EDITORIAL: A look at movies based on folklore

In the world of movies, the lines between folklore, fairy tale, mythology, and fantasy have been blurred for quite some time.  Need examples?  Take a look at the two prominent movies opening this weekend: Disney/Pixar's Brave and 20th Century Fox'sAbraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Brave is Pixar's first attempt at their first original fairy tale with roots in Scottish mythology and folklore.  On the fair opposite end of the spectrum, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter seeks to add new layers to the legend of our 16th President by making him a slayer of undead vampires.  Because both movies have their roots in real mythology and places, they qualify as extensions of folklore.

Just to add to the discussion, I wanted to lay out some movie recommendations for those seeking stories of folklore brought to the big screen. With so many possibilities, the lines became blurred again. In order to give a more broad view to movies basked on folklore, I ended up making regional and legend groupings. I did my best to try keep the fairy tales (everything Disney) and fantasy (everything on the side of Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings) and stick to stories with real geographic roots, just as good folklore should.  I don't care if Star Wars starts with "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..."  It's not a folktale at any of our campfires in this galaxy.  If I left anything out, I'm sure my fellow and former teachers will let me know. Take a look.

(All poster images are from IMDb)


Arguably the most famous legend of folklore in the world is the gallant story of the boy who would be king, his magical sword, his love of Guinevere, his betrayal from Lancelot, the Lady of the Lake, the wizard Merlin, and the quest for the cup of Christ.  The best of the best of the many movies that have been done on the subject is 1981's bloody and epic Excalibur by John Boorman.  Training Day director Antoine Fuqua and star Clive Owen did their best to connect to Roman/English history with 2006's King Arthur.    Hollywood glamour made First Knight with Richard Gere and Sean Connery and Disney's softer touch created The Sword in the Stone.  When all else fails, go with the endless quotable comedy of Monty Python and the Holy Grail lampooning the legend.


If King Arthur is the most famous piece of folklore, the story of Robin Hood is the most identifiable.  Whether it's a Disney fox or Errol Flynn, we all picture the green attire, the tights, the pointed hat, and the bow and arrow.  Errol Flynn's 1938's classic, The Adventures of Robin Hoodstill stands the test of time and is easily the most entertaining movie of the story.  Much like First Knight, Hollywood glamour brought forth the memorable Kevin Costner vehicle Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and the 2010 Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott collaboration Robin Hood (my full review).  Both movies rooted their story in the folklore of The Crusades.  For a little something different, try an aging Robin Hood story with Audrey Hepburn and Sean Connery in 1976's Robin and Marian.  Once again, if it's laughs you seek, go for Mel Brooks' Robin Hood: Men in Tights from 1993.


Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, two 19th century German brothers and authors, gave the wolrd some of the most well-known folktales and fairy tales.  They gave us the stories of Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, and The Frog Prince.  While most have been Disney-fied into fairy tales (like Cinderella. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and Tangled, their roots are in folklore.  Look no further than this very year and the two different interpretations of Snow White with Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman.  The Brothers Grimm even got their own movie about themselves with Matt Damon and Heath Ledger from Monty Python and the Holy Grail director Terry Gilliam.


While the leprechaun in me is still waiting for a great movie version of Finn McCool, many Irish folktales have been turned into movies.  Two of them, The Secret of Roan Inish  from John Sayles and Neil Jordan's 2009 film Ondine starring Colin Farrell, revolve around the existence of mythical seals called "selkies" that can take human form.  For another dash of green, check out Shakespeare combining Celtic and Roman mythology in A Midsummer Night's Dream, which have been turned into a movie five times, most recently in 1998.


While the English and German's dominate folklore thanks to Robin Hood, King Arthur, and the Brothers Grimm, the French have a few winning connections.  Technically, Beauty and the Beast, at least the way Disney famously spun it, is French.  Also, Puss in Boots might be an off-shoot of the Shrek fairy tale spoofs and embodied by Zorro himself Antonio Banderas, but its roots come from 1697 French fairy tale, as does Little Red Riding Hood.  The dark world of wolves and the "Beast of Gevauden" comes out with the very underrated  Brotherhood of the Wolf from 2001.  For something more historically based, the triumphs of Joan of Arc have been folklore and legend on many levels.  Her story has been made into over 25 films from eight different countries, most notable in 1948 with Ingrid Bergman and 1999 with Milla Jovovich.


Staying in Europe, the Scandinavians have their own formidable mythology, thanks to the legendary exploits and tales of the Vikings.  One of those tall tales turned into a fantasy film is the decent 1999 fantasy film The 13th Warrior with Antonio Banderas, directed by Die Hard helmer John McTiernan.  The biggest hit has been the Dreamworks animated film How to Train Your Dragon (sequel on the way).  The mischief of Loki was the symbolic power of Jim Carrey's The Mask.  Once I say that, the comic book blockbusters of Thor andThe Avengers put their spin on the Norse gods.  For something uniquely violent and different, try 2009's Valhalla Rising from the director of Drive.  Lastly, though not as Norse-based, but still rooted in Scandinavia is the classic epic manuscript of Beowulf, most popularly put to film via performance capture CGI technology by Robert Zemeckis in 2007.


