Philosophical questions: 1. Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? And, 2. Is a Snow White wearing a metal breastplate and brandishing a sword still “Snow White”?
“Snow White and the Huntsman” stampeded into theaters Friday to mixed — often fawning — critical reviews, but the movie has a fairly open relationship with the original Grimms’ fairy story. Not because there are eight dwarfs instead of seven, or because the Wicked Queen has a superfluous brother, or because there’s a random scene in which a Christlike stag magically turns into a cloud of butterflies. Those are the sorts of minor changes that nag at fangirls but are acceptable when spinning new versions of old stories.
But when Snow White storms a castle, and Snow White learns to fight, and Snow White (spoiler alert!) ends up choosing neither of her two male suitors, preferring to sit on a throne alone — well, perhaps we should at least call the girl Snow Whitish, or maybe Snow Ecru. Or just rename the altered product, “Princess on a Fast Horse, Also Tames Trolls.”
It’s not a new observation that entertainment screens have been subjected to recent fairy-bombings: TV shows “Once Upon a Time” and “Grimm,” and a cinematic deluge that began with Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” and included this spring’s “Mirror, Mirror,” another Snow interpretation.
The new adaptations have ranged from silly (“Mirror”) to slutty (“Red Hiding Hood”) but what they have in common is the boldfaced empowerment — or “empowerment” — bestowed upon the female protagonists. Amanda Seyfried’s Red Riding Hood didn’t need a woodsman to kill the wolf; she handily took care of that on her own. Mia Wasikowska’s Alice slew the Jabberwocky and opened trade routes to China. Lily Collins’s Snow White knew a bad apple when she saw one, so she fed it to Julia Roberts instead.
Yay for feminism, yay for fight scenes, yay for girls who know better than to lie around waiting for a lover’s kiss to wake them from a coma — because honestly, in modern times that scene looks like a date-rape PSA waiting to happen.
“It’s a desire to do a role reversal,” says Brian Sturm, a professor at the University of North Carolina who co-wrote the scholarly article “We Said Feminist Fairy Tales, Not Fractured Fairy Tales!” It’s a course correction — a way of acknowledging that misogyny in old bedtime stories should be put to sleep.
But sometimes Sturm wonders how well the course correction works. These strong-female updates often don’t create more complex characters, he says, but rather just pretend that a random sword can negate hours of eye-batting.
Because Snow White’s defining characteristics are her kindness and compassion to animals (just as Cinderella’s was her work ethic, and Red Riding Hood’s was her sense of familial duty), then why not have her use those strengths to defeat the queen? Why not have her rally a flock of birds to dive-bomb the magic mirror room? There are ways to update fairy tales that don’t lose the integrity of the original character. But when Kristen Stewart spends the first half of “Snow White” charming woodland creatures and then spends the second half slipping into chain mail for a hero’s run, that’s not creating a more three-dimensional Snow White. That’s replacing Snow White mid-movie with Katniss Everdeen.
Of course, the “original” Snow White would be barely recognizable now. The 1937 Disney version omitted the gore of the Grimms’ version — poison combs, stifling corsets — and even the Brothers Grimm revised the tale several times. In their original “Snow White,” published 200 years ago in 1812, there was no wicked stepmother. It was the mother who was wicked; she wanted to murder her own too-beautiful child. The Grimms changed it for later editions.
Snow White “has become a very important meme,” says Jack Zipes, a renowned folklore and fairy-tale scholar, because it’s been used to reflect societal concerns. To Zipes, a successful retelling of the story would be one that accurately reflected women’s struggles and issues today. “Snow White and the Huntsman” doesn’t, he says.
It’s just Kristen Stewart, eight pudgy dwarfs and a monumentally screwed-up stepmom relationship that pits women against women and calls it feminist.
If we can’t find a way to stop mangling old fairy-tale tropes, maybe we can find a way to invent better ones. After all, how many times must a story be crossed out and rewritten before someone should just get a fresh sheet of paper and write something new?