The Classic Fairytale at the Heart of 'Gretel & Hansel'

Orion Pictures

It's no secret that the Brothers Grimm wrote some pretty grisly fairy tales. They routinely crafted stories featuring characters like evil stepsisters whose eyes are pecked out by vengeful doves (Cinderella), cannibalistic aunts and family members (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty), and, of course, witches... who just so happen to also be cannibals (Hansel and Gretel). A lot of these stories were sanitized when they were adapted into animated features, and understandably so. But the forthcoming Hansel and Gretel adaptation, Gretel & Hansel (opening Jan. 31), seems to bring some of that good old Brothers Grimm darkness back into the proceedings, and it does so by following the blueprint already laid out for them in the original story.

In Gretel & Hansel, Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and her brother Hansel (Sammy Leakey) are left alone in the woods to fend for themselves. In their starved wandering, they come upon a strange old house filled with all sorts of food — a treasure to their desperately hungry eyes. The house belongs to a creepy old woman, Holda (Alice Krige), who takes the children under her care. Things take a turn for the horrifying once Gretel begins to uncover Holda's true motivations for taking the children in.

The film follows the original Hansel and Gretel's first act pretty closely, at least according to versions available online. When a famine strikes their town, the children (who are twins in the original) are abandoned in the woods by their mother out of a desperate need for survival. The children wander the woods only to come upon an old woman's hut; it's about here that the film seems to diverge from the original story, as the fairy tale has the old woman living in a home made of candy, gingerbread, and all kinds of sweets. Eventually it's revealed that the woman is a witch who attempts to eat the children, only to have them turn the tables and throw her into the oven she prepared for them instead.

There's no telling yet whether the film's ending will follow the fairy tale's, but it's clear that the rest of Gretel & Hansel draws heavily from the Brothers Grimm original. Speaking with Entertainment Weekly, director Osgood Perkins compared the two, saying, "It’s awfully faithful to the original story, it’s got really only three principal characters: Hansel, Gretel, and the Witch."

The key difference between the original and the film lies in the siblings' ages: Gretel was aged up to 16 in the film, with Hansel aged down to eight years old. Whereas in the original story, the two of them as 12-year-old twins. Perkins also highlighted this difference, saying, "We tried to find a way to make it more of a coming of age story ... There was more of a feeling like Gretel having to take Hansel around everywhere she goes, and how that can impede one’s own evolution, how our attachments and the things that we love can sometimes get in the way of our growth."