Fairy tales have served as cautionary stories throughout history, warning children to mind their parents, to not take candy from strangers or their homes, and to not buy anything frivolous. The stories started with an oral tradition, only being written down when the Brothers Grimm and Franz Xaver von Schönwerth gathered the tales. Even after being written down, the stories changed, becoming more kid- and parent-friendly. Disney has been successful with animated adaptations of several fairy tales, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Beauty and the Beast.
Jack is a common name in fairy tales. On its own, it’s a nickname and variant on John, the most popular name throughout the ages in English. The commonality of the name lends itself to cautionary tales, speaking directly to the audience. “Jack and the Beanstalk” is no exception. In that story, Jack must take a cow to market to get a fair price to help his poor mother get enough food for them both to live on. A shady merchant, however, convinces Jack to trade the cow for magical beans. When Jack returns home, he is berated by his mother for letting himself be fooled. She throws the beans away. Overnight, the beans sprout and a giant beanstalk grows, reaching for the sky. Curiosity overcomes Jack and he climbs the beanstalk.
Reaching the top, Jack discovers a new land. He wanders, searching for food. In the distance, he spies a castle and makes his way to it. The castle huge, far larger than Jack expected. Inside, he hears a beautiful voice singing and a gruff voice. Jack sneaks in and sees a giant being sung to by a golden harp with a woman’s body carved in it. The giant smells him, declaring it with a “fee fie fo fum”. Jack manages to hide, and finds a goose that lays golden eggs. The harp asks for Jack’s help to escape the giant’s clutches. Jack steals both the harp and the goose, but the giant discovers the theft. Jack escapes down the beanstalk, the giant in hot pursuit. He chops down the beanstalk, causing the giant to fall to his death. Everyone lives happily ever after, except the giant.
Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures combined to produce and distribute the 2013 movie, Jack the Giant Killer, based on the “Jack and the Beanstalk” fairy tale. The film begins with two children, one a princess, the other the son of a tenant farmer, being told a tale of King Eric the Great, the king who put an end to the predations of giants in Albion and Cloister through the use of a magic crown. Both children, Isabelle and Jack, love the story, though they do not meet until Jack, played by Nicholas Houte, is sent by his uncle into town to sell a horse and cart to get thatch to repair the roof of their home. Jack gets distracted by a wandering minstrel troup putting on the story of King Eric the Great. As he checks out the show, he finds three drunks accosting a young woman, Eleanor Tomlinson, and steps in to help her. The three drunks back down, not because of Jack, but because of Elmont, played by Ewan MacGregor, and the rest of the king’s troops.
Elmont escorts the young woman, Princess Isabelle, back to the castle, where her father, King Brahmwell, played by Ian McShane, lectures her about the dangers outside the castle walls. Lord Roderick, played by Stanley Tucci, listens but has other matters on his mind more important to him than the behaviour of his betrothed. Roderick and his henchman, Wicke, played by Ewen Bremner, need to track down some magic beans, stolen by a monk.
Back in the city, Jack discovers that his cart has been stolen, leaving him with just the horse. Without the cart, Jack can only sell the horse. A monk approaches him with the deal of a lifetime; a handful of magic beans in return for the horse. The monk warns that Jack should never let the beans get wet*. Jack takes the beans back home. His uncle is not pleased; they needed thatch for the roof. He knocks the beans out of Jack’s hands. Jack picks up most of them, but some fall through cracks in the floor to land in the soil underneath the house. Jack’s uncle heads back to town despite how late in the day it is.
Isabelle is not a princess that can be sent to her tower. Her late mother told her that to rule well, a future queen needs to know how the common people live. Isabelle disguises herself and leaves the castle and the city. As it gets late and rain pours down, she spies a light in the distance. The light is a lantern hung outside by Jack to help his uncle. Jack lets Isabelle in and soon recognizes her as the princess.
The beans have not been idle during this. The heavy rain seeps under the house, getting the magic beans wet. The beans sprout, growing fast, destroying the house and whisking Jack and Isabelle skyward. Jack discovers he has acrophobia, then slips on a wet leaf and falls. Several strands of the stalk slow his fall to make the landing painful but not lethal.
The next morning, King Brahmwell, Lord Roderick, and Captain Elmont, along with the king’s royal guard and army, arrive at the remains of the home of Jack’s uncle. The royal entourage is searching for Isabelle. Jack answers truthfully and points up. Brahmwell orders Elmont to get his best men ready to climb. Jack volunteers to go, feeling responsible for the princess’s disappearance. Lord Roderick also volunteers to go, to help find his betrothed. Roderick’s plot is shown. He has the crown used by Eric the Great to defeat the giants, but he needs the magic beans, and he’s worked out that the monk gave Jack those beans. Roderick has Wicke cut loose several of Elmont’s men after they slip, sending them plummeting back to Earth. He threatens Jack, demanding the beans. Jack gives him what he has left, save one.
