June 5th 2014
Unhappily ever after…
The other day we tripped over a movie on TV – “Snow White: A Tale of Terror”, vintage 1997.
I’m always one for a good re-telling of a good old fairy tale like this, and so we settled in to watch. And never have I seen a more messed up version than this one. It just could not seem to place itself – it was billed as something with an edge of horror, it was trying to retain the framework of the fairy tale, and they were seemingly intent on adding a layer of – oh, I don’t know – historical accuracy or something. And while they were dithering about which angle to pursue, they ALL fell down, splat, flat on their faces.
Let’s go back to the original version. If you wanted straight horror, there was quite a bit of it here – the wicked Queen ends up dancing with red-hot iron shoes on her feet until she is dead, at the end of that tale. But here are the elements of the original story:
- The wicked queen is basically a witch by definition (and therefore, with the help of the magic mirror, REAL magic is in play – spells and stuff.)
- Since the wicked queen is a witch by definition, her motivations are pretty pure – they’re evil without any redeeming characteristics at all, they are based purely on vanity, and ALL of her murderous intent is based on that idea. No more is needed. This is the queen’s role in the drama.
- The first Queen dies (and the child is not ripped from her, and she is not attacked by wolves); the King is a King, in the center of a realm, hardly a scion of apparently minor nobility in a manor house surrounded by wooded acreage ; Snow is a Princess out of Fairy Tale, not a girl who is called “the little princess” as a derogatory term.
- The wild forest is a WILD FOREST, tangled, twisted, crazy, pathless. Something you can, you know, GET LOST IN.
- There is no romance for Snow until that final Princely encounter and the happily-ever-after.
So what does the adaptation do? It introduces an utterly gratuitous scene where the heavily pregnant non-queen and her husband are apparently being driven through a winter wood on what doesn’t look much like a road, and then being arbitrarily attacked by wolves, who then seem to go for the horses and the coach driver and more or less leave the (un)happy couple who crawl out of the wrecked carriage quite alone… leaving the dying pregnant woman to beg her husband to cut the child out of her and save the child – and you know, wolves can smell blood and the husband appears to be unarmed except for the knife with which he is performing this emergency caesarian, and the wolf pack would have made short work of the basically defenseless lordling who would have been even more handicapped by trying to protect the even more defenseless newborn (who, let us not forget, has JUST BEEN BODILY RIPPED INTO THIS WORLD in a snowy wood with apparently no real means of getting out of there except on foot pursued by wolves, with no way to keep the newborn clean, warm, or fed – can we say galloping hypothermia in the space of a matter of hours even if the wolves cried off out of deference to a fairy tale trope being born…)
But okay. Let’s just call it set-up. Let’s assume the wolves all fell on the coach driver and one of the horses and left the other horse (minus saddle but eh, at this point…) for the lord and his baby to make their escape.
Cut to child, Lili, in grounds of a manor house, playing around her mother’s memorial (I hesitate to say “tomb”. They would have had to leave the body in the woods if they escaped, the man and the babe. If the wolves got hungry again there would have been little left to bury by the time anyone else might have gone back to fetch the remains of the wife). And the memorial is… a *winged angel*? And a little bit later on, the father asks piously if the child had been reading her Scriptures? And there’s a chapel with a crucified Christ in it (remember this. It comes back to haunt you later.)? Er, what?
Cut to the arrival of the new wife-to-be. No attempt made to connect the dots. She just… turns up. Maybe they met on the Internet, in a Fairy Tale chatroom someplace. But anyway, enter Sigourney Weaver as Claudia, the Wicked Stepmother – and she is GOOD at this, at being the stone-cold bitch. But for the time being she is just cool and regal and distant, to be sure, but apparently willing to be accepting and kind – she brings her stepdaughter a freaking PUPPY. How sweet is that. But oh yeah, remember that puppy, also. We’ll get back to him. The new wife also turns up with an idiot brother (who apparently doesn’t talk and spends his scenes in the movie staring eloquently out of deep-set eyes made to look even more hollowed out by artful make-up). And oh yeah, there’s also… the mirror. In a cabinet. Which “belonged to her mother”. Hints of a strange and haunted past.
But see, here’s where the whole thing really starts coming apart at the seams. In a bedding scene which looks to be fairly historically accurate (pity the poor high-born couples getting married in the middle ages, with all the hoopla that went along with the bedding ceremony) Lili does something woefully inadequate and willful to upset the ceremonies, and then flees – straight into the Wicked Stepmama’s private chamber. Her nurse sees her go in there and sails in after her – but Lili and her puppy are hiding under the bed. The nurse, in the meantime, notices the cabinet housing the evil mirror creak open and cannot resist a look. Cue groaning and screaming and then she falls down on the floor to where Lili can see her from under the bed and there is no sign of any damage at all (yes. I know. It’s *MAGIC*. But there had to have been a reason to scream. We aren’t given one).
