Alison Littlewood, our resident expert in all things otherworldly and author of the very recently released The Crow Garden, has very rudely taken over the JFB blog today – the cheek of it! – to give us her favourite interpretations of the little folk, or fairies, on screen. As you can tell, we’re absolutely thrilled to have her!
Having been immersed in fairy lore and traditional tales recently, my mind has turned to some of the representations of the folk on screen. Fairies are, of course, hard to pin down. The Victorians liked to picture them as beautiful little creatures flitting about the roses, while older tales had them as rather more goblin-like and a lot less benign. Encounters with trickster fairies could be perilous; they might even steal humans away, replacing them with changelings. And wanderers in fairy land should have a care they don’t become trapped for ever, or that a hundred years don’t pass by while they seemingly spend minutes with the folk.
Fairies on screen, too, aren’t just of the happily-ever-after variety. Here are five interesting film and TV versions:
My favourite of them all, this is a wonderfully strange and magical fairy tale from director Guillermo del Toro (in Spanish with English subtitles). It mingles the harsh realities of life in post civil war Spain with the world of fairies, fauns and lost princesses experienced by the young girl Ofelia. Given a classic fairy tale quest by the faun, Ofelia is not only beset by dangers but also by uncertainty about whether he can be trusted. There is a delicious ambiguity, too, about whether she is escaping from unpleasant realities into a fantasy, or if her secret world truly exists. A film that can make the audience decide whether they believe in the magic – it’s a strange and wonderful thing that left me lost in thought long after watching.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
This adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s novel, first aired by the BBC, is utterly beautiful. Set against the Napoleonic wars, magic is acknowledged throughout the kingdom, but it’s a delightfully British, respectable sort of magic – until fairies become involved, of course. We have the classic concept of a pact with a fairy – respectfully known as ‘The Gentleman’ – being more akin to a deal with the devil, further complicated by the human rivalry of a magician with his talented pupil. The threat of a person being replaced by a changeling, here a bewitched piece of bog-oak, adds to the peril. My favourite moment, though, is where Norrell finds himself a quiet space during a party, only to hear the indignant accusation: “That gentleman is reading a book!”
Set in Ireland – steeped in Celtic tradition – this movie brings the dangerous aspects of fairies to the fore, even taking them to extremes. This is fairy horror, and indeed body horror too; there’s a threat of transformation, of being tainted by contact with the ‘other’ as if by disease. And we have another changeling threat, here with a baby as the fairies’ desired object; that most innocent and vulnerable of beings, set against the wildness of deep and twisted woods. The hapless intruders are warned, in time-honoured horror film tradition, that the ‘Hallow’ belongs to the little folk. It’s definitely best not to stray from the path, but of course, they never do listen . . .
Fairy Tale: A True Story
This is perhaps the odd one out since it’s really aimed at children, but there’s plenty to interest adults. The film portrays events at Cottingley, where two young girls claimed to catch fairies on camera, with Arthur Conan Doyle stepping into the fray; though here he investigates in person, with Houdini too brought into the mix. It opens with children clapping with all their might during a play of Peter Pan, expressing their belief in fairies. It invites accusations of being rather saccharine, but there are more interesting layers: the children proclaim their belief in response to adult pressures, even while we’re glimpsing the back-stage mechanisms by which the illusion is achieved. In many ways it’s a microcosm of the film, though of course, this being a children’s movie, perhaps they know best after all . . .
Tale of Tales
This is a visually stunning adaptation of some of our oldest literary fairy tales, being taken from Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone. Here we have some lesser-known examples brought to the screen, and as such the stories aren’t necessarily all wrapped up with a neat little bow, but they’re rich and mysterious and magical for all that – not to mention grotesque, bloody and frightening. (One of the tales adapted is ‘The Flayed Old Lady’.) For me, they are unified by a theme of women who want – whether it’s a child, a husband or youth. They are also all set in stunning locations, apparently chosen for their propensity to look unreal, like stage sets. Tale of Tales amply demonstrates that fairies in the movies are not all Disney; there’s darkness and danger in the old tales too, though here it’s expressed with such beauty, it is never less than entrancing.