The days between Christmas and New Year are traditionally the time when the TV stations trot out the Hollywood blockbusters or wannabe blockbusters from two or three years ago in what they term “German free-TV premiere”. It’s also a time to catch up on those movies which looked kind of interesting at the time, but not interesting enough to see them at the theatre or get them on DVD.
And so it was that I chanced to watch Snow White and the Huntsman from 2012 tonight, starring Kristen Stewart as Snow White, Chris Hemsworth as the Huntsman and Charlize Theron as the Evil Queen in a very loose adaptation of the fairy tale.
Now I have expressed my issues with the current vogue for updated adaptations of classic fairy tales before, namely that some of these adaptations feel like clueless cultural appropriation and that I resent the fact that these adaptations, whether good or bad, often tend to displace the original tales in the minds of many. Never mind that ideas like “I’m going to write a feminist fairy tale retelling” or “I’m going to retell a fairy tale from the antagonist’s point-of-view” often aren’t as original as their authors believe.
So where on the fairy tale retelling scale from Once upon a time and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, i.e. absolutely horrible, to Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella (Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel/Tri orísky pro Popelku) and The Fairy Tale Bride (Arabela), i.e. quite wonderful, does Snow White and the Huntsman fall? Squarely in the middle, it turns out. It’s certainly not a revelatory retelling, but a perfectly adequate and entertaining one. In short, good viewing for a holiday night.
Snow White and the Huntsman uses the fairy tale only as a very basic frame for its plot, while the rest of the story borrows from a dozen different sources. The sweeping vistas and battle scenes and dwarf songs are clearly influenced by Peter Jackson’s adaptations of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, while the gloomy colour palette is pretty much the look for gritty historical dramas and the grimdark end of fantasy these days. The Evil Queen’s practice to suck the lifeforce out of young women to retain her youth and beauty is clearly influenced by the legends surrounding the murderous Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory, while the incest vibes of the Evil Queen’s relationship with her creepy brother are straight from Game of Thrones. Snow White’s childhood love William takes up archery and guerrilla tactics borrowed from a dozen Robin Hood movies. Snow White’s horse getting stuck in the quicksand during her escape from the castle was taken from Wolfgang Petersen’s 1984 adaptation of Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, where the very same fate befalls Atreyu’s horse. Except that Snow White and the Huntsman glosses over the horse’s fate, whereas The Neverending Story milks it for all the tears it’s worth. The dark wood into which Snow White escapes and the frightening visions it brings is reminiscent of Snow White’s scary flight through the forrest in the 1938 Disney adaptation of the fairy tale, of the Dark Side tree in the Dagobah scenes of The Empire Strikes Back, of the Swamp of Sadness from The Neverending Story and of the Darkwood from Simon R. Green’s Blue Moon Rising. Talking of which, the Evil Queen and her taste for spiky crowns is slightly reminiscent of the villainous Empress Lionstone in Green’s Deathstalker series.
So in short, the film is a hodgepodge of fantasy ideas we’ve seen before. It still works well enough and there are some moments and scenes that are reasonably original, such as the village of the scarred women, who deliberately scar themselves and their young daughters, so the Evil Queen won’t suck their beauty lifeforce out. Indeed, I would have loved to see more of the village of the scarred women and also more of the dwarves and the valley of the fairie folk.
Indeed, considering that Snow White and the Huntsman was a perfectly entertaining film, I was surprised by the amount of negative reviews on IMDB and elsewhere. Upon closer examination, it seems that the dislike for the movie was mostly due to the fact that a whole lot of people simply cannot stand Kristen Stewart.
Now I’ve never gotten the Kristen Stewart hate, but then I’ve never gotten the hate for Anne Hathaway or Keanu Reeves either. And the actors I dislike are usually not widely hated. In Kristen Stewart’s case, I suspect that much of the vitriol against her is actually displaced Twilight hate, especially since it was so very fashionable to hate Twilight for a while, combined with a good dose of slut-shaming following Ms. Stewart’s affair with Rupert Sanders, director of Snow White and the Huntsman, and her subsequent breakup with Robert Pattinson. Oddly enough, absolutely no one seems to blame Rupert Sanders for the affair, even though Sanders is almost twenty years Kristen Stewart’s senior and was a married father of two at the time.
Nonetheless, the Kristen Stewart haters may be on to something, because the character of Snow White is the weak link in Snow White and the Huntsman. Though I’m not sure if that’s really Kristen Stewart’s fault or the script’s.
Now it’s a feature of fairy tales that their characters are not very well rounded or developed. Perhaps this is also why fairy tale adaptations are so popular these days, because the characters are largely empty vessels waiting to be filled. In the version of Snow White recorded by the Brothers Grimm, no character has any sort of personality beyond good and evil. The dwarves didn’t become individual characters with individual personalities until the 1938 Walt Disney adaptation, on which most subsequent versions, including Snow White and the Huntsman, still draw.
