The First 10 Films Ever to Be Based on Fairy Tales
1. Rapunzel (1897)
Rapunzel is a tale recorded by the Brothers Grimm about a young woman kept in a tower by a witch. Not much is known about the first adaptation, Rapunzel (1897), as the film is lost and there are no surviving records of the cast and crew.
What’s known is that the film was actually a live recording of a stage play performance, directed by the famed German inventor and film tycoon Oskar Messter. In 1897 alone he produced 84 short films, and his film company went on to produce 350 films from 1909 to 1917. He helped develop the slow-motion photography, adjustable camera lenses, and the first newsreel.
Rapunzel was most recently adapted by Disney for their 50th animated feature film, Tangled (2011).
2. Hansel and Gretel (1897)
Much like Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel was also recorded by the Brothers Grimm, adapted to the stage, and filmed live by Oskar Messter. This story—which centers on a brother and sister who are abandoned in the woods and taken hostage by a cannibalistic witch—was adapted to opera in 1893 by composer Engelbert Humperdinck. Four years later, Messter set up a film crew to record one of its performances.
The film is lost, with no surviving records of the cast and crew. The earliest surviving adaptation of this tale is a Disney animated short film, Babes in the Woods (1932).
3. Cinderella (1898)
Director George Albert Smith was the first to adapt the classic rags-to-riches fairy tale of a mistreated servant girl who sneaks off to a royal ball and marries a prince. He cast his wife, Laura Bayley, in the title role, and she went on to appear in eight of his other films. She even starred alongside him in A Kiss in the Tunnel (1900).
The film has long since been lost. Aside from Smith and Bayley, there is no record left of the cast and crew.
Throughout his career, Smith became known not only for being among the first directors in the fantasy genre, but also for patenting Kinemacolor, a precursor to Technicolor, making it possible to make films in color. He also patented the double-exposure system and was among the first filmmakers to use superimposition, close-ups, and scene transitions using wipes and focus pulls.
4. Cinderella (1899)
French illusionist-turned-filmmaker Georges Méliès, known as “The Father of Special Effects,” is one of the most influential directors of all time. His version of Cinderella, for example, was the first film to have multiple scenes instead of one continuous camera shot, and to use photographic dissolves as transitions between scenes.
The film's visual style was inspired by the work of Gustave Doré, who illustrated a compilation of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales, while the set design was inspired by an 1896 stage adaptation that premiered in Paris.
Méliès later directed another version, Cinderella or the Glass Slipper (1912), in which he played the messenger of the prince that Cinderella marries. The leading actress, Louise Lagrange, had previously starred in Cinderella (1907), directed by Albert Capellani.
To date, the most well-known adaptation is Walt Disney’s animated film Cinderella (1950), which was remade in live-action in 2015. Disney also directed a silent animated short of the same title in 1922.
5. Little Tom Thumb (1901)
In 1621, The History of Tom Thumb became the first fairy tale published in English. The story begins with a peasant and his wife longing for a child, saying they would even be satisfied with a child only the size of a thumb. Sure enough, Tom Thumb is born, and he’s just that size.
Depending on the version of Tom Thumb’s story, his adventures include being carried off by a raven, meeting King Arthur, and getting swallowed by a cow, a fish, and a giant. In 1730, playwright Henry Fielding adapted the story into a play, in which King Arthur awards Tom the hand of a princess.
Though Tom is an only child in the original tales, he’s one of seven children in first film adaptation, Little Tom Thumb (1901). When the family ventures into the forest in search of food, the children get lost and get taken hostage by an ogre. They escape, stealing the ogre’s magic boots in the process, and make it home. They summon a fairy and are bestowed with wealth and a castle to live in for the rest of their days.
Though the story has been mostly adapted in animation, the most well-known is likely Tom Thumb (1958), a live-action musical film that starred Russ Tamblyn.
6. Bluebeard (1901)
Bluebeard, a fairy tale about an aristocrat who murders his wives, was first adapted by Georges Méliès, who also played the title character. His wife, Jeanne d'Alcy, played Bluebeard’s new young wife, who realizes the danger she’s in when she finds a hidden chamber containing the hanging corpses of his previous wives.
When Bluebeard discovers she knows his secret, he attempts to murder her. Luckily, the wife’s relatives arrive just in time, rescue her, and kill Bluebeard, putting an end to his reign of terror. The film ends with an angel restoring the seven murdered wives to life.
The film contains a dream sequence in which the wife, fearful of her husband’s wrath, has a nightmare about seven giant dancing keys, which represent the key she used to unlock the chamber and the seven bodies she found there. As a contrast to the angel, there is also a dancing imp who mischievously tempts her into opening the chamber. These could be considered early examples of psychological horror.
