I love Disney, so when I heard they were remaking Snow White, well… I got just a little bit excited. But then I heard there were two remakes and I was just a little bit confused. Then I discovered that Disney had planned yet another remake entitled The Order of the Seven (it seems that the plug has been pulled on this one), that there is a straight-to-video movie released in March entitled Grimm’s Snow White and let’s not forget the TV series Once Upon a Time. Even I, a dedicated fan of all things Disney, am slightly disturbed by the amount of attention that Snow White is suddenly receiving. There are always justifiable reasons to analyse why remakes occur at certain times in our history, why it seems important to retell a story now rather than in 5 or 10 years. Timing is crucial when it comes to remakes. Therefore, when this many versions of the oldest Disney movie, Snow White (1937) crop up within the space of a year of each other, I hear alarm bells and the questions start rolling: Why now? What has happened that has made our society crave a rearticulation of the old story?? Or what has made Hollywood / the media / filmmakers, think that this is what audiences need right now?? The Disney version plays it pretty close to the Grimm’s fairytale what with the magic mirror, the seven dwarves, the poisoned apple and the glass coffin. These are what you could call the staples of the story. In the Disney version we have an evil Queen, an innocent and beautiful fourteen year old girl, a sympathetic huntsman and, of course, Prince Charming. The story sets up the typical binary of evil versus good – with good representing a ridiculous ideal of womanhood. Here, let me bake you a pie.
First, lets take a look at Mirror Mirror directed by Tarsem Singh. This light-hearted version sees the age-old story take a more whimsical twist as the dwarves are thieves, the queen, played by Julia Roberts is a horny, sex deprived pre-madonna and Snow White, played by Lily Collins, follows suit with her sweet-as-pie personality. While the movie is somewhat entertaining, this remake is a family friendly adventure in which the humour is cheap, the costumes and set are exquisitely colourful and the writing, well, it lacks for substance. The key question, however, is what does Mirror Mirror do differently from the Disney version? Well, it doesn’t quite have all the staples: There’s no glass coffin (I guess the illusion of death is too traumatic for contemporary youth). The innocent Snow White doesn’t seem to enjoy housework like Disney’s version, nor is she complacent in the retrieval of her kingdom – she does actually become trained to fight, and as Lily Collins herself puts it, becomes “modernised” with a new outfit that involves pants, and with the assistance of the Prince and the seven dwarves she is able to defeat the beast that the Queen sets on them, who ends up being Snow White’s long-lost father. Prince Charming then gets permission to marry Snow White and the Queen then pretty much commits suicide by eating the apple that she presents to Snow White at her wedding. The fighting, the pants and the uninterest in housework all work together to create an illusion that this version of Snow White has been reimagined as some powerful and more modern woman but what is really at the root of this story is a refusal to liberate her. With the reintroduction of her father, Snow White is seen as not inheriting the throne, but allowing for her father to regain it. In this version, she doesn’t even get to rule alongside her prince – she is actually devalued. I know what you’re thinking, I’m looking too much in to this aren’t I? Well, maybe I am. But a few tweaks to those aspects which have been deemed anti-feminists in concession for the throne itself, doesn’t seem fair. Now what is interesting is that we never see Snow White take the throne in the Disney version either, but as she is the heir to the castle after the Queen’s death, this can be assumed that with her marriage to the prince, she will. Disney has let our imaginations fill in that blank. Singh’s reinterpretation, however, removes any doubt from our minds. Oh you thought Snow White gets to inherit shizzle? Nope. Not until this old man is put into the ground. Que possibility that he’ll have male heirs born to him before that. Hmmph.
