Seriously. After six consecutive critical flops, you’d think they would learn
Starting with the failure that was Warner Bros.’ “Red Riding Hood” (2011), five different studios have tried their hands at remaking old fairy tales with thematically modern twists. Since then, Hollywood has produced at least half a dozen fairytale remakes that have all underperformed at the box office and in critical reviews.
“Red Riding Hood”, starring Amanda Seyfried, got universally roasted by movie critics, even earning itself a spot on Time magazine’s list of the Top Ten Worst Movies of 2011. Movie critic site Rotten Tomatoes gave it an 11 percent “Rotten” rating, and critics on the site slammed the film for terrible special effects, “lackluster performances” and an uncanny resemblance to the Twilight franchise (because Catherine Hardwicke directed both). Hardwicke’s attempt to explore the sexual nature of the old fairy tale fell flat in a botched effort to turn Little Red into a character who was not a feminist nightmare, which also spectacularly failed thanks to the addition of a (very, very bad) love triangle written into the plot.
Currently “Jack the Giant Slayer” holds a 53 percent “Rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and site critic Gitesh Pandya predicts that it will be hard-pressed to earn enough revenue to make the production financially worth it. Its opening weekend only brought in $28 million in the face of a staggering $200-million budget, and it may be that the cast and crew are not going to see that making the movie was worth their time.
Why, after all of this floundering, is Hollywood still producing fairytale remakes? The consistent mediocre reception ought to be enough to turn off filmmakers, or at least scriptwriters, from the material. “Jack” is not the only one of the films struggling to break even with its production costs. The only one of the mentioned films to really soar with its box-office revenues was “Snow White and the Huntsman”; all the others struggled in domestic markets.
The biggest criticism I’ve seen for these movies, across the board, is bad scriptwriting and lame, flat stories that fail to engage the audience. It’s not like decent fairytale remakes haven’t been made before: Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” and DreamWorks’ “Shrek” series received good reviews thanks to the deconstruction and subversion of the classic stories, and it goes without saying that, whatever it failed to do for the feminist movement, Disney at least performed well with its princess movies.
Rewriting a fairy tale is one of the easiest outs a writer can take, but one of the most difficult to pull off successfully. Sometimes timing has a lot to do with it—perhaps audiences of 2011-2012 aren’t in the mood for fairy tales—but more often it has everything to do with the story. These tales are familiar, making up the backbone of Western literature. They are rich and dark and complex, but they are familiar. When rewriting a fairy tale, a writer either needs to get back to the tale’s dark roots or subvert it to come up with a new message.
Modern audiences obviously don’t go for damsels in distress anymore, and a deus ex machine is uninteresting compared to the pluck and grit of an active, clever hero. This accounts for the recent trend of trying to make Snow White more of a badass (a feat only accomplished by ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” series). However, a writer can’t just hand the leading lady a sword and expect audiences to love the story. It’s a delicate balance between rewriting the tale and staying true to its gritty but magical roots.
Perhaps writers can do a better job in the future. For now—for the next five years, maybe—I advise: stop it with the fairytale remakes. If they are going to be done, they should be done well, and currently there doesn’t seem to be anyone in the ranks of screenwriters up for the job.