As part of my job as an Instruction Pump Dispenser at Burger King University, I am occasionally allowed to teach a literature survey course that goes all the way from Gilgamesh to George Saunders in the space of eleven weeks. The required text is a fairly hefty, custom-printed anthology, curated with a more-is-more sensibility by English faculty from thirteen campuses, so the course can take almost any shape the instructor wishes.
Recently, my approach has been to select a handful of narratives and track the ways they have been retold by different authors at different times, with a focus on cultural shifts and movements. One of the examples I use on the first day as I am explaining this to students is Louise Glück’s poem, “Gretel in Darkness.” Glück takes the classic, witch-baking fairytale (which is itself a cobbled-together narrative based on earlier stories) and turns it into a statement about the violence, both physical and cultural, done to women by our folkloric traditions. (I’ll admit, this seldom gets the “ah ha!” reaction I hope for. That usually comes sometime around week 3, when they realize "Hamlet" = The Lion King. Such is life at BKU.)
The point to all my kvetching is that I have a little more inherent sympathy for Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters than it probably deserves. Of course we should retell this story, and we should not be precious about it. Blow it up. Gut it and stuff it with our particular values and mores. (If my images seem a little violent, I apologize; I did just sit through Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.) Let some poor, future Space MFA lead a class of robo-nursing students through a discussion about how this specific telling could only have come from this specific moment in this specific society. We are not at History’s end, and we shouldn’t approach our art (feel free to put quotation marks around that word, if you’d like) with a spirit of conservationism.
That being said, aye yai yai does this specific telling reflect the abhorrent values and mores of this specific moment in this specific society. We’ve taken a cautionary tale about overconsumption in a time of famine, and turned it into a paean to excess. The dark undertones of violence visited upon children: now a Technicolor celebration of violence marketed to children. And the pervasive misogyny…well, that’s all still there. Ugly women bad, pretty girls good. (Ugly men, though, secretly want to be good; they’ve just been manipulated by evil women.)
I can’t say I was surprised or disappointed by any of this. It’s not like I’ve never seen an action movie before, and I more or less got the 90 minutes I paid for. If I really wanted to effect a more hopeful, enlightened culture, I would stop going to see movies like Hansel and Gretel, and spend my money on, I don’t know, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. But I don’t. Like this movie, I am the product of a singular moment in a singular culture, and I want to see Famke Jannsen fly around on a flaming broom before getting shot down by a handsome woodsman with nice arms. (Or, if you can’t find one of those, Jeremy Renner. Zing!)
Because that’s the difference between the stories that live on through countless retellings, and the ones that go the way of, say, Howard the Duck. As much as we might not like to admit it, we are told the stories we want to hear.