This article was first published on Culturewatch.org. © Tony Watkins, 2012
There seems to be considerable interest in films based on fairy tales at present. Rupert Sanders'sSnow White and the Huntsman comes close on the heels of Tarsem Singh's Mirror Mirror, while in various stages of development are Jack the Giant Killer, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters and two from Guillermo del Toro: Beauty and the Beast and Pinnocchio. What is it about fairy tales that should make them so appealing to directors at the present time? One very practical aspect may be simply that, with financial pressures all round, fairy tales make for very cheap source material when compared with buying the film rights for a best-selling novel. But it goes deeper than that. Film-making trends very often reflect the concerns of the time. In the 1950s and '60s, there were many films about UFOs and aliens, reflecting American fears of the USSR at the height of the Cold War. Another contemporary trend is zombie movies, expressing the anxiety of society being destroyed from within by hyper-individualist anarchy.
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So what gives fairy tales their contemporary resonance? Could it be that, in a world where evil often seems to spread unchecked, we long for good to triumph and order to be restored? While zombie films are a pessimistic expression of our fears, fairy tales are an optimistic reminder that there is still hope, even in the darkest times. When the daily news is full of reports about violence, brokenness and corruption, we long for genuine goodness to assert itself.
The struggle between good and evil on a very individual level is central to fairy tales. Snow White and the Huntsman is, in many ways, true to the Grimms' classic version, but it takes the story much further and puts it on a larger canvas. In one interview, director Rupert Sanders says:
I didn't really treat Snow White like a fairy tale. I treated it like a historical epic with magic. The fairy tale for me was the root of the story but the setting was really up to us – to create a believable, historic world.1
Matthew Dickerson and David O'Hara, in their book on fairy tales, fantasy and myths, argue that 'the realm of fairy story is the local village, the cottage in the woods, or the forest out the back door', whereas 'the realm of fantasy and heroic romance is an earthly kingdom'.2 This is the shift that Sanders has made (though he apparently doesn't understand the continuity between the two when he says, 'I wanted to separate fairy tale from fantasy; they are very different to me'3). In the Grimms' tale, the focus is not at all on the kingdom (although Snow White is a princess), but on the family relationships and on her encounter with the dwarves. Sanders, though, quickly moves the story more into the heroic fantasy realm.
Soon after the death of Snow White's mother, her father, King Magnus, (Noah Huntley) has to defend his kingdom against a 'dark and mysterious army'. After defeating the sorcerous army, his men find Ravenna (Charlize Theron), apparently a prisoner chained inside a wagon. Magnus is overwhelmed by her beauty, marries her the following day (wouldn't a wise king have realised this was a little hasty?), but becomes her victim on his wedding night, leaving Ravenna to take the throne. She loses no time in opening the castle gates to her army and installing the magic mirror. When she asks it the traditional question, the liquid figure which flows out of it confirms that she is fairest of them all, and adds, 'Yet another kingdom falls to your glory. Is there no end to your power and beauty?' It is already clear that this is not a fairy tale focused on the small scale of a few individuals, and the voiceover by the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) immediately confirms it: 'So poisonous was the reign of Ravenna that nature turned on itself and people turned on each other. The land died, and with it, hope.' Everyone and everything in the kingdom is affected by this evil. All this is a perfectly reasonable extension of the Snow White story, reflecting on the consequences of having such a queen ruling the kingdom.
One of the film's flaws is inadequate character motivation for some things which happen, including the ten-year imprisonment of Snow White (Kristen Stewart) in the north tower. Why would Ravenna not have simply killed the girl immediately, since even a prisoner is a potential rival? Another flaw comes with Snow White's escape: isn't she remarkably fit and capable after spending her entire adolescence in a cell? Some viewers are bothered by the escape itself: isn't it too contrived that a magpie arrives and indicates a loose nail to Snow White, just as Ravenna's nasty brother Finn (Sam Spruell) is on the way to fetch her? This objection (along with many others expressed in reviews) is tied to contemporary misconceptions about the world of Faërie. It seems that viewers have no trouble with Ravenna as a sorceress using magic to work her wicked way (which Charlize Theron brings to life terrifically), yet struggle with magic working on the good side. In fact, it's more specific than this. If this was a story about Merlin, no one would object to his magical powers in a confrontation with Morganna. We would have no problem with the wonderful dwarves in this film possessing magical powers (indeed, no one complains about Muir (Bob Hoskins) being a seer). But Snow White doesn't seem to have any innate magic power, like Merlin or Muir – and yet magic surrounds her from the escape onwards. So the problem appears to be that Snow White isn't doing much to make this magic happen. But this is to miss a key feature of fairy tales.
