Once Upon a Time in Appalachia: Tom Davenport’s Fairy Tale Films

By Tina L. Hanlon
Ferrum College

NOTE:  This is an abstract of a paper presented at the Virginia Humanities Conference: The Life and Legacy of Appalachia, Ferrum College, April, 1998.  The abstract was published in the conference Proceedings, edited by Lana A. Whited. The full text of this essay may be posted here later; please contact Tina Hanlon if you have questions or comments. Links on titles below are to AppLit pages with more material on these films and related folktales. 

Tom Davenport’s eleven film adaptations of fairy tales, produced in Virginia with the help of his wife Mimi and other collaborators, have won numerous awards and high praise from many critics. This paper outlines five reasons that I think these are valuable films for children and adults.

First, these films are valuable because there are very few other live action films based on traditional fairy tales. For several generations of Americans, fairy tales have been synonymous with Disney animations, but I believe it is important for children to see other interpretations of these tales, in books, dramas, and films. Critic Randy Pitman called Davenport’s Ashpet “a wonderful change of pace from the steady drizzle of insipid cartoon remakes of Cinderella” (qtd. in Davenport web site). Davenport’s films contain some wonderful humorous and satiric touches, such as the dinner scene in The Frog King when the refined Victorian guests are horrified by the real frog splashing around on the table. In general, however, these films retain the integrity of the old fairy tales. In the films themselves, and in his introductions and teaching materials, Davenport emphasizes the serious themes of each tale; he asserts that he is most interested in how they reflect “the psychology of the spirit” (Introduction to From the Brothers Grimm, 1992, ix).

Second, as live action films that raise fascinating questions about fantasy and reality, about the psychological and physical realms of human experience, these videos have greater appeal to audiences of all ages than some other fairy tale adaptations. Although some children reject fairy tales, animated films, and picture books when they are still quite young, and many adults have little interest in watching children’s cartoons, these are good films for families to watch together. Teaching guides are available for analyzing the films at various levels up through high school.

Third, Davenport also promotes the teaching and practice of filmmaking for young people through articles, books, and videos that explain the making of his films. His low-budget films have progressed from the very simple production of Hansel and Gretel to the more polished recent feature film, Willa: An American Snow White. Davenport has given an important gift to contemporary students by sharing the magic of both fairy tales and filmmaking with them, showing how he overcomes practical obstacles to create fantastic illusions on the screen.

Fourth, it is noteworthy that, of eleven films to date, seven focus on female protagonists, and Hansel and Gretel gives equal billing to Gretel, who saves her bother by outwitting and destroying the witch. It is true that some of these traditional stories feature females who seem passive in relation to the men who control or rescue them. As faithful adaptations of traditional tales, however, the films also lend themselves to a variety of interpretations and together they represent a broad range of human characters. Davenport’s adaptations of The Frog King and The Goose Girl have caused me to re-evaluate the roles of the female protagonists, while there is no doubt that Mutsmag is as strong and clever as any other giant-killing hero.

Fifth, these films are valuable because of their use of culturally specific Appalachian settings, customs and characterizations. After starting with tales taken directly from the Grimm Brothers, Davenport turned to four tales that have both European and Appalachian sources: Mutzmag, Ashpet, and two Jack tales. While recruiting local talent, he found his Mutzmag and most of her supporting cast at a small high school in Madison County, North Carolina. These films make an important contribution to the body of recent literature that places Appalachia in a positive light as an American backdrop for powerful stories about human experience.

In general these films lend themselves to interpretation on many different levels, hold the viewer’s interest with repeated viewings, and invite comparisons with other films, from old horror movies to Shakespearean dramas to children’s fantasies such as The Wizard of Oz. It is important to expose children to varied adaptations of traditional tales, encourage them to compare and critique what they read and watch, and not underestimate their ability to absorb and interpret serious themes. The Davenport Web Site contains information on all the films and related publications.

See also in AppLit:  

From the Brothers Grimm:  Tom Davenport's Fairy Tale Films - annotated bibliography

Bibliography of Appalachian Folktales in Children's Literature - lists many kinds of resources on folktales

Unit Lesson Plan on Mountain Humor - with lesson on Davenport's Jack and the Dentist's Daughter

Complete List of AppLit Pages on Folklore

Complete List of AppLit Pages on Film

This page's last update: September 27, 2003
Links checked Sept. 27, 2003