Friday 22 June 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

Posted by Cleopatra

So I went to see Snow White and the Huntsman this week and I have a lot of feelings about it, so I thought what better place to put them than the Lashings blog.

(I’m going to talk in some detail about various choices the film made in their re-telling of the Snow White fairytale so spoilers for stuff like that. However, if you are familiar with the fairytale, there are not really going to be a ton of surprises here, except for interpretation/artistic choices/that sort of thing.)

Overall, I enjoyed the movie, and it was basically exactly what I was expecting it to be. I was incredibly excited that it was an epic high fantasy big budget movie with two women as both the main protagonist and antagonist. If I had it my way this would happen a lot more often. (Of course, there is an entire separate blog post to be had on what media would look like if I had my way. The short answer is probably lesbians. Anyway.)

Also expected, if a lot more disappointing all the same, was the really poor script. The film didn’t have a lot of dialogue, but everyone I went to the cinema with agreed it would’ve been much more effective as a silent movie.

This leads me to what was simultaneously the most exciting but also the most frustrating part of the movie. Namely, after Snow White has been brought back to life, magically aware of how to defeat the evil queen Ravenna, she runs out into the castle courtyard and gets to deliver the Aragorn speech (1) to her troops. A girl got to give the Aragorn speech! I saw the film with my BFF and I think we both turned and poked each other with glee. (If you have other examples of this happening, especially in fantasy, I really want to know what they are.)

The frustrating part is it was probably one of the weirder and flatter Aragorn speeches. Kirsten Stewart, bless her cotton socks, gave it her all but the writing just let her down.

But still, I’m usually one to focus on the positive, and I’ll take Snow White getting to give an Aragorn speech, even a poorly written one, as a victory.

It did make me wonder about our current fascination with Snow White. Spoilers up front, I’m not really going anywhere with this but in the space of the past few months, we’ve had an entire TV show and two big movies dedicated to it. What gives?

I’ve not seen Mirror Mirror (I’ve heard exactly one good thing about it, see if you can spot it further down) but I do love Once Upon a Time, an American TV show whose premise is reworking a huge range of fairytales. The main fairytale the others all hang around is Snow White, though.

The thing at the centre of Snow White, to my mind anyway, is the Stepmother/Evil Queen/etc’s fear of Snow White, so the idea of setting women up against each other, age fearing youth and beauty, and the idea that you can’t have age and beauty, obviously.

I think given that’s what’s at the centre of Snow White as a fairytale, it’s a pretty hard message to salvage, but I definitely want to give Snow White and the Huntsman points for trying. A large amount of the film’s time is spent looking at Ravenna’s (the Stepmother/Evil Queen) motivations. We find out in flashback that her mother cast a spell on her to keep her young and beautiful and told her that beauty and youth are power. This happens as their village is being raided and Ravenna and her brother are being taken away. It turns out Snow White and her purity are the only threat to said spell and all will be well if Ravenna can kill her and do something to her heart. Maybe eat it? I am unclear. I feel like this is one of the most interesting things the film tried and didn’t quite manage to do. Because on the one hand it’s trying to argue that Ravenna is as much a victim of a system that simultaneously punishes women for being beautiful and for no longer being so, but then Snow White ends up killing Ravenna, just perpetuating the cycle even further. I was torn about Snow White actually killing Ravenna because on the one hand, it undermined all the arguments the film had set up about her motivations and the fact she is as much a victim as Snow White, but on the other hand, I really enjoyed that Snow White did that herself and the film had her take responsibility for her actions, rather than have the villain fall from a great height to their death, or land on a conveniently placed spike or something.

Oh, there were some boys too. (Welcome to how Cleopatra watches movies. Or TV shows. Or reads books.) I’m a big fan of the Avengers movies, so I enjoyed Chris Hemsworth playing the Huntsman as an emo angsty puppy version of Thor. There was a very perfunctory love triangle between the Huntsman, Snow White and her inserted BFF from childhood but much like ‘The Hunger Games’ (see Carlotta’s excellent post here), I enjoyed that Snow White’s main reaction was ‘guys, we’re trying to save the kingdom here, we can sort this out later, yeah?’ More on this, the film ends with her being crowned Queen rather than rushing up to either one of them, which I also enjoyed.

Said love triangle also leads to what I’m sincerely hoping was some nice intentional queerness where Ravenna disguises herself as inserted childhood BFF (or, William, if you prefer) to get Snow White to take the poisoned apple. While she’s doing this, they almost kiss. (Ok, I am grasping at straws, and it’s Snow White who initiates the kiss, but Ravenna!William doesn’t seem anti, and I still enjoyed it. Probably comes of being a big Xena fan.)

I’m pretty sure it passes the Bechdel test (yay!), and though this isn’t a ringing endorsement all by itself, it’s always nice to notice.

