Excerpt from "Wicked’s Gregory Maguire on What Turns a Story into a Fairy Tale":
You might say that every fairy tale at its heart is the story of growing up, of a protagonist successfully navigating the treacherous path through the woods from innocence to experience without being eaten by the wolves. For children a fairy tale is about hope. They don’t yet know if they are going to make it. They read fairy tales as being about what might happen, that they might have the strengths to make it through the woods and fight the dragons, and end up in the castle with the princess or the prince. Adults look at fairy tales differently, because, if they are adults, presumably they have made it to that safety zone of having survived their childhoods. They look back at fairy tales with a combination of nostalgia––because don’t we all love something about our childhoods anyway, including the mystery of what was going to be on the other side of childhood––and a sort of clinical curiosity. We want to know how is it that the innocent survive when they are really so clueless. We love to read about how people became who they became, how Picasso became Picasso, or how Elizabeth Taylor became Elizabeth Taylor. As adults, let’s face it, even if we have make it to adult life, we are still not sure exactly who we are. To look back at the story of a fairy tale, which is to look back at the story of a path from cluelessness to potency, can continue to give us courage.
Erik Christian Haugaard, a Danish writer who is now dead, said in a speech once, “The Fairy tale always takes the side of the weak against the mighty. There is no such thing as a fascist fairy tale. A fascist fairy tale would be an absurdity.” There is something essential about that fact. The protagonist can’t be dominating or mean or the bully of the playground. There might be new fairy tales, but there are some eternals that have to exist. If they don’t exist, what we see is not a fairy tale––it is something else. The absolute requirement of a fairy tale may be that the protagonist has to be in some way less strong and more humble than other people in the story. But as long as that is in existence than the form of a fairy tale can change infinitely and it will always be recognizable by anyone who hears the words “once upon a time.”
See also: Director Joe Wright explains the surprising five films that inspired the making of Hanna.