...shining light on the media, one review at a time
In the twenty-first century, we’re too smart to take things for granted. Ideas and stories that previous generations may have accepted as truth must be reevaluated now—reinterpreted in light of our current culture and greater savvy.
Take the old fairy tale about Snow White. Even the name of the title character could do with some redefining. What really is “snow,” for instance? We know now that the clean-looking substance is actually partially composed of pollution—the same kind of pollution that soon turns the white fluffy stuff into a pile of charcoal-colored mush. And what exactly does “white” mean? Isn’t that kind of harsh and naïve? After all, there aren’t really clear blacks and whites these days—real life is made up of grays.
So we have mucky dark slush and gray instead of white—where does that leave us? Right on track with the latest reinvention of Snow White’s story, Snow White and the Huntsman. In this adaptation, Snow White is no longer the girl, fair in beauty and fair in heart, who most of us grew up hearing about. Instead, she is a young woman lost in the grays.
Though this adaptation gives lip-service to the traditional idea of Snow White’s beauty being of the heart, as well as outward, any message of purity or goodness is thoroughly undermined as even the “fairest of the fair” succumbs to the anger, twisted morality, and brutal violence that defines the film. Despite a few appearances to the contrary, this Snow White deals only in grays…and likes it.
Young Snow White, the product of her mother’s wish for a daughter with a snow white complexion, blood red lips, and raven black hair, has a special, seemingly enchanted life. The daughter of a beloved king and queen, she is known throughout the kingdom as a creature of the greatest beauty—both outwardly, and in her kind, gentle heart. But Snow White’s happy existence is soon shattered when her mother falls ill and dies. Her devastated father is initially inconsolable, till he rescues a lady in distress and finds the mysterious beauty’s allure irresistible. He weds her almost instantly, unaware that he is under the power of the evil magic possessed by this seductress.
She waits only until their wedding night to reveal herself as Ravenna, an immensely powerful and corrupt enchantress who uses her power entirely for her own selfish desires. One of Ravenna’s cravings is for revenge against all men, who she sees as having “ruined” her. Thus, Snow White’s father falls to Ravenna’s dagger. Ravenna wastes no time in bringing in her own army, headed by her loyal brother, to usurp the kingdom.
These soldiers promptly deliver Ravenna’s magic mirror—the object that gives the final word on Ravenna’s primary goal and ultimate necessity of life, announcing whether or not she is the most beautiful or “fairest” in the land. Even greater than Ravenna’s thirst for revenge, anger, and desire to see others suffer is her need to remain young and be the most beautiful woman in existence. The pride behind this aim is what drives Ravenna’s every action as she ravishes Snow White’s kingdom, turning the prosperous land into a barren wasteland of suffering and fear.
While Ravenna feeds off the youth of the women in the kingdom and kills all those who are attractive enough to be considered a threat in the beauty department, she spares Snow White, locking the girl into a dungeon cell. Isolated and ill-fed, Snow White is nevertheless protected from the abuses the other people suffer at the hands of Ravenna and her sadistic brother. Almost forgotten by the imposter queen and the people who believe the princess is dead, Snow White grows and comes of age in her tiny cell.
The mirror has not forgotten the princess, and it at last announces to Ravenna that there is one fairer than she—Snow White. In order to be the most beautiful and achieve immortality, Ravenna must not only kill Snow White, but must rip out the young woman’s heart and hold it in her hands. [MILD SPOILER WARNING] Through twists of fate, or perhaps some magical guidance, Snow White manages to escape this immediate threat but ends up encountering numerous hardships that only seem to get worse as she struggles on. Along the way, she meets enemies and friends, those who try to kill her and some who attempt to protect her.
Among these characters is the Huntsman, who has a foot in both camps. [MILD SPOILER WARNING] Hired to track and capture Snow White, he is, like many who meet the princess, deeply affected by her beauty, bravery, and the inexplicable ability she has to soften even his cold heart. With Snow White as their inspiration, the Huntsman and others band together to follow their fairest of the fair as she leads them into a battle to defeat the dark queen.
“Snow White as a warrior?,” you may ask, with understandable incredulity. This Snow White has come far from the days of Disney’s animated classic in more ways than one. Beyond the obvious plot and character changes, the most palpable difference of this story comes in the darkness and, if one wants to be extremely gentle in terms, the “adult themes” introduced to the fairy tale. This Snow White is certainly not for children.
Initially, there is resemblance to the structure of the original story, but the new interpretation of those events and characters is vastly disturbing. One might argue that the Grimm brothers’ original fairy tale also contained unpleasant and, well, grim, elements. Yet the Grimm brothers’ version didn’t come close to imagining the detail of horrors that are dramatized in this Snow White film.
[SPOILER WARNING FOR ALL THAT FOLLOWS] Even the formerly affable seven dwarves are here more reminiscent of the seven deadly sins—inebriated ruffians who are ready to kill the Huntsman and Snow White herself with barely a second thought. Ravenna, a practiced murderess with many deaths to her credit, is the worst of the characters. Viewers see her kill countless people (and see the bodies of more), beginning with the rather graphic stabbing of the king, Snow White’s father.
After finishing him off, she moves on to other victims, including a young man whose heart she stops in an apparently excruciating experience, while his father watches (restrained by guards). She also uses her magical powers to suck years of life out of a young woman who screams during the experience.
