Fairytales have been getting a fair run lately. TV has given us Once Upon a Time and Grimm, and in cinema just this year we’ve seen two versions of the Snow White tale in Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. In novels the Red Riding Hood tale has been cropping up in a lot of teen werewolf romances, or in other novels where Red just kills the wolf herself, as is the theme in Jackson Pearce‘s Sisters Red; her sequel is a retelling of another fairytale, Hansel and Gretel (Sweetly).
I managed to catch Snow White and the Huntsman as its run ended here in Australia. Partly out of interest as a “new” fairytale, partly out of dedication to our loyal two readers of this shapeshifting blog because the promos suggested the Queen might just be a shapeshifter, and partly because there was a Hemsworth in it, and we are nothing if not patriotic here.
The villain of this film is the Queen, of course, named Ravenna and played by Charlize Theron channelling fellow blonde-powerful-beauty-in-fantasy-land Cate Blanchett’s Spooky Galadriel Voice from Lord of the Rings, although Charlize was much shoutier, to less effect.
Theron upon discovering the script calls for the Huntsman to kiss that Snow White upstart, not the Queen.
And of course, when both women are faced with the temptation of power, Galadriel’s answer is no, while Ravenna’s is a resounding yes, and her desire for power is her motivation throughout the film. Interesting ideas in the movie – and of course in the fairytale – about the importance that we as a society can place on outward appearance: Ravenna is stunning for much of the film as a woman obsessed with gaining immortality, and not just any old immortality but the kind that comes with Botox and perfectly shaped brows. She spends a lot of time sighing and pouting in the front of the mirror (yes, The Mirror) and worrying about looking tired and drawn (ie, like the rest of us).
They’re called wrinkles, Ravenna, and it’s going to be all right.
The heroine is Snow White, played by Kristen Stewart. Ravenna is after Snow White because The Mirror decides Snow is now the prettiest girl in the land, and that Ravenna can only win back the Miss Fantasy Universe title if she kills Snow White and takes her heart, with immortality as a bonus prize. I found the casting of Snow White or perhaps the film’s interpretation of the character unconvincing: the part seemed to call for someone warmer and more obviously embodying the qualities (fairness of character, kindness, love) that were supposed to represent Snow White. In fact, in this iteration of the fairytale Snow is quite literally the source of “life” in this world; restoring nature back to itself, winning forest creatures over, basically undoing the evil Ravenna has done.
But to my mind this was a rather remote, cold Snow White who was hard to really barrack for. This made it hard to engage with the character, and certainly when it comes to her big speech where she rallies the army to her side to fight against Ravenna, I was left cold when presumably we were supposed to feel inspired and excited.
Snow White demonstrating the passion, warmth, and charisma that made everyone fall about themselves to help her.
As is the case in so many fantasy narratives (and not just fantasy), Snow has somehow inspired love in two courageous handsome men and at least one very creepy man without many clues given as to why.
One of these is a drunken Aussie putting on an accent, I don’t know which – Scottish? Irish? – and I’m not sure he knew either. Okay, it’s the Huntsman of the title, and he’s played by Chris Hemsworth, who along with the Queen seems far more interesting than Snow White. The drunkenness seemed to serve no real point in the narrative, and the romance was unconvincing, but again I’d wonder if that’s due to the Snow White characterisation, where she just didn’t seem to exhibit much warmth or interest in anything.
It was also a mystery as to why the Mirror never named the Huntsman as the fairest in the land, when quite clearly Hemsworth eclipsed everyone else on screen for pouting good looks.
Hemsworth is not the only Huntsman trying to win The Mirror’s vote for Fairest Of Them All; Once Upon a Time also boasts (boasted? One never can tell who is dead, not dead, or only temporarily dead in these sorts of universes) a huntsman determined to out-pretty Snow and the Queen, this time played by Jamie Dornan, who actually is Irish (from Northern Ireland, apparently).
Are you sure you’re the fairest of them all, and not me?
The movie itself probably needed a little more sharpening in its story focus; it felt like there were a lot of really interesting ideas searching for development and cohesion, and I’m not convinced everything came together as well as it could and should have. For the looks of it, the special effects were good, and the scenery was quite stunning at times, but I couldn’t help but see the inheritance from the Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Harry Potter and other fantasy-horror movies, though of course it’s hard to be terribly original in this genre. For instance, Ravenna seemed to be a vain Dementor in sucking the souls/lives out of young girls to steal their beauty; the white stag moment seemed fairly similar to Aslan’s role in Narnia; and as noted earlier, Ravenna seemed to be a fan of Galadriel.
Give a Dementor a mirror, and look what happens.
As for shapeshifting, the Queen does shift shape a little, when she appears to Snow in the form of one of Snow’s allies, and transforms into herself/birds, so it’s linked to deceit and evil here, playing on the theme that you can’t trust appearances (with, apparently, the exception of Snow).
Can we compare this with how Once Upon a Time has tackled the same fairytale? Obviously the latter is a TV show with plenty more space to develop storylines and character arcs, and it is very different for the way we see dual stories between the characters in their fairytale lives and their modern day versions where they can’t remember who they are. And let’s be honest, most viewers probably can’t remember who the characters are either, it’s all so complicated. Apart from the pretty Huntsman, Ravenna is Regina (Lana Parrilla), another beauty who wasn’t brought up to share and play nicely with others, and Snow is the traditional character as well as the modern Mary Margaret (Ginnifer Goodwin), both interpreted in a much warmer way.
Both these iterations turn Snow White into the kind of post-Buffy butt-kicking heroine we find everywhere these days: they’ve got swords, they’ve got courage, and don’t need “rescuing” in the same way the traditional fairytale characters do.
Okay, so he might be prettier than me, but my armour’s shinier.
Back to shapeshifting, Once Upon a Time offers us a new version of Red Riding Hood: whereas in most modern versions she will just kill the (were)wolf herself, in the TV series she is the wolf, though she is unaware of her lupine alter ego until after she’s killed her romantic interest, Peter. So the danger to young women comes not from men in most of the modern versions (not all of them), but from herself.
So why all these fairytale revisions? Part of the popularity is probably linked to this imposition of contemporary ideas about gender and identity and power onto classic narratives. Maybe storytellers are getting lazy, where every second movie seems to be a remake, reboot, or a sequel. Have we really run out of ideas for new stories? With news of a sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman, maybe we have.