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Fantasy goes dark

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

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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.

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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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