First off, this review will contain massive spoilers for both the film and the book it is based on. In fact, it may be better to view the film before reading the review so that a lot of the turns are not ruined — though, if you’ve read the book, you’ve had knowledge of the ending for nearly 400 years — assuming you’ve lived that long.
Tale of Tales is a fairy tale movie based on the book “Tale of Tales” by Giambattista Basile which is also known as “Story of Stories” and more commonly referred to as the Pentamerone. The movie takes three of the chapters from this book, out of 50, and makes an anthology film. The book is much like The Brother’s Grimm (Many of the stories, including Cinderella, cross over) or Canterbury Tales and the Decameron (There’s a framing device for the stories that are told).
Tale of Tales was released in larger theaters as well as premiering online. You can rent it on various services such as Playstation Network and Amazon.
The film adapts three chapters from the book including “The Enchanted Doe”, “The Flea”, and “The Old Woman Discovered”. While I usually do a pro/cons list with my reviews, this time I’m actually going to do a film/book comparison because the only con I see in this film is the utter bleakness of the stories.
Each film plot takes a major departure from its corresponding story in the book in order to adapt it more cinematically. These changes are not objectionable in the same way that the changes in other recent fairy tale films are. Like when Snow White sassily refuses the apple in Mirror, Mirror or how no prince can ever prove his love to his princess, thanks to obtrusive screenwriters, in films like Snow White and the Huntsman and Maleficent. Since the Pentamerone is lesser known, the narrative of “Tale of Tales” is not hurt by the changes, and I would argue that they actually perfect the adaptation from book to film — a thing that so many fairy tale films try for and screw up. Namely, the film presents the fairy tale world as a story of dramatic truth that thrusts a fairy tale framework over the events rather than taking a fairy tale framework and trying to fill it with believable characters. The approach the screenwriter took to fill each tale with longing and believable characters is quite well done.
The movie is also an epic costume film. We even get to see the life span of a new dress from purchase to being utterly wrecked by the end of the film — a fun process for a costumer to watch.
While the film is edited superbly in a style that intercuts each story, below I will separate the stories to discuss the movie version and the book version and the cinematic changes wrought. This is a really technical account of where the movie adapts the book, and where it changes. I am a big fan of fairy tales, and so I’m not reviewing from just the standpoint of a film viewer.
The Enchanted Doe
The movie adapts the chapter “The Enchanted Doe” which stars Salma Hayek as a depressed Queen who longs for a child and John C. Reilly as her King who will go to great lengths to bring a child into the world. They are told by a mysterious stranger that if the king can first kill an Albino seamonster and cut out its heart, then next have a virgin prepare it as a meal in complete solitude, the moment the Queen eats the heart, she will instantly become pregnant.
The albino seamonster, a creepy practical effect that recalls the dragon from Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen, is killed by the King, but not before the King is mortally wounded. He gives his life for his child, and his wife ignores his death, greedily snatching up the beast’s heart. John C. Reilly, whose role is very small, nevertheless comes across very distinctly as a man who would yield his life to bring a child into the world and make his wife happy. He plays all those beats accurately, and bolsters the saying that there are no small roles, only small actors.
A virgin kitchen maid is summoned to cook the heart, and as she does so, she instantly becomes pregnant. When the Queen eats the heart, she too becomes pregnant. The two women deliver at the same time.
Both children are identical boys, albinos like the seamonster before and its suggested they have aquatic attributes as well, like prolonged underwater breathing. The two boys are best friends, but their social stations threaten to keep them apart. The Queen does not want the poor twin around. The Queen loves her son to the point of smothering him. Their introduction shows the Queen chasing her son through a maze, delirous with joy and happiness. Her son, meanwhile, looks like a frightened deer fleeing a hunstman, and with the help of his twin brother, he escapes the maze, leaving his mother sad and betrayed.
The Queen grows so jealous of the maid’s son that she tries to kill him. This makes the boy decide to pack up and leave. His Kingly brother tries to command him to stay, so the poor boy stabs his knife into a tree from which a spring forms. He explains that if the water runs clear he is alive and well, if the water runs muddy he is in trouble, and if the water stops, he is dead. The poor twin then wanders off into the world.
Soon the water runs muddy and the King heads out to find his brother. His mother is so distressed that she summons the mysterious man, and he gives her the power to changer her form. When the King finds his brother trapped at the mid point of a chasm, the Queen takes the form of a nightmarish bat — a spectacular practical effect and one of the best monsters I’ve seen in years — and tries to kill the poor boy. The King throws himself in front of the bat, who hesitates, and is slain by the boy.
