SNOW WHITE: TWICE UPON A TIME…
There were two bookish brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Mirror images, you might say. They collected fairytales in two languages, High German and Low. They published these stories in two editions of "Children's and Household Tales," first in 1812, then again in 1819, with many, like "Schneewittchen" ("Snow White"), changing from one version to the next.
This year, two Hollywood movies based on "Snow White" arrive in movie theaters, bringing to 51 the number of screen adaptations of the story of the vain Queen with the honest looking-glass, her innocent rival, a sympathetic huntsman, seven dwarfs, a poisoned apple and a handsome young prince.
MIRROR, MIRROR from Relativity Media opened this week, directed by Tarsem Singh. The film stars Julia Roberts as the Evil Queen, Lily Collins as Snow White and Armie Hammer as Prince Andrew Alcott. Due in June, Universal Pictures' SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN, billed as "a twist to the fairytale," stars Kristen Stewart as Snow White, Charlize Theron as Queen Ravenna and Chris Hemsworth as the Huntsman. Rupert Sanders makes his directing debut.
Filmgoers will ultimately decide which Snow White is the fairest of them all, but we were curious to know why this princess with "skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood and hair as black as ebony" has suddenly exploded in what the Grimm boys would surely call the zeitgeist. Are we seeing a return to the tried and true, albeit with new CGI technology, or do these film fairytales signal a true flowering of the imagination inspired by the story's global appeal? And what is that appeal exactly?
This is not the first time Hollywood has had film audiences seeing double. There were rival Truman Capotes in CAPOTE (2005) and INFAMOUS (2006); cloned long-distance runners in PREFONTAINE (1997) and WITHOUT LIMITS (1998); competing comets on a collision course with earth in ARMAGEDDON (1998) and DEEP IMPACT (1998); and, for a while in the late 1980s, kids and grownups were switching bodies all over the place in LIKE FATHER LIKE SON (1987), BIG (1988),18 AGAIN! (1988) and VICE VERSA (1988). But why Snow White and why now?
We asked Kenny Klein, author of "Fairy Tale Rituals: Engage the Dark, Eerie & Erotic Power of Familiar Stories," for his take on the Snow White phenomenon. "Snow White is the person most of us would like to be," said Klein. "Persecuted for something that is beyond her control (her beauty), and cast out with no resources, Snow White finds herself in the position many of us feel we are in: victims of fate, our proper place in the world denied us. But through charm and perseverance, Snow White triumphs, regaining her rightful place as princess and heir to her father's kingdom."
Her father's kingdom, not her mother's. Interestingly, in the 1812 collection of Grimms' stories, the one based more directly on the German oral tradition, there was no mention of the fact that Snow White's mother had died in childbirth or that her father remarried. Those changes first appeared in the 1819 text. The edgier, earlier draft had Snow White's mom, not stepmother, as a homicidally jealous blood-relative.
According to Klein, "The many currents that run beneath the surface – that the world is full of magic, both good and evil, and that just beside our mundane world lies a world of magic and mystery (the forest) where we might find our true nature – are the subtext of all faiths and religions, of all fantasy works, and of our dreams."
Are moviegoers in search of their true nature, then, and not merely looking for escape? Klein sees the Snow White revival in generational terms. "The HARRY POTTER generation runs hard on the heels of the TWILIGHT generation," he said, "and both owe their debt to Grimms' and to fairy lore." And to Walt Disney.
Disney's pioneering SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937) was a storytelling masterpiece and the first full-length animated feature film, ranked #1 among animated films on AFI's 10 TOP 10 list. When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored the film in 1939, Shirley Temple presented Walt Disney with one full-sized and seven miniature gold statuettes. The film has been re-released to theaters and DVD in 1983, 1987 and 1993, a fact Klein considers critical to understanding this Hollywood phenomenon.
"Late teens, 20-somethings and those just 30 each grew up on fresh waves of this tale, and are revisiting their childhood ideals as they reach these milestones in their lives," said Klein. "The appeal of Snow White to these audiences is one of entering the magical forest again, and re-discovering who one is now, at this juncture in life. At each age, the evil queen can be faced, and the true and rightful legacy of one's life attained."
And so, tickets or DVDs in hand, we go back into the woods. Surely, it is no coincidence that "Into the Woods," the 1986 Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical mash-up of the Brothers Grimm, revived in London's Donmar Warehouse in 2010, is coming to New York's Delacorte Theater in Central Park this summer and is also being developed by CHICAGO director Rob Marshall as a film for Disney according to Playbill. Television has already embraced the trend. NBC's GRIMM, a supernatural detective series set in contemporary Portland, and ABC's ONCE UPON A TIME, a modern-day riff on fairytales set in Maine, have won strong fan support.
A recent post by Ryan Dixon on Scriptshark.com, a popular blog for television writers, calls updating myths and fairytales "one of the hottest trends in the search for the next…'tent-pole.'" Dixon points out that "one of the more popular devices is to tell these well-known stories from the point of view of another character" and attributes this technique to Gregory Maguire, author of the novel upon which the Broadway musical "Wicked" is based. Another explanation for fairytales' popularity is the fact they are in the public domain – the perfect legal environment for a creative free-for-all.
It seems clear as a glass coffin that the Snow White story engages artists and audiences alike. And, while Disney and Singh and Sanders and Sondheim and Lapine and all the other artists who have offered their variations on this tale of good vs. evil may have something unique to share, perhaps the real basis for Snow White's popularity is that millions more consider the work to be their own, the story their parents read aloud to them at bedtime, the one that filled their dreams.
In this digital age does Snow White's return herald a new era of more intimate human connection? Or have social media created a new, exponentially greater oral tradition, where new Snow White postings on Facebook and Twitter become fair game for comment and new twists to the story emerge, recombine and go viral? Two explanations, both plausible. The Brothers Grimm would understand and, one suspects, approve.
Although onscreen credits note that Disney’s SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS was adapted from "Grimms' Fairy Tales," only "Schneewittchen" has been identified as a literary source. "Schneewittchen" was first translated into English as "Little Snowdrop" in Edgar Taylor's 1823 collection "German Popular Stories." According to an April 1938 Photo article, although the Grimms' fairytale was in the public domain, Walt Disney bought the rights to a play based on the work, but did not use it for this adaptation.
The song "Some Day My Prince Will Come" was originally intended as an accompaniment to a dream sequence in which Snow White describes her longed-for prince to the dwarfs. The sequence was dropped in the advanced stages of planning.
For more on Disney's SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, visit the AFI Catalog of Feature Films