When you hear the words “once upon a time” you are often filled with a sense of anticipation and excitement. Those words seem to promise the listener an adventure that they will remember for the rest of their lives. These stories are known as fairytales. They are the stories we hear from birth and continue to tell to future generations. But these stories have gone through many changes over the years as the world has changed.
The denotative storyline of these fairytales has stayed pretty true for centuries. Snow White lives with seven dwarves and bites into an apple that puts her under a spell, Belle falls in love with a Beast and breaks the curse on an enchanted castle, and Peter Pan fights Captain Hook with his trusty Lost Boys in Neverland. These stories are filled with magic, adventure, and – eventually – happy endings.
Fairytales are part of a system that has been used to both educate and entertain. They started out as stories full of darkness where the hero seemed to have no hope for a better future. But they eventually changed into tales filled with music – thanks to Disney’s animated films. However, lately these fairytales have started to morph back into their original gruesome selves.
The ABC television series called “Once Upon A Time” has quickly become one of the most watched shows on ABC. This show has taken classic and modern fairytales and weaved them together to create a storyline more twisted and dark than ever before. But these stories didn’t always unfold like this.
Stories started out as oral traditions that were passed down from generation to generation. There was no way to write the tales and histories that were being shared and the elders of each society would do their best to tell and retell the tales When of their culture and people so that those lessons would not be lost to the younger generations. These tales were filled with heroes and often explained how the sun rose in the sky or how the moon pulled the tides. The people that lived in these societies searched for tales to explain life and bring a deeper meaning into their simple and mundane lives. Eventually, these stories began to be recorded by people carving their histories onto the walls of caves. This allowed even more people to learn the lessons and stories of the people that had come before them. Society needed a deeper understanding to life and these stories helped bring that to them.
Yet, it wasn’t simply historical tales that were being told in the early stages of humanity. Legends and myths – fairy tales – were shared across cultures and languages to help people learn values and lessons that would take them much longer to learn on their own. But, what most people fail to realize is that these stories didn’t end with a “happily ever after.” The majority of these tales were dark and gory and not necessarily meant for children. But they reminded society that there were heroes among them and people who were willing to fight for what was right and try keep to the values that they believed in.
The first fairy tales go back as far as ancient Egypt. One of the first recorded fairytales is known as “The Doomed Prince” and is the ancient Egyptian version of what we call Sleeping Beauty. This story was dark and sad, as the title suggests, and written on papyrus. This story has been passed down for centuries and has been continuously modified to fit each culture and society.
It is from these ancient and modified stories that the Grimm brothers collected their assortment of fairy tales. Like the Egyptian stories, the Grimm fairy tales were dark and meant to scare children into behaving. They weren’t meant to give children the hope of finding a prince and living “happily ever after,” but were used to help people and society understand the horrors of the world and help them learn how to cope. This was the first collection of fairy tales to be compiled and published; allowing people and cultures around the globe to be exposed to the same tales in the same way.
Yet, when people think of fairy tales now days their first thought often falls to Walt Disney. Walt Disney was the man who brought fairy tales to life. With his animated film of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” Disney changed the way that society looked at and told fairy tales. Snow White was first released at the end of the Great Depression in 1938. It was a time when society was struggling and needed – not only cheering up – but hope for a better future after their many years of suffering. Disney created a fairytale full of color, music, magic, true love, and a happily ever after. He created many more fairytale cartoons that are now being turned into live-action films for children and adults alike to enjoy. These stories are still used to bring light and hope into the lives of people who are living in a not so perfect world. But it is interesting to think that many children in this generation aren’t familiar with the gruesome tales told by the Grimm brothers and are oblivious to the fact that fairy tales didn’t used to be all about fairy godmothers, glass slippers, and becoming a princess. Society’s need to have light back into their lives has pushed some of the Grimm’s tales further back into our minds.
However, “Once Upon A Time” is once again changing the way that fairy tales are told. Moving back into a darker tone portraying infamous villains as heroes and iconic heroes as villains. Society has started to lean back towards a phase of realism. Our world is full of broken heroes that have both light and dark inside of them. They are stories that people can relate to on a deeper level as they see themselves as broken and hope that they too – even though life hasn’t been handed to them on a silver platter – can be the hero of their own story. These retellings of classic fairytales reflect society’s need to acknowledge that life is dark and people aren’t always who they would like to be. To get a better understanding of this shift let’s look at three specific fairytales that are significant to the “Once Upon A Time” storyline.
