Anthony Breznican
February 18, 2011 AT 05:00 AM EST

This version of Snow White begins with someone saying: How about Julia Roberts as the villain? And that’s how the fairest Pretty Woman in the land found herself cast as the Evil Queen. Roberts is the highest-profile star to join a coming surge of fairy tales being adapted into live-action fantasy epics, with not one but three Snow White movies in the works, as well as action-adventure spins on Hansel and Gretel and Jack and the Beanstalk and sexy retellings of Little Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast.

This onslaught of flicks has been attributed to the success of Tim Burton‘s Alice in Wonderland, which brought in more than $1 billion worldwide — although Alice is not technically a fairy tale. More than just a synonym for ”children’s story,” these legends are part of a tradition of oral storytelling that dates back centuries before the Brothers Grimm collected them in print in the early 1800s. ”Fairy tales are made up from more than the imagination of one person,” says Twilight‘s Catherine Hardwicke, who directed Amanda Seyfried in the gothic Red Riding Hood. ”They’re known all over the world. Studios are enamored with making something that already has built-in name recognition or a fan base.” She adds, ”And also the underlying rights are free.”

Besides, fantasy escapism rules the box office, and these stories deliver magic, monsters, and mysterious settings, along with moral lessons that transcend the ages. In Beastly (opening March 4), a present-day take on Beauty and the Beast, I Am Number Four star Alex Pettyfer plays a cruel, wealthy bully who is cursed with disfigurement (creeping tattoos and scars, not fur) after tormenting a young girl about her looks. In keeping with tradition, of course, he can only be cured by the love of another — in this case, Vanessa Hudgens. (Neil Patrick Harris costars as the bratty beast’s tutor.) ”There’s something about the transformative power of love that’s incredibly compelling,” says director and screenwriter Daniel Barnz, who adapted the script from a popular young-adult novel. ”We want to believe that love will change us, and that we can change people through love. That’s why this story takes hold so strongly.” Red Riding Hood (out March 11) uses its source material as a metaphor for a young woman’s independence, adding a love triangle, controlling parents, and a werewolf that stalks wandering villagers. ”You’ve got the safe journey and the more risky journey,” Hardwicke says. ”And how do you decide if you’ve gone too far? Or not far enough?”

The list of other tales currently in production reads like the table of contents from Best-Loved Folktales: Those bread-crumb-tossing tykes menaced by a cannibalistic gingerbread-house dweller become fodder for a revenge thriller with Paramount’s Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, starring Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton as the grown-up brother and sister, and Famke Janssen as their nemesis. (It begins filming next month, with the release date still uncertain.) Meanwhile, Warner Bros. is about to begin production on Bryan Singer‘s Jack the Giant Killer, with Nicholas Hoult (About a Boy, A Single Man) confirmed to star as the beanstalk-climbing hero, Stanley Tucci as a sinister royal adviser, and Bill Nighy as a leader of the (very) big bad villains.

As for the Snow White pics, Tarsem Singh — who’s directing Roberts as his ”likable Evil Queen” for Relativity Media — aims to beat the competition by getting his film into theaters July 29, 2012. One rival is Snow White and the Huntsman, a Universal Pictures film in which the heroine finds herself chained to the man sent to kill her in the woods. (Sources say the lead role has been offered to Kristen Stewart, but nothing is official yet. Charlize Theron is on board to play, you guessed it, the Evil Queen. Disney — which released the definitive version of the tale in 1937 — is also getting back into the game, developing a kung fu take called Snow and the Seven, in which the dwarves are warrior monks.

Even though she’s at the forefront of this trend with Red Riding Hood, Hardwicke has mixed feelings about the wave of adaptations following her. ”I’m kind of down because I want to do more fairy-tale films after this,” she laughs. Sleeping Beauty is one that hasn’t been snapped up yet. But filmmakers should take a lesson from its somnolent heroine: You snooze, you lose.

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