Take one part Brothers Grimm and one part Malory’s Morte d’Artur, add a dash of Tolkein, a pinch of Joan of Arc, a sprinkling of Robin Hood and a sprig of English folklore; mix it in a bowl with copious CGI, great natural settings, remarkably good stage sets, and what do you have? The 2012 film, Snow White and the Huntsman.
The epic film (at least in the two-hour-eleven-minute extended version we watched last night) was an action-packed adventure that never made us feel it was dragging excessively.
Seems we and the critics disagree. I was impressed by the sets, by the stunning sites chosen for the outdoor segments, by the costumes and by generally very good CGI effects (aside from the mirror-oracle character which seemed unfinished).
It’s worth watching the bonus material to get some insight into how the sets and costumes were made and locations were chosen. A remarkable amount of work went into this movie.
Is it Snow White or something new, drawn from the legend but retold?
For that, I went back to the original story last night (actually one with copious sidebar notes), after the movie.*
The Brothers Grimm collected many variants of the tale during their years, and tended to both blend them together into one version for their books,and to alter their substance to suit their particular social, religious and cultural views (for example, in many original versions of the Snow White and other tales, the villain is the mother, but the Grimms changed this almost universally to an evil stepmother, thus altering the psychology of the story).
The movie (plot here) has at its core the Grimms’ basic tale (not, thankfully, the Disney cartoon version which has become iconic for so many people), although not quite as grisly as the Grimms’ (in which the wicked queen demands the huntsman return with Snow White’s liver and lungs so she can eat them). But it ventures into other paths, some for poetic licence (to develop, for example, the romantic interest), others to extend the action and create some opportunity for the action and battle scenes.
In the original tale, Snow White is seven years old. There is no real indication of the passage of significant time in the story, although she weds at the end, so one has to assume at least that many years have gone by (men and women often married young in medieval times). In the movie, the the gap is filled in by Snow White’s imprisonment where she grows up (and gets makeup, apparently).
In the tale, the unnamed queen simply tells a huntsman to take the child into the forest and kill her, returning with her organs for the queen’s dinner. In the movie, the adult princess escapes from a jail after a struggle with the queen’s brother (a character invented for the movie and looking more suitable for the set of The Fifth Element than a medieval tale) and flees through the sewers (could be some symbolism there?).
The huntsman in the film is found from among the lowest of the people and charged with the task of bringing her back. He rises from a moping, mourning drunkard to a sober hero through the course of the film.
Of course, the huntsman of the film decides to save the girl (in the tale he simply abandons her in the woods) and together they flee into the dark forest. Exunt left, pursued by bear. Okay, no bears, but we get at least a troll. There’s a moment where the film could venture into magic and fantasy here, but it never really tests those waters deeply.
In the original, Snow White stumbles upon the cottage of the industrious and tidy dwarves (again unnamed) and whiles away her time playing housemaid for them. very domestic. In the movie, they meet in the woods when the dwarves, now a pack of scruffy thieves, capture the fugitives and are barely dissuaded from killing them both. Rather than a house, the dwarves take them to an enchanted forest where Snow White meets the white hart. A few fairies flit about, but their purpose remains unclear aside from presenting a general sense of enchantment.
Disney gave the dwarves names and turned them into comic sidekicks. The movie makes them grim ruffians and thieves, but brave and with hearts of gold, and names them Beith, Muir, Quert, Coll, Duir, Gort, Nion, and Gus. Beats Sleepy, Grumpy and that lot, although the new names are unlikely to spawn any jokes about them.
At another point in the movie, the fugitives end up in a village of women – Amazons? – who scar themselves to keep the queen from taking them. Unlike the Amazons of other folklore, they don’t appear to remove a breast to make firing arrows easier. That might have been a mixed message in a film that has a lot of undercurrent about coming of age, and sexuality.
In both scenes the pursuing soldiers and the evil brother arrive and cause havoc and destruction. Pretty clear lines drawn between good and evil. No other magic but the queen’s can survive in this land.
