, Emma and Henry's character development has halted, they're dwarfed by their much more interesting fairy tale companions, and they are largely used as plot devices. 

As far as non-fairy tale narratives are concerned, Mattie also points out that the stories really are brand new renditions of the classic tales. As I mention in my post, some narrative or character touchstones remain the same (Little Red Riding Hood's cloak, Snow White's encounter with the huntsman, etc.) allowing the viewer to recognize and engage with the story, but the events are largely new. Influences from the creators' and writers' past work come through in the show's narrative structure and "Easter egg" hunt. Lost is the most obvious example.

The intertextuality of the show (for the moment) really has a hard stop at fairy tales and myths, but with the incorporation of more literary, like an upcoming episode with the Mad Hatter, suggests that this will change and we'll have more fodder and evidence for this discussion!

I agree that OUAT's new take on the fairy tales have taken the rather simple stories and made them more complex for the audience. But I wonder if perhaps it has gotten to the point where it is gotten more twisted and complicated for the sake of being twisted and complicated. I'm not sure if you've been keeping up on the episodes, but as a fan, with each of the later episodes, it just seems as if they are trying to throw as many fairy tale and story book characters in as possible and see how much they can change their stories. While it seemed interesting and unique at the start, I feel like it is nearing the point where it has become too much--no longer focusing on the few main characters that we care about but trying to add more twists and turns that just make it more confusing rather than interesting.

Personally, I don't think a show can become too complex, but only if it's done right. It seems to me that what you're pointing out isn't necessarily too much complexity, but rather a lack of finesse in executing the complex narrative. I think overall, the show has done a good job of managing to keep its multiple worlds and narratives in line without letting them become too over the top (by its nature, Once Upon A Time has a much higher tolerance for the over the top plots than other shows!). Of course, the show isn't even finished with its first season yet so there is definitely the possibility with all these characters and stories that the mythology will eventually balloon to an unmanageable size. The creators seem to have a very definite direction that they want to take the show, which gives me hope that it will stay complex enough to be interesting and that the characters and events will all be guided by intention, rather than sensationalism. 



Being a sucker for anything having to do with traditional fairy tales, I really enjoyed this post. I also liked how it conceptualized why Once Upon a Time has been successful because I agree that traditional fairy tales are not fit for television, but the twists on the classic tales and the employment of dual realities makes the fairy tale thing work.

If the standard, common storylines for these traditional fairytales were used, it would be far too predictable for television audiences.  The cool thing about the show is that not only have the writers created their own twists on the classic stories, but they have actually overlapped all of these tales with one another. For example, the Beast from the Beauty and the Beast turns out to be one of the program’s main antagonists, Rumpelstilskin. The program even features origin stories never before created for these classic characters. For example, the writers depict the Mad Hatter as a once normal father, and plot out his descent into madness and entrapment in Wonderland.

What makes this show work is that not only does is bring up that nostalgic feeling in anyone that is familiar with these fairytales, it makes them more adult oriented by portraying storylines that are not just black and white, but have shades of gray.

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