A lot of Disney movies originate from tales by the Brothers Grimm: The Princess and the Frog is based on their “The Frog Prince”, both the 1950 and 2015 version of Cinderella has some basis in the Grimm Brothers’ “Aschenputtel” and Snow White is based on the Grimm tale of the same name.
A lot of changes occur in adaptation. The Brothers Grimm versions of these fairy tales were particularly dark and gruesome. There’s a strong chance Snow White would’ve lost some of its charm if it contained the sequence where the Queen is forced to dance in enchanted red-hot iron slippers until she dies. It’s unlikely Tangled would be so successful if they included Rapunzel’s pregnancy from the first edition of “Rapunzel”.
Seeing as Disney is on a rampant remaking spree with Dumbo in cinemas now, adapting a fairy tale that hasn’t already seen a major cinematic transformation is quite unlikely. In the spirit of wishful thinking and the very slim chance a movie executive will read my ideas and get inspired, here is a selection of Brothers Grimm tales we’d like to see adapted to the big screen.
Important note: I am very much aware of their very Anti-Semitic tale “The Jew Among Thorns” which was allegedly used to stir up anti-Jewish sentiment in Nazi Germany. This list is in no way an endorsement of that, the political ideology that the Brothers Grimm may have had or any Anti-Semitic sentiment being pushed in the modern day.
This tale has its origins in oral traditions in an area of Central Germany known today as Hesse.
The story revolves around a girl who is forced to do all the housework by her step Mother who allows her own biological daughter to laze about and do nothing. The girl loses a spindle and leaps through a well to retrieve it. From there she goes on an adventure that culminates in her living with a woman known as Frau Holle in exchange for housework.
After some time, the girl becomes homesick and wishes to go home. Frau Holle was in awe of the hard work the girl had done so when the girl stepped outside, she was showered in gold and given the lost spindle. The girl went home. The stepmother wanted the same fortune to befall her own daughter. The daughter threw the spindle deliberately down the well and went after it. She was asked to assist the oven and apple tree but refused. She turned up at Frau Holle’s house who gave her shelter in return for housework. The daughter did some housework but it didn’t take long for her to return to her lazy, careless ways. Frau Holle sent her away and a kettle of pitch (a black resin) fell upon the daughter.
This tale can be utilised for both a feature film and a short film. The story as it stands is a very straight forward morality tale that seems perfectly designed to teach children the virtues of kindness and hard work. It can be expanded in multiple ways: there could be a backstory added to explain how the girl’s father came to be absent and an extension of the tale to see how both the girls’ lives changes as a result. It could work well in both animated and live action settings so there’s a lot of scope for possibilities.
Town Musicians of Bremen
This story tells the story of a band of town musicians headed for Bremen who never make it to Bremen despite it being in the title. Confused? That’s understandable, but thankfully the story itself is a lot simpler.
A donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster are living in their respective farms. They’re past their prime and become aware that they are soon to be gotten rid of in some fashion. They decide to band together and head to Bremen, a place apparently known for its freedom.
On the way, they spot four robbers in a lighted cottage enjoying the spoils of their illicit activity. The animals scare the robbers away by making a loud, unpleasant noise. The animals settle in the cottage but the robbers return. One of them goes to investigate but ends up being accosted by the animals. Because it’s dark, the robber misinterprets what happened. He thinks he was attacked by a horrible witch that scratched him with her long fingernails (the cat), a man with a knife (the dog), a black monster who hit him with a club (the donkey) and the judge who screamed from the rooftop (the rooster). The robbers run away and the animals enjoy the cottage to themselves for the rest of their lives.
This story would be an excellent fit for an animated or stop-motion short film. The behaviour of the animals and the fantastical misunderstandings are too great for the limitations of live action. I can envision this being expertly handled by a studio like Aardman or Ghibli perhaps as part of an anthology of shorts or a stand-alone piece.
This is a tale that tells a life and death story with a ghastly tone the Brothers Grimm became synonymous with.
A poor man struggling to make ends meet is looking for a godfather for his thirteenth and final child. God offers himself but the man declines, saying that God condones poverty. The Devil offers himself as well but is turned down due to his deceptiveness towards mankind. Finally, he encounters Death and makes him the godfather because he takes away from the rich and the poor without prejudice.
When the boy is of age, Death leads him to some woods where special herbs grow. Death promises to make the boy a great physician. The boy is told that when he sees an ill person, Death will appear next to them. If Death is at the person’s head the boy can feed them the special herbs and cure them. If Death is at the person’s feet, the person will die.
The boy becomes a great physician just as Death predicted and as such becomes rich and famous. It’s all going well until the King of all the lands falls ill. The boy goes to see him and sees Death at his feet. Feeling bad for the King, the boy tricks Death by turning the King in his bed so that Death is by his head thus can be cured by the special herbs. Death later approaches the boy, angry at the deception. He doesn’t punish his godson this time, but is forced to do so later when the boy pulls the same trick again as the princess falls ill.
Death drags the boy to a cavern with thousands upon thousands of candles. Death tells him the length of each candle shows how much longer a person as to live. The physician is shown his candle which indicates he doesn’t have long to live. The physician pleads for his life but his candle goes out.
This is a story that could be adapted into a feature-length film with Death being an increasing presence throughout the film. Without a clear antagonist, this may not be suitable for a children’s movie unless a lot of changes occurred. As a narrative that would suit an older audience, this would be the perfect project for a filmmaker who can utilise the dark tones without being too overtly self-important or needlessly gratuitous.
The Twelve Dancing Princesses
This is a tale the Grimm Brothers heard from a friend who’d heard it in Münster, Germany.
There were twelve beautiful princesses whose doors were securely locked by their father at night. Despite this, their dancing shoes were found to be worn through as if they’d been dancing all night. The King is understandably confused. He asks his daughters for an explanation but they refuse to tell him.
The King promises his Kingdom and each daughter to any man who can discover the princesses’ secret within three days and three nights. The cost of failure was death.
Several princes had tried and failed. An old soldier returning from war decides to come to the King’s aid. Whilst travelling, an old woman gives him an enchanted cloak he can use to watch the daughters without being noticed. He’s also warned not to eat or drink anything given to him in the evening.
The soldier, like all others before him, is greeted well. He pretends to accept a cup of wine in the evening from the first daughter but throws it away. As he pretends to sleep, the 12 princesses get dressed up and escape via a trap door in the floor. The soldier spots this and follows them wearing his magic cloak. The twelve princesses meet with twelve princes, go off with them on a boat and dance through the night until they have to go home. This happens all three nights the soldier observes them.
He gathers evidence in the form of a golden cup and twigs from a forest they pass through. When the time comes for him to declare what he’s found, he turns over his evidence and tells the King what he’s seen. The princesses, knowing they’ve been caught, confess.
As a reward, the soldier chooses to marry the eldest princess and is made the King’s heir. The twelve princes are put under a curse for as many nights as they danced with the princesses.
A number of key things would have to change in the adaptation. The original ending would definitely require an overhaul. The original story isn’t critical of the King who effectively imprisons his daughters at night and seems willing to give them away in order to assert further control. A good alternative would be for the princes and princess to be allowed to marry each other if that’s what they wish. There could be some interesting explorations into when paternal concern crosses into paternal coercive control. It would also be great to see the princesses given more agency in their own fates. Then again, that can be said for most of the princesses that appear in Grimm fairy tales. A straight adaptation of this tale would certainly fall flat.