Tales of Yore is a series of articles about fairy tale adaptations. Adaptations can be direct or loose, and these reviews attempt to consider the films in the context of the stories upon which they are based.
This post marks the third week of my adventure in the realm of fairy tale adaptations in film. However, instead of looking at a direct adaptation, this week I am going to look at a movie that plays with the fairy tale from which it takes its name.
The Red Shoes (1948)
Plot: Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) is a very skilled dancer who is found by Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), an impresario for one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world. Julian Craster (Marius Goring) is a composer that, after having some of his work stolen, is likewise employed by Mr. Lermontov. Both Julian and Vicky have promising careers ahead of them, but when the two fall in love, Lermontov forces them to choose between their art and each other.
Again, this movie is not a direct adaptation of a fairy tale. Moreover, the story it’s based on is certainly not as popular as Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. “The Red Shoes” is originally a Hans Christian Andersen story, Andersen being a renowned Danish storyteller who specialized in writing tales that will rip out your heart. He wrote the story “The Little Mermaid,” which is a lot like the Disney movie, if that version had Ariel killing herself because the prince falls in love with someone else.
“The Red Shoes,” a similarly happy tale, tells the story of a spoiled young child who becomes fixated with a pair of red shoes. She gets them and then abandons her duties like churchgoing. An angel then punishes her for her vanity, making the shoes dance unendingly. Eventually, the girl has her feet amputated to end her suffering, although the shoes continue to dance. When the girl attempts to return to church for several Sundays in a row, she finds the shoes–with her feet still in them–dancing in front of the doors so that she can’t get in. She stops trying and, at home, prays for some form of forgiveness. She finds that all the great things about church have come to her, in her home, which is so exciting that her heart literally breaks, killing her.
So how does this come into play for the movie? Well, the breakout ballet of both Julian and Vicky’s careers is a production of The Red Shoes (note: I will refer to the ballet in bold, the movie in italics, and the short story in quotation marks), which puts them in the rocket ship that will send them to fame. But the usage of Andersen’s story is more than that, as the ballet becomes more than just a ballet for Vicky. It becomes a force and attraction equal to the shoes from Andersen’s story.
That…sounded a lot more normal when I typed it. Here’s what I mean: in the original story, the shoes are a symbol for the little girl’s desire, but that desire is unacceptable in her society, directly speaking because it consumes her life and prevents her from, say, going to church, and perhaps symbolically speaking because women in fairy tales are often condemned for their desires. Andersen had a troubled relationship with women (this is both the case historically and in his stories, where the female protagonists always seem to end up dead for wanting something) and wrote from a Christian perspective (lots of angels, condemnation for not attending church). Thus, the shoes largely stand in for sinful things like vanity, desire (in particular female desire, because the main character is female), and temptation.
So, we’re good on the shoes in the original story? Now consider the ballet’s role in the film. Vicky wants to dance, hell, she needs to dance–she claims that it is, to her, like the need to live. Moreover, the ballet itself is important to because it shows off her talents and engages her desire to do ballet and be successful. The importance of The Red Shoes in the movie becomes clear when we see her first performance. The initial shots in the scene are of the dancers on the stage, but slowly the camera follows Vicky and the stage becomes its own world, filled with features possible only in Vicky’s mind. This is more than just a ballet for her; in many ways, it is her own fairy tale.
But this love for The Red Shoes, much like the little girl’s love for the literal shoes in the short story, is impossible to act upon. While Vicky wants to be in The Red Shoes, she also loves Julian and wants to have that life. She wishes to have a professional life and a romantic one. But Lermontov refuses to allow this, claiming that she must fully dedicate herself to dancing. If Vicky is to put on the shoes, to really participate in the play, then she must dance forever and do nothing else. Lermontov’s character becomes the Hans Christian Andersen of this movie, waiting to doom Vicky to dancing for the rest of her life with no other possibilities if she gives into her desire.
Andersen has received a lot of flack for his treatment of female characters, and I think that the directors are commenting on the moralistic didacticism of Andersen in the original story by having Lermontov force Vicky to choose between a life of dance and a life of romance. In many ways, this is a less-than-veiled look at how women can be forced to choose a professional life or a personal one, unable to have both. Lermontov claims that she cannot dance and love Julian, because one will impede the other, but the irony is that Lermontov’s forced dichotomy of professional and romantic is the only real distraction. This also affects men, though, as Julian is likewise made to choose between Vicky and composing. Lermontov reflects the social norms propagated by Andersen, but instead of merely pointing out how this insidious viewpoint negatively affects women, the directors more so point out how it affects everyone.
I think that The Red Shoes is a remarkable movie, not just because it takes a classic tale and reworks it into something even more incredible, but also recognizes the power of the original story while critiquing some of its underpinnings. This film is an example of how to take a fairy tale and make a movie that is powerful, provocative, and beautiful, much like the tales themselves. Even more amazing, though, is that my view is but one of many. The endless possible interpretations are what have made fairy tales have staying power, and that is also the beauty of The Red Shoes. So, whether you agreed with this look at the classic movie or found it absolutely dreadful, you really ought to see it yourself and find what meanings stick with you.