Some reviews have criticized Salma Hayek’s performance, but I almost wonder if it’s not simply because the character is not very likeable. You understand her pathos, but you wish she would make better decisions. Her performance is spot on. Consider the delight she has in her son’s company — something that never comes across as sexual, a trap that many actresses playing mothers fall into. She brings a very accurate love to the screen. If there’s a weak point to her performance, it’s that we don’t like her enough to really care that her jealously drives her to death.
The two boys playing the twins, Christian and Jonah Lees, seem to have been chosen for their surreal presence, for they come across more like models performing in a movie than actors. But they are competent in that you never see bad acting, and they do manhandle each other so much that you instantly know they’re actual brothers in real life. So, while there isn’t a driving emotional angst from them, they do effectively capture the important moments.
So, what is the major change the movie brings to this story? Well, if it isn’t clear from reading the synopsis, the movie removes the Enchanted Doe altogether.
The book tells the same story, but from the perspective of the King, who is so angry that he can’t have a child, that he shoots visitors with a crossbow for sport. He was once generous, but as his generosity was not rewarded, he grows bitter and cruel, until a mysterious stranger shows up and tells him about the seamonster. In the book, the Queen actually has twins and just prefers one to the other. The movie diverges from the book by giving two different women identical children, but follows the story in all other places. In the book the Queen tries to kill the boy with melted lead, in the film she tries to poke him to death with a fire poker in a refrigerator.
The Enchanted Doe change comes when the poor son goes into the world. He comes across a sorcerer ghoul, or magic ogre, who can transform into various beasts. The Ogre turns into a doe and leads the boy off a cliff. The Kingly brother then comes across the villain, but he is not tricked by the doe, and he manages to kill it and save his brother.
I totally accept the screenwriter’s choice to make the mother into the shape shifting beast. It definitely rounds the story out and gives it a pathos that the story might not successfully have if you introduce a villain late into the game, something you can do more easily in a book. I think her story trajectory, from wanting a child, to having this desire cause her so much jealously and hatred that she becomes a monster who is slain by her own child, is a very moral and relatable plot. Often in real life we find ourselves going down paths like this. Many parents know what it’s like to try to over-control their children and have it backfire.
I also wonder if there’s a deleted scene from the film where the Ogre from the story “The Flea” actually chases the boy off the cliff. While you see the poor brother stranded on the cliff in the film, you never know how he got there. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened while the Ogre was out and about in the next tale:
The movie adapts the chapter “The Flea” with the two best performances in the film from Toby Jones as a ridiculous king who is obsessed with the joys of having tiny things grow, and his daughter Bebe Cave, a wide-eyed and innocent girl whose life is utterly destroyed by circumstance until she decides to take it back. The King dotes on his daughter most affectionately until she comes of marriageable age, when he is bitten by a flea who seems to have some sort of precognizance and can play tricks for him. He captures the flea and feeds it most lovingly, ala Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors, until the flea grows to the full size of a sheep! The flea effects are both digital and practical, and they have a surreal cute/creepy thing going on. However, much to the King’s great distress, the flea passes away. He then returns his attentions to his daughter, who now wants to go out into the world and find a husband. The King wants her to stay forever, he won’t lose her like he lost his pet, and so he comes up with a scheme. He tans the hide of the giant flea and says he will give his daughter away in marriage to anyone who can guess what type of beast the hide belongs to.
Naturally, no one can guess, until one day an Ogre bursts into the room and declares the hide to be a flea. The distraught Princess nearly throws herself from the castle roof in despair, but her father stops her. They get into a very tense fight where the Princess insults her father most basely, and Toby Jones turns from comical into scary as he roars that she must obey the King’s commands. In order to shame her father in the public’s opinion, she obeys him, and is carried off by the Ogre.
Now, I want to note that all of this is great drama played by two fantastic actors. And this dynamic is nowhere in the book. The book tells the story straightforward where one event leads to the other, but the Screenwriter brings the King’s affection for small things, the dramatic truth to how it feels to watch a pet die, the complicated relationship between a powerful man and his daughter. It’s like I said before, it seems the screenwriter started with dramatic truth — what drives these people? What are their needs and wants? And then added the fairy tale structure to it. It’s fantastic.
The Ogre takes her to his home high on a canyon cliff side. It is strewn with bones, and the Princess tries to hide, but is manhandled until she obeys the Ogre’s every command — he never speaks but only grunts. It is hinted that he forces her to perform her wifely duties, and implied that he might be trying to feed her inappropriate meals — like human flesh, which he does in the book. One day, months later, while lamenting her fate, the Princess sees a figure across the cliff chasm. She is on one side and the person is on the other. She calls out to the woman for help, but the woman cannot do anything to help her. She claims she has many sons who will return the next day to save the princess.
