Certain stories stick with us as a culture, providing imagery that can cause a flood of emotions to most of the general populace. These themes, tracing back to the earliest orally told tales, resonate with us in ways we aren’t always fully conscious of: the lone hero’s triumph over oppressive evil, the hilarious case of mistaken identity leading to wacky hi jinks, two people falling in love despite all the odds being against them. We are familiar with all of these stories and they affect us in amazing ways. The characters and settings may change, but ultimately all of our favorite stories borrow from what’s come before, building on a tradition of fictive conventions going back to ancient times.
Next year, two movies will be released in theaters based on the classic Grimm’s Fairy Tale, Snow White. In March, Mirror Mirror, a Julia Roberts vehicle that appears to be a lighthearted interpretation. The second, Snow White & The Huntsman, coming out in June, stars an actress who is no stranger to paleness, Kristen Stewart in the lead role and Chris Hemsworth, better known as Thor, as the Huntsman. It comes to us from the same producer as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland film and offers a similarly toned version of the story, even inexplicably featuring the heroine wearing a suit of armor and wielding a sword and shield. Two movies about the same subject with varying depictions. An obvious question presents itself: Why Snow White and why now?
It’s not unusual for Hollywood to churn out two very similar films. Studios will often greenlight a script based on the behavior of their competitors. Armageddon and Deep Impact both involve meteors threatening life on Earth; the movies Avatar and Battle for Terra are quite similar to each other as well; this year we saw Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached both released a few months apart and the same exact synopsis applies to both. Hollywood often goes through trends, making it feel as if there have been nothing but Buddy Cop movies lately or that certain actors and actresses are appearing in everything, but these movements always have an explanation. Disaster movies that threatened destruction from an uncontrollable threat spoke to audiences of the late 90s who felt safe in the world, pre 9-11. Avatar and its counterpart are cautionary tales warning of the dangers of consuming our natural resources too quickly. No Strings Attached was an attempt to remind people why Ashton Kutcher should stick to Twitter. All of these movies had a legitimate reason for being made, so what is the explanation behind Snow White’s sudden resurgence in popularity?
At this point, I don’t have to bother giving any background information on the story of Snow White; you know it, even if you don’t. If I mention Seven Dwarves, there’s really only one place for your mind to go (unless you are a very serious Lord of the Rings fan), even if you don’t know the specific plot points, you’re at least passingly familiar with the Queen, the Mirror and the Handsome Prince. Perhaps that’s the point. It’s easy to dismissively and cynically make the argument that its Snow White’s recognition, nothing more, that has inspired movie makers to tell her story, but it’s possible that there are aspects of the story that speak to modern audiences in ways we haven’t yet considered.
Take for instance, the Magic Mirror. In the story, the Queen consults the mirror with specific questions and instantly receives answers, no matter how obscure. Her main focus is the relative attractiveness of her and her step-daughter – not exactly information that can be found in a library. The Mirror can be seen as a metaphor for the Internet, specifically Google. The concept of receiving real time information about the world from the comfort of your own home is commonplace to us, but incredibly impressive when the story was first written. I’m not saying the Brothers Grimm predicted the Information Age, I’m merely pointing out that this is something that audiences may relate to, if only on a subconscious level. Social networking is also touched upon: the Queen’s primary concern is a reflection (no pun intended) of her own vanity, her quest to be the most beautiful woman in the land. She is preoccupied with Snow White, the way a modern woman may be obsessed with a rival’s Facebook page, constantly refreshing to see if she’s been tagged in any unflattering pictures.
The Queen also represents modern adults. In a world where Botox injections, tummy tucks, nose jobs and physical trainers are not only widespread, but seen as a necessity for aging female actresses, the horror of the next hot young girl coming on the scene is very real. (This is why it’s all the more interesting that Julia Roberts and Charlize Theron, two actresses in the twilight of their careers, are both playing the role of the Queen in their respective movies.) Even average people are obsessed with remaining young, plastering themselves with age defying make-up, dressing like their teenage children and eliminating any trace of gray with hair dye. We all start out as Snow White, young, naive and accepting poisonous apples from strangers; we all end up as the Queen, desperately clinging to youth and hatching elaborate schemes to recapture that feeling that the Snow Whites don’t even appreciate. Young people feel the adults are screw ups who need to step aside and relinquish control and the older people resent the young, with their countless opportunities and boundless potential. Of course, this is something that any set of generations can respond to, but the current mindset on the ravages of age – the way even relatively young stars’ images will be touched up with Photoshop – means it has a chance to really elicit a response from the viewers.
One thing you might not know about the original Snow White story is that, once caught, the Queen is punished for her repeated murder attempts by being made to wear a pair of heated iron shoes and dance until she dies. The parallel to our own modern understanding should be obvious: Dancing with the Stars. What greater signifier that your time as an aging beauty is over than appearing on ABC and getting forced to dance?
It remains to be seen how well these movies will do and whether or not they will mean anything to anyone, but the potential is there. These stories have remained with us for hundreds of years and have been re-interpreted time and time again. If they manage to capture what’s made the story endure for so long, they might just stand a chance.
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