In classic fairy tales, the bad characters receive their comeuppance, and the good-hearted hero or heroine is vindicated. As Joseph Campbell summarised it: 'Slandered Virtue is triumphant, Patience is rewarded, Love endures.' Why? Because fairy tales are about reminding us that this is a moral universe. But Dickerson and O'Hara point out that there is more going on than just the triumph of virtue:
As important as is the noble character of the hero, many of the fairy tales also have something else at work: something that Tolkien referred to as 'eucatastrophe', but that in this context might best be described simply as grace. Very few of the characters succeed on their own.4
This is very much the case with this Snow White. When she is a helpless prisoner, the magpies come to guide her out of the castle to a patiently waiting horse which willingly bears her away. These are not unmotivated coincidences, but magical events – the action of some unseen benevolent force: it's grace at work. If one understands the nature of Faërie, there is no surprise in this, other than in the details of how grace works at each point.
Take the encounter between Snow White, the huntsman and the troll. Although numerous reviews have sneered at Snow White simply shouting and looking the creature in the eyes so that it slinks away, ashamed that the thought of eating her ever popped into its scaly head, we should have already understood that grace is protecting her. That's why this incident is not, as some have said, a pointless scene included only for the visual effects – it confirms that Snow White is being protected by something greater than the huntsman. The notion that grace is at work is further reinforced when Muir the blind seer tells the other dwarves that 'she is destined . . . I see an end to the darkness,' and supremely when Snow White encounters the White Hart. The mystical stag is evidently something from the realm of myth, which no one has ever seen before. And it is associated with divinity, as Muir recognises when it blesses Snow White. Dickerson and O'Hara say,
Fairy tale tells us that 'there is a divine order', even though they give no theological statement about where or who that divine order comes from. And the very horror of the tales helps build that notion. Great trouble comes to those who disobey or try to ignore that order. There are consequences if we stray, if we don't stay in tune and in step with it.5
Interestingly, Snow White and the Huntsman does make an explicit connection to, if not a theological statement about, the source of the divine order and of the grace which accompanies Snow White. While Ravenna's evil reign is devastating the kingdom, the first thing we see the captive Snow White do is pray – and it's not some vague prayer to a generic divine being: this is the Lord's Prayer. The grace/magic at work, then, is not simply some impersonal, yet somehow benign Force, but God himself. The White Hart only makes sense as some kind of divine manifestation in the magical world, much as Aslan is in Narnia. And then, of course, Snow White is raised from the dead. This is a much more meaningful resurrection than in the Grimms' version. In that story, Snow White is apparently dead, but without decaying or even losing colour, and when the prince's men stumble while carrying her glass coffin, the piece of poisonous apple is shaken out of her mouth and she immediately revives: she has been in a state of suspended animation, rather than actually dead in any normal sense. In Snow White and the Huntsman, the heroine does not come back to life as the result of an accident, but because 'she is destined'. It is her resurrection which enables her to both understand and embrace this destiny, of leading the army of those who are opposed to the evil Ravenna. The fact that she returns to life at the huntsman's kiss is almost incidental; what matters about it is that the kiss comes immediately after he has poured out his grief and confessed his failures. His kiss is an act of love and of repentance, hence Snow White's tears as she begins to breathe again.
It is tempting, of course, to explore the parallels with the Christian story of the pure-hearted one who is killed by the evil enemy, raised to life again and then returns to bring final destruction on the evil kingdom of death before establishing a new kingdom of life – the curse undone by 'fairest blood'. But for J.R.R. Tolkien, there is a deep connection between fairy tales in general and the Christian story. The most important 'consolation' which fairy tales provide, he said, is the happy ending, and the ultimate happy ending comes through the story of Jesus's coming into this world, death and resurrection. 'This story begins and ends in joy,' writes Toklien. 'It has pre-eminently the "inner consistency of reality." There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. . . . But this story is supreme; and it is true.'6