Back in April I watched and reviewed the first episode in Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre, having never seen it as a child but being interested in its subject matter and Eighties aesthetic. I always meant to continue with the show, but haven't had the chance until now.
On reflection, Rumplestiltskin is a tough fairy tale to adapt. It’s a strange and sad story in a number of ways, centred on a woman who is surrounded on all sides by completely terrifying men. Her father's bragging lands her in captivity, her future husband keeps threatening to kill her if she doesn't obey his impossible commands, and the little man who comes to her rescue demands her firstborn child in exchange for saving her life.
It's horrifying. This woman's only speckle of agency comes when she orders servants to go out and discover Rumplestiltskin's name and so save her child. Yet even after she successfully defeats her baby from God only knows what fate, it's difficult to feel too happy for her: she's still married to a psycho who holds her life in his hands.
How to adapt such a depressing tale for a children's afterschool show?
The obvious thing to do is minimize the threat posed to the protagonist by all the men surrounding her. As such, her boastful father here becomes a man who tells the king that his daughter can embroider tapestry with thread that resembles gold – something that the king promptly misinterprets as being able to spin thread into gold. Yeah, it's a little clumsy, but her father at least comes across more foolish than dickish.
The king is also characterized as a man-child rather than a malevolent patriarch, with his greed based on genuine concerns for the kingdom's welfare than his own pockets, and the real threat to the heroine's life coming from his wizardly advisor. It's a good idea, but not one that's followed through to its logical conclusion.
Though Ned Beatty attempts to play the king as jovial, the script fumbles badly when it depicts him locking Shelley Duvall's character in the cell and telling her "you will die" if she doesn't spin straw into gold by morning.
Why not give all that material to the wizard? He could be working on the king's orders, but keeping him ignorant as to the specifics of how he forces a young woman to perform an impossible feat – thereby rendering the king a bit dense but largely harmless. They set up for this outcome nicely, but fail to follow through on the sensibleness of adding the wizard character to the story in the first place.
However, a nice job is done with Rumplestiltskin. A few creative choices help capture the inherent creepiness of the character: he's inexplicably already in the cell when the princess is locked in, he finds her tears contagious and so is desperate to assist her to stop his own crying, and – as ever – he's insistent on claiming her firstborn child as payment without any indication of what he actually wants it for.
It's that part of the story that always gives me the creeps.
Later the miller's daughter (now a Queen) is allowed a degree of agency when she herself goes to the forest in search of Rumpelstiltskin's name, a place where she finds plenty of allies considering she roamed there as a child. And by the end, she gets a poignant line: "at last, the Queen is happy", that echoes her husband's earlier: "at last, the King is happy." She might still be married to an unstable man-child, but at least her actual child is safe.
It was probably the best they could give her.
Worst Establishing Shot: This awful castle:
Strange Accessory: The king's crown. Is it even a crown or a thick headband?
Weirdest Dialogue: "Put down that chicken." "But he's my friend."
Best Reaction Shot: The king reacting to the mention of the miller's daughter's abilities:
Funniest Example of Something That's Obviously Not Happening: When Rumpelstiltskin feeds straw into the spinning wheel – and it clearly just falls on the floor.
Most Dizzying Abuse of Depth Perception: When the miller's daughter goes skipping down the hallway and almost hits the roof:
Most Horrifying Moment: When Rumplestiltskin appears at the window:
Best Baby Acting: When you know a creepy adult is trying to kidnap you:
Weirdest Character: The guy on the left, a herald who pulls faces and is seemingly being directed to act like a child:
Worst BEST Practical Effect: Behold the mighty unicorn:
Worst Prop: A royal cradle that is clearly made of cardboard.
Most Convenient Line: After an entire song about Rumplestiltskin that repeats his name about twenty or so times, one of his friends turns at the door and yells: "GOODNIGHT RUMPLESTILTSKIN" just in case we missed it.
Worst Special Effect: When the miller's daughter gives Rumplestiltskin his name, this happens: