When James Joyce re-wrote the adventures of Ulysses, the hero of Greek mythology, he made certain crucial changes in his narrative. Joyce derives creative fodder for his novel from Homer’s epic tale Odyssey. In Odyssey, Homer presents the journey of life as an adventure that shapes the character and destiny of the adventurer. Odysseus, whose Roman name is Ulysses, encounters many perils—giants, angry gods and monsters—on his voyage back from Troy (now attributed to Anatolia, Turkey) to his home town of Ithaca in Greece, after the 10-year Trojan-war ends.

Joyce c. 1918

Joyce too, in his 20th century adaptation of the Greek story, shows life as a journey, however, true to the prevailing conditions of a 20th century post-war Europe, the journey is no longer exciting or character-altering. It is, as Joyce’s Ulysses shows, is life-numbing, humdrum, dreary and uneventful. The modern Ulysses seeks to escape from “history”, which has turned into a “nightmare”, whereas the Greek Ulysses aspired to make history. The modern Ulysses, in other words, has changed the very ethos underlying the mythical Ulysses, because the times too have changed and old moral tales have to be told anew to suit the temperament, taste and moral preferences of the new reading public.

While I haven’t come across any 21st century re-adaptation of Joyce’s 20th century Ulysses, I have, in recent times stumbled into a retelling trend—of the timeless children’s classics by the Grimm brothers—in Hollywood. Of course, Hollywood re-tells everything and cleverly re-packages older myths in a way that erases any trace of the original. However, in its re-telling of the popular Nordic fairy tales, it has, I feel done something unusual, in that the spirit or the ethos with which the tales were infused by the Brothers Grimm, have been restored.

Sometimes, changes that are wrought into the old revert us back into what was originally there.

In the last three years Hollywood has re-told the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty and now, Snow White, in ways that bear no resemblance to the Disney versions of the same. For decades Disney had rendered the stories of the damsels in distress in cloyingly sweet overtones, meant to lull children into a belief that the world was a good place and in the event that good is imperiled evil, good is bound to prevail. The stories had been nibbled down into reductive vehicles of consolation. Yet, if we were to really delve into the original stories themselves, we would find them to be caches of complicated darkness. The stories spun by the Grimm brothers were not only intended to be fables of innocence, but also of terror, superstition and deep sexual anxiety. They were partly written to arouse fear in the hearts of the audience, not paper over such feelings.

snow white and the huntsman promo poster

The film Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) re-tells the story of the exiled princess in terms that are completely un-Disneyesque. Snow is in danger of losing her life to the non-stop evil machinations of her stepmother, but the story is dominated by the evil stepmother herself. It’s as if, a 21st century re-telling of Snow White entails a more equitable distribution of empathy for both the figures of so-called evil and good, thus leaving them pre-fixed with “so-called.” Indeed in this un-Disneyesque rendition of a well-known fairy tale there is no room for absolute good and absolute evil. Snow’s stepmother Ravenna, like Snow, has been a victim of a male-dominated world of sexual violence and patriarchal entitlement. So her rage is legitimate, not just an expression of female narcissism.

little red riding hood cinema still that shows Amanda

Red Riding Hood (2009) is a film about a girl with a luscious body, a sexy pout, draped in a flowing, red cape, who appears less a prey and more a predator/seductress. The title is telling—it is sans the adjective “little” as appears in the original book version. Red is lusted after by all the eligible males of the village, but again, the story is not of innocence threatened. The wolf that endangers the life of the villagers is not a simple figure of evil, but a complicated force of darkness that has to be understood before being exterminated. The film is not set inside a pretty forest of which Red is a denizen till she ventures into the thick woody terrain of the big bad wolf. The setting is a dark, brooding countryside of which uncertainty and terror is a part and parcel of everyday living. The setting is more Grimm-like than Disney-like.

sleeping beauty film poster

Sleeping Beauty has also undergone a dark makeover. She is all grown up, left her sweet innocence in an antique land, and walked into a strange soporific phase where she is the object of lust of geriatric males. In the film which is described by critic David Denby as “a mirthless panoply of flesh”, the feminist director Julia Leigh, tells the story of Lucy, a student famished for cash. To increase her income, Lucy enrolls in a mysterious escort-for-cash service. Her duties include waitressing, half-nude, at dinners arranged by exclusive clubs, and for a bigger fee, she consents to taking a sleeping draught and submitting, like a warm corpse, to the lustful voyeuristic attentions of wealthy old men. Lucy doesn’t need to be rescued from her sleep, as it is completely consensual; she is threatened not by rape per se, but by impoverishment. The libido, in an era defined by excessive greed and economic downturn at the same time, is deconstructed in the new Sleeping Beauty as weaponry in the armor of patriarchal oppression, and the voyeurs who prey upon Lucy arouse repugnance. But wasn’t the body of the soporific maiden originally an object of uncontested male gaze—whether the male be in the form of a handsome prince or the deformed bodies of the “dwarfs”—in the Grimms brothers’ stories as well?

It seems like the 21st century renditions of our most cherished fairy tales are in the business of restoring to the stories their darker sides that had been suppressed for so long by the lightening-up machinery of Disney that we took the Disney narratives to be the original ones. I would judge this trend as one of healthy atavism.