Snow White Hunting the Cinema
By the standards of classical cinema, Snow White and the Huntsman (Rupert Sanders, 2012) is a mess of a movie. At times, it wants to be a medieval sword and sorcery movie, at others, an homage to Disney’s canonical take on the material, and at still others, The Lord of the Rings. But my experience of watching it was quite positive—I cried when the dwarf died, and I got anxious as the Hunstman (Chris Hemsworth) and Snow White (Kristen Stewart) stormed the castle of the evil queen (Charlize Theron).
As I sat reflecting upon this divergence, it dawned on me that the mash-up mess was in fact the film’s most endearing quality. The past year has demonstrated that a growing tide of “reinventions” of canonical material has become the de rigeur process of all media making. Following from the complete overhaul of Battlestar Galactica from a camp 1970s action comedy to the most precise critique of the post-9/11 world, Steven Moffat took the British staple Dr. Who and turned it into the most engaging show on television. With Sherlock, he has demonstrated that it will now be required to reinvent every canonical character in the British canon for the purposes of the present. 21st century Qatermass, I await you!
While this will surely prove tiring in the long run, for now, I am quite willing to go along for the theoretical ride. For, in Snow White and the Huntsman, the intertextual reworking of the material brings to light certain qualities of the Grimm fairytale left buried by the Disney version. For example, the basic nature/civilization dynamic of fairy tales has been clouded by the inherent unreality of the feature-length animated cartoon. In the 1937 work, nature is quite simply on Snow White’s side from the very first images of the film, when the princess sings with birds while wishing for her Prince Charming at the well. As we know from the great theorists of the fairytale (Robert Darnton, Jack Zipes, Bruno Bettleheim), one of the historical functions of the fairy tale was to keep children within civilization’s grasp, lest they wander off into the forest to get eaten.
When articulated in these terms, the Grimms’ capturing of anxious parental warnings about the dangers of their children’s “dark forests” allow for a unification of the feminine fairy tale and the masculine mode of fantasy common to the 20th century. Thus, one of the revisions that we see in Snow White and the Huntsman is an intertextual fusion between the Snow White fairytale and Arthurian legend. The film I thought most of while watching Sanders’ work is Excalibur, John Boorman’s unforgivably forgotten 1981 masterpiece of fantasy cinema. That film’s production design was built around the basic linkage between Arthur’s health and that of the landscape. During Camelot’s reign, all was flowery; when Morgana screws up the world, everything dies. In the film’s most beautiful shot, when Arthur finally rides with his knights to defeat Modred at the film’s climax, the visual Doppler effect of the horses riding by the camera causes the trees to flower.
This is of course standard mythology. T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land defines modernity via the triumph of industrialization over traditional human and natural values. Almost all twentieth century fantasy—from Tolkien to George Lucas’ Star Wars—highlights this equation: evil is associated with the dirty technology of the industrial revolution, while the common sense of the folk is appropriately located in forest glens wherein live Hobbits, Ewoks, and their natural kin.
Thus, when Snow White and the Huntsman turns the Evil Queen’s reign into a chlorophyll free wasteland, this participates in a basic language of fantasy that we can easily identify. But, when the film then shock cuts to the idyllic world of fairies where the eight dwarves live (yes, that’s right, because one must die a sacrificial death in a scene out of In the Line of Fire), it engages the 1937 Snow White material in a shockingly new way. Inside fairyland, Snow White unifies nature behind her cause by getting blessed by a deer with a giant rack of antlers, Bambi’s father on crack. The film thus takes the cute and cuddly animals from the Disney cartoon and houses them in a much more desperate relationship with the alternative, industrial world, best expressed by Charlize Theron’s Evil Queen’s mirror, a melting bit of gold mercury that looks far more like James Cameron’s T2 than anything in the wonderful world of Disney.
Such transformations are modus operandi of Snow White and the Huntsman. In my favorite, the scene with the apple, familiar to us from Disney as the evil queen coming to Snow White as an old crone, Theron comes to Kristen Stewart’s character as her potential love interest, the son of the Duke, best friend to her father. As the young man kisses Snow White, we come to realize via the apple that he is in fact the Evil Queen in disguise. The film is thus able to express the sexual dynamics from the Grimm fairy tale while engaging intertextually with a Snow White that we know also from the cinema. In this retrospective lesbian kiss between stepmother and daughter, we have the very stuff of a mature, thematically significant Snow White. After all, wasn’t the Evil Queen, by obsessing over the young girl’s beauty, always already engaged in a battle for sexual dominance, akin to the generational love conflicts of Shakespearean comedy? If the reinvention mash-up culture is going to lead me to discover these sorts of insights into the tales that I believe I know too well, then I am desperate for more.
– Walter Metz