We get it: Hansel and Gretel is scary. It’s about two kids who find a witch’s gingerbread cottage and – depending on what version you’re looking at – are either killed, escape, or become witch hunters played by Gemma Arterton and that guy who had a social networking app. But after seeing the trailer for Gretel & Hansel, another adaptation of this familiar story, we couldn’t help but ask: what other Grimm fairy tales deserve their time on the big screen?
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm gathered over 200 folk fairy tales for their famous collection, but for the most part, we tend to focus on a select few – like Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Rumpelstiltskin. Much of that is thanks to Disney, which turned the tales of characters like Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel and the Frog Prince into renowned animated stories. But there are hidden treasures hiding in those hundreds of tales yet to be told.
These stories have yet to receive a major film adaptation but totally deserve one. Tales of undying love, sibling loyalty and uncompromising (and a bit aloof) bravery. Plus, of course, a vengeance so delicious it would put both Hansel and Gretel to shame.
1. The Story of a Boy Who Went Forth to Learn Fear
Synopsis: There’s a young man whose father just can’t stand him because he has no job prospects, so he’s asked to go out and learn a skill. The son knows just the thing: he has no idea what it’s like to be scared. So he heads out into the world to learn how to “shudder”, but finds he gets more annoyed than terrified.
A town elder tries to scare him but, instead, the son thinks it’s an attacker and pushes the guy down the stairs, breaking his leg. Then, the boy is told to spend the night underneath a hanging tree with seven dangling corpses. He’s super cool with it, even goes so far as to cut them down and lay him by his campfire to be nice. But then, the corpses start catching fire and the boy gets pissed off, so he hangs them back on the tree. While they’re still on fire.
The story ends with the boy spending three nights in a king’s haunted house, undergoing a series of horrific supernatural challenges. But they never scare him, he just spends his time getting irritated at the ghosts, ghouls and armies of killer animals that bother his sleep. Eventually, he’s rewarded with a bunch of gold and the princess’ hand in marriage. Because he was too aloof to care about things so silly as coffins, black cats and corpses on fire.
Reason: This was the fairy tale that inspired me to create this list in the first place. It’s become a bit of an underground favourite among Grimm fairy tale fans, receiving television adaptations in both Jim Henson’s The Storyteller and Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre. But this tale deserves so much more. It’s basically the story of a millennial who spends all of his time being so over everything... including fear itself. I could see this as a horror-comedy about a young man who spends all his time being just ever-so-slightly annoyed by all the things that are expected to terrify us in modern-day horror.
2. The Seven Ravens
Synopsis: After having seven sons, two parents finally give birth to a baby girl. Unfortunately, she’s incredibly weak and near-death, so the parents send their sons to the river – either for drinking water or an emergency baptism, depending on the version. One of the boys drops the jug into the river and they all refuse to come home out of shame. The father’s response is to angrily wish they would all turn into birds... and that’s exactly what happens. The sons turn into ravens and fly away, and the parents find they cannot break this curse.
Several years pass, and the girl has mostly recovered. She’s distraught to overhear strangers saying she was responsible for the loss of her seven brothers, something her parents had never told her about. They insist it’s not her fault, but the guilt continues to eat at her until she decides to venture out on a quest to save them. She travels the world, first visiting the sun (which tries to eat her), the moon (which also tries to eat her), and then finally the stars, which give her the tools needed to find and rescue her brothers. She climbs a glass mountain, sacrifices her own finger to unlock a door, and ventures inside. Upon reuniting with her raven brothers, they all turn back into humans. Her love broke the curse.
Reason: This story has been historically interpreted as a metaphor for daughters who yearned for their brothers to return from war, so they could leave their family home and marry... but that isn’t as prevalent in 2019. Nowadays, it’s a tale of a young girl who wants to make her family whole again and goes on a journey to the heavens itself to accomplish her goal. Feels very Disney Pixar, doesn’t it? In a tiny way, it already is. Some versions of the tale have three ravens instead of seven, akin to Merida’s three younger brothers in Brave who are magically turned into baby bears. But the parallels seem to start and end there.
3. The Three Snake Leaves
Synopsis: After proving his honour and valour in the battlefield, a young soldier is rewarded by the king with a place in line for the throne, as well as his daughter’s hand in marriage. There’s just one caveat: the daughter has this weird thing where suitors have to promise that whoever dies first, the spouse gets buried alive with them. The soldier agrees because, why not, he’s probably going to live forever. Unfortunately, she doesn’t. A short time later, she falls gravely ill and dies. The king forces the soldier to hold his end of the bargain and buries him alive with the wife’s body. Wait... it gets better.
The soldier is chilling in the crypt, struggling to keep alive with his small rations while avoiding the madness of literally being trapped with a corpse, when something happens. The soldier finds a snake and kills it – only for another snake to show up, place three small leaves on the snake’s body, and bring it back to life. The soldier gets an idea and puts the leaves on the princess. She wakes up and they escape the crypt. But she’s... different. She’s grown meaner and colder, and all her love for her husband seems to have vanished.
Eventually, it all comes to a head. The princess conspires with a sea captain to murder her husband in his sleep and bury him at sea – promising to make the captain her new spouse and heir to the throne. Unbeknownst to them, the soldier’s servant had kept the three leaves. He finds the man’s body and revives him. Just as the princess is explaining what happened to the king, the soldier reveals himself and exposes her treachery. As punishment, she and the sea captain are sent out in a hole-ridden boat to drown.