In the original, the queen goes to the dwarves’ house and cons Snow White into buying and trying various toxic items. No armies, no pursuers. There’s a lesson about strangers and trust here, but not in the movie. The queen of the film only meets with Snow White once while she is on the run. Again she cons her with an apple. It’s not sure why she does this now after all the angst of pursuit when she could have done it any time earlier. Perhaps to keep the film moving along.
In the tale, the princess dies from eating a poisoned apple, but is revived accidentally by a jolt when her coffin is being moved. In the Disney story, as in this film, it requires a kiss. While both are serendipitous, the original makes if clear it was unintentional that she is resurrected.
In the story, the princess marries the prince almost immediately after her revival, and they host a ball at the new castle. The evil queen attends, is captured and tortured to death. Snow White is never crowned queen of her late father’s domain, but has the pleasure of watching her stepmother dance herself to death in red-hot iron shoes.
In the film, Snow White dons male armour and leads an army (which seems to grow from nothing) to overhrow the queen. Shades of Joan of Arc. The dwarves have to sneak inside the castle to raise the drawbridge, giving them some fighting action scenes.
There is no marriage in the movie, just knowing looks between the newly crowned queen and the handsome huntsman at the end, hinting of a sequel.
Confused? During the film it all works rather seamlessly, with plenty of action to keep you from pondering the content too long. It’s also visually gorgeous, so even when you’re thinking something doesn’t connect, the sheer beauty of the film distracts you.
The white hart bit is odd unless you realize its association with Herne the Hunter and British folklore. (This might also be a bit of an artistic conceit; a nod to Shakespeare, who first wrote about Herne in The Merry Wives of Windsor).**
The fishing village of disfigured women is another oddity, since while the evil queen sucks the life out of young women to steal their youth, it doesn’t explain that beauty is also necessary to become a sacrifice. Is this some sort of mirror to the queen who sees aging as disfigurement? Is the fishing aspect some neo-religious Christian symbol? It just struck me as a baffling inclusion (Snow White is clearly Christian because we see her mumbling the Lord’s Prayer and in the coronation scene at the end there are priests present).
The acting was, I thought, acceptable if not always stellar. The best part is Charlize Theron’s performance as the witch-queen Ravenna. She is complex, intelligent, strong, sexy and driven, as others have noted. Kristen Stewart as Snow White has her moments, but compared to Theron is fairly bland, but thankfully neither as saccharine as the Disney character nor as witless as the written one. She needed a bit more anger earlier, to make the final scene more believable. The rest pull their weight most of the time (although the brother is weak).
The only part that struck me as jarring was Snow White’s transformation from victim-passive-princess almost instantly after waking into warrior-queen (with an uninspiring speech that was not exactly Henry V exhorting his troops; none of the “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…” stuff). The
Snow White in the original isn’t terribly bright and very naive and gullible, but in the movie she is an odd mix of angry-aggressive and gormless. She cam swim in a sewer and run through a swamp, come out looking spotless, though, a talent I admire.
MS Magazine considers it an anti-feminist film, which vilifies female aging, and their arguments are worth considering. But then some of the content they complain about is drawn from the original, so it’s not exactly fair to blame the film makers for everything. However, not all feminists agree, and some see it as a film about female empowerment, and others see different things in the film.
The bottom line, for both of us, was that it was an entertaining, gorgeous film that was worth the two hours we spent watching, and the $10 we paid for it. It may not be classic Grimm Brothers, and you can spend a lot of time analyzing the characters, their motives and the plot. But that may be overkill. After all, movies are first and foremost entertainment, and that’s what this film does well: entertains the viewers.
* You can read the original here, sans footnotes and sidebars of course.
** Act IV, Sc IV:
There is an old tale goes that Herne the hunter,
Sometime a keeper here in Windsor forest,
Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;
And there he blasts the tree and takes the cattle
And makes milch-kine yield blood and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner:
You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know
The superstitious idle-headed eld
Received and did deliver to our age
This tale of Herne the hunter for a truth.