This is what really happened; in 1917, and again in 1920, two rural English schoolgirl cousins went into the local woods and took photographs of paper cutouts shaped like fairies. All historical evidence suggests that the girls intended nothing more than a simple, silly prank, which then spiraled out of their control. As one of them said, much later in life, “I never even thought of it as being a fraud – it was just Elsie and I having a bit of fun. I can’t understand to this day why they were taken in – they wanted to be taken in.”
“They” were the True Believers; Theosophists and Spiritualists, wonder-seekers championed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who took the Cottingley fairy photographs as clear proof of the existence of the supernatural. To a nation reeling from the devastation of the First World War, the photographs offered a glimmer of hope “beyond the veil”; if fairies were real, then perhaps death did not equal the extinction of identity.
The 1997 movie Fairy Tale: A True Story is a clever, subtle and deeply compassionate examination of the nature of faith and skepticism during this very turbulent time. Each major character has his or her own perspective on the fairies. To Sir Arthur, for example, they represent the possibility of life beyond death and the vindication of his own father, who spent many years confined in a “lunatic asylum” and who frequently painted and wrote of seeing fairies.
To arch-skeptic Harry Houdini, who fought hard to expose the exploitation of the bereaved by fraudulent mediums, they represent a clever magic trick; an ultimately harmless and charming illusion.
Gardner, the Theosophist, comes up with increasingly far-fetched, pseudo-scientific theories about the fairies’ true natures.
To the comically nasty and cynical reporter, Mr. Ferret – who is, other than Houdini, the only adult who figures out how the photographs were actually produced – the fairies are a juicy story, perhaps part of a conspiracy orchestrated by Sir Arthur.
Several charming sequences show actual fairies flitting about, the director wisely leaving it ambiguous as to whether these scenes are intended to be taken literally, or more in the poetic spirit of Peter Pan’s urgent plea to “clap if you believe in fairies!”
It is also implied that the girls themselves come to realize the power of their own myth-making, as when they are shown making a solemn “vow of fairy secrecy”, which can either be interpreted as a promise not to reveal the magical secrets of real fairies, or as a promise not to reveal the simple trickery that has accidentally deceived the famous Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and so many others. At several points, when they are asked point-blank “are the fairies real?” by people for whom belief in fairies is clearly of great emotional importance, they exchange knowing looks before kindly nodding their heads.