There was some race fail (hello, extremely white movie). I get the impression this is a trend with fairy tales even more than with other movie/tv adaptations, possibly because they’re so Eurocentric that we expect the white as default even more? I think this is pretty sad given if anything it gives more chance to play outside the box. Fairy tale land can be anywhere, so why can’t it be a bit more colourful?

There was also some disappointing fail in that none of the actors playing the seven dwarves were actually little people. (We had some discussion before I posted this on the preferred term, I also came across people of restricted growth.) I don’t really have much more to add to this except it was disappointing and I couldn’t really see the point of doing it that way. Kiruna Stamell gives an interesting perspective on this issue here and here. This would be where the only point in favour of Mirror Mirror I have heard so far comes in. They cast little people to play dwarves! Hurrah! I am pretty icked out by the fact the movie apparently modeled its dwarves on an existing and common type of dwarfism and yet still didn’t end up casting any actual little people as their dwarves. (Also as far as I could tell they were mostly there because this is Snow White, ergo dwarves are required, and I would have liked to see them slightly better integrated into the plot than that.)

The whole thing LOOKS beautiful, the costumes in particular. I enjoy that somewhere halfway through the movie Kristen Stewart’s costume had somehow transformed into something you’d see worn around Hoxton. Props to make-up for making her look appropriately grubby throughout, and having her do things like wade through sewage to her rescue. That felt like a nice play with gender/princess stereotypes.

Overall, I’m happy the film exists, and I hope it does well. I know a few tweenage girls I want to show it to as a kind of ‘look, princesses who kick butt!’ kind of thing. I also wish Tumblr would cater to my every whim and oblige me with some of the Disney Princesses reactions’ to Kristen Stewart’s Snow White. I think she and Mulan might get along.

1 For non-LOTR fans reading this,I’m pretty sure I’m basically talking about the Rousing Speech, see here for details. (Please note: that is a TV tropes link, I don’t want anyone stuck there for hours without fair warning.)


  1. Ahh. Website ate my first comment.

    Basically, yes! I liked it, and felt it stretched the story of Snow White about as far as it could go while still being the same myth.

    I thought it was interesting how she wasn't wakened by the romantic kiss of a prince, but the symbolic kiss of the Huntsman - he sees her as a symbol, as a reminder of his dead wife. However, this is still the form of compulsory heterosexuality without the content - she has to be seen to have been wakened by a lover's kiss. It's an uncomfortable tension - in the final cut, at least, we see no sign of her reciprocating any feelings; though the Huntsman later says her armour is "fetching" this feels uncomfortable and creepy. It's unclear, really, whether her feelings are, like Katniss, determined entirely by context, as we don't see anything of her feelings at all. The Huntsman may bring her back into the symbolic order by awakening her with a kiss, but it's understood as an ambiguous symbol, and there is little sexual tension, something that did flatten the film's emotional arc and led, I think, to many of the poor reviews.

    I did like the handling of the symbolism around nature, too. While the old king was definitely the "good king", linked to the "natural" order and the health of his kingdom, the Wicked Queen was also part of this order - she had an origin, she was linked to nature too through death, turning into crows, proffering the deadly apple - but not for the first time in the movie, as that was done by the young Prince. Snow White is transparently linked to life and nature, being blessed by the Stag, being led to her escape route from the castle by faeries "riding" magpies, and so on, but it's somewhat ambiguous - hers is a somewhat sexless purity. And, of course, when she kills the Queen she does so looking into her eyes, they both cry together, they are both seen as mirror images of each other. When the film ends she reconstitutes the symbolic order, yet she doesn't take a husband, a new King, immediately. What we see is not necessarily the restoration of the same order as headed by her father the King, but somewhat of the process of a dialectic - thesis (patriarchal father), antithesis (evil queen formed by patriarchy) and synthesis - whatever Snow White is, for she is something of both. Possibly, at least, though she is somewhat voiceless throughout the film, and we are always left into the dark as to what she feels, besides care for the good of the land, and grief for the Queen.

    Gutted to learn there weren't actually little people acting in the film - one really wonders why. And, certainly, yes, a film called "Snow White" needs at least some deconstruction of race - their trying to avoid it by having all white people (!) really begs the question.

  2. Fun review, sounds pretty good, but I agree the casting of normal-sized actors as dwarfs seems unnecessary and unfortunate. (Particularly after watching Warwick Davis' series, "Life's Too Short", which got much of its humour from how awful the roles for dwarf actors in TV and film are. With the notable exception of "Game of Thrones", but that one has its own issues.)

    I blame Peter Jackson. He seems to have been the first one to go "Hey, rather than getting in real little people, why don't we just use normal-sized actors and false perspective instead?" Yeah, it worked in the Lord of the Rings movies, but that doesn't mean it's really such a good idea.

    Anyway, on the subject of Snow White and the Huntsman, you might also like this review, which talks about the costumes and some of the other issues you mention:

    1. With my moderator's hat on, I'd just like to note that "tall" would be a more appropriate term in this context than "normal-sized".

    2. Noted. Apologies if I offended anyone by that choice of words.