Book Review: Craving Supernatural Creatures, by Claudia Schwabe
Reviewed by David J. Puglia
Bronx Community College, CUNY
Review of Claudia Schwabe's Craving Supernatural Creatures: German Fairy-Tale Figures in American Pop Culture, Wayne State University Press, 2019. Hardcover. 344 pp. ISBN: 978-0814346013.
From “wicked” witches to Big “Bad” Wolves, fantastic, once-frightening creatures are now marketable, appealing, and even sympathetic, extoled in twenty-first century North American film, television, video games, comics, and toys. No longer is there a prevailing binary of good and evil, an assumed hereditary malignity, or a predestined villainy. In Craving Supernatural Creatures, Claudia Schwabe welcomes these fairy-tale retellings, asking how North American postmodern fairy-tale adaptations resituate the concept of the “Other” while also indexing ideological shifts about normativity, diversity, and multiculturalism. Is it a coincidence, Schwabe ponders, that positive representations of the fantastic Other in North America are arising concurrent with a rising tide of racism, xenophobia, and white nationalism? In the face of this clash between twenty-first century artistic representation and twenty-first century social reality, Schwabe demonstrates how fairy-tale adaptions suggest an ideological shift that rejects constructing villainy out of difference, preferring instead to understand, embrace, and celebrate heterogeneity.
Schwabe’s chosen fairy tale adaptations subvert or reject the idea of black-and-white, villainous, unredeemable fantastic creatures. While many critics detest the Disneyfication of fairy tales, Schwabe wisely sidesteps this well-trod diatribe. Her emphasis on the “dissonance” between source tales and popular media is the most appealing aspect of her analytical project. This dissonance calls attention to changing cultural mores, revealing transforming worldviews towards marginal communities, diversity, and multiculturalism. Or, as Schwabe writes, “there is a growing trend in North American popular culture that moves toward the celebration and exhalation of fantastic Otherness, the anthropomorphization and identification with supernatural beings, and the rehabilitation of classic fairy-tale adaptations and their representations of fantastic creatures” (4).
In this research pursuit, Schwabe compares German “source tales” to contemporary adaptations, focusing on North American cinematic and televisual adaptations in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries and especially from the last two decades. For the source tales, chief among them is the Romantic tradition of early nineteenth-century Germany, especially the work of the Brothers Grimm. Of the smorgasbord of concepts available to discuss reused fairy-tales (e.g., postmodern, recycled, remade, fractured), Schwabe prefers “adaptation,” through which she can address retellings, straight and parodic, and pastiche, where characters from folktale, myth, and legend co-exist in one universe, the “fairy-tale web.” In four separate chapters, each structured around different supernatural fairy-tale creatures, Schwabe chooses a character, tale, or trope, examines its life in European fairy tale tradition (especially German), and then re-examines its adaptation into contemporary North American media.
In “Reimagining Uncanny Fairy-Tale Creatures: Automatons, Golems, and Doppelgangers,” Schwabe’s contemplation of the titular beings leads to a closer look at The Stepford Wives, Edward Scissorhands, A.I., Harry Potter, Frozen, Simpsons, X-Files, Sleepy Hollow, and Once Upon a Time. Rather than fearing difference, the author argues that, in North American contemporary media, “postmodern pop culture metamorphoses the monstrous Other featured in German fairy tales into fantastic figures with which to identify” (19). Unlike media encounters with dwarfs or the Big Bad Wolf, stars of future chapters, the infusion of automatons, golems, and doppelgangers into North American media can be inconspicuous, their fairy tale origins obscured, and thus their rehabilitation unnoticed. Difference, while perhaps still frightening at first glance, is no longer dreadful, but instead alluring, understandable, perhaps even loveable. In fact, in these reenvisionings, Schwabe suggests, it’s humans who are the real monsters, performing monstrous deeds or behaving monstrously towards the unfamiliar, commentary on a new era that seeks to reject xenophobia and promote multiculturalism.