At the top of the beanstalk, the expedition discovers a new land, way above the clouds looking down on the Kingdom of Cloister. They follow a trail left by Isabelle marked into trees. The last mark, though, was half done, interrupted. The group looks around, spies sheep, and decides on an impromptu mutton lunch, since the supplies also returned to Earth when Wicke cut the rope. The chase leads into a trap, with Jack and Crawe, Elmont’s second-in-command, getting caught in a net. Soon, a giant comes to find out what set the trap off. Jack and Crawe escape the trap and try to hide. The giant finds Crawe and Elmont, knocking out both and taking them back to a castle. Jack follows the giant, sneaking inside. He hides to escape notice, finding a golden egg and a golden harp. Pocketing the egg, Jack continues sneaking.
Elmont and Crawe are taken to see the self-appointed leader of the giants, a two-headed monster named Fallon, played by Bill Nighy and John Kassir**. Fallon threatens Elmont, demanding to know about the beans and crowne, and eats Crawe to emphasize the threats. Lord Roderick steps up to show who has the crown, forcing the giants to bend their knees to him in allegiance. Roderick doesn’t want to be the the Prince Consort to future Queen Isabelle. He wants to rule, not just Cloister, but Albion and the Viking lands beyond. With the crown to command the giants and the magic beans to give the giants a way back down, Roderick has an unstoppable army. To celebrate, Roderick orders a feast, featuring Elmont-in-a-poke.
Jack finds the kitchen, where Isabelle is being held captive in a cage. Elmont is delivered, and the giants’ cook start preparing the feast. Jack is unable to open the cage, so he slips down to try to cut Elmont out while the cook’s back is turned. The cook isn’t distracted long enough, though. Jack gives Elmont his knife, then hides. The cook puts the pigs-in-a-poke on to cook. Jack, sneaking on a rafter overhead, drops a knife on to the cook. It’s not enough to kill the cook, but the flailing around is enough to send the giant into the wall hard enough to finish the job. Isabelle and Elmont are rescued, and the trio escape the castle.
Roderick may be a would-be world conqueror, but he does know the villain playbook. He has a giant guarding the beanstalk, to stop both people trying to climb up and people trying to go down. Roderick doesn’t have much to work from, though. The guard is fast asleep. Jack and Elmont retrieve a honeycomb to drop in the giant’s helmet. It takes some time, but the giant does feel the stings and eventually falls over the cliff. Jack and Isabelle escape, but Elmont remains behind to gather intelligence and to slow Roderick down.
At the bottom of the beanstalk, the king’s men have set up camp. They have seen the bodies of Elmont’s men and see the giant land hard. King Brahmwell makes the hardest decision in his life, to cut down the beanstalk before Isabelle can return. The army starts hacking away at the stalk while teams of horses are hooked up to pull strands down. Above, Jack and Isabelle feel the work of the men and prepare for the fall. Elmont, in the meantime, has seen Roderick’s army and flees, jumping on to the beanstalk just before it falls.
Isabelle is reunited with her father. Jack declines a reward. Elmont survives the fall. Roderick is thwarted. Wait, Roderick still has one more trick up his sleeve, the magic beans he took from Jack. He throws them into the river, where they sprout. The giants climb on to them as the new stalks bend Earthward. Jack, who stayed at the remains of his uncle’s farm, sees the beanstalks and gets on his horse to warn the king.
As seen above, the movie takes great liberties with the fairy tale, adding elements, such as Eric the Great, Roderick, and Isabelle. The core of the tale is still there, the selling of a farm animal for magic beans that lets a hero named Jack climb to a realm ruled by a giant. The movie has an end montage as parents tell the story to children, with each telling changing details, losing Isabelle, changing the horse to a cow, and changing the giant army into just one giant. The hero remains Jack, though. The montage serves to remind the audience that fairy tales have been altered through re-tellings. The core of “Jack and the Beanstalk” is in the movie, with layers built up over it. Part of it is to expand the movie to fill out the running time of a film. The layers, though, also work to make the world richer, with backstory for the giants and a villain that knows what happens when the hero is given a chance to escape.
At the box office, the movie barely broke even on its budget. The core problem was being a PG-13 movie for a story that was aimed at a PG crowd. The rating kept away parents concerned about violence, but the trailers were targeting the younger crowd. Coupled with an almost $200 million budget, the movie needed to have an ideal release.
As an adaptation, the darker look at “Jack and the Beanstalk” wasn’t unusual. Many fairy tales have a dark side, from two children abandoned in the woods by their parents in “Hansel and Gretel” to the cruelty done to Cinderella by her step-mother and step-sisters. Jack fights the giants using his wits, not with any skill with a sword. As mentioned, the closing montage shows how oral stories change. For much of history, literacy wasn’t available to the common man, just to a limited elite. Oral tradition allowed narrators to add their own embellishments. Jack the Giant Slayer honours the oral tradition of fairy tales with its own take on “Jack and the Beanstalk”.
Next week, a new feature at Lost in Translation with a look at fixing the 1998 Godzilla.
* No word on whether the beans shouldn’t be fed after midnight.
** Nighy played the smarter head. Kassir got to be the half-witted head.