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The challenges of adapting a folk tale

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In December 2016, an animated adaptation of The Hunchback and the Swan, a popular folk tale published by The History Press, debuted at an exclusive screening at Aardman. The tale features in three titles written by storyteller Taffy Thomas and the film was created by Dotty Kultys under the mentorship of Aardman co-founder Peter Lord.

In this exclusive article illustrated with stills from the film, Dotty discusses the challenges she faced in adapting Taffy’s tale for the screen.

When Taffy Thomas MBE and Peter Lord CBE approached me with the idea to make a short animated film based on one of Taffy’s stories, my response was pure delight at the idea of working with two great creatives whilst animating a folk tale. I've always had a soft spot for folk tales, and coming from Central Europe almost makes it a duty for a filmmaker to work on one. As soon as I received Taffy’s texts, I began reading through the collection in order to pick my stories, only vaguely aware of the challenges that lay ahead of me.

The first one was, of course, in the choice of material. Each tale follows its own set of rules, as well as the general rules of a folk tale as a genre. There are plenty of motifs and elements, such as repetition, third person narrative, extraordinary animals, reoccurring patterns, magical objects, the rule of three, etc. — sometimes they’re all there, and sometimes not all of them apply. However, one thing was certain to me: in order to complement a folk story, its animated adaptation needs to acknowledge and abide by the particular laws that govern it. If there’s repetition, you need to somehow include it and make it work. If there’s narrative in the third person, you need to utilise its advantages, rather than focus on its drawbacks. If there are reoccurring patterns, you can’t ignore them, but need to turn them into a key ingredient in your film.

In the end, I chose two texts: Truth and Story (also known as Coat Tails) and The Hunchback and the Swan. First of all, they felt right; they had the ‘magic’. But even more importantly, I instantly saw large animated chunks of them in my mind’s eye — picturing a visual storytelling style that could enhance the tales by using their own elements and rules.

It was crucial to focus on the visual storytelling, rather than on the narration itself, as I knew that the script would be fixed. After all, I was working with UK’s first Storytelling Laureate and it was important to me to retain Taffy’s unique style in the voiceover. That is why we decided that during the recording he would simply tell the two tales in their entirety, several times — it allowed him to maintain the flow of his narrative and gave me enough material to choose from, though it also presented me with my second big challenge: the storyteller spoke, his stories got recorded, and it was then up to me to edit the voiceover. I needed to make sure that everything that was important remained intact. It meant not only Taffy’s distinctive storytelling, but also some of the folk tale elements mentioned earlier. It was especially tempting to get rid of the pesky repetitions and lists — why have ‘the weasel, the rabbit, the badger, the fox, the robin and the wren’ go up the path three times, when I could have ‘the animals’ go up the path just once and be done with it?

On reflection, I understood that removing the features that were inherent in a folk tale would mean that I was no longer animating a folk tale. My task was to keep them, embrace them, and make them work visually. I ended up only cutting out the occasional word here and there and making sure the whole thing sounded great. It did and, naturally, it led me to my third challenge; the greatest challenge of the whole process.

A fixed script isn’t a complication for a film director, unless it describes word for word what is happening in the story. That was the case in Taffy’s tale The Hunchback and the Swan. Third person narrative combined with the plot of the tale and the nature of the folk tale genre formed a framework that was truly awkward to work with. There were many descriptive sections in there, such as: ‘And she tapped her yellow beak three times on his forehead, and a flicker of a smile came across his face’. Not much space left for imagination, as everything was already reported in painful detail.

On top of that, there was a lot of direct speech in the script, such as ‘And the Wren said: You’ll have to wait and see’. Again, how does a filmmaker show what is already being told? Do we even need a film in such a case? I had two options: illustrate the tale or go against the tale. Illustrating meant repeating through images what was already described by voice. If the narrator said that the hunchback would ‘half turn and stroke her beautiful curved neck’, than that’s exactly what we would see on the screen. A very safe approach, and sometimes useful, but one that doesn’t pay off in the long run if used throughout the entire film, as you risk losing your audience two minutes into the story — not many people enjoy lack of variety. Therefore, I had to go with both options. Illustrating was pretty straightforward; its job was to help the viewers get back on track with the narrative. However, going against the story definitely wasn’t an easy path. It needed to add something new to an existing script, something that wasn’t obvious and still strengthened the story.

Many visual aspects of the tale were incredibly difficult to figure out. There was a moment of character transformation in the narrative that was particularly tricky. Everything was described, yet I needed to keep it all unforeseeable, so that the ending of the tale could have its impact. The text was repetitive, almost tedious, yet I needed the feel of the visual storytelling to be supernatural, as it was a magical transformation. It took me months of trial and error brainstorming, drawing and testing before I reached some good answers. Thankfully, I did reach them; not only in that section, but throughout the whole film.

At the end of the project, I was acutely aware of all the challenges that a filmmaker can face when creating an animated adaptation of a folk tale. From choosing the right text and having a reason for making it an animation, through embracing genre rules and letting them shine through the narrative, to finally understanding what the adaptation needs in order to be constructive — the process involves plenty of tests in perseverance and perception. It is, however, a truly rewarding endeavour. When done well, an animated adaptation doesn’t simply bring a folk tale to life, it adds something to it from its own genre — film — and forms an enhanced version of the original story. Elements of a spoken tale become combined with features that can only exist because the new format is an animated film, and the final product is a totally unique fusion; familiar, yet completely new.

By Dotty Kultys

Watch the trailer for The Hunchback and the Swan.

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