Now Snow White and the Huntsman does actually quite well with the characterisation of the Evil Queen by giving her a motivation beyond “Well, she’s evil and terribly vain”. Because in this movie, Ravenna (yes, the Evil Queen gets a name as well) only becomes the monster she is in response to a world where her beauty is the only thing that interests men about her and allows her to wield power. One could almost consider that a feminist critique of the beauty myth, except that I don’t think the movie is that self-aware.
The Huntsman, a character who only appears very briefly in most versions of the fairy tale and is sometimes dispensed with altogether, is not just promoted to co-hero in this movie, he also gains the most characterisation and is turned into a grief and PTSD stricken widower, who slowly regains is ability to care about life. It’s not the world’s most original characterisation, but it works and Chris Hemsworth actually does quite well with what the script gives him.
Coincidentally, it’s quite interesting that knowledge about PTSD is so ubiquitous in our world today that it’s pretty much a prerequisite for fictional heroes these days. See the 2012 John Carter movie, in which John Carter is a troubled PTSD stricken widower and Civil War veteran who needs to learn to believe and love again, a characterisation which is quite far from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original version of the characters. And even the Mighty Avengers have now become the PTSD superteam – and isn’t it interesting that Chris Hemsworth as Thor is the only Avenger to escape the Marvel PTSD epidemic unscathed only to promptly catch it in Snow White and the Huntsman?
I find the sheer amount of fictional heroes with PTSD quite fascinating, especially since the knowledge that war and other traumatic experiences are – well – traumatising isn’t exactly new. But while military service in the most recent war of note has long been a prerequisite for fictional heroes particularly in the US, it is only in the past ten years or so that those heroes have been widely portrayed as traumatised by their experiences. There is also a marked difference between the traumatised Vietnam veteran of 1980s pop culture who was not necessarily a villain, but always a loose cannon, and the modern PTSD hero who manages to find a way to live with his PTSD and still remain or become a hero.
But while Snow White and the Huntsman portrays the Evil Queen as a woman driven mad by the beauty myth and the Huntsman as a PTSD stricken warrior who’s lost his will to live, the central character is Snow White herself remains rather bland. Oh, she has her feisty moments, when she stabs the Evil Queen’s creepy brother with a nail and later leads her army into battle clad in reasonable armour. But unlike with the Evil Queen or the Huntsman, we never really get a sense of who Snow White is. All we know is that she is brave and good and noble and pure and the embodiment of life and mightily pissed off at the Evil Queen. Unlike what many believe, Kristen Stewart is not a bad actress and in fact she makes a very good Snow White physically. However, the script doesn’t give her much to work with, so her Snow White remains rather bland.
Another problem is that the love triangle the film tried to set up between Snow White, her childhood love William and the Huntsman falls flat, because there simply is no chemistry between Kristen Stewart and her co-stars Chris Hemsworth and Sam Claflin. Now Kristen Stewart clearly had chemistry with Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner and the Twilight films. And Chris Hemsworth clearly had chemistry with Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings in the Thor movies. But here, Kristen Stewart has more chemistry with the dwarf who dies than with Chris Hemsworth and indeed I never got the impression that Snow White was even remotely attracted to the Huntsman at all, which takes some doing because half of all heterosexual women worldwide are currently attracted to Chris Hemsworth. And though Chris Hemsworth does his best to show that his character is infatuated with Snow White, he has more chemistry with pretty much every secondary and tertiary cast member in The Avengers or Thor than he has with Kristen Stewart. We were rooting for the Huntsman to end up with Snow White (besides, he was the one who kissed her back to life), but that was because Chris Hemsworth actually gave the impression to care for Snow White.
And indeed, the movie leaves the love triangle unresolved, probably hoping for a sequel, which so far hasn’t materialised. Hence the film ends with Snow White sitting on her throne, looking down benignly at both William and the Huntsman, who are both clearly besotted with her, and choosing neither. In that, the ending is quite reminiscent of the final scene of Star Wars, where Princess Leia hands out medals to Luke Skywalker and Han Solo (and none to poor Chewie) who are both pretty much falling over each other to attract her attention. But while the Star Wars ending pretty much crackles with sexual tension, as Leia refuses, for the moment at least, to choose between the man who will turn out to be her brother and the man who will be her lover and eventually husband (and J.J. Abrams had better not delete that particular part of expanded universe continuity), Snow White and the Huntsman does none of that. Instead, the scene implies that Snow White chooses the throne and the kingdom and decides against both William and the Huntsman. It’s the equivalent of Star Wars ending with Princess Leia declaring herself married to the rebellion.
So while Snow White and the Huntsman provided perfectly adequate entertainment, the movie could have been so much better, if it had given its protagonist Snow White a bit more characterisation beyond “She is a good person”.
Finally, if you have only one character of colour in the whole movie – and there is zero reason for everybody to be white, since this is not in fact that real Middle Ages in Europe, which coincidentally weren’t 100% white either – is it too much to ask not to make him a villain? Or better yet, have more than one character of colour?