The family turns out to be a circus troupe, a group of people who are peppered through every story in the film. Using a tightrope, the youngest son rescues the princes. I was struck by how handsome he was and also how through silent acting he carried such complicated emotions. As he carries the princess on his back, and she struggles, the face he makes captures EVERYTHING. It’s a total “what have I gotten myself into?” look, and I immediately thought, “Yes! That’s exactly what it feels like to help strangers out. To throw yourself into that weird position where you aren’t fully certain what’s going on and it all seems a little ridiculous.” It was all captured in one brief scene.
The Ogre sees the Princess escaping and he starts climbing across the rope. The tension in this scene got to me. I was literally on the edge of my seat, hands in the air, trying to cut the rope before the Ogre made it across! Very well done. They cut the rope and the ogre falls in the chasm.
The most happy celebration proceeds as the circus folk race in their carriage through the bottom of the chasm to safety. However, the back of the carriage rips apart and the Ogre proceeds to kill all the circus folk as they try to stop him, some grab weapons, some circus tricks. Finally, the youngest son uses his fire breathing trick on the monster, but the flames only maim the villain, and he kills everyone except the Princess who rushes into corner, trapped, where she gives up and sobs.
The Ogre angrily shakes her about, but, her spirit broken, she resigns herself to her fate, and gives up. She uses her feminine wiles to tame the monsters anger, and leans against him in a sign of resignation. He indicates to her to climb onto his back so he can carry her home. And as she does so, she produces a knife she procured in the fight, and cuts his head half-off from behind. She then drags his head home, back to her father’s palace. He is quite sickly, perhaps from his rash decision to send his beloved daughter away. She is covered in blood and bitterly introduces her father to her husband. The resulting scene is a heartbreaking performance as the King and the entire court beg forgiveness, and the princes struggles between being resolute and giving in, finally breaks down in tears, forgiving her father.
In the end it is suggested she becomes High Queen, replacing Salma Hayek as high ruler of the various Kingdoms. And to commemorate, a tightrope walker performs at her coronation. I will say more on this later, as I believe this final image of the film is the succinct visual representation of all that came before. The tightrope walker represents the lives of these people, who at any moment will be forced by their desires to topple to their deaths.
This story also upset me the most because of the horror film slaughter of the circus family who rescues the princess. And THIS is the main change to this story from the book. The rest of the story is almost identical to the book, minus the human emotion element. In the book, the people who rescue the princess each have a special talent, and as the Ogre pursues them, one causes a forest to spring forth to block him, but the obstacle is destroyed, so the next causes a river to spring up, etc. This happens seven times until the ogre is scaling a tower and the final son shoots him in the eye, killing the monster. The family is then rewarded for the rescue of the princess and they attend her wedding to a new prince.
Now, the screenwriter’s choice to kill these people is distinctly NOT fairytale. It actually made me kind of sick. But the reason it happens is very complex from a writing standpoint. The endless chase of a monster whose progress is blocked by magical items is a staple in fairy tales. In fact it happens in nearly half of the stories in the Pentamerone. When you are told this tale, verbally, as most fairy tales are meant to be told, the chase is visceral. Will the beast catch them? Will they escape? What will happen next?
The screenwriter adapts this to film, not by using the tropes of a chase scene — like you’d see in action films — but rather goes the route of recreating horror tropes. He kills the characters, not out of malice, which was my initial thought, but because structurally they don’t matter. This story is about the princess. Again, in books you can introduce a hero late into the game. If the book was adapted accurately, the princess would be rescued with five minutes left in the movie by non-established characters, and her struggle would almost be negated. So, she is put into horror film tropes, and sadly, depressingly, has to rescue herself using everything she has learned from her traumatic experience. The screenwriter gives the princess control of her own fate, and rather than rewarding her with another husband (something that leaves an awful taste in your mouth after you add dramatic truth to the tale) he rewards her with a coronation, showing that her strength, knowledge and power make her the ideal ruler. This is the one major instance of modern thinking creeping into this fairy tale adaptation, but it is done well. She is given autonomy, not by a forced, “I’m a modern girl!” spin, but by the skillful crafting of dramatic truth.
