Television Thursdays- Once Upon a Time

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Short StoryOnce Upon a Time is a modern-day interpretation of Snow White, the medieval fairy tale which has countless variations all over Europe. The best known interpretation is the German version, written down by Brothers Grimm.

Premise: Snow White’s kingdom has been placed under a terrible curse by the Evil Queen where they are sent to a strange new world… our world. The story inhabitants live in Storybrooke, Maine and have no knowledge of their former selves. The only one who can break this curse is Snow White and Prince Charming’s daughter, 28 yr. old orphan Emma Snow. It is up to Emma to go to Storybrooke and save the kingdom.

Adaptation Status: The pilot for Once Upon a Time aired 23 October 2011 on ABC. The show airs Sunday nights at 8 pm. Once Upon a Time stars Ginnifer Goodwin, Jennifer Morrison, Josh Dallas, and Lana Parrilla.

What’s the Story?

* SPOILER WARNING: Major plot points are revealed in this section.*

In a land far, far away, Snow White is finally marrying her Prince Charming. The Evil Queen interrupts the ceremony to announce a mysterious curse that will descend upon the kingdom very, very soon. A few years later, pregnant Snow White is distraught at the idea that her baby will be in danger. She must know what the curse will be. Snow White is taken down to the dungeon where Rumpelstiltskin sits in a cell. He agrees to tell the future if she gives him the name of the unborn child. The prophecy announces that the fairy tale kingdom will be destroyed by the stopping of time. They will be sent to a new place, a place so terrible they cannot even imagine. The baby is the only one who will escape the curse and save them all when she is 28 years of age. The baby’s name? Emma.

In the modern city of Boston, a gorgeous blonde meets up with a blind date on her birthday. This woman is Emma, a bounty hunter with an uncanny ability to sense when people are lying. Such as her latest disastrous date. She is not actually there to date the cad, but instead nab him in her job as a bondswoman. Emma returns to her apartment after the terrible date and blows out a candle on her birthday cupcake. Just then, there’s a knock on the door. A 10 year old boy stands on her doorstep and announces himself as Henry, the son she gave up for adoption 10 years prior. He begs her to return with him to Storybrooke, Maine. Reluctantly, Emma agrees to drive Henry home.

Along the way, Henry shows her a large book of fairy tales which he claims is the truth. All the inhabitants of Storybrooke are fairy tale characters trapped in modern personas with no memory of their past. Time is frozen in the town and none of the villagers can leave. Emma quickly returns Henry to his adoptive mother Regina Mills, the mayor of Storybrooke and the former Evil Queen. When she attempts to return to Boston, a large wolf blocks the road and she crashes her car.

Henry soon runs away again. Emma’s investigation leads her to his elementary school teacher, the sickeningly sweet Mary Margaret Blanchard who is the former Snow White. Mary Margaret reveals she is the one who gifted Henry with the book of fairy tales in order to inspire the lonely boy with hope. When Emma later discovers Henry at a playground, he begs her to stay in Storybrooke just for one week. Emma returns him once again to his adoptive mother who tells her in no uncertain words to stay out of his life. But Emma suspects something is just not right.

Emma decides to check into “Granny’s Inn”, where Granny bickers with a dour looking Red Riding Hood/Ruby. Emma vows to stay “just for one week”. We’ll see how that goes for her…

Why Adapt It?

The story of Snow White has endured for centuries, being told and retold since medieval times all across Europe. There is no one original author but the version we are most familiar with is the German version transcribed by Grimms Brothers in the 1800s. This version includes elements such as as the magic mirror, the poisoned apple, and the seven dwarves. Interestingly, these dwarves weren’t given names until the 1912 Broadway play and later renamed in the 1937 animated Disney film.

The story of Snow White is in the public domain, open for adaptation by anyone. Today Disney owns the rights to use the name “Snow White” for all live and recorded movie, television, radio, stage, computer, Internet, news, and photographic entertainment uses, except literature works of fiction and nonfiction. What that means is you can still adapt the fairy tale since the story itself is in the public domain, but you cannot call it Snow White without their permission. Once Upon a Time does not have this issue since Disney owns ABC.

I first saw the advertisements for Once Upon a Time plastered all over the Miami airport. ABC has spared no expense in making sure word got out about this updated fairy tale. Their efforts paid off- Once Upon a Time debuted to an impressive audience of 16 million viewers. Let’s see if they manage to hold onto their numbers as Episode 2 premiers tonight.

Once Upon a Time was created by Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, writers on TV series Lost.  They also serve as Executive Producers alongside Jane Espenson, Steve Pearlman, and Mark Mylod. Damon Lindelof is producer and consultant on the series. ABC Studios and Kitsis/Horowitz produced the series. The series is filmed in Vancouver, Canada.

Ginnifer Goodwin stars as the sweet Snow White/Mary Margaret Blanchard with Josh Dallas playing her Prince Charming/ John Doe. Lana Parrilla is the Evil Queen/Regina Mills and Raphael Sbarge plays Jiminy Cricket/Archie Hooper. In the modern world, Jennifer Morrison stars as Emma Snow and Jared S. Gilmore is Emma’s son Henry.