In some countries or regions of the world, the existing polytheistic religious system is their source of folklore.  That couldn't be more prevalent that with the Greeks and Romans and their interlaced mythology.  From Hercules to Jason and the Argonauts and both versions of Clash of the Titans, the heroes of Greek mythology have been a ripe tree for movie adaptations.  Also, their rich history gets the legendary and stylized movie treatment in films like Troy (based on Achilles and Helen of Troy), 300 (based on the battle of Thermopylae), and, to a different extent, Spartacus and Gladiator (one based on fact and the other fiction) dealing with the Roman way of life of slaves and gladiators.


Brave-- Of course, as aforementioned, Disney/Pixar's dive into fictional Scottish folklore counts on this study.

Braveheart-- When speaking of Scotland and larger than life legends, you have to consider the tale of William Wallace.

War Horse-- More modern that your typical folktale or fable, this World War I-set dramatic adventure about horses matches this genre.

The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep-- Before we leave the United Kingdom, this is an excellent kid's movie on the fabled Loch Ness monster from 2007 and the director of Ladder 49, Jay Russell.

Pan's Labyrinth-- Mexican director Guillermo del Toro's highly regarded 2006 dark fantasy film set in a Spanish fantasy world during the 1940's.  It combines imagery of the day with a dash of Roman mythology.

El Cid-- 11th century Castilian knight Don Ridrigo Diaz Vivar is, in many ways, Spain's answer to King Arthur about the growing legend of a real person who fought against the invading North Africans and unified Spain.  Charlton Heston played his romantic story out beside Sophia Loren in 1961.


The United States of America, though a young country compared to its European peers, has its own rich folklore, most of which hasn't made for many movies. Disney gave us Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier and the Patrick Swayze-Pecos Bill folk tale mash-upTall Tale, but you won't see any Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, or John Henry solo movies. Instead, our urban legends have made movies, some comedic like Harry and the Hendersons and some scary like The Mothman Prophecies.  However, as aforementioned, this weekend other new release, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter counts as a new twist to a legend and folklore. Lastly, in California during Spanish rule before the U.S., the exploits of the Mexican hero Zorro (embodied most notably by Douglas Fairbanks, Tyrone Power, Antonio Banderas, and soon Gael Garcia Bernal) count as the stuff of legend beside the Santa Anna-controlled Southwest.  Before we leave America, I'll ask the question of the frontier west.  Are westerns considered folklore of a different genre?  If so, you might have to look at Shane (the best of the possible fable bunch),  The Searchers, Dances With Wolves High Noon, TombstoneWyatt Earp, Young GunsThe Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Unforgiventhe spaghetti westerns of Siergo Leone (The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, etc.) and even Legends of the Fall as new possibilities.


One new brand of American folklore is the fictional sports fable. While athletics have become popular and "living legends" have been born, authors and movie makers have crafted folklore-like stories within some of those sports. Take Rocky for example. It's an excellent folklore-ish story of an underdog within sports. For more, dive into the mythical qualities possessed by the outstanding pair of baseball films Field of Dreams and The Natural. Both are fictitious, but set baseball as a place for magic. I'll even throw in the animated Christopher Reeve-directed Babe Ruth kid's movie, Everybody's Heroand The Sandlot as extra credit. Finally, loosely based on India's Bhagavad Gita story, Robert Redford's golf movie The Legend of Bagger Vance with Matt Damon and Will Smith is a perfect example of sports extending into folklore.


Over the last thirty years or so, "anime" movies have been richly rooted in fantasy, some of which are based on regional folklore.  Renowned Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki has built a career on creating excellent worlds of folklore with respected movies such as Spirited AwayPrincess MononokePonyo, and The Secret World of Arrietty.  On the Chinese side, I really enjoy the folklore and mysticism within the Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with its great blend of culture and fantasy.


Call these types of movies the "also" list when speaking loosely of folklore. Technically, the oral history and passed down stories of pirates, vampire, werewolves, monsters, and zombies are, in their own way, a sub-genre of regional folklore. Their use of Earthly settings to tell a plausible, yet unrealistic story fit the definition of folklore and their matching movies do as well. So add all of the seemingly endless pirate (the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Treasure IslandCaptain BloodThe Sea HawkCutthroat Island, etc.), vampire (the many incarnations of DraculaInterview with a Vampire, the Twilight series, Nosferatu, etc.), werewolf (the many versions of The WolfmanThe HowlingAn American Werewolf in LondonDog Soldiers30 Days of Night, and hell even Teen Wolf, etc.), and zombie (Dawn of the DeadNight of the Living DeadDay of the DeadShaun of the DeadZombieland, etc.) movies to the "also" list of folklore sub-genres.

Stay tuned! Next, I will take all of these and ranks a new Top 10 list of the best movies based on folklore.