I have said it before, and I will say it again. A woman is not weak simply because she is abused, usurped or controlled. Snow White is not weak because she is laid low. She does not need to grab a sword and kill the evil queen, ala Snow White and the Hunstman. A woman does not have to have traditionally masculine characteristics, like physical strength, or warlike behavior, to make her heroic. Her strength is in her character. She uses her wits to procure a job working for dwarfs. She uses her inherent kindness to become their close friend and form strong familial bonds. The queen outsmarts her by poisoning her with an apple, but it doesn’t make Snow White a bad heroine — as Mirror, Mirror expects us to believe would happen if it followed through on the plot. She has already established her strength of character over her enemy, and her family, the dwarfs, avenge her. Yes, her apple is dislodged by a prince, but he comes so late into the story that he doesn’t actually rescue her. He gives her new life — since her old life of being usurped is over, and she can now start anew. He is the prize, not the hero.
The Princess in Tale of Tales is sorely used, but she is never weak.
The Old Woman Discovered
The movie adapts the chapter “The Old Woman Discovered” with further great performances. In fact, my favorite acting moment comes from this section of the movie where Vincent Cassel, playing a lothario Prince, is told by the woman he wants to bed that she will only show him her finger. His reaction goes from confused, to petulant to turned-on all in one take. It was funny and uncomfortable and pretty much sums up this whole story. When Vincent Cassel’s debauched prince can’t find a woman who is sober or awake enough to bang, he drunkenly wanders the ramparts following a beautiful singing voice. He declares his love, loudly, towards the distant singing figure, who runs quickly into her house. He then sieges the house with tokens of love.
Unbeknownst to him, the woman he heard singing is one of two elderly, ugly sisters, who live in squalor, and whose thoughts of things-that-could-be drive them to make silly decisions. The ugly old crones are both played by young women in fx make-up, but the effect doesn’t seem to want to be realistic as much as it wants to be fantasy inspired. So, it’s like they’re trying to set up visually that something isn’t quite right, or that some transformation is inevitable. Shirley Henderson plays the more naive and submissive sister. She is a performer favorite of mine, always nailing the roles she portrays. I couldn’t even recognize her usual acting traits through the make-up, which makes both the fx and her performance unique. Obviously I recognized her by her voice, for which she is famous.
When the Prince assails the door, declaring his love, the elder sister turns on her charms. Knowing he will not love an old crone, she baits him by saying if he comes back in one week, she will reveal the most delicate and beautiful part of her body to him. This arouses him and he asks which part she will show. The sisters confusedly settle upon “finger”, and his reaction is priceless. Then the women prepare for this throughout the week. The elder sister tries to burn the skin off her finger so new skin will grow and look young, but all she does is irreparably scar her hand. Her sister, meanwhile, sucks on her finger until it is smooth. When the Prince returns they stick this finger through the door and he holds onto it for dear life. They cannot pull the finger back in, so, using her wits, the elder sister claims that she will join the man in his bedchamber, but her maiden modesty must be preserved and so it must be done in the pitch darkness of the night, with all lamps extinguished.
The sisters then prepare for the sexual encounter. The younger one pastes the wrinkly folds of the elder one together until her form resembles that of a young woman. The old woman goes to the castle and crawls into bed where the Prince has his way with her. But he suspects something is off, and while she sleeps he brings a light to her face and discovers she is old. He is so outraged that he has her thrown from the castle window in the bedsheets.
Her fall is halted as the sheets catch in the trees and she is suspended, as if caught in a net. This causes a passing witch to chortle so heartily, that the witch saves her. And in a scene reminiscent of the Grapes of Wrath, the poor, broken old woman is suckled at the breast of the witch. It reminded me of the pathetic feeling of shame that reduces us, as humans, to an almost infant state. Where we are so low that we wish we had parents to come to our rescue. This succor causes the old woman to become young and beautiful. The wicked Prince then stumbles upon her in the woods and vows to marry her.
The interesting thing is that while young women do actually play the old women, when the magical change is wrought a completely different young woman plays the young version. Was this choice deliberate? As in, you see the old age make-up and you think, Hmmm, that’s strange. Something must be going to happen to change them young. But then it plays out in a way you don’t expect. Were the filmmakers toying with the audiences preconceived notions?
The submissive sister is sent an ill fitting dress and wedding invitation, and she joins the wedding feast looking sorely out of place. Her now young sister finds her and explains that she was transformed into a young woman. The submissive sister wanders the palace, overwhelmed by the good fortune of her sister. She also expects that will now live together, happily as they did before, but with all the richest comforts. But when her sister tries to throw her out of the house, the poor old woman can’t understand and she keeps returning, begging to know how her sister became young. Irritated by her simple sister, she angrily snaps, “I flayed my own skin, okay?”The old woman finally interrupts the wedding night between the young sister and the Prince and she is forcefully thrown from the castle.
