The Case of the Storyteller

“When people told themselves their past with stories, explained their present with stories, foretold the future with stories, the best place by the fire was kept for the storyteller.”

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Fairy and Folk Tales

  • Long ago, even before written tradition, people gathered to tell stories. These stories focused on people that dealt with demons, whether they be from hell or from within. Featuring regular folk, animals, and kings, these tales appealed to the masses. The stories were passed down from one generation to the next, existing in the oral tradition, changing with the times but keeping true to their original lessons. We know them as Folktales
  • The word “Folk” comes from the German word “volk” which means people. The appeal of the tales was that anyone could listen and place themselves in the position of the characters. 
    • Often we use the terms “Fairy tale” and “Folktale” interchangeably. This is not totally correct. Folktales usually appeal to a specific culture or people, while fairy tales are fanciful stories that almost always include magic and mythical creatures. A folktale could also be a fairy tale, but not all fairy tales are folktales.
  • Folktales were used in place of education, teaching people basic lessons about morality, truth, sadness, and fears. There is no truth too complicated that it can’t be taught through a story. 
    • Almost every folktale has some sort of moral, whether it’s heavy-handed or subtle. 
  • Many of these original stories exist today as written word, thanks to historians that traveled through countrysides and gathered oral stories from the people that lived there. Many of us today know a folktale specific to their own family, or participate in the telling of one. Any time you see a relative and say, “tell us this story,” and the story isn’t written anywhere? That’s a folktale 

On January 31st, 1987, a television show aired on NBC called, “The Storyteller.” It featured an old man, sitting by the fire next to his cynical, talking dog. The episodes were based on folktales, acted out by actors and puppets from the Jim Henson creature shop. It was a rare combination of ancient influences mixed with modern technology, and was loved by critics and viewers alike. The show was difficult to produce, so it was shown in a limited fashion. The last episodes were packaged together and released as The Jim Henson Hour. 

Making of the show

  • The Storyteller is one of Jim Henson’s last projects, and he directed two episodes of the show. 
  • The idea for this show came from Jim Henson’s daughter, Lisa, after she took a folklore class at Harvard.
  • Henson was intrigued by the idea of a show that celebrated ancient stories and stayed true to their subtlety.
  • Together, Jim Henson and Lisa created the concept of the show and based all the episodes on actual folk tales. 
    • They employed a team to research literary references to the stories, making them as authentic as possible.
    • The show was written by Anthony Minghella, who spent two years writing the 9 episodes for its first and only season. The long, hard work really paid off! 
    • Minghella is also known for “The English Patient” which he won an Oscar for, but also “The Talented Mr. Ripley”, “Cold Mountain”, and Storyteller: Greek Myths.
  • Henson used the effects and animatronics from his creature shop, mixed with actors, to bring these stories to screen.
  • Academy award winning composer Rachel Portman wrote the theme music and scored the show. She is also known for “The Cider House Rules” and “Emma” 
  • Jim Henson knew exactly what he wanted for the look and feel of the show, so he brought in Brian Froud, a man he collaborated with on The Dark Crystal and The Labyrinth. Every detail from every episode was carefully crafted to build a wondrous universe, where these stories could exist. 
  • When the lights go low, and the storyteller’s voice grows quiet, and the fire burns bright and warm, we all can suspend our belief even just for a little while. This show captured a feeling that we all get from our favorite stories, like no show had done before. 

The First and only season ran 9 episodes

  • Hans My Hedgehog
  • The Heartless Giant
  • The Three Ravens
  • The True Bride
  • The Soldier and Death
  • Fearnot
  • A Story Short
  • The Luck Child
  • Sapsorrow

 

Starring

  • Sir John Hurt
    • We’ve talked about John Hurt a little before, as he was the War Doctor in Doctor Who.
    • He had more than 40 onscreen deaths in his career.
    • The Storyteller was originally supposed to be a puppet, however, after creating mock-ups of the character Henson decided that having an actor would give more personality and character.  To keep the puppet-like aspect they had Hurt wear a prosthetic nose, larger ears, and a lot of make-up.
    • It is said that he enjoyed this show so much that he wished it could have been for more than one season.
  • Brian Henson
    • He is the third child of Jim and Jane Henson.
    • The Dog, whom Brian voices, was originally not supposed to talk but the script writer assumed he would talk because all of  Jim Henson’s past work.
    • We also know him as  the voice of Hoggle in The Labyrinth, of which he also controlled the face muscles.
  • Other notable cameos
    • Sean Bean
    • Jonathan Pryce
    • Miranda Richardson
    • Brenda Blethyn
    • Gabrielle Anwar
    • Jennifer Saunders
    • Jane Horrocks
  • The Creature Shop
    • The Creature Shop was created in London in 1979 when Jim Henson wanted to have a separate shop from his New York Puppet workshop.  His goal was to experiment and create creatures that were more life-like and included more animatronics. These innovations led to projects such as The Labyrinth and The Storyteller.  After his dad passed away in 1990 Brian moved the Creature Shop to Los Angeles.  

 

Favorite Episodes

  • Hans my Hedgehog
    • The premier episode of the show, this episode set the stage for the rest of the season. It was directed by Steve Barron and based on an early German folktale.
    • It follows Hans, a hedgehog-boy born to a human family. He feels ostracized by the people in his town, who call him the grovelhog, especially his father. Hans leaves home, only to find a King, lost in the woods. Hans helps the king find his way home, and in return, the king rewards him with “The first thing he sees when he returns to his kingdom.” It turns out, the first thing the king saw when he came home, was his beautiful young daughter. 
  • A Story Short
    • This episode is the only one that centers on The Storyteller himself. It’s based on a Celtic folktale and follows John Hurt’s storyteller when he is tasked by a king to tell him one story every night for a year. On his final day, the storyteller comes up with one story short!
    • Marci’s drink of the week is based on this story, and the stone soup that The Storyteller makes for the kingdom.
    • This story also stars Brenda Blethyn who starred in Witches, which was the last film produced by Jim Henson.
  • The Soldier and Death
    • Considered by many to be one of the best episodes of the show, this story is based on several tales weaved together. One Russian tale of a soldier who tricks devils by trapping them in his sack, two Slovak tales about catching the devil in a basket, and one Swiss story about a vine-grower who took death as a prisoner. 
    • This episode was one of only two that were directed by Jim Henson
  • Fearnot
    • “And so the boy who had set forth to learn what fear was, learned it at home.”

 

Reception/thoughts/news

  • The show received many awards, including an Emmy for Hans My Hedgehog.
    • It won a BAFTA for the costumes designed by Ann Hollowood and Polly Smith
    • The Gabriel Award sponsored by the Catholic Association for broadcasters and communicators
    • The Ohio State Award and many more

 

There was a spinoff series The Storyteller: Greek Myths

  • It was created by Anthony Manghella and starred Michael Gambon
    • Michael Gambon is most well-known for playing Dumbledore in most of the Harry Potter films

In 2019, The Jim Henson company has announced that they are in talks to re-make the series with Neil Gaiman as a writer and producer. 

 

The show only lasted one season, but the storyteller lives on in the graphic novels. 

 

Sources

History

https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000457/bio?ref_=nm_ql_pdtls_1

https://www.cnet.com/news/neil-gaiman-will-bring-back-jim-hensons-the-storyteller/

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0092383/

Also used was the inserted booklet with the DVD collection.

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