1. “Hansel and Gretel”
What makes the story dark: Two kids get abandoned by their parents and take refuge with an old woman who turns out to be a witch. Deals with parental neglect and the danger of strangers/the unknown.
What makes the movies dark: The dark “Hansel and Gretel” adaptation is a new breed. The idea in the case of Witch Hunters seems to be placing the focus on the evil witch rather than on the siblings’ parents.
The adaptations: There have been few notable adaptations of “Hansel and Gretel,” which makes Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters somewhat unique. (Apparently not good, however — critics have largely panned it.) Low-budget schlock factory The Asylum will be releasing Hansel & Gretel direct-to-video, an obvious attempt to cash in on Witch Hunters. The 1999 Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Gingerbread” explored the story as well, with a demon disguising itself as Hansel and Gretel in order to spur a modern-day witch-burning.
2. “Snow White”
What makes the story dark: A young girl has to flee from her wicked stepsister after her father dies, and the Evil Queen pursues her. Deals with the loss of a parent, an intruder in the family, and a young girl in mortal peril.
What makes the movies dark: The dark adaptations of “Snow White” are heavily focused on the Queen — and why wouldn’t they be? The strength of the recent films has rested on her shoulders. Snow White herself doesn’t have a dark side.
The adaptations: Last year’s Snow White and the Huntsman was suitably dark — the Queen ate the hearts of her victims — though it skewed more toward action than horror. In contrast, Mirror Mirror was a brighter, candy-colored affair. The darkest ever adaptation of the story is Snow White: A Tale of Terror, which aired on Showtime in 1997. The film sticks closely to the source material, which is grisly enough without much embellishment. Sigourney Weaver is particularly terrifying as the Evil Queen (here, Lady Claudia), and received an Emmy nomination for her performance.
3. “Red Riding Hood”
What makes the story dark: Little Red Riding Hood gets distracted by a wolf, who then eats her and her grandmother. Deals with the loss of innocence and sexual awakening (the red symbolizes hymenal blood).
What makes the movies dark: For some reason, the dark “Red Riding Hood” films have largely steered clear of the sexual undertones and instead turned the wolf — originally an anthropomorphized animal — into a werewolf.
The adaptations: Werewolves, werewolves, werewolves. With such thematically rich source material, it’s disappointing that we keep returning to lycanthropes, as in 2011’s Red Riding Hood and the SyFy Channel’s Red: Werewolf Hunter. ABC’s Once Upon a Time and horror anthology film Trick ‘r Treat turn the tables, with Red herself a werewolf. But the most interesting adaptations are looser: Hard Candy, about a 14-year-old girl taking revenge on a pedophile she meets online, uses a red hoodie to link the film’s plot to the original story’s dark sexual subtext.
4. “Jack and the Beanstalk”
What makes it dark: Jack sells his only friend for magic beans, then climbs the beanstalk they produce and finds himself in a world of giants. Deals with loss of innocence, sexual awakening, and betrayal.
What makes the movies dark: Like the “Hansel and Gretel” genre, this is relatively new terrain. However, the darkness seems to come from the giants and not from Jack, despite his questionable behavior.
The adaptations: Jack the Giant Slayer, which comes out this March, doesn’t look all that dark. (It’s actually a combined adaptation of “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Jack the Giant Killer.”) In fact, the title was even softened — apparently “slayer” reads softer than “killer.” What’s interesting is that the movie doesn’t make Jack the villain, even though he breaks into a stranger’s house, tricks (or possibly seduces) a man’s wife, then kills the man and steals his gold. The 2001 miniseries Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story comes the closest to exploring Jack’s dark side, as Jack’s modern-day descendant is confronted with his ancestor’s sins.
5. “The Wizard of Oz”
What makes the story dark: Dorothy gets transported (via tornado, no less) to a land full of witches, talking animals, and flying monkeys. Deals with loss of home and innocence.
What makes the movies dark: The classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz was fairly light, which fits with the original novel’s tone. Subsequent adaptations have sometimes drawn from L. Frank Baum’s darker elements.
The adaptations: Millions of children have been traumatized by 1985’s Return to Oz, the sort-of sequel to the 1939 film. Mombi and her hall of heads are particularly horrifying, but Oz itself seems a lot more threatening than it did in The Wizard of Oz. While Oz the Great and Powerful looks like a fairly family-friendly adaptation, it does create a world of more danger and darkness than anything Dorothy traipsed through. As L. Frank Baum wrote it, Oz is a complicated land, and Wizard of Oz prequels can explore that. Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked and its sequels are very adult, though Wicked was considerably sanitized in its second life as Broadway musical.
6. “Beauty and the Beast”
What makes the story dark: In order to save her father, a girl is forced to leave everyone she knows and live with a horribly disfigured beast. Deals with loss of home and sexual awakening.
What makes the movies dark: The TV and film adaptations of “Beauty and the Beast” are mostly focused on the Gothic romance elements of the story. The darkness is their forbidden love, not Beauty’s treatment at the Beast’s hands.
The adaptations: With the success of the Twilight series, it makes sense that all the most recent iterations of “Beauty and the Beast” have painted the Beast as a sort of tragic hero. And indeed, even in the original tale, he’s cursed only until Beauty accepts his love. But there are still darker elements to be addressed, most of which have been ignored. Beastly, loosely adapted from a novel of the same name, is the kind of surface-level treatment you’d expect. To return to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Beauty and the Beasts” included the Beast brutalizing his girlfriend, a reflection on the story’s subtext of abuse and the uncomfortable Beauty/Beast power relationship.