Culture Film

The case for faery tales [Snow White and the Huntsman]

Snow White and the Huntsman is a film peopled by actors not quite known for their portrayal of strong characters — swoony vampire crushes, roaring Norse gods, and alien monsters all come to mind.  As one might expect, the acting in this film is not memorable — or so I am told — I myself am not a good judge of these things.  Nonetheless, or maybe even for these very reasons, this is a film you should see.

It is a film you should see because these aspects and others enable it to “get” the world of faery that it is trying to represent.  If you think of the faery tales you know, you will find that not many of the characters from them are remarkable; Prince Charming is generally fairly charming, and not much different from the other Prince Charmings in other stories.  Likewise, we can call her what we like — Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, or even Princess Peach for those of us so inclined — but these characters all point to a type rather than distinct characters.  The art of the faery tale, like the art of iconography, is not designed to bear the burden of modern realism — it consists in types and gestures alluding to something else.  In fact, probably the primary reason many of us (post)moderns don’t care for original faery tales (and represent them poorly on film) is because of a genre mistake — we look for realism and find that the letter kills — and then wonder what to do with the corpses of stories we have killed.

In any case, the great moments and themes in this film are the ones that refuse to explain themselves in (post)modern terms.  We are not given a complex psychological reason for, or even a strong dramatic performance of, the uniqueness of Snow White that gives her potential to overthrow the dark queen; she is special because she is the king’s daughter and has (we are told) beauty in her heart, but we are meant for the most part to simply believe this rather than see it.  Various miraculous and magical events occur throughout the film without explanation; we are reminded of that wonderful Biblical moment in which Jesus writes in the sand and we are never told what exactly he wrote — real truth and beauty tease us with mystery.  We do not ask ourselves how it is that Snow White, who has apparently lived in the tower since childhood, wears a relatively pristine dress modeled after Walt Disney’s original conception, nor do we ask how after all those years in a tower she has the remarkable physical strength to escape and become a sexy warrior queen (though we suspect it is because she has just come off the set of Twilight).  Neither we nor the film ask these questions because they are too leaden for the lightness of faeryland.

To be sure, this film does suffer from some of the problems we might expect.  Given the film’s general maintenance of the spirit of faery, I do not consider the changes to the story particularly damaging, and the genre in any case allows for a certain degree of narrative plasticity.  However, the filmmakers would have done better to revel in the great beauty and artistry of the film and omit much of the fighting, clearly thrown in to please a certain demographic of viewers expecting a re-enactment of Peter Jackson’s battle of Helm’s Deep.  Also, in spite of the film’s general avoidance of explanatory back-stories, it falters when it comes to Ravenna (the dark queen), who is explained (albeit very briefly) in terms of a traumatic childhood event.  The huntsman too has a back-story, but that is because he is an intentional anomaly.

He is an intentional anomaly in that he is in fact dramatized in a way that the other type-bound characters aren’t; this is because he is the stand-in for the average (post)modern viewer.  He would rather sneak off into the woods than get involved with overarching power clashes.  He is the sort of person who refrains from speaking truth to power largely because he would prefer not to speak with power at all.  But there are loyalties that lie deeper than his surface cynicism, and these loyalties are eventually and somewhat inexplicably awakened by Snow White.  Through his perspective, we are confronted with the image of our own (post)modern selves as they try to make sense of the faery tale they encounter – do we give in to beauty and wonder, or is it all a cruel lie?

Since you already know the plot, I do not think I will be giving much away in describing the final scene in the film, which crystalizes this symbolism.  In a scene of the utmost regal seriousness – we might here think of the set though not the dialogue of Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail – Snow White is crowned in the name of “all that is just and right,” or something to that effect.  With the huntsman, we gaze upon the scene and walk out of the hall.  Justice?  Righteousness?  Who believes in those abstractions anymore?  But if the faery tale has done its work, something inexplicable may have been awakened in us, and we just might return later to hear further on this matter.