Folktales are always in fashion and have been adapted into plays, operas, ballets, novels, since the beginning of the written word. These days most people only know their fairytales through Disney, which is not a bad thing, Disney is keeping the tales alive for new generations. But if you're looking for something a little less sanitised, or something with less signing animals, then check out this list of ten of my favourite non-Disney film adaptations of classic folktales.
(Warning, if you don't like subtitles or arty movies this list may not be for you, just stick to Disney and things with Kirsten Stewart and Chris Hemsworth. That film wasn't bad.)
1: Donkey skin (Peau d'Âne), 1970, Director Jacques Demy.
There is nothing more French than this. Directed by Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), staring the flawless Catherine Deneuve, in homage to Jean Cocteau this hyper coloured confection is for those who love the princess side of fairytales.
The story is French (of course) by Charles Perrault who wrote the version of Cinderella that we all know, and this tale is a variation of the Cinderella story. The princess disguises herself in the skin of a Donkey to escape a marriage to her father (I know! Messed up), and moves to a neighbouring kingdom where she lives a double life as the ugly Donkey Skin, kitchen maid, by day, by night she's the mysterious Princess with a killer wardrobe who attends the royal balls and win the heart of the shallow prince.
This film is high fantasy prettiness! No fight scenes or complex plot. It's just a piece of beauty from the costumes, to the camerawork, the slow dream special effects, and Deneuve's perfect face. If there was one woman born to play 'the fairest in the land' it was her.
For those that like Frozen, and Once Upon a Time.
2. The Company of Wolves, 1984, Neil Jordan
The impressive animatronics used in this film have not dated that well. We're now so used to amazing CGI that the robotic gruesome transformations in this film do not gross us out as they did in the 80's. This film is still great, an adaptation of Angela Carter's short story collection The Bloody Chamber, with a strong feminist bent to the tale of Little Red Ridding Hood, and European werewolves myths. Carter wrote the screenplay and Neil Jordan (Interview With a Vampire, The Crying Game) creates some stunning cinematic images of blood on snow.
Very much an 'artfilm' with strong horror themes, lots of freudian sexual metaphor, with some incredibly haunting moments. It does a wonderful job of creating a cohesive film out several interwoven stories, and captures the feeling of listening to tales by the fire very well for film.
Oh, and Angela Lansbury plays Granny! That woman has been the same age for forty years.
For feminist film buffs, and fans of horror. Not for childrens.
3. The Slipper and The Rose, 1976, Bryan Forbes
"But I like the singing!" I hear you say, "I love musicals and dancing for no reason, why would you take that away from me, it's all I have!" Well The Slipper and The Rose is for you. With songs by the guys that did Marry Poppins and The Jungle Book, there is much singing and dancing.
It's also beautifully filmed in real Bavarian castles and is genuinely funny. It's classic Cinderella with all the traditional add ons of the French and English versions (i.e. no toes being cut off like with the Brothers Grimm). The main reason it gets on my list, apart from being fun and kid friendly, is the well developed Prince Charming. Too often he becomes simply a backdrop for female desire, here the love story is real and the Prince is funny and loveable as well as being handsome (he's played by a young Richard Chamberlain).
The versions of fairytales we know are often the more feminised variations, this is due partly to how many were collected (the Grimm's collected most of their tales from women as did others collectors) and the fact that many of the ones we know so well were collected much later. We see more gender equality, and even more male dominated tales in those recorded earlier in Arabic, Latin or Greek. Women were really the ones keeping folk tales alive in the 18th century, and as the written word took over and people began to read and write novels and newspapers, less and less people told traditional stories to each other, especially less men. Women still told stories to their children, and folktales gradually became old women's business.
Many of the stories about young Princes, cunning lads, and goat herders who become kings, have been lost or fallen out of fashion because fairytales are perceived as girly.
Anyway, if you're into musicals or Prince Charmings this is my pick.
4. The Secret of Roan Inish, 1994, John Sayles
If you like realism over fantasy this one is for you. Set on the West Coast of Ireland it follows a young girl sent to live with her grandparents who is told the family legend, that they are descended from selkies. Seal mermaids for those that don't know.
The film draws upon traditional Irish tales of the selkie and their charmed ways. Stories of sea folk appear around the world, and in land locked countries you will often find similar tales of lake dwelling women, or tree bound spirits. In European traditions there is the recurring story of trapping or owning one of these magical beauties.
Our modern retellings, from Hans Andersen through to Splash, tend to make this about freedom, about the mermaid or selkie's need to be free. It is no coincidence when we look at it this way that these stories are almost always about female spirits.
This film is beautiful, quiet and natural. I loved it as a child, I love is as an adult. Just don't expect fast paced action. Also, Ireland looks cold.
5. The Red Shoes, 1948, Michael Powell
One of the greatest films about ambition. This complex film uses Hans Christian Anderson's tale of a girls disastrous shopping trip as metaphor for the struggles of the characters in the film.
Much like Black Swan did so many years later this film uses dance (which has always had a strong tie to the folkloric) as a way to talk about artistic drive and sacrifice . Ballet does this so well on film because it's much more active art form. To see some one sweating it out, dancing their heart out in a montage plays better on film than to see a painter paint, or a writer write. That said it's not just the leading lady (played by the brilliant actor and dancer Moira Shearer) who jumps into those metaphor heavy shoes, the film is as much the men in her life and their ambitions.