Reason: Damn, Riverdale’s got nothing on this twisted tale of backstabbing and paranormal revenge. It’s like The Count of Monte Cristo or Gone Girl, only with creepy undead magic and way more snakes. This tale is grounds for a chilling and horrific supernatural mystery where nothing is as it seems.
4. The True Sweethearts
Synopsis: A beautiful young woman lives with her cruel, abusive stepmother. She forces the girl to complete a series of fruitless chores every night, like picking 12 pounds of feathers or using a spoon to empty the water out of an entire pond. Luckily, the young woman is visited by an old woman, who uses her magic to complete the girl’s chores so she won’t get beaten. The final chore, where the stepmother asks the daughter to build a castle, ultimately ends with the stepmother being crushed to death by a cellar door... because that old woman knew what the crap she was doing.
Then comes the second part of the young woman’s story. She’s living alone in the castle, accumulating wealth and suitors to match. Eventually, she falls in love with a prince and agrees to marry him. Right before he leaves to get his father’s blessing, she kisses him on the cheek and promises to wait under a lime tree for him. Days go by and he doesn’t return, so she packs up her three best dresses, hires herself out as a cowherd and goes to find him. Lo and behold, he’s engaged to a princess and seems to not recognise her.
Over the course of three balls, she tries to get him to remember her, adorned each night in one of her beautiful dresses: the first embroidered by suns, the second by moons and the third with stars. On the third night, she kisses him and he remembers who she is, so they head to the castle and get married. Cue the happily ever after.
Reason: We’ve seen a lot of adaptations of Grimm fairy tales about princesses who overcome adversity to find true love, like Cinderella, Snow White and Rapunzel. One we haven’t really seen yet is the story of The True Sweethearts, which takes some of the best elements of Cinderella and The Little Mermaid and adds some killer fashion. The story itself is a little uneven at times, but the best part about a Grimm fairy tale is getting to adapt it, making changes that better serve a modern-day audience.
5. The Stolen Pennies
Synopsis: It starts with a man coming over to his friend’s house for dinner. He’s sitting with the friend, along with his wife and children, around midnight when he spies something strange: a small, pale child, dressed all in white, walks into the room, looks around a bit, then leaves. This happens for a couple of nights in a row, leading the man to ask his friend: “Hey, whose kid is that?” But no one else could see them.
Eventually, the man decides to investigate. He goes to another room and looks in, where he sees the child sitting on the ground, digging between the crevices in the floor. The moment he walks in, the child disappears. The man describes it to the family, and the mother interjects, super casually: “Oh yeah, that’s my kid, who died a month ago.” No big deal it’s just a ghost!
They realise the child was trying to dig up some pennies they had stolen and hidden in the floorboards, as it couldn’t rest until it had made up for its crime. The family finds the pennies, gives them to a poor man, and the child ghost was never seen again.
Reason: This is full-on spooky The Grudge meets The Others. A little ghost child wandering the halls of their old home, and no one can see them except this family friend. Then, when the family realises who’s been haunting them, they barely seem to care! You could turn this into an amazing supernatural story about a person who comes to visit a friend and their family in their home, only to find they’re being haunted by the ghost of a dead child... that only this one person can actually see.
6. Fitcher’s Bird
Synopsis: I sincerely hope you’re ready for some Bloodborne, Pan’s Labyrinth shit. This story is about a sorcerer who habitually abducts young women to be his brides. Every time he captures one, he locks them in his home and gives them an egg to look after, which is never supposed to leave their side. They’re also given keys to the house and allowed to explore any room... except one. The first woman in the story goes into the forbidden room and comes across a terrifying sight: a basin of blood filled with dismembered body parts. Only problem is, she forgot she was carrying the egg and got some blood on it. The sorcerer finds out she went into his secret blood room and kills her in the way he did others.
The same fate befalls the woman’s younger sister. Then, the third sister in the family gets kidnapped. He was very determined to marry into this family I guess. She’s also given an egg and told not to go into the forbidden room – however, unlike the others, she smartly left the egg in another room before exploring. She finds her sisters’ body parts in the basin and manages to put their bodies back together, bringing them back to life. Yeah, that’s a sentence I just wrote, and it’s fucking brilliant.
The sorcerer finds the youngest sister and her unbloodied egg and is, like, “You’re awesome I want to marry you right now”. But she insists he first takes a giant basket of gold back to her parents as a dowry, keeping secret that her two sisters are hiding in the basket. She promises to watch him from the window. But when he’s out of sight, she dresses up a skull at the window to look like her, covers herself in honey and feathers, and walks out of the house dressed like a strange giant bird. A bunch of wedding guests pass her on the way to the sorcerer’s house, addressing her as “Fitcher’s Bird” – this includes the sorcerer himself, and she tells him she’s waiting for him inside the home. Once the sorcerer and the guests are inside, the sisters’ relatives bar the doors and burn the house to the ground.
Reason: Do I even need a reason? It’s got everything: magic, sisters, revenge, eggs. Someone get Guillermo del Toro on the phone and tell him there’s a Grimm story he needs to turn into the next horrific fairy tale, like, yesterday.
Featured image: MGM