Has anybody not heard or read or seen (on TV or film) the tales of Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Tom Thumb, and The Pied Piper of Hamelin? These are just a few of the stories that were brought to the hearts and minds of countless children the world over since the first collection of these tales was first published in 1812. The authors of these collections of fairy tales were the Grimm Brothers – Jacob and Wilhelm.
Almost 200 years later, Hollywood released the film the Brothers Grimm (2005) by celebrated director Terry Gilliam with two of the hottest stars today, Heath Ledger and Matt Damon. Production budget was reported to have reached $ 80 million.
For many film buffs, Gilliam is known as the only non-British member of the repertory (writer / director / producer / actor) of the Monty Python satirical series. For Hollywood, he directed, among others, 12 Monkeys (1995 starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt) and The Fisher King (1991) with Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges. I like best his sci-fi film Brazil (1985) and his fantasy film Baron Munchhausen (1988).
While there are countless films on the works of writers, films about the lives of writers are rare. There are numerous films of Shakespeare’s plays but only one on his life. The makers of Shakespeare in Love merged the historical Shakespeare with his works, specifically Romeo and Juliet, and came out with an extremely entertaining movie.
Films are fiction unless they are documentaries and declared to be so. Films claiming to be based on true stories are still fiction. Shakespeare in Love is based on the life of Shakespeare but is fiction. The Brothers Grimm is based on the life of the Grimm brothers but is very far from the true story of the 19th century story-tellers.
The film Brothers Grimm is about two siblings who were 19th century con artists. They dupe people into believing that they are authentic ghost busters who rid German villages of evil spirits – for a handsome fee. But one of the brothers (Jacob played by Heath Ledger) actually is a believer. Jacob is into the ghost busting scheme with his brother not because of money but because it gives him the opportunity to document these unworldly tales. He hopes that one day, these tales will actually materialize.
The first scene of the film involves a flashback where Mother Grimm is crying over a very sick daughter. Then Jacob comes in running. Elder brother Wilhelm stops him and asks if he sold the cow and how much he got for it. Jacob says yes and opens his palm to reveal beans. The boy says he was told that they were not ordinary beans and that the beans would cure their sister and they would all live happily ever after. Wilhelm becomes furious and beats him.
The film then fast forwards to 1811, some 15 years later. The Brothers Grimm enter another haunted village to con the peasants out of their money. Jacob is part of his brother Wilhelm’s ghost-hunting schemes. But he is there not for the money but for the beans. His quest is for the magical beans.
The film melds the scenes from the Grimm’s Fairy Tales into the movie beautifully as if these tales were actual events encountered by the brothers. In the forest of Marbaden, ten girls disappeared mysteriously. One was Little Red Riding Hood and another was Gretel, sister of Hansel. One girl was turned into the Gingerbread Man and one was devoured by a Big Bad Horse (instead of Wolf).
The forest is haunted by a 500-year old wicked witch with Rapunzel-like mile-long hair and a magic mirror. In the mirror’s reflection, the witch’s appearance remains young (played by the beauteous Monica Belluci).
Lena Headey plays Angelika, the trapper who understands the ways of the forest and helps the brothers penetrate its secrets. She is the romantic interest of the two lead protagonists. However, there was not enough character build-up to arouse viewer interest in the love triangle.
The fault of the movie lies precisely in the characterizations. Unlike Filipino films which are episode-driven, Hollywood and other foreign films are character-driven. Somehow, the characters in this movie fall flat. My first impression was that the actors should have changed roles. Heath Ledger (Ned Kelly, The Order), although nine years younger than Matt Damon, seems too dignified to act as the bumbling, slow-witted brother of Damon (Ocean’s Eleven / Twelve, Jersey Girl, Goodwill Hunting).
I learned later that the actors originally were cast in the opposite roles. But both Ledger and Damon asked Gilliam to allow them to switch roles to make it more challenging. They wanted to try acting “against type”.
As for the role of Angelika, Gilliam wanted to cast the sensuous Samantha Morton but the producers wanted Lena Headey.
The filming of the Brothers Grimm encountered several problems – change of producers, firing of the cinematographer, disagreements between the director and the producers, etc.
In spite of all the production problems, the Brothers Grimm turned out to be a very good film and in many ways, unique. It has the touch of an epic film but without the computer-generated scenes of thousands of warriors seen in recent epic films. This movie has a very human scale. It is scary yet funny. It is magical yet real.
The real Grimm brothers were academics who compiled folk tales in order to preserve and learn more of their culture and language. The brothers’ wrote volumes of books on German language and grammar including the German Dictionary. Together and separately, the brothers produced numerous works. But their fame rests on their Fairy Tales project.
German Prof. Jack Zipes, the leading expert on Grimm’s Fairy Tales says these tales “serve a meaningful social function, not just for compensation but for revelation– the worlds projected by the best of our fairy tales reveal the gaps between truth and falsehood in our immediate society.”
Sigmund Freud used Grimm’s fairy tales to illustrate his dream analysis. For Freud, fairy tales are, like dreams, symbolic. These tales have different levels of meaning, expound / expand the meaning of reality and usually contain sexual elements.
Fairy tales are not just for children. They are part of our magical selves. This film is not a homage to the Grimm brothers but to the tales that they compiled. Brothers Grimm is a great fairy tale that gives the audience what the original tales contain –humor, daring, romance, magic and the macabre.
Published in Mr. & Ms. Magazine, December 2005