This is what really happened; in 1917, and again in 1920, two schoolgirl cousins went into the local woods near their village of Cottingley, England, and took photographs of paper models of 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 people were taken in - they wanted to be taken in."
"They" were the True Believers of the early 20th century; Theosophists, Spiritualists and other 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 horrors and devastation of the First World War and the 1918 influenza pandemic, 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 an intelligent, subtle and compassionate examination of the nature of skepticism and faith during this very turbulent time. The screenplay quite closely follows the events of the historical Cottingley fairy case, with allowances for some artistic license.
Each major character has his or her own perspective on the fairies. To Sir Arthur, an ardent Spiritualist who had lost his first wife, son, two brothers and two-brothers-in-law, the fairies represent both the possibility of life beyond death and the vindication of his father's eccentric beliefs:
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 one of the only adults who figures out how the photographs were actually produced - the fairies are a juicy story; perhaps, he insinuates, part of a conspiracy orchestrated by Sir Arthur. To arch-skeptic Harry Houdini, who fought hard to expose the cynical exploitation of the bereaved by fraudulent mediums after the death of his beloved mother, the Cottingley photographs represent a charming and comparatively harmless illusion.
It's clear that Houdini's point of view reflects that of the screenwriters. Although fairies are represented in the film, they appear during playful imaginings, dreams and moments of wonderment. Whereas children will be apt to take the fairies literally, adult viewers may appreciate them symbolically.
It is strongly implied that the girls themselves come to realize the power of their own myth. Once their story has gone public, Elsie and Frances 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 (and comforted) the famous Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and so many others.
Perhaps the most important lesson, though, is one of compassion. When the girls are asked "are the fairies real?" by adults for whom belief in fairies is clearly of great emotional importance - mourning parents, a shell-shocked and disfigured soldier - Elsie and Frances exchange knowing looks before kindly nodding their heads.
Frances: I think I know how it is to be grown up.
Frances: It's when you feel ... as someone feels ... who isn't you.
Fairy Tale: A True Story is available on Netflix, Amazon and other VOD formats as well as on DVD.