Stories of magic and transformation that are traditionally called "fairy tales" are one of the oldest known forms of literature, and also one of the most popular and enduring. Even today they are a central part of our imaginative world. We remember and refer to them all our lives; their themes and characters reappear in songs, in modern popular fiction and television, and in films. Especially in films.
The fairy tale survives because it presents experience in vivid symbolic form. Through the use of familiar archetypes and age-old storylines, insight can be gained into the human condition and our place in the world, no matter what our age.
I grew up in a town so small (pop 4,000) that it didn't offer any of the usual entertainments for children - no swimming pools, movie theatres or bowling alleys. What it did have was a library, in the basement of the Anglican Church, and I learned very early on to love books, all kinds of books, but especially fairy tales, for the windows into other magical worlds they offered me. When I discovered "The Chronicles of Narnia" by C.S. Lewis, the boxed set I received for my 10th birthday became my most prized possession.
These books, which I still have, have written on their back cover the words, "For children aged nine to twelve." I still remember being absolutely devastated at the age of 13, that I was now considered too old to revisit them. And if you remember the last book in the series, "The Last Battle," when Narnia is destroyed and all the heroes and heroines go up to heaven, one of the original children who visited Narnia, Susan, is not allowed to return. I quote:
"Where is Queen Susan?" asked Tirian.
"Oh Susan!" said Jill, "she's interested in nothing now-a-days except
nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too
keen on being grown-up."
"Grown-up, indeed," said the Lady Polly. "I wish she would grow up.
She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and
she'll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole
idea is to race on to the silliest time of one's life as quick as she can
and then stop there as long as she can."
And with that, Susan is left to her lipstick and her invitations, and the rest go on to Paradise.
C.S. Lewis's misogyny notwithstanding, I can really appreciate the sentiment expressed in those pages. Like Susan, I too wanted to experience adult life, but I was loath to leave the belief in childhood magic behind me. Even now, I still look back with wistful fondness at the time in my life when I honestly believed that other worlds could be discovered through the backs of wardrobes, that animals could talk, and that fairies existed. My films, in a way, are my attempt to rediscover those feelings of wonder, for in film, like in a child's imagination, anything is possible.
In the original fairy tale that this film is adapted from, "The New Mother," by British author Lucy Lane Clifford (published in 1885), the story reads for the most part as a straight-forward (though terrifying) warning to Victorian children of the time to obey their parents or face dire punishment. In my film, I tried to bring in the theme of childhood abandoned too soon. Hanna and Mary are tempted by the Old Woman, who sits like a forest-dwelling Siren with her magical wooden box, to disobey their mother, and in so doing, are faced with an abrupt end to their innocent childhood.
"The Old Woman in the Woods" deals with archetypes and symbols: the old woman, the crow, the selfless mother, a wooden box with magical powers and children who are faced with a moral quandary. To fail the test represented by the Old Woman means great consequence, the enormity of which is not fully understood until it is too late. Like with all fairy tales, the moral of the story is left to individual interpretation - but my intent as the director should be clear.