Cut again to when the girl, Lili, is of an age to become a pretty little thing. She and now-pregnant-at-long-last Stepmama do not get along at all at all (but as yet there is no real ‘she’s prettier than me” vibe going on. If anything the stepmother is shown in a rosier light with a long-suffering “WHY do we have to hate each other” kind of remark aimed at what looks to be a rebellious teenager bent on causing trouble). There is an introduction of someone called Peter, a doctor, who appears to have a long-standing connection to the family – and particularly to the young Lili herself. But it is said doctor who then steps up to deliver Stepmama of the baby (in those days? Wasn’t that women’s work, kind of?)… the baby, who is a stillborn son.
At this point the relatively trying-for-verisimilitude version of the tale goes totally off the rails with Stepmama going cuckoo crazy, and the chatty magic mirror starting to come into its own. The focus, however, seems to be on the dead baby, not on Snow White and her comparative beauty. Snow – on what seems to be a riding outing into her father’s very much UNwild woods (young trees, wide open spaces, not nearly enough there to be lost in – and it’s a RIDING OUTING, which means at best an hour’s ride out from the manor, really, so how far away from everything can you be…?) with the young doctor who professes his intentions of asking for her hand in marriage. Then he is summoned by another rider (another hint at how close to the manor they have to be) and Snow tells him that she will meet him later at the stables.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, the crazy brother turns up in the wood, with a knife, intent on committing Grievous Bodily Harm on the person of our young girl. Who, despite HAVING A HORSE RIGHT THERE and her knife-wielding and wild-eyed assailant being on foot, runs away into the so-called forest leaving the aforementioned horse and also her would-be killer behind – here’s a hint of the original story, with the brother playing the part of the huntsman and bringing a hog’s heart to the wicked queen who gleefully feeds it to the purported heart-owner’s father for supper. But Snow, meanwhile, who really ought to have been able to make home perhaps slightly later than anticipated because she left the frigging horse behind but still, somehow manages to come upon a “ruined castle” (what happened to the dwarves’ cottage?) on these suddenly greatly expanded and mysterious grounds of her father’s estate (she was on a riding outing, remember? Not on a two-day-horseback-journey out of there, a riding outing which presumably didn’t got TOO far away because they wanted to be back home for supper…?).
She falls inside (oh yeah, there are hints of wolves again…) and falls asleep, and is discovered by a group of men who are supposedly meant to stand in for the dwarves in the story. But unlike the dwarves of the story, these are not dwarves at all (well, okay, one is. I suspect they wanted to be able to point at him and go, there, we have a dwarf, see, what are you complaining about?) They are strapping young men, and the sexual tension is immediate and *nasty*. There is talk of ransom – but “her father probably wouldn’t mind if we took a little for ourselves first” – cue rape threat of the helpless young girl while all the dwarf-substitutes leer at her suggestively… until one of them steps up to be Prince Charming and Protects Her, and lo, there’s ANOTHER romantic tangle for our girl, who (as I said) can’t be THAT far from home but acts as though she cannot possibly go back there without someone coming out to FIND her, and if they don’t she’s presumably stuck there until they do. No agency whatsoever. Look at me I am a helpless little child. Someone rescue me. Please.
So while she’s finding her bliss out there in the ruined castle, things are going really crazy back at the manor. The Stepmama has taken it into her head to revive her dead stillborn son and the mirror tells her that she can do it with her husband’s seed and her husband’s blood. So she hauls poor Snow’s daddy, who purportedly broke a leg while out searching for his lost daughter but looks like he has been at death’s door for a century or more, into the chapel (remember that crucified Christ I mentioned earlier?)
Well, she spread-eagles poor husband onto the back of the crucifix – “I brought someone to keep you company,” she murmurs seductively, hard to tell if to the Christ or to the husband – hangs the cross upside down and is preparing to slit hubby’s throat and bleed him like a steer in the presence of – er – where did that congregation come from? And why is there a feeling of Satanic Mass being celebrated….? – when Snow arrives back at the manor in the nick of time, finally, being delivered back by her would-be husband the gratuitous doctor (who by the way appears to be under the spell of the wicked witch…) and accompanied by her dwarf-substitute Prince Charming Of the Not So Wild Wood (oh, in between, we had a nod to the original tale with Stepmama transforming into the old witchy woman and the whole apple thing going on and not quite dead Snow being revived when “Prince Charming” realizes that she still has her eyes open and you know has to be alive somehow so he does the Heimlich Maneuver…)
They go into the now empty manor (where the hell did the congregation go?) and they get attacked by a slavering hound who is supposed to be the same dog that was given to Snow as a puppy (wait – HOW many years have now gone by? If she was maybe seven when she was given the dog, she is at least sixteen now if we want to keep up the fiction of her being “of legal age” so she’s had the dog while growing up for, what, nine years or so – you’d think the dog would KNOW HIS MISTRESS and kind of stop when he hears “stop” from her…? You’d THINK…?)