The first tale we are going to look at is Snow White. In ABC’s “Once Upon A Time” Snow White is still a symbol of goodness and innocence. However, she is now a hero who has brought on her own enemies with childhood decisions. As a young girl Snow White was friends with the Evil Queen (named Regina) and had a great relationship with her. Regina would babysit Snow White, take her horseback riding and even confide in the young princess. But young Snow White told Regina’s mother about the stable boy Regina was in love with. Little did Snow White know that this small decision as a child would impact the rest of her life. Regina’s mother soon killed the stable boy and forced Regina to marry the king (Snow White’s Father) and Regina hated Snow White for telling her mother about the stable boy she loved. Years later, Regina has become the Evil queen, is still furious with the Snow White, and is determined to ruin her happily ever after – just as Snow White ruined hers. Snow White has become a bandit who steals from people in the forest where she eventually meets Prince Charming. The story continues as, yes, she does eat the apple and Prince Charming has to wake her up with a kiss. But everything takes a turn when they have a daughter and the Evil Queen casts a curse to make them lose their happy ending.
The tale of Beauty and the Beast has changed a lot in the “Once Upon A Time” series. The Beast is not a prince turned into a monster, but is in fact Rumpelstiltskin. Known as “The Dark One” Rumple keeps Belle prisoner in order to pay off a debt that her father owes. Rumpelstiltskin is a being of dark magic and someone who likes making deals. He is constantly seen creating and taking away happy endings from all of the different characters in the story. But the plot thickens as it is revealed that the beast known as Rumpelstiltskin is also the son of Peter Pan.
Neverland is no longer a place of magic and boyish fun in ABC’s rendition of this classic tale, but has become a place where chaos reigns and the lost boys are thirsty for bloodshed. Peter Pan did grow up and have a family, but when he got the chance to be young again and fly off to Neverland he took the opportunity and left his family behind. Captain Hook made his way to Neverland as well and they became two dark forces that constantly raged against each other.
Take these three tales and place them into a small town called Storybrooke in Maine and you have a story that is full of adventure and promise like the original fairytales, but you also have a story full of darkness, despair, and a lack of happily ever afters. This new rendition of these fairytales has quickly become popular among all ages.
What does the popularity of such dark and realistic fairytales say about the mindset of society? We are living in a world filled with violence and contrasting opinions, and a lack of faith in love. You would think that such a dark twist would not be as popular in such times. Wouldn’t people want to watch a story that took them away from such a world? Isn’t that why Walt Disney’s 1938 rendition of Snow White was so popular?
In today’s society tales of broken heroes and twisted endings seem to be more relatable to audiences. People are valuing stories that connect to them and to their reality more than stories that they can’t find relatable at all. This idea that happy endings aren’t easy and sometimes seem impossible is more intriguing to audiences. But the show also continuously holds onto hope. Even though “Once Upon A Time” is a show about fairytale characters and involves many magic spells, many of the problems that the characters face are issues that many audience members have faced in their own lives or have seen friends and family experience. This helps viewer hold onto hope that they can get through their struggles just as their heroes have.
The importance of relatability comes down to society’s need to not feel alone in their troubles and to – most importantly – feel represented in the media. We live in an age where everyone identifies with a minority and many of them speak out about it. Being able to relate to characters and icons in media helps people feel a sense of belonging as well as a feeling of being well represented to the majority and other minorities they interact with.
This representation deepens within “Once Upon A Time” as different types of people take on new roles and grow up with some of the people who are watching the show. These fairytale characters are existing in the same world as the audience and struggling to find love and happiness in the same way viewers are. The darkness and monsters in these fairytales resonates with viewers as they are facing their own monsters and struggling to find light in their own lives.
This shift back to darker fairy tales shows that the society we live in values reality, representation, and relatability more than escapism, as has been the case in previous years. These retellings of classic tales has brought new excitement, understanding, and even hope to people who feel as if they too have lost their chance at a happy ending. They can relate how the broken heroes of Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, and Peter Pan deal with challenges and use that as inspiration in their individual lives. But the best may have yet to come. The twists in these stories keep coming and it will be interesting to see how these tales are told in the future.