Once Upon A Time: The Adaptation of Grimm’s Fairy Tales in the Eponymous Television Series

Julie Escurignan (University of Texas, Austin (TX), USA)

Summary of the Project


Since the 19th century, Grimm’s fairy tales have known success: they have been published, re-published, told and adapted. After books, animated movies and films, they were broadcasted on television under the format of the series. In 2011, both Once upon a time and Grimm adapted fairy tales in TV shows. However, if Once upon a Time uses the bright magical atmosphere inherited from Disney’s adaptations (aimed at a young audience), Grimm follows the book of tales and provides a fairy tales’ audiovisual adaptation “for adults”. The novelty of this adaptation combined with the claimed fidelity to the Brothers’ Grimm book (embodied by the use of the Brothers’ name as the series’ title) shed light on this show and raised my curiosity on how these tales can be adapted and narrated to an adult audience.

Research Question

The question at the heart of this research is thus: How are the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales adapted, transformed and modernized by the American television series Grimm, and how does this process participate in the Fairy Tales’ transmission while at the same time capitalizing on a reinvented legacy?

Theoretical Framework

This research, due to its length, uses a complex net of theories. For the purpose of this project, I have limited my theoretical frameworks to the authors which reflections are essentials. This work is grounded in semiotics and thus relies heavily on Barthes’ Semiotique de l’image and Mythologies. It also bases its analysis on quotations and their importance in the series on Antoine Compagnon’s La seconde main that provides key concepts for the understanding of the quotations’ functions. Finally, Natacha Rimasson Fertin’s dissertation on Grimm’s fairy tales serves as a basis for the analysis of spaces, places and representations in written fairy tales and their comparison with audiovisual ones.


This research has been oriented around three main notions: Grimm’s Fairy Tales’ adaptation; their modernization through the fiction; and the creation of the television show’s own mythology. It focuses on Grimm’s fairy tales transfer from a written media to a visual one. To do so, it looks and studies the quotations situated at the beginning of each episode as well the episodes by themselves. The episodes I worked on were the ones from the first two seasons in which the quotations were extracted from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. In order to understand the mechanisms of the adaptation, I designed and developed a methodology of audiovisual analysis allowing the collection of images, texts and audio content. I have created this method of analysis on the basis of theoretical content in semiotics and of my own needs for this research. It provided me with enough data to undertake an in-depth visual analysis of some parts of the show, while not overlooking other aspects of an audio-visual study (such as the sound) that can be used for another research. As showed in Figure 1, I realized shots of the television series’ images on which the quotations were in order to analyze the way the written tales were showed and adapted to a visual media. I particularly looked at the background behind each quotation in order to see if they were related to fairy tales’ sceneries.


The television series Grimm is a unique collection of fairy tales: instead of being a written book illustrated by images, it is an audio-visual text constituted by images and illustrated by text. These mixed forms make it a hybrid object, requiring methodological and theoretical creativity to be studied.

The quotations analyzed in Figure 1 come from the Brothers Grimm’s Fairy Tales Collection. They are shown without signature indicating where they originate, except from the quotation from the first episode of the show. Recognizing the quotations requires of the audience a previous knowledge of the fairy tales. One could object that the quotations orient the way the audience see and understand the episode. Indeed, the quotations are always linked to an event happening in the episode. It can thus have two functions: to justify the adaptation of the tale, anchoring it in a direct legacy from the book and/or to date back to a moment or character of the tale and thus still justify the link between the quotation and the episode. Moreover, Grimm’s quotations ask a question expressed by Barthes in Rhetorique de l’image (1964): “Does the image double some information in the text, as a redundancy, or does the text add new information to the image?” (p. 43) This question really puts forward the interrogation regarding the function of the quotation: does the quotation have an anchoring function or a relay one? The quotation, being here a textual illustration of the fairy tales’ visual collection embodied by the show, and being linked to what is showed in the episode, has then an anchoring function. It guides the comprehension and interpretation of the show.

The quotation also conveys with it representations that are not always accurate. It spreads erroneous ideas about the show. As a matter of fact, from the title of the series and the signature of the quotation of the first episode, one could easily think that the whole fiction only adapts Grimm’s tales. They actually only represent less than half of the quotations showed. The quotations disseminate a particular view on fairy tales. As analyzed in Figure 2, the background images present Grimm’s conception of serialized fairy tales. First, it must be noticed that three types of background images illustrate the quotations: nature images; urban images; and “other” images, which is a category composed of artifact that not linked to either nature or the city. Whereas most of the scenes of the series take place in an urban environment, the majority of the background images represent nature. Furthermore, there is an evolution between the backgrounds of season one and two. In season one, the absolute majority of the backgrounds represent nature, while in season two there is a reversal of this tendency with more images representing the city than nature. Therefore, we can claim that in the television show Grimm, nature is linked to the Brothers’ written Tales and to old versions of fairy tales. The “modern” adaptations, as for them, are linked to the city. The change of backgrounds from nature to the city imply both a detachment from the contemporary epoch regarding nature and a removal of the loyal adaptations of the tales (where the nature, and more particularly the forest, are crucial) toward free adaptation, real creation and the development of the show’s own mythology. This swing can be understood as a change of goal from the series, that does not base anymore its existence on the mere adaptation of fairy tales but aims at the extension of its own universe.


Barthes, R. (1964). Rhetorique de l’image. Communication, 4, 40-51.

Bateman, J., & Schmidt, K. H. (2014). Multimodal Film Analysis: How films mean. New York: Routledge.

Compagnon, A. (1979). La seconde main: ou le travail de la citation. Paris: Seuil.

Escurignan, J. (2014). Il était…1X01 : L’adaptation des contes de Grimm dans la série televisée éponyme. Paris : CELSA-Sorbonne University.

Grimm, J. & W. (2009). Contes pour les enfants et la maison. (N. Rimasson-Fertin, Trans.). Paris: Jose Corti. (Original work published 1812)

Rimasson-Fertin, N. (2008). L’autre monde et ses figures dans les Contes de l’enfance et du foyer des frères Grimm et les Contes populaires russes d’A. N. Afanassiev. Grenoble: Universite Grenoble III – Stendhal.

Methodological Reflections

Methodological Potentials

I have used this methodology of visual analysis for this research as well as another one on the series The Tudors. It is thus a method that has proven to be useful, effective and reproducible. It is also close to the method for film analysis I have discovered in Bateman and Schmidt’s Multimodal Film Analysis (2014), which reinforce its legitimacy, particularly to work on audiovisual content. It is a way to analyze film and television content and collect enough data for further research. Finally, it is a flexible and adaptable method that scholars can take for themselves and apply to their own research. It is thus a pretty decent methodology, efficient, clear and practical for visual analysis.

Methodological Challenges

Nevertheless, it is a methodology that proves to be hard to analyze moving images and long periods of sounds. It is good for fixed images and limited periods with sound. To analyze television series, which are an audiovisual format with moving images, a method more effective to study whole scenes or acts of episodes would be needed. Besides, it is a methodology that takes up much space in tables and illustrations in order to capture each image, sound and detail. A way to condense the analysis material while keeping its efficiency and quality is still to be found. Inputs and viewpoints from fellow researchers in the field will undoubtedly provide ways to explore methodological solutions.

Methodological Limitations

This methodology is therefore a useful all-in-one method to study audiovisual content fixed in time and space or break moving images into fixed ones, which are easier to analyze. However, improvements to this method in order to be able to work on moving images would prove helpful.

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