Anyway. To cut to the chase. Snow sends Prince Charming to rescue her father. The good doctor is pushed right out of the story when Stepmama shoves him out of a (glassed-in) window – how much of an anachronism is THAT, then… – and it’s down to Snow and Stepmama who is cradling a cooing baby in her arms (but wasn’t he supposed to have been brought back to life by being bathed in his daddy’s blood? And wasn’t daddy rescued before she could do this? Oh well, never mind continuity…) Stepmama and the Mirror are in full Horror Magic Mode now – and it is by stabbing a knife into the *mirror* that Snow finally dispatches the witch (although there is zero build up to this or how she knows to do this. She just – you know- oh, whatever…)
Ding dong the witch is dead. No mention of what became of the dead/alive baby son. No mention of the congregation – or indeed of what happened to ANYONE else in that manor house (somewhere there’s got to be a pile of dead bodies beginning to stink, or a large pile of human ashes…) Outside the empty and abandoned manor the now rapidly recovering lord (who finally seems to remember that it is only a broken leg that he is suffering from…), the scarred Prince Charming, and Snow huddle outside the front door while this atmospheric white stuff comes drifting down from above as they look up looking angelically relieved at their deliverance (in the meantime, the witch, who was quite comprehensively on fire, has probably set the manor alight somewhere upstairs which nobody seems be bothered by. Much.)
“It’s snowing,” Prince Charming says beatifically, as though having an epiphany. As though a little bit of cleansing snow is going to clean EVERYTHING right up. Assuming the manor is on fire…. What happens next? Do they go back to the “ruined castle” in the non-wild-wood, and live happily ever after in the ruins with the non-dwarves who happened to have survived the encounter with Snow and Stepmama’s magic (oh yeah, did I mention that some of the “dwarves” just, you know, die…?) We don’t know. The story ends. And we are left…
I hate this. I hate it with a fiery passion. They have done nothing with it – they haven’t retold the story in a cohesive way, they haven’t told the original story (not even the more modern saccharine versions let alone the original Grimm), they haven’t built a world that holds together (mashing up anything that might be needful from wild magic to Black Mass and a quasi-Christian environment, whatever was to hand), they built up an empty reflection of a tale with zero heart, and truth, and life.
It’s a zombie Snow White, stumbling around through a tame little wood screaming “Shazam” every so often and waiting for miracles to happen.
Sigourney Weaver makes for a great witch, as far as the story lets her anyhow, but that’s as far as it goes – she is basically given little other than “be insane” to go on as far as her character is concerned. Sam Neill is pretty much wasted as the weak and two-dimensional non-King Papa. I don’t know who the hell the doctor was or why he was thought to be necessary to this plot. And I am not at all sure I hold with the overt sexualization of Snow’s relationship with the non-dwarves, particularly since it has its roots in an almost-rape scene (when in doubt, always throw in a scene of our maiden in sexual peril, it sells tickets…)
It is entirely possible to re-tell old fairy tales in a way that makes them so utterly fresh that you can’t believe you just read a story with its roots in something that is so very familiar from the earliest days of your childhood. I still remember, with a shiver, Neil Gaiman’s retelling of this story – “Snow, Glass, Apples”. He brings something new and genuinely awful into the tale. This movie adaptation…? Is just disastrous. It’s one of those “some day I know I will want these two hours back” movies.
Here’s the thing about retellings. They can’t be rehashings. If that’s the best you can do, it may be better to do nothing at all.
At the very least pick a direction – any direction – ANY narrative – and stay the course, keep to the tropes, make it hang together. Don’t just throw in anything you find lying about and hope for the best. You know what? We can tell that it wasn’t the real heart in the stew that you’ve just fed us. We can taste the fake.
Don’t be *clever*. Be *good*. Real magic is hard to capture, and when you fail the attempt shows up as raw and patched together and ugly. Even in full fairy tale mode, even in full flight of fiction, what I am looking for in a story is *truth* – and every beautifully costumed moment of this movie was a screaming lie.
And thereby ends my tale. Now, if you hanker after a genuine retelling of the old tale, go and read the Gaiman story. And RUN from this movie.
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Alma Alexander is a Pacific Northwest novelist whose new YA trilogy, "Worldweavers", debuted with "Gift of the Unmage" in March 2007 ("Spellspam" follows in 2008, and "Cybermage" in 2009). Her other books include the internationally acclaimed "The Secrets of Jin Shei". Visit site.
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