Snow White and the Huntsman on the other hand, literally crowns Snow White. Finally. And she doesn’t even get married! *Sighs with hope for humanity* I can’t tell you how much I adore Snow White and the Huntsman. It was simply awesome. Firstly, this version sees Snow White as anything but the “fairest” in the aesthetic sense. Sure, Kristen Stewart is far from unattractive, but she lacks the conventional beauty of the Queen, played by Charliez Theron. I really liked this casting, as it plays with the audiences perceptions of beauty as spectator of the movie, but also of celebrity culture in general. While Kristen Stewart has been received as quirky, awkward but often charming, lets face it, she was cast as Bella Swan in the Twilight saga exactly because she was ordinary. Charlize Theron, however, is frequently voted on the top of “most beautiful…” lists and is conventionally stunning. (Personally, I think Kristen Stewart is more attractive, but the crowd seems against me on this one and I am talking about the general perception of the actors, not mine). Therefore, when Charlize Theron is threatened by Kristen Stewart”s “fairness”, the audience has to question how the movie is using language: what do you mean by fairest? Is Stewart more attractive then Theron? Is it about inner beauty? Here, the “fairest of them all” becomes re-articulated and challenged. Suddenly, we’re not just talking about beauty but also each woman’s own sense of morality.
Stewart has a strong sense of morals, and it is her commitment to these morals that allows her to win out in the end. Her innocence isn’t marked by some secluded life of luxury in a castle, but by an awful form of imprisonment that has left her anything but spoilt, if somewhat socially inept. She doesn’t convince the huntsman, played by Chris Hemsworth, not to kill her by her sheer beauty, but through her wits and character. Her kingdom is not returned to her through the passive reception of help from others, but she rouses an army to war, and leads them in a Joan of Arc style battle and we see her having to literally stab the Queen. Wow, she actually killed the Queen. No accidental fall from a cliff, no self-defeating bite of the apple, but Snow White actually stabs the Queen. This penetration signals two things for me – One, the appropriation of a sword / knife as powerful phallic symbol = equality for woman within society. Two, the unflinching necessity to do hard things, like murder, for the greater good. Over simplistic evil / good binary take that. This version only briefly reveals anything sexual, alluding to incest in parts, and a peeking Tom in others, as it seems to hint at the darker side of sexuality. While it is clear that the Hemsworth and Stewart have some sort a feelings for one another, they are not articulated in the movie and only briefly alluded to with a lingering smile at her coronation – which is purposely left to the imaginations of the audience, and I’ve probably just interpreted it this way because it gives me and excuse to think of Chris Hemsworth naked. Now you’re thinking about it too. I’ll give you a moment.
My point here is the plot is not distracted by a romantic story line. Hemsworth doesn’t even get total credit for the resurrection – his kiss is never directly associated with the point that she awakes. It could have been the poison had worn off, or the tears he shed on her face. The emphasis is not on the kiss, and therefore, we are not forced to give him credit for her survival. What is truly fascinating about this version of events is that we sympathise with the Queen. Theron plays the part exquisitely, at one moment we sympathise – we almost want her revenge on humanity to last and the next it seems that she has gone made with revenge lust and we are just itching for her to be defeated. Taken from her home as a child and “ruined” by a king, Theron learns to use her beauty in order to survive. However, when her lust for revenge on all of humanity clouds her judgement and her need to stay forever young forces her to do immoral things, such as sucking the life out of young girls, the crowd quickly turn against her. Theron is what Boland would have called our “Mimic muse”, a female figure idealised for her beauty, come to life to seek revenge on society for casting her out after she is no longer beautiful. Using the ideals of society and turning them around on themselves, Theron represents abused woman gone wild.So, to summarize: Mirror Mirror was made to make money, aesthetically appealing and family friendly, with a slight tweak to the leading female protagonist, the movie takes away Snow White’s access to power and generally lacks in substance. Snow White and the Huntsman is a grimmer version of the Brother Grimm’s tale that explores the complexity of the characters by delineating good/bad binaries, and finally allowing Snow White to access power on her own terms. What do both the remakes have in common? Snow White learns how to fight for herself, and that’s a pretty big step in my humble opinion.