Ravenna isn’t the only one in this film with a lust for violence. Her brother eagerly engages in battle killings and seems willing to do more, while the Huntsman and other “good guys” are equally ready to kill for their cause and do so aplenty. Because the battle sequences are fast-paced and tightly shot, the violence in them is less graphic and troubling than in Ravenna’s scenes, but they are perhaps more likely to desensitize viewers to the killings that are rampant in this film.
Additionally baneful are the sexual connotations that are present in many of the scenes and accompany some of the violent moments. As one might expect, Ravenna is one vehicle of such content for the filmmakers. She regularly wears gowns that show extensive cleavage and is also shown naked from behind (from waist up) three times. During one of these occasions, Ravenna takes off her robe to sink into a cream-filled bath, from which she then rises, giving viewers a look at her front from the waist-up, while she covers herself with her arms.
The sexuality is taken up a notch with the knowledge that Ravenna’s brother is watching his sister as she enters and comes up from the bath. In another scene, her brother also kisses her bare shoulder in an oddly sensual way. Viewers discover at one point that Ravenna’s brother is guilty of more than these actions, as he speaks of women with whom he has apparently had his way. He evidently has similar plans for Snow White, just before he takes her to his sister to be killed, but he only manages to get in a bit of caressing before he is thwarted.
To the film’s credit, the “good guys” seem to have higher standards in the area of sexual morality. When Snow White is suspicious on one occasion of the Huntsman’s intentions, he tells her not to “flatter herself.” Snow White is also modestly dressed, surprisingly so for a modern movie heroine. Her dress falls low around her shoulders at one point, but there’s no cleavage shown, and she even, rather inexplicably, wears pants under her dress.
Unfortunately, Snow White doesn’t set such a good example in the violence department. When she is first introduced in the film, we’re told that Snow White is gentle and kind. The story continues with that idea and makes attempts to demonstrate her reluctance to hurt others as the tale progresses. It’s true that she doesn’t kill anyone throughout most of the movie, and she’s guilty only of injuring one person in self-defense until close to the end. When the Huntsman teaches Snow White early on how to block and stab an attacker, telling her to keep eye contact with the killing stroke until she can see the attacker’s “soul,” she says that she doesn’t think she could ever do that.
By the close of the movie, however, Snow White has embraced a different destiny. She learns that Ravenna’s power can only be undone by “the fairest blood,” another pernicious twist invented by the filmmakers who hone in on blood symbolism in this story and thread it throughout. An optimistic viewer may hope that Snow White means to conquer Ravenna through a demonstration of love—some action or words that will show why Snow White is, as the movie claims, more pure and internally beautiful than the queen. Perhaps Snow White could even sacrifice herself in some way that would change Ravenna or save others. After all, Snow White at one point says that she once had anger for Ravenna, but now feels only sadness.
Yet, in the end, that profession is proven wrong. For Snow White does not act with sympathy, or with love and purity, but instead takes up the sword, stabbing several people on her way to Ravenna. Still worse, Snow White responds to Ravenna’s taunts to avenge her father with anger and violence. Thus, any good this film might have been trying to communicate through the character of Snow White is undone, as she takes the first steps toward becoming like Ravenna herself. Snow White, who is cited by the other characters in the story as being “life itself,” becomes intentional, premeditated death to Ravenna (and perhaps the others she stabbed in passing).
As perhaps the worst of the modifications to the Snow White tale, this change in Snow White’s character is also death to a film that has the production resources to create a story of lasting quality. Because the filmmakers chose to take the story in a magic-heavy, fantasy direction, there is ample opportunity for special effects, and the CGI is impressive and seamless. The cinematography is perhaps the greatest strength of the movie, with inventive, as well as tried-and-true camerawork that showcases stunning locations and sets.
Unfortunately, much of the best and most artistic cinematography in this piece is spent on Ravenna in some of her eccentric, disturbing, or sensual moments. The filmmakers seem to have a bit of an obsession with the dark queen and waste entirely too much time on scenes that showcase her evil and/or vileness. As artistically shot as these sequences are, they soon become redundant and dull.
The extra Ravenna scenes are not the only material that should’ve been cut. Several other scenes are unnecessarily long or not needed at all. Unrealistic moments are another weakness of the screenplay, but in such a fantastical tale, it becomes hard to make that criticism without negating the whole film.
Despite poor writing, the actors turn in impressive performances. This strong cast is one that includes no weakness even in the minor roles. Kristen Stewart, though much more “girl next door” than the usual type for Snow White, is surprisingly convincing and gives a believable, as well as moving portrayal. Chris Hemsworth as the Huntsman adds a sense of authenticity and emotional depth that carries even his scenes that would otherwise have suffered because of awkward writing.
But good acting, CGI, and cinematography can’t give this Snow White a happy ending. Once having watched this film, it won’t be easily forgotten, but for all the wrong reasons. This is an unforgettable movie only because of the detrimental and deadly content the filmmakers chose to include instead of upholding the morals and ideals of the story most of us heard as children.
Note to filmmakers: the next time another such reinvention of Snow White is attempted, please inject a little honesty and just call it “Slush Gray.”
Check out these movies instead:
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (New Line Cinema, 2001)
Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (Lucasfilm, 1977)
Batman Begins (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2005)
For more ideas, visit our What to Watch page!