Does This Adaptation Work?

After hearing all the media buzz about Once Upon a Time and admittedly being enchanted by the charming posters of Ginnifer Goodwin as Snow White, I decided that Once Upon a Time had to be the first selection for the Television Thursdays series. I was curious to see how the writers would balance the real world versus the fairy tale world. I knew it would either be a fantastic success or a dismal failure.  Did they succeed? Read on.

The TV show does a great job in contrasting the two story worlds, Fairy Tale World and Real World. Fairy Tale World is rich with color and intricate details. This is conveyed through elaborate medieval costumes and soft, gentle lighting. But in Real World, it is always raining or overcast. The dark and stormy night is a stereotypical but effective way of conveying the characters’ interior emotions through exterior weather conditions. The characters in the Real World lack the energy and passion of their Fairy Tale equivalents and this shows in the gloomy surroundings. It is almost as if everyone in Storybrooke is waiting with baited breath for their heroine to save them. And though she doesn’t know it yet, Emma has been waiting for them to save her from a purposeless life. It is hard to judge this series’ atmosphere based on the original fairy tale as the pilot picks up right after the princely kiss of life, bypassing the entire history leading up to that point. I imagine in later episodes we will see flashbacks of Snow White’s previous life and then comparisons with the original source material can be properly evaluated.

In terms of thematic elements surrounding the fairy tale and the TV show, Once Upon a Time stays close to its original source material. Snow White is more beautiful than the Evil Queen because of her inherently kind nature, not her outward appearance. Thus in the TV series we see how Snow White/Mary Margaret is kind and gentle, as opposed to the Evil Queen/Regina who undermines everyone. Unlike the fairy tale though, this Snow White has courage which we see from the very first scene. She is not going to let the Queen ruin her happy ending. There’s also a strong undercurrent running through both stories about “unnatural” states of parenthood. In the fairy tale, the stepmother automatically equals evil. Because clearly, she can’t love a child if it’s not biologically hers? There is always this one-sided competition between the Queen and Snow White to be the best woman in the kingdom. In Once Upon a Time, the question revolves around adoption. There are some strong judgments running through the episode about parents who give up their children and the loss the children feel at being left behind. It’s intriguing that Emma, who believes she has been rejected twice (once by her birth parents and once by her adoptive parents), chooses to give up her own child.

Jennifer Morrison shines as Emma Snow. This role could have easily been made more saccharine in the wrong hands, but Morrison provides the right combination of strength and vulnerability to make the all modern fairy tale princess a believable character. I loved Morrison in House and I am glad she has a lead role where she can really shine. The biggest scene stealer by far is Lana Parrilla’s Evil Queen. What a dramatically glorious entrance at the royal wedding! I was both horrified and in love with her within the first three minutes. Bravo to Mark Isham for creating a brilliant score for her character. Parrilla’s ice queen mayor Regina Mills is nothing to sneeze at either, striking a delicate balance between dangerous and maternal. Ginnifer Goodwin certainly looks the part of Snow White with her long dark locks. I greatly appreciate her giving Snow White a stronger spine than the fairy tales ever did while still remaining fairly true to the spirit of the story. I didn’t see enough of her as Mary Margaret Blanchard to judge, but I loved the subtle nod to her Snow White background through the class birdhouse project. Looking forward to seeing the dramatic tension between mother and daughter, there is lots for the writers to explore here. Josh Dallas doesn’t have much to work with in either role, but to be fair, Prince Charming was never a fleshed out character in the fairy tale. Prince Charming’s earnest belief in love and happy endings was endearing, so hopefully Dallas gets his chance to shine soon. The only character I had a problem with is Jared Gilmore’s Henry, but this may be more of a script issue than an acting one. His lines didn’t feel authentic and thus the delivery was wooden and fell flat. It’s hard to write children, but he needs to be better if he is going to compete for screen time with the adult actors. Henry improved as the episode went on, so perhaps there is hope.

This reinterpretation of Snow White does the fairy tale justice. It’s too early to tell what direction the series will take, but I am looking forward to seeing the characters grow over the course of the first season. The creators of Once Upon a Time took a big gamble and it paid off.

Final Score

0 What were they thinking?!

0 Needs improvement

A respectable adaptation

0 Better than the original

Lesson of The Day: Don’t be afraid to take chances with the classics! Fairy tales are an excellent source for adaptation for two main reasons. First, classic fairy tales are in the public domain so free for writers to use (unless you use the Disney version, in which case you’d be slapped with a very expensive lawsuit). Second, fairy tales such as Snow White have endured for centuries because of the universal themes woven throughout the tales. Once Upon a Time serves up a fresh interpretation of an age-worn story that any writer can look to for inspiration.

2 Responses to “Television Thursdays- Once Upon a Time”
Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] world and can only be saved by Emma, the orphaned daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming. See Television Thursdays: One Upon a Time for a more in-depth look. Then Patterson reviews Grimm, a series about cop Nick Burkhardt who […]

  2. […] the wild success of ABC’s Once Upon a Time (see my review of the pilot here) and NBC’s Grimm, it is only natural that people are rushing to captialize on this fairy tale […]

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