D'Alcy had previously played the Fairy Godmother in Méliès's Cinderella (1899).
7. Little Red Riding Hood (1901)
Another one of Georges Méliès’s early films, Little Red Riding Hood (1901) starred Rachel Gillet as the famous little girl who is preyed upon by a wolf on the way to her grandmother’s house. Though the film was based on Charles Perrault’s version of the story, in which Red Riding Hood is eaten by the wolf and never rescued, Méliès adapted the tale into a comedy, with slapstick humor and a happy ending.
In this version, Red Riding Hood’s parents own a bakery, and they send her to her grandmother’s house when they become fed up by the mischievous pranks she pulls with the bakery staff. Sure enough, she encounters the wolf, but before he can devour her, the bakery staff shows up and chases him through the forest.
In an over-the-top slapstick sequence, the wolf gets shot, takes a somersaulting tumble across a bridge, and falls into a river. His body is then pulled out of the river and roasted on a spit for a group of townspeople to eat.
Little Red Riding Hood was released by Méliès’s Star Film Company, and has since been lost. In the company’s film catalogue, it was described as a series of “picturesque episodes,” and the transition from the exterior to the interior of the grandmother’s cottage was described as a “beautiful stage machinery effect.”
8. The Little Match Seller (1902)
The Little Match Seller (1902) was based on The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Anderson, the story about a poor girl who attempts to sell matches on a freezing-cold winter night. While huddling for warmth in an alley, she lights a few matches and has a series of visions in the firelight: a warm house with a fireplace, a dining table with a roasted turkey, and the kind face of her grandmother.
This film was directed by James Williamson, who was known for gritty films such as A Reservist Before and After the War (1902), Fighting His Battles Over Again (1902), The Soldier’s Return (1903), and The Deserter (1903), all of which were inspired by the real experiences of soldiers returning from the Boer War.
In contrast to the realism of those films, The Little Match Seller made use of special effects, specifically superimpositions, to recreate the visions from Anderson’s story. According to critic Michael Brooke, “Williamson used this conception to create something almost entirely new for the cinema: a serious attempt at depicting a person's inner emotional life on film through purely visual means… using trick effects not to provoke laughter but for serious dramatic reasons.”
9. Snow White (1902)
Snow White—a Brothers Grimm tale of a princess who flees her evil stepmother and finds refuge with a group of dwarfs in a cottage—was first adapted to film in 1902. Little is known of the film, except that it was directed by Siegmund Lubin, released by S. Lubin Productions in 1902, and registered for copyright the following year. There are no surviving records of the cast and crew, nor of the adaptations that followed in 1910, 1913, and 1914.
The oldest surviving version is Snow White (1916), which was based on a successful Broadway play adaptation. Both the play and the film starred Marguerite Clark in the title role. The year before, she starred in The Goose Girl (1915), another adaptation of a Brothers Grimm tale. During the 1920s she was one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actresses, second only to Mary Pickford in popularity.
When Walt Disney was fifteen, he attended a screening of Snow White (1916) at the Convention Hall in Kansas City, Missouri. This film would later inspire his first full-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), which remains the most well-known and popular adaptation to this day.
10. Jack and the Beanstalk (1902)
Jack and the Beanstalk (1902) tells the classic story of a poor farm boy who has to sell his cow to make ends meet, but ends up trading the cow for magic beans instead. Furious, his mother throws the beans into the yard, where they sprout overnight into a giant beanstalk. Jack climbs the beanstalk and reaches an enchanted land where a giant hoards treasure.
One major difference from the original story is that, in this film, Jack receives the magic beans from a fairy, rather than a merchant. After Jack’s mother throws the beans into the yard, the fairy appears to Jack in his dreams and shows him visions of the future battle with the giant.
Once Jack has stolen the treasure from the giant and returns from his adventure, the fairy reappears, waves her wand, and transforms Jack into a knight. The film ends with Jack and his mother riding to a castle in a boat pulled by swans, while the fairy guides them from the air; whereas in the original, Jack and his mother simply lived comfortably with the riches he’d stolen.
Director Edwin S. Porter was inspired by Georges Méliès to use dissolving and fading effects to transition between scenes. He had previously studied Méliès’s work while pirating his films for the Edison Company. Most other adaptations of this tale have been animated, such as Disney’s Mickey and the Beanstalk (1947), The Three Stooges’ Three Jacks and a Beanstalk (1965), and the anime series Jakku to Mame no Ki (1975).