Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Truth of "Once Upon a Time"

Ever AfterI really enjoyed the movie Ever After when it first came out, and this past week, when I saw that it was available for streaming on Netflix, I was excited to watch it again.  I remembered it as a fairly fluffy, feel-good movie with some funny parts, and when rewatching it, I wasn't disappointed--it did make me feel good, and I once again chuckled at the exchanges between the step-sister Jacqueline and the Captain of the Guard.  I was also pleasantly surprised--while it is a feel-good movie, it is more than just fluff, since Danielle (the Cinderella figure) is very much an agent of her own change.  She doesn't just sit around waiting for Prince Henry to rescue her; she, in fact, is the one who is the rescuer, with one of the opening scenes in the movie being her rescue of a servant who is about to be shipped off to the Americas.

But what intrigued me most about the movie this time was the frame for the Cinderella story.  Instead of starting with the fairy tale itself, the movie starts with the Brothers Grimm visiting the Grande Dame of France to discuss their latest collection of tales.  The Grande Dame criticizes their version of the story, asking if they would permit her to "set the record straight"--she then tells the story of her great-great-grandmother, Danielle de Barbarac, who was the real Cinderella.  The movie then cuts to the story of Cinderella within the frame, which takes up the majority of the movie, but at the end we once again return to the frame.  The Grande Dame tells the Brothers Grimm that while Cinderella and her prince did live happily ever after, "the point, gentlemen, is that they lived."

Really?  That's the point?

Sure, I realize that this movie needs a clever final line, especially since it is telling a story that has been told hundreds of times.  But of all the things that Ever After's version of "Cinderella" talks about--love, coming of age, the importance of education, the relationship between the average person and the ruling class--is the most important one really that the characters were real people within the world of the movie?

RudyWe see this all the time--not just in Ever After, but in every movie that is "based on a true story."  RudyErin BrokovichChariots of FireRadioSeabiscuitCinderella ManThe Blind Side.  These stories are valued because they are inspirational, but a big part of what makes them inspirational seems to be the idea that they actually happened to real people.  It doesn't matter how much the story is tweaked--what matters is that we think there is some kernel of "truth" in it.

But I'm inclined to take the opposite view--that a story is more powerful when it is not tied to a specific real person, so that the characters in the story could be anyone.  For me, the fun of Cinderella is not in knowing her actual biographical background, but in being able to put myself in her glass shoes.  The magic of "once upon a time" comes not from knowing the specific historical context of a story, but from being able to imagine the story in any time, any place.  We see this with Shakespeare, too, I think--his plays are often staged in unconventional ways (I saw a performance of Much Ado About Nothing set in high school in the 1950s, for example; the movie 10 Things I Hate About You is a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew) because the stories they tell transcend time and place.

And for me, then, the truths that these stories tell are much greater than facts or dates about certain people.  They tell us about what it means to learn, love, and live--not just once, but over and over.  As we grow and change, the stories can grow and change with us.  This ability to evolve--that is the point of "Cinderella."