After decades out of the limelight, suddenly Snow White is everywhere. What woke this particular tale out of its coma?
When we think of fairy tales, Snow White — despite her place of honor as the original Disney princess — isn't the immediate go-to. Sure, she got a starring role in Fables — but she was conflated with an entirely different Snow White, the one with a sister named Rose Red. We refer to a "Cinderella" story, and it's far more common to see casual references to that other slumbering heroine, the often-racy Sleeping Beauty. Even Beauty gained new life when her story was transformed from veiled discussion of arranged marriage into a lesson about inner worth.
But suddenly, this less-popular princess is popping up everywhere. She's the primary magical protagonist of Once Upon A Time, though she shares top billing with her daughter. And that's just a preview of coming attractions: This spring, not one but two big-budget Hollywood adaptations will grace your local multiplex. All of these projects have attracted major names and, from the looks of it, some serious financial backing. Granted, these are part of a bigger burst of fairy tale adaptations. And yet, we're not seeing much of Cinderella, and the Sleeping Beauty project attempting to get off the ground is focused on Maleficent, the villain. So why Snow White?
Like all traditional fairy tales, Snow White has a few fixed elements. Let's use folklorist Steven Swann Jones' definition (via fairy tale guru Maria Tater): "origin (birth of the heroine), jealousy, explusion, adoption, renewed jealousy, death, exhibition, resuscitation, and resolution."
Stories from all over the world contain these immediately recognizable elements, but that list also leaves open a whole lot of wiggle room in the details of the telling. So besides the Grimm version, you'll also see variants like Giambattista Basile's "The Young Slave," where the heroine is born to a young woman who swallows a leaf. Her years-long sleep is actually due to a fairy's curse and a poisoned comb, and it's actually another woman's jealous that wakes her, when her enraged aunt goes to pull out her hair.
At this point, you're probably thinking of several other elements that surely ought to be included on this list: the poisoned apple, the glass coffin, the bizarrely enthusiastic housekeeping. (Where does a sheltered princess learn housekeeping, anyway?) And that's because over the last eight decades or so, no interpretation has held the sway of the Walt Disney Company's first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Movies don't get much more groundbreaking than this film, and so twentieth-century America's view of the tale was soldered to Disney's vision.
But these new Snow Whites are far, far more assertive than their comatose predecessor. Both Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman go so far as to make their heroine into a fighter, not just figuratively, but literally. Lily Collins' version moves in not with miners but robbers and then learns their trade, causing trouble for the Queen. Kristen Stewart's incarnation, with her chain mail and sword, looks outright Joan-of-Arc-like.
In interviews, both starlets are making it very clear they're not playing doormats. Collins recently told The Hollywood Reporter: "She is modernized and doesn't stay a victim.... She can take control of her destiny and is the princess saving the prince." Meanwhile, Stewart's telling Leno how she gets to punch the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth, a.k.a. Thor) smack in the face. Even Once Upon A Time's Snow White — with her demure wardrobe and nurturing job — find herself at her prince's bedside, waiting for his recovery rather than vice versa.
What'll be genuinely interesting to see in these two movie adaptations is how they handle the malevolent figure of the Queen. It's the Queen that powers the Walt Disney version, and it's the toxic relationship between the Queen and her daughter/step-daughter Snow White that gives the story its dramatic tension. So far, Once Upon A Time hasn't done much with this, but the trailers for Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman suggest this'll be a big theme — as well it should be, because this is probably where contemporary versions could really take the story interesting places.
Girl power isn't really anything new these days, and if Sucker Punch taught us anything, it's that handing the protagonist a sword does not empowerment make. And it's not salvation-by-prince that's the most retrograde element of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves; today, what's most troubling is the sharp distinction between the Queen, fighting to preserve her worldly power, and Snow White, the passive domestic angel content to sweep the floor and whistle at passing songbirds.
Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim argued in his landmark Uses of Enchantment that Snow White represents an opportunity for the child to manage the competing desires for parental love and personal independence — hence the bifurcation between the beloved (deceased) mother and the evil stepmother. Disney skipped all that and put the teenage paragon into opposition with the bitch who gets shit done. Forget saving the prince — this is real revisionist red meat.
So the appeal of this story in particular is likely as simple as the fact that Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and Sleeping Beauty have all been told and retold many, many times over the last 50 years, whereas Snow White is that all-too-rare combination of new territory and marquee name. Studios are circling back, looking for new narrative opportunities in a field they've left fallow for decades. (The other possibility, of course, is that Snow White took a page out of the Queen's book and simply poisoned all her rivals.) But the question is, now that they've gotten hold of this particular story, what are they going to do with it? Let's hope it's something more than letting Snow White punch people — though that certainly holds its own charm.
Sources used: The Classic Fairy Tales, edited by Maria Tatar; The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim; The Great Fairy Tale Tradition, edited by Jack Zipes.