Channeling Wonder: Fairy Tales on Television

Edited by Pauline Greenhill and Jill Terry Rudy. 2014. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. 448 pages. ISBN: 978-0814339220 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Kimberly Lau, University of California, Santa Cruz

[Review length: 1036 words • Review posted on February 8, 2015]

As the first collection of essays devoted solely to fairy tales and fairy-tale motifs on the small screen, Channeling Wonder: Fairy Tales on Television has ambitious goals. Bringing together readings of diverse fairy-tale texts (from serials, “made for TV” movies, and reality television shows to commercials, cartoons, and Japanese anime), it aims to “consider what happens when fairy tale, a narrative genre that revels in variation, joins the flow of television experience” (1), particularly through intertextuality and intermediality.

Pauline Greenhill and Jill Terry Rudy’s introduction frames the collection by highlighting the malleability of fairy tales and the seriality and intimacy of television. Attending to the intersection of the two, they suggest that television (and, by implication, the televisual fairy tale) is to cinema (and the fairy-tale film) what the oral fairy tale is to its literary counterpart; film, they contend, has “a formal and professional mode of transmission and reception,” while “TV [has] a more informal and local one” (4). While such a claim ignores or downplays the corporate culture industry in which television is enmeshed, Greenhill and Rudy nonetheless point to a potential distinction between the affective experience of viewing fairy tales on television as opposed to on the big screen, which certainly warrants greater investigation (including, for instance, the ways that television’s seriality may inspire a different type of fandom and “convergence culture” than cinema).

Throughout the introduction, Greenhill and Rudy identify several important lines of inquiry for future analysis and theoretical consideration, and they offer a number of insightful, productive, and provocative claims. In many cases, however, those claims remain largely undeveloped. For instance, they suggest that “the fairy tale just might also be a medium maker” and that it is an “early and persistent mode for successive communicative technologies” (15), but they never expand on this compelling assertion, particularly in relation to television and the affiliated communicative technologies that sustain viewing publics. As another example, Greenhill and Rudy contend that “miniseries and long-arc serial television play with fairy tales’ episodic plots and minimal character development” (6), but they don’t draw out the significance of that play for serial television or for the fairy tale. How, for instance, is that play specific to the miniseries and long-arc serial? What do those televisual forms do for (or to) the fairy tale, and how does that differentiate them from other media? And, conversely, what does the fairy tale do for (or to) the miniseries and long-arc serial?

Greenhill and Rudy implicitly acknowledge the importance of these sorts of questions—and the relationship between form and content—when they gesture toward the critical significance of some of television’s formal characteristics (e.g., seriality, mini-serialization, anthologization) in shaping the ways that televisual fairy tales make meaning in different contexts and for different audiences, but the introduction would certainly benefit from a greater elaboration of these intriguing points. Nonetheless, there’s also an advantage to these limited discussions: they inspire the reader to participate actively in the collection’s conversation and in the developing field of televisual fairy-tale studies. Beyond their own thought-provoking claims and contentions, Greenhill and Rudy also highlight specific areas for future research, including a more nuanced approach to the study of television audiences that moves beyond presumed identity politics; a more clearly articulated consideration of televisual aesthetics and ideology; and the multiple modalities through which viewers engage with televised fairy tales.

Channeling Wonder is divided into five sections organized by thematic content: For and About Kids and Adults; Masculinities and/or Femininities; Beastly Humans; Fairy Tales are Real!: Reality TV, Fairy-Tale Reality, Commerce, and Discourse; and Fairy-Tale Teleography. Although the collection aspires to do more than identify fairy tales and fairy-tale motifs on television, its thematic organization reveals the privileging of (fairy-tale) content over (television) form. Not surprisingly, then, most of the essays either remain at the level of documentation (identifying and describing fairy tales and fairy-tale motifs in television serials) or offer specific readings (often very astute and persuasive) of individual televisual fairy-tale texts without attending to the role that television plays in the production of the text’s potential meanings.

As with all essay collections, the contributions to Channeling Wonder vary in quality. Cristina Bacchilega and John Rieder’s “The Fairy Tale and the Commercial in Carosello and Fractured Fairy Tales” stands out as a sophisticated and layered analysis of the complicated nexus of wonder tale, commercial, serialization, marketing, mass culture, and ideology within the seemingly divergent contexts of an Italian serial advertisement and a series of American animated shorts anthologized on a children’s cartoon show. Implicitly contesting Jack Zipes’s unilateral claim that “television and film exploit folklore to evoke images of the attainment of happiness through consumption” (5), Bacchilega and Rieder acknowledge the ways that the recontextualization of fairy tales in mass culture simultaneously facilitates consumption and offers strategies for resisting the homogenizing impulses of television. Other particularly noteworthy essays addressing the intersection of form and content include Patricia Sawin’s “Things Walt Disney Didn’t Tell Us (But at Which Rodgers and Hammerstein at Least Hinted): The 1965 Made-for-TV Musical of Cinderella” and Jill Terry Rudy’s “Things Jim Henson Showed Us: Intermediality and the Artistic Making of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller.” Kristian Lezubski’s “The Power to Revolutionize the World, or Absolute Gender Apocalypse?: Queering the New Fairy-Tale Feminine in Revolutionary Girl Utena” and Shuli Barzilai’s “Judith or Salome? Holofernes or John the Baptist? Catherine Breillat’s Rescripting of Charles Perrault’s ‘Bluebeard’” also offer excellent, smart readings, although they don’t address the significance of television in particular for their respective texts and interpretations.

Perhaps the most valuable contribution to Channeling Wonder is Kendra Magnus-Johnston’s extensive “Fairy-Tale Teleography,” which takes on the essentially impossible task of compiling televisual fairy-tale retellings and motifs. As a reference tool for anyone interested in future televisual fairy-tale research, teaching, or viewing, the “Fairy-Tale Teleography” is worth the price of the book (at least); the only thing that would make it even more effective is if it were also indexed by ATU type. In keeping with the spirit of Channeling Wonder and its goal of engaging others in the study of fairy tales on television, Magnus-Johnston hopes to make the teleography available online to maintain its currency and accuracy and to invite others to contribute to it.

This site is best viewed in Google Chrome, Firefox 3, and Safari 4. If you are having difficulty viewing the site, please upgrade your browser by clicking the appropriate link.
© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.