(Spoilers: read at your own risk)
I saw Snow White and The Huntsman yesterday, and for the most part I’m happy with the film. The filmmakers tried to combine the style of a fairy tale with that of an epic fantasy, a la Lord of the Rings, and for the most part it works, but I suspect that some of the elements that are more true to the style of fairy tales may throw some viewers off. Some of the reviews I’ve read complain that things happen without explanation and characters appear flat, which to me seem perfectly normal when viewed from the context of a fairy tale.
With most movies and fiction we expect a certain amount of complexity. We want complex characters who have clear or interesting motivation. We want to understand how and why things happen. However, fairy tales and folklore do not function on this level. Fairy tales are not interested in exploring characters. In most fairy tale you have characters who must leave home and go into the world. The characters simply change their place or rank in the world, but if you look at the characters themselves they do not change.
In Snow White and the Huntsman, the character of Snow White struck me as being very much the same person she was at the beginning as she was at the end. All that changed was her place in the world: from princess to prisoner to fugitive to rebel to queen. Some of the reviews mention that there is no interesting character arch for her and her motivations seem unclear. However, her arch is that of a fairy tale protagonist, which by its very nature is flat. Cinderella or the Brave Little Tailor start out with the same characteristics that they have the end. In fact, the moment in the film that rang false to me was when her character was expressing doubts about her ability. It seemed that the film was playing lip service to what we expect from a character in her situation (though this may simply be a flaw in the acting).
The problem of merging a fairy tale with fantasy epic becomes clear here. Since the other characters are presented as characters like those from an epic with understandable motivations, Snow Whites lack of motivation is all the more obvious. Especially when held next to the wicked queen.
Charlize Theron does a wonderful job playing the queen, and her performance is worth the price of admission alone. In the film there is brief flash back of the queen’s childhood. When she was about eleven or twelve her village is attacked and the queen’s mother casts a spell on her to ensure that she would remain fair, since her beauty would save her and her brother’s life. We understand why she is obsessed with beauty and youth, if you’re fair the soldiers keep you alive. The implication of what happened to her, even though she was still a child, is clear. This woman has been so victimized that she never wants to be helpless again and wants to destroy the world were such things happen. Theron’s queen is one of the most terrifying film villains that I have seen in a long time, but unlike a fairy tale villain she has clear motivation. And while she may terrify the audience, we can’t help but sympathize with her.
Another problem audiences may have is that some things just happen. When Snow White escapes from the queen there is a horse that she just finds. I suspect people will ask were the horse came from, but that was a moment that felt like a fairy tale. As Maria Tatar points out in her book The Hard Fact of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, in fairy tales “ preternatural events and supernatural intervention are taken wholly for granted.” Here Snow White escaping by following two birds she had helped, and they provide a method for her escape. We see this type of thing happen all the time. In Aschenputtel (the Grimm’s Cinderella) two white doves provide the dress and slippers.
Some may think that I would be bothered by how this film meshes the two genres together, but fairy tales come from an oral tradition, where depending on the audience the teller would add detail. Even in the literary fairy tale tradition we see this happen: Perrualt and the Brothers Grimm added and removed details all the time. Fairy tales have always been malleable that is part of why I enjoy them so much. I love looking at what the different versions offer us—the tale of “Little Red Riding Hood” is all the more interesting for “Little Red Cap” and “The Story of Grandmother.”
Snow White and the Huntsman is fun retelling that highlights the different aspects of the story. Oh, it is not perfect. I still find Snow White the least interesting character in the story. (She reminded me of the character in a first person shooter that the player has to rescue but who keeps wondering off and getting themselves killed, so the player must redo that level.) The scenes in this film are beautiful though oddly similar to scenes in other films (the forest spirit scene is an obvious homage to Princess Mononoke). Ultimately, if you’re a fairy tale fan (not to be confused with a Disney fan) you will probably enjoy this film, or at least have interesting conversations about what annoyed you.