Fantasy goes dark

As new franchises replace 'Harry Potter' and 'Twilight' a grimmer, more apocalyptic tone haunts the story line.

By , Staff writer

Mirror, mirror on the wall, which is the fairest young adult franchise of them all?

Up to this year, the answer has been as clear as Windex: "Harry Potter." The boy wizard's journey of self-discovery produced a franchise so successful that it seemed as if it had been charmed by the benevolent wand of a fairy godmother: seven books and eight films, the final installment released last July.

Now that Harry's story is told, Hollywood's major studios are set to release a flood of replacement teen franchises over the next two years that they hope will prove to be just as resilient. While the requisite sword fights, evil beasts, and wise father figures are certain to get screen time, the new slate of entertainment is inviting its audience into worlds that are darker, gorier, and apocalyptic. The hero journey in "Harry Potter" and forbidden love triangle in "Twilight" feel trite among the following:

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•"Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters," which updates the story of gingerbread-munching waifs with a look at their adult years in which they become vengeful bounty hunters.

•"The Hunger Games," based on the wildly successful teen lit trilogy set in a postapocalyptic future where teens are forced to fight to the death for public entertainment.

•Two versions of Snow White's story: "Mirror, Mirror," a parody featuring Julia Roberts as the Evil Queen, and "Snow White and the Huntsman," a fantasy epic featuring "Twilight" star Kristen Stewart in the title role.

•"Ender's Game," a sci-fi thriller based on the Orson Scott Card series set in a dystopian world that follows a young boy recruited by the military to fight an alien invasion but who later realizes he's participating in genocide.

•"Oz: The Great and Powerful," a prequel to the classic 1939 film "The Wizard of Oz" that pits the wizard (James Franco) against three devious witches.

Television is also plundering fairy tales and fantasy literature to deliver darker revisions of the originals. Besides "Grimm," an NBC cop drama featuring characters from the classic tales, viewers can also tune into "Once Upon a Time," a reworking of fairy tales set in the present day on ABC, and "Game of Thrones," an HBO series of medieval fantasy.

Fantasy fare is maturing to correspond with the "Harry Potter" audience, which is older and now hungry for entertainment that is more evolved with a realistic element of danger, says Brad Ricca, who teaches at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and whose book, "Super Boys," a history of Superman, is forthcoming from St. Martin's Press.

" 'Harry Potter' primed its audience for these new types of movies. [Studios are] trying to get at the now older 'Harry Potter' audience, which is looking to somewhere new to eat their popcorn," Mr. Ricca says.

One obvious reason why fairy tales are continually valuable: They're cheap. "They're in the public domain so they don't belong to anyone," which means studios "don't have to deal with a crotchety author," says Naomi Wood, who teaches at Kansas State University in Manhattan and is an expert on children's literature.

The interest in reviving fantasy literature and fairy tales is cyclical, says Ms. Wood, primarily because the genre is "so malleable" to current political and social dilemmas. They work particularly well for movies and television because "the images are so concise and powerful" and can "encode so much meaning in so many ways," she says.

For example, Wood says, Walt Disney's 1950 "Cinderella" became "the first Cinderella in history that actually celebrates housework," which is counter to every representation of the fairy tale dating back to the time of classical antiquity when it first appeared. The reason: The suburbanization of postwar America resulted in messages that promoted domesticity, aiming to redirect women from factories back to the kitchen.

Likewise, the short fiction of British writer Angela Carter in the late 1970s was praised for reimagining tales such as "Bluebeard," "Beauty and the Beast," and "Little Red Riding Hood" as allegories for feminist empowerment.

This forthcoming crop of fantasy fare is likewise a product of the past decade, which witnessed economic uncertainty, endless military action, the threat of terrorism, and the growing distrust of corporate and government powers. Coming of age during those years is a generation of young people who, as they near adulthood, are becoming naturally suspicious of the world around them, says Ricca.

"Fairy tales are always popular, especially today where our leaders and role models may look like kindly men and women but are really sinister witches and animals," he says.

The themes of "The Hunger Games" and "Ender's Game," in particular, feature young protagonists forced into violent situations by a shadowy political leadership that wields power unscrupulously behind the scenes.

"They reflect exactly what we see in the news: You die or you survive. It can be an accident or it can be terrorism, but that's it – good or bad," says Becky DiBiasio, an expert in fantasy literature and film at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass. For a growing number of young people, "life doesn't fit in the terms of law and order anymore. It's not Sherlock Holmes logical; it's illogical."

The difference between many of these new adaptations and the "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" franchises is that their protagonists have a choice in the outcome, rather than following a path to their destiny. That message echoes what is driving the current "Occupy" movement in cities across the United States, says Eric Rabkin, an expert on fantasy literature at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The film and book franchises are portraying the "sense that we all have of being watched, in a recession in which huge portions of the population are sure there are nameless and faceless plutocrats who caused it and there is nothing we seem to be able to do to stop it," Mr. Rabkin says.

The fantastic realm allows its audience to believe that one young person can make a difference against such injustice, even if the harsh realities of real life suggest the opposite.

The apocalyptic backdrop of these franchises reflects that "we are recognizing that life for kids today is, in fact, darker."

"The wish is not just that the person can make a difference, but what the kid does in that world that can prove to us it can be done," Rabkin says.

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