Bringing fantasy to life

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Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Massimiliano Olivi via Pixabay

Creative character adaptations in Once Upon a Time

In the past decade, there has been a significant increase in the popularity of fairy tales, evident by their minor and major incorporation within various films and TV shows. While all these films and TV shows have had varying degrees of success, some, such as one of my all-time favourite shows, Once Upon a Time, have been more successful. For 156 episodes, spread over seven seasons, this fantasy TV show brings dozens of fictional characters from fairy tales, ancient mythology and Authurian legend to life and draws viewers in with its excellent story writing and captivating and intense plotlines. While all these features make this show well worth watching, in my opinion, the best attribute of Once Upon a Time is its unique character and plotline adaptations and expansions because, not only are they so damn creative, but they present a more contemporary and realistic perspective which significantly differs from the original, classic stories many children (myself included) have grown up with.

One of the greatest features of fairy tales is, as University of Regina English professor  Dr. Jes Battis suggests, their “timeless appeal.” These type of stories can never actually be outgrown, but rather have the opportunity to be changed every time they are told, which shows not only how “universal storytelling is,” but also encourages people to see a situation, or story “from [multiple] different perspectives.” This alternate viewpoint is greatly exhibited in Once Upon a Time. Instead of simply bringing the characters on the show to life based on original presentations and portrayals, the show’s two creators and main writers, Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, took a much more skillful and creative approach.

For each of the characters, the show’s writers developed an incredibly interesting backstory, which is revealed through numerous flashbacks at specific moments throughout the series. This has two main benefits. Firstly, it expands on a specific character’s storyline – something that is impossible in the short span of the original story and/or film. Secondly, presenting viewers with an in-depth perspective of how a character came to be who they are, makes the character seem like a realistic individual, rather than simply a character on a page, or screen. Heroes and villains are not simply born as one or the other; instead, these personalities are formed  based on the impact and influence of previous experiences.

Additionally, Kitsis and Horowitz also decided to alter and expand on characters’ personalities and storylines. While this character adaptation exists with all of the show’s characters, it is mostly clearly emphasized with five main individuals: Mulan, Little Red Riding Hood – or Red, as she is commonly referred to on the show – Rumpelstiltskin, Peter Pan and Captain Hook.

In the original story of Mulan, she is portrayed as a strong, selfless Chinese woman, who disguises herself as a man in order to save her elderly father from being recruited into the army. Though in Once Upon a Time Mulan (Jamie Chung) maintains some of her original attributes, such as her Asian background, strength and selflessness, they are demonstrated much differently. For example, Mulan demonstrates her selflessness not by helping out her father, but rather by helping multiple other female characters to discover and develop their own physical and inner strength. Additionally, unlike the original tale, in this TV show, Mulan is depicted as a gay with a romantic female love interest, demonstrating significant modernization.

Similarly, Little Red Riding Hood, or Red (Meghan Ory) is another character on the show who is portrayed as a gay woman, who develops romantic feelings for another woman in a later season of the series. However, what is most interesting about her adaptation on the show, is that her character embodies two of the characters from the original fairy tale. Red has the unique ability to turn into a wolf. However, before she is able to master this unique ability, the red, hooded cloak acts as protection to prevent her from transforming.

In Once Upon a Time, Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle) still maintains an evil side, demonstrated by his role as “the dark one.” However, unlike the original Brothers Grimm fairy tale where he is only involved in one short story, in this TV show, his character is featured in all 156 episodes. He also has a much larger and central role based on the fact that not only is he involved in almost all the other character’s individual stories, but also greatly impacts and influences the entire course of the series, even from the very beginning.

Lastly, are the unique characters of Captain Hook (Colin O’Donoghue) and Peter Pan (Robbie Kay). Although in the original story of Peter Pan (which I will admit completely creeped me out as a child),  Peter Pan is a young boy hero and Captain Hook is ugly, old, and evil, these roles and characteristics are greatly reversed in Once Upon a Time. Peter Pan is actually old, despite his youthful appearance, and also incredibly evil, while Captain Hook, although still a pirate, is young, good-looking and actually a good person despite some people’s initial perceptions.

Undoubtedly, there can be a major risk to bringing fairy tales and other similar fantasy stories to life in film and TV shows, since not only are they often associated with childhood, but also because there’s a chance people may be disappointed or upset by the portrayal of their favourite fantasy characters. On the other hand, doing so is also a major benefit because it allows these stories to be modernized in a way that fits and highlights contemporary views and situations.

According to Professor Battis, one of the most important elements needed for a successful show is “great characterization” and this is clearly demonstrated in Once Upon a Time. For anyone who loves fantasy and fairy tales, I would highly recommend you check this show out. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

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