In “Evil Queens and Witches: Mischievous Villains or Misunderstood Victims?,” Schwabe spotlights the Grimm’s “Snow White,” reminds readers of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs adaptation, and then dives into modern adaptations of Snow White: A Tale of Terror, Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, and Once Upon a Time. Schwabe notes a growing trend in retellings emphasizing a villain’s backstory. In the black-and-white villain construction, villains are pure evil, with minimal explanation for their raison d’etre. In contrast, “postmodern fairy-tale retellings in North American film, television, and theater,” Schwabe argues, twist, distort, and subvert the classic, archetypical portrayal of villains as they appear in German folk and fairy tales” (93). Even if the villain’s deeds are contemptible, her motives are understandable, and there is a possibility of redemption for her or her progeny.
In “Taming the Monstrous Other: Representations of the Rehabilitated Big Bad Beast in American Media,” the German source tale is the Grimms’ “Little Red Cap,” and this research excursion introduces the reader to Monroe in Grimm, Ruby Lucas in Once Upon a Time, Valerie and Peter in Red Riding Hood, Wolf W. Wolf in Hoodwinked, and Bigby Wolf in Fables. Finding that there’s no longer any reason to be afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, Schwabe argues,
North American pop culture has inverted this archetypal image of the dangerous, scary, bad wolf as manifestation of the uncanny, negatively connoted Other into a supernatural creature that is not primarily Otherized or “monstrified” but portrayed in a positive light, either as rehabilitated, appealing, sexy, and likeable werewolf figure or as a funny, infantilized, anthropomorphized “good” wolf (156).
In contemporary North American media, the rehabilitation of the Big Bad Wolf seems to indicate a trend of accepting those Other-than-human, not assuming their motives are predatory, and of improving societal perceptions of difference and heterogeneity.
In “Dwarfs, Diversity, and Deformation: From Fairy-Tale Imps to Rumpelstiltskin Reloaded,” Schwabe highlights the Germanic and Norse fairy tale tradition. The author returns to “Snow White” to examine the dwarfs in renditions of that tale. After glancing at their treatment in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, she inspects contemporary dwarf portrayal in fairy-tale films, probing the representations of deformation, disability, and diversity. Rather than continuing to conflate physical and moral deformity, she argues that “today’s fairy-tale retellings subvert the notion of the long-bearded old, ugly, wealth-obsessed midget and propagate an image of humanized, heterogeneous dwarfs to whom viewers can relate” (227). Schwabe suspects, as with the other beings highlighted in this book, that this trend reflects a shift in American attitudes toward acceptance of physical difference and away from ability bias.
Schwabe’s treatise demonstrates how North American fairy tale media no longer rejects the abnormal or atypical for the mere sake of their Otherness. Instead, in investigating their backstories and their humanity, and by creating characters with which the audience can identify, Schwabe detects a cultural zeitgeist desiring to overcome stereotypes and attitudes towards difference, whether those be race, ability, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. Rather than fear, these new constructions promote tolerance by showing acceptance, quite literally, for all shapes and sizes. While fairy tale media do not directly reflect contemporary America, Schwabe has identified a promising harbinger for a new era of tolerance, acceptance, and heterogeneity.
Three distinct audiences will benefit from reading Craving Supernatural Creatures. The first is researchers who want to continue Schwabe’s line of inquiry, comparing other German Romantic era tales—or tales from other periods or regions—to contemporary North American fairy-tale media, analyzing the corpus for its “dissonance” and what it says about North American cultural trends. In such a large and unwieldy body of literature, Schwabe could only cover a few tales, leaving plenty of room for future scholars. The possibilities for research, here, are nearly endless. In addition to researchers, teachers of undergraduate folklore, fairy tale, and popular culture courses will treasure this book, as the chapters can easily translate into classroom lessons and activities that incorporate literary tales, early adaptations, and postmodern revisions. Third, the book exhibits potential to find general interest for those keen to see fairy tales, monsters, and the supernatural acting as inconspicuous agents in the social justice movement and for those who are intrigued by the prospects of tracing whence their favorite fantastic beings originated and where they appear to be heading. Once boogeymen, these redeemed characters are now handy heralds of an impending era of tolerance and acceptance.
-26 May 2020