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Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment:
The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales

Besides being an eloquent argument for the universal importance of hearing stories (for people of all ages), Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses Of Enchantment—psychoanalytic literary criticism of fairy tales—has a special relevance for screenwriters. Approaches to teaching screenwriting have short-changed psychology for mythology. By bringing meaning to the evil stepmothers, nasty giants and fairy godmothers which often appear in fairy tales (and movies), he helps bridge the gap. Instead of merely seeing these characters as standalone archetypal figures which exist separate and outside of a protagonist, he shows how these universal figures represent projections or a fractured part of the protagonist's psyche, or they are the good and bad aspects of a parent split into separate entities. It's one thing to say that your protagonist will encounter threshold guardians, but what does an ogre (or bad guy) with a club standing in the middle of your hero's path mean? Although I don't want to extract some simple paradigm from material which was not necessarily aimed at writers and try to make Bruno Bettelheim into the next screenwriting guru, I do think Bettelheim can help screenwriters find the answer to the above question.

The first part of the book, besides explaining his approach through brief summaries and analysis of fairy tales, addresses why it is so important for kids to hear fairy tales. Distinctive from myths, fairy tales focus on normal, non-heroic people the child can identify with. Whereas myths deal with the outer world and victories over opponents, fairy tales deal with inner processes and victories over our self. Fairy tales' themes of recovery and consolation embodied in the happy ending appeal to the child's unconscious allowing for him/her to have the faith to charge forward and try to master the warring parts of his/her personality: the id and the ego. Fairy tales bring the protagonist and the child toward maturity. The analysis of children's need for fairy tales and an explication of the child's and the protagonist's parallel journey help screenwriters understand what their characters and audience need to go through in order to have a satisfying story.

In the second part of the book, in Fairy Land, Bettelheim delves deeper into a few fairy tales including Snow White, Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. Bettelheim understands that a child's brain acts on a different level than adults. For instance, instead of seeing a feminist nightmare of happy rape fantasies in Beauty and the Beast, a child learns that the beast can be lovable only after he is loved. This also assures the child that for all of the negative, anti-social and id-related desires inside him, he deserves to be loved; even if he's a monster, there's hope for him. Bettelheim also finds that to young girls, Beauty and the Beast, the Disney version aside, augurs of their eventual transference of unnatural feelings of love for the father toward a suitable lover.

Readers who are not familiar with the principles of Freudian developmental theory might eschew some of the deeper psycho-sexual analysis. Sometimes it almost seems like parody, but most of the time, even when he "stretches" for a meaning or an analogy, he supports it with a pretty convincing argument. Once again, there's
nothing here which correlates directly to the screenwriter, but such thorough analyses of how much meaning and texture can go into a short story should inspire writers who are aiming for higher than Cliffhanger II.

If The Uses Of Enchantment bears some relevance to the screenwriter, then to the writer of children's fiction, this book is indispensable. Bettelheim brutally convinces the reader how realistic and superficial stories like The Little Engine That Could and
psychologically incorrect tales like Hans Christian Andersen's The Ugly Duckling only serve to frustrate children. Besides the inadvertent lesson in developmental psychology, writers will also find a fascinating approach to the meaning of characters and the forces of antagonism in their scripts.

Originally published in Creative Screenwriting (Vol. 6, #2, page 57)