“The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” – G.K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles (1909).
Rupert Sanders’ Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), debuting at number one at the box office and earning $56.3 million domestically, has drawn a lot of criticism since its release on June 1. While the film suffers from a hodgepodge script that haphazardly emulates The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) and The Neverending Story (1984), it does so to succeed as a traditional fairy tale and not just not the fairy tale of Snow White.
We intimately know the story of Snow White. A beautiful and aging queen is overcome by jealousy of Snow White’s youthful beauty. The Queen forces Snow White from her castle and strips her of her rightful title of princess. Snow White is nearly killed, narrowly escapes danger, is ultimately united with her true love, and fulfills the story’s requisite happy ending.
Sanders resists much of the traditional Brother’s Grimm (1812) and Walt Disney Snow White film (1937) by adding new characters (such as the prophesying blind dwarf) and settings (such as the village where Snow White and the Huntsman first take shelter). The village is inhabited by independent women, whose husbands and fathers have been killed in a battle with Queen Ravenna. The women all bear scars across their faces to protect themselves from the Queen’s voracity for youthful beauty: “These scars keep us safe; without beauty, we have no value to the Queen.”
These additions simultaneously enhance the film because of their promise and cause it to suffer because of their brevity. But Sanders’ Snow White suffers most from having a screenplay in which too many good ideas never become fully realized.
While Snow White and the Huntsman is hindered by a confused screenplay, writers John Lee Hancock, Hossein Amini, and Evan Daughtery succeed in their efforts to transform an oft-told fairy tale into something socially relevant. The film accomplishes what other renditions of the tale don’t: the obsession of the correlation between age and beauty is fleshed out in such a way as to make this fairy tale pertinent to contemporary audiences. As Queen Ravenna literally sucks the life out of a young maiden to preserve her own failing beauty, she utters the maxim that drives not only the film but Hollywood itself: “When a woman stays young and beautiful forever, the world is hers.”
Sanders also exploits the same vanity the film seeks to criticize. This is made evident by evocative landscapes and lush, resplendent costuming, but the film’s beauty cannot wholly distract from the uneven performances:
As Queen Ravenna, Charlize Theron wears costumes that emulate the animated wicked Queen Grimhilde in Walt Disney’s Snow White (1937). These costumes have been mistakenly viewed as the film’s main strength. While Theron’s visually stunning, the majority of her lines miss their mark, either due to her screaming or to her choking on each verbal assault. Instead of an evil villain, Ravenna comes off as merely hysterical.
In addition, Kristen Stewart never fully comes into her own as an assertive Snow White. She gives an uneven performance, particularly in the confused (and arguably unnecessary) love triangle with the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) and “Prince Charming” (Sam Claflin), which is an awkward attempt to echo similar conflicts in The Twilight Saga (2008-2012) and The Hunger Games (2012). But Stewart has begun to distance herself from the Twilight franchise, hopefully reverting back to strong performances like those of Into the Wild (2007) and Adventureland (2009).
Parents should not worry over the film’s luridness and brutality. On opening night, all of the horrors of the film were met by the exaggerated “Eeeeews!” and matter-of-fact “Why?” questions of children in response to all of the evil actions done throughout the film. Children know that the wicked queen will not prevail. Snow White wins in the end, they know, because Snow White is, as G.K. Chesterton explains, our St. George come to slay the dragon.
In this way alone, the film does exactly what it’s supposed to do—and what we expect it to do—and succeeds despite what its marketing campaign has told viewers for all these months: Snow White and the Huntsman is a fairy tale, albeit an imperfect one.