The music is wonderful, the dialogue is brilliant, the dancing is world class. Robert Helpmann and Léonide Massine play dancers in the company, as well as choreographing some of the greatest ballet to appear in film.
Watch it if you're an artist, or a ladder climber. Or a Scorsese fan, it's his favourite film of all time.
6. The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed), 1926, Lotte Reiniger
The oldest surviving animated feature is simply one of the most amazing works of art. 100% hand cut paper shadows were photographed and animated frame by frame. It took Reiniger three years to make, and she worked alone on all the artwork. Oh and she also hand tinted the frames so they were in colour. In colour! In 1926!
Artistry aside, its a great story. Loosely from the Arabian Nights it's stories mostly follows Andrew Lang's version of Prince Ahmed's adventures. Prince Ahmed is a recurring character in the '1001 stories' of medieval Arabic, Persian, Indian, Egyptian, and Mesoptamian origin compiled in Arabic by many authors during Islamic Golden Age.
This film has quests, genies, and a character you're all probably more familiar with from a Disney franchise. It's great for kids, is magical for adults, it's short. There are so many reasons to watch this film.
Watch this if you don't normally like animation, or if you love it too much.
7. Beauty and The Beast, La Belle et La Bete, 1946, Jean Cocteau
Disney's 1991 movie of the same name owes so much to this film, as does Cinematic history. Cocteau used mechanical special effects such as double exposure, hand tinting, and running film backwards to create this haunting adaptation of this French tale.
The version we all know of this tale was written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince De Beaumont in 1757 as a novella and Cocteau is faithful to her tale while making it his own. Jean Marais is amazing as both The Beast and the handsome Avenant, from whom the Disney character of Gaston sprung.
This film is dreamlike and transporting. Cocteau finds poetry in the rhythms and tropes of folklore that speak of so much more than just talking furniture. Plus, there are magic ponies.
Recently the French re-made this film with Léa Seydoux as Belle and Vincent Cassel as the Beast. I really enjoyed the re-make and I found it just as magical as the original so if you've had enough of old movies watch the 2014 version with my full permission. Seydoux and Cassel are both astounding.
Watch either version if you used to write poetry in high school.
8. The Little Mermaid (Rusalochka), 1976, Vladimir Bychkov
Russians love The Little Mermaid (there is also an excellent 60's animation of the tale) and this film has been getting some attention in recent years due to it's popularity with Tumblr girls. Which sounds crazy till you think about it, here is a teenager with pastel hair who says poetically depressing hyperboles like "If I don't see the Prince I will die". She sacrifices her life to save the man she loves who, like, doesn't even know she exists!
This film is interesting because it merges Anderson's depressing tale with even more depressing Russian folklore about Rusulka. Rusulka are Russian mermaids in essence, but they hold a place in mythology more closely related to Nixie or Sirens. Rusulka are bad luck, they have no soul, and are doomed half creatures that haunt lakes like ghosts. Which is pretty much how you feel when you're a fifteen year old girl anyway.
As a film it's a little clunky but the dialogue is Sofia Coppola haunting, and Viktoriya Novikova as the young mermaid is so charming and delicate.
If you are a teenage girl, ever were a teenage girl, or feel like one trapped inside, add this to your list.
9. The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet), 1957, Ingmar Bergman
When are you ever in the mood for existential Swedish cinema? Maybe on a date when you're trying to impress someone, or if you are feeling the need feel incredibly numb to the life?
When the mood does strike you, this film is the business.
I include it here not because it's my favourite (it's a moving, brilliant film but not on my re-watch list) but because it's a rare example of a film based on folktales that aren't in the cannon of Grimm or Perrault. The film follows a soldier returning from war who challenges Death to a chess game. Through the game he keeps his death at bay and tries to accomplish a worthy act before Death can take him.
It's bleak, but Death appears in many different tales in similar deals or traps. In the Grimm brothers there is the tale of Godfather Death who raises a boy that no one will claim. There is also a common story of a soldier who outwits Death only to plead for release from life as all those he love dies around him.
For those that want to understand Simpson parodies better, or who genuinely love avant guard cinema.
10. The Storyteller, 1988, Jim Henson
I'm cheating a little with this last one since its a series not a movie, but it's so good it has to be on the list!
Simply this is the dream team of fantasy. It has one of the greatest writers Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Reader) working on lesser known folktales from around Europe, with Jim Henson (Kermit the Frog himself) as Director and producer, with the full disposal of The Jim Henson Creature Workshop.
John Hurt plays The Storyteller and all your favourite British actors play the humans, from Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French as wicked sisters, to Sean Bean as a handsome prince. The puppets are amazing, and as a kind of homage to illustration and Prince Achmed, shadow animation is often used to great effect. The fact that there is very little digital effects means that it's dates very well, and the tales are familiar while being fresh.
Watching these is really a dummy's guide to European folklore, and best of all the conceit of The Storyteller as a character means that you get the feeling of being told a tale, not just watching one, keeping the oral traditions alive in film!
Everyone should watch these, and no one should speak of the Greek Legends one attempted later with Michael Gambon. Of that we do not speak.