Fairies in Movies: Folklore on the Big Screen

Initially I was going to do this post about my favorite witchy Halloween movies since it’s October and I am an absolute fanatic for the holiday. I mean I love Samhain but I adore secular Halloween in a way that’s probably excessive. However I was talking about the idea with a friend and we ended up segueing into a discussion about fairies in movies and the way that many people lean towards the twee* versions which led to talking about movies that depict fairies more along traditional lines. So this is my list of movies, varying from campy to well done, that portray different versions of fairies in ways that are truer to folklore.

Photo by the author.
Photo by the author.
  1. The Secret of Kells – cartoon fairies tend to be the ones that take the hardest twee hit so let’s start with a couple really good cartoon fairy depictions. The Secret of Kells is a movie about a young scribe in medieval Ireland who befriends a forest spirit named Aisling. Aisling is shown as somewhat childlike in her appearance but has powerful magic and shows up to help the main character when he is most in need of it.
  2. Song of the Sea – by the same people who made Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea is the story of a young boy named Ben and his sister Saoirse. Their mother is a selkie and she left them to return to the sea the night Saoirse was born; Ben is human but his little sister is not and this forms in many ways the crux of the tension in the movie. It takes some liberties with Irish mythology but tells a great story and is full of fairies of different types all trying to get back to the Otherworld but trapped here. Only the song of a selkie can open the passage to Fairy, but the only selkie left on earth is Saoirse and she’s mute.
  3. Seulseulhago Chalranhashin: Dokkaebi [English title ‘Goblin: the lonely and great God’] – In fairness this is a Korean pop-drama so it is at points overly melodramatic and saccharine. However that said it is also a fascinating look at the folklore around the dokkaebi, spirits who are roughly similar to the western concepts of fairies; the word dokkaebi is translated as goblin. This serial drama follows the story of one particular ‘goblin’ and his search for the person who can free him from his curse: the prophesied goblin’s bride.
  4. Labyrinth – A classic movie based on the lore of Changelings; a girl asks the goblins to take her little brother away and they do, forcing her to enter into a bargain with the Goblin King to try to win him back.  Throughout the movie we see a huge range of fairies from dangerous to comical. Campy in places but has a lot of good material in it.
  5. Krampus – billed as a horror movie but hard to pin down Krampus does include some fairies, specifically the elves which aid Krampus throughout the film. They are loosely based on the traditional Jolasveinar [Yule Lads] who could reward good children or punish bad ones. These figures appeared wearing masks, as Krampus’s elves do in the movie, and in the older stories were known to do things like kidnap naughty children and boil them alive – note that Iceland actually banned parents from using the Yule Lads to ensure children’s good behavior in 1746.

    Old card reading "Gruss vom Krampus", 1900's, public domain
    Old card reading “Gruss vom Krampus”, 1900’s, public domain
  6. Hellboy II the Golden Army – loses points with me for mauling some Celtic mythology pretty badly (no Balor wasn’t Nuada’s father) but gains them back for having some of the characters speak Old Irish. The fairies range from rampagingly homicidal to helpful, and are most certainly not twee.
  7. The Guardian – homicidal dryad who looks for a baby to sacrifice to her tree. Very campy and the special effects leave a lot to be desired for a modern audience (the movie was made in 1990), but definitely a different perspective on tree spirits. Manages to convey the idea of these beings as inhuman while showing one fully within a human society, and like many of these films plays on the old changeling/stolen child stories.
  8. Pan’s Labyrinth – Fabulous visual effects and a grim story, Pan’s Labyrinth weaves together modern myth and older folklore. I like this one in particular because it also explores the connection between the dead and fairies, something that doesn’t often show up in movies (or books for that matter). The movie is full of many allusions to classic tropes from fairytales and mythology as well as a nod to the archetypal hero’s journey.
  9. "Plucked From a Fairy CIrcle" from the book "). British Goblins: Welsh Folk-lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions" (1880)  Via WikiMedia.
    “Plucked From a Fairy CIrcle” from the book “). British Goblins: Welsh Folk-lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions” (1880) Via WikiMedia.
  10. The Hallow – one of my favorites on this list, I watched it after a friend recommended it recently. Definitely leans into the genre of horror further than the folklore might merit and the actual depiction of the fairies is more zombie than fairy. But it draws on genuine tradition for the premise of the story, which centers on a couple who move to a small Irish town and ignore warnings to stay out of the forest which belongs to the ‘hallow’ aka fairies. Bonus points from me for being filmed entirely in Ireland.
  11. Secret of Roan Inish – Another of my personal favorites, the story of a girl named Fiona who is sent to live with her grandparents and begins to unravel some family secrets which center on the island the family left when Fiona was a small child, and the loss of her younger brother Jaimie. A story of selkies and the way that folklore can be interwoven through generations and affect people in the modern world.

This isn’t by any means an exhaustive list, but it covers a good range I think from children’s movies to horror films, from the light hearted to the serious. What they all have in common is their attempt to portray fairies not as tiny little environmentally conscious nature spirits, but as characters stepping from the pages of folklore onto the big screen. There are several others that I haven’t seen either because they aren’t out yet or because I haven’t had a chance but which I’ve heard good things about so I’ll add them here as honorable mentions and these include: the Netflix original movie Bright which is set in a Los Angeles where orcs and elves live side by side with humans; Mei Ren Yu [English title The Mermaid] a story about a community of mermaids trying to save their home from developers; and Córki Dancingu [English title The Lure] a story of two mermaids who come on shore and end up working in a strip club.

*twee – excessively cute, pretty, or dainty

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