She now believes that her sister flayed herself to change to a young woman. Flaying is process whereby your skin is removed from your body while you are alive. The poor simpleton begs barbers around the city to flay her, but they refuse, on moral grounds. Until she uses the pearls from her wedding-reception gown to bribe an unscrupulous street barber. He takes her into the woods and flays her alive.
The final shot of her story shows a gory corpse wandering the streets with a face of extreme contentment, as she now believes she looks young and beautiful.
The darkness of the scene is made even more disturbing that it was this flayed sister’s finger that the Prince fell in love with. The movie even deliberately hides the source of the beautiful singing voice from the audience. It makes you question whether the Old Woman made young reaped all the rewards of the charms of her simple put upon sister. This ambiguity is stifling.
The story continues when it joins up in the coronation of the Princess from the Flea tale. At the coronation the youthful sister, along with her Prince Husband, discovers the effects of the spell fading, as she begins to return to her old self in front of the crowd. She rushes from the palace, never to be seen again.
The major change to this story from the book is that the silly sister who has herself flayed alive actually survives in the film — probably only a few minutes more from where the last shot of her ends. In the book, the flaying kills her the moment he skins her stomach. But the film gives her that unique and horrifying moment where she is a walking pile of gore but believes herself to finally be beautiful. It is disheartening on a whole other level. The other change is that the spell that turns the first sister young never goes away in the book, and it is a group of fairies who are so delighted by the sight of the old woman in the tree that they bestow eternal youth on her through blessings. The film uses a witch and breastfeeding, which is a strange choice, visually, but does speak to that pathetic feeling of being reduced to a simpering child.
How Tale of Tales Connects
These three stories of the film pass through one another. Until I see it again, I can’t even be sure where all these places are. But the circus folk perform for Salma Hayek’s Queen, sparking her desire for a child. They then go on to rescue the Princess from the Ogre. Are they the same troupe that performs at the wedding of the old woman turned young? I can’t be sure until I see the film more often. At the funeral of the High King, all the guests include the King from the Flea with his infant daughter, and the debauched Prince who marries the old woman. Later, the kingly one of the twin brothers, born of the seaserpent, also attends the coronation of the High Queen. These scenes overlap pretty seamlessly, and do not really even draw attention. As I said, the editing is very well done, often using action match cuts — such as the old woman trying on the wedding dress to transition into the captive ogre Princess trying to clean her gown.
But the final image of the tightrope walker syncs up all the themes of the film. The Princess, now High Queen, recalls how a valiant tightrope walker saved her. And as she looks up at the performer, whose rope is aflame, but who is only halfway across, she smiles. She has made it across that tightrope. We as the audience fear that the rope will snap when consumed by flames. This visually connects to every story. The flames destroyed the Salma Hayek Queen’s life before she reached her goal. The ugly old women teetered precariously on the tightrope of life until finally plunging to their doom. It is a bittersweet image, and most tragic, but the hope of the new High Queen resonates as the credits roll.
If I were to make films, this is the type of film I would make… though I’d choose happier fairy tales, no doubt. I know I didn’t mention much about the costumes, but they are quite seamlessly integrated into the story. Everything the courtiers and Salma Hayek wear is worth observing in detail. There is no great arms or armor, except on the King’s sea monster hunting outfit — which is a technologically advanced diving suit. But the monsters are killer! The seamonster, flea and the evil bat delight.
In conclusion, I think the film is extremely well adapted and well acted. It has great costumes, music and monsters. There are shots of scenery and locations that look so impressive that you can’t tell if they’re digital or real. The locations are to die for. The only drawbacks are that the subject material is quite disturbing, and that if you are used to your films having huge spectacle climaxes and your fairy tales being Disney-esque or modernized, you might have a hard time getting into the story. There’s no modern sassy princess, there’s no valiant prince, there’s no big bad guy that the heroes unite to destroy. In short, this is an adaptation of fairy tales as they were told before Disney turned them into the shells, cliches and cash grabs. This film is in stark contrast to how modern people connect fairy tales to children, and consider their main themes to be about overcoming adversity and finding true love. We all know the bare bones of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel (all which have their earliest western roots in the Pentamerone, but all of which are extremely adult in content), but the majority of fairy tales written in the world are like the ones presented in Tale of Tales — longing, horror, despair and redemption. The human condition.
This film presents small scale fantasy stories that each focus on morality and themes of longing, desire, and the lengths to which people go to search for happiness.
Fairy Tales are life, and this film captures that.