Movie of the week: Snow White and the Huntsman

Snow White and the Huntsman is the second reworking of the Snow White fairytale to appear on our screens within a month, the first being Mirror, Mirror, which is pitched at the kids’ level of viewers up to about age 12. Snow White and the Huntsman goes for the somewhat older viewership, say early teens to early 20s, giving us more danger, more action, and a hint of the love triangle that seems so essential a part of any such tale nowadays.

The kind of audience at which Snow White and the Huntsman is aimed is indicated by its lead actors. In the role of Snow White herself we have Kristen Stewart of the Twilight series, and the huntsman is played by Chris Hemsworth, who embodied Thor in the movie of that name and who reappears as the Marvelised god of thunder in The Avengers.

How piquant! Twilight Girl and Thor Guy in the same movie! And the title indicates that these are the two most important characters here, though the evil queen of a stepmother (Charlize Theron) is of course just as central — but she’s the bad guy, so to speak.

In her book on the evolving iconography of fairytales, From the Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner notes a significant change in the version of the Schneewittchen story as recounted by the brothers Grimm. Their first version, in the 1810 and 1812 editions of Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales), has Snow White’s own natural mother as her persecutor; by the 1819 edition Snow White’s mortal enemy is now her wicked stepmother, the story “altered so that a mother should not be seen to torment a daughter”.

The Grimms were recording and working with old tales, often told by women, and quite possibly going back to pre-Christian times, so it’s interesting that in the oldest versions of Snow White the mother-daughter rivalry is made clear. A Freudian, of course, would see this as the inevitable narrativisation of the Elektra complex (the female version of the Oedipus complex), with mother and daughter competing for the affections of the father.

The Christian Grimms, with their Romantic leanings, had to adapt that narrative and project all the bad stuff on to the stepmother and thus absolve the sainted true-mother figure of any malice or aggression.

This means, in fairytale terms, that Good Mom has to be killed off fairly early, as Snow White and the Huntsman in fact does — barely before the prologue is over, and in blunt voice-over. Simplifying matters further, Snow White’s father is killed off too, leaving the poor thing quite at the mercy of her wicked stepmother. (Until, that is, she can win the sympathy of the huntsman — and, of course, the seven dwarves.)

In real life, good parents and bad parents are usually the same people. But, as the psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim argued in his famous analysis of fairytales, The Uses of Enchantment, it is necessary for good and bad to be split apart and placed in separate personae, for “all young children sometimes need to split the image of their parent into its benevolent and threatening aspects to feel fully sheltered by the first … These fantasies are helpful; they permit the child to feel really angry at the … pretender or the ‘false parent’, without guilt … So the typical fairytale splitting of the mother into a good (usually dead) mother and an evil stepmother serves the child well.”

I’d argue that the bulk of cinematic narrative fiction, whether drawing on extant fairy stories or not, performs this splitting manouevre. The less splitting takes place the more adult a movie may be considered to be.

Issues of maturity

Adulthood is important, though, even in Snow White and the Huntsman. The Snow White story is, according to Bettelheim and others, an allegory about the achievement of sexual maturity and how, despite the obstacles placed in her way, Snow White gets there. There is the symbolic significance of three drops of blood, a key sign in Snow White and the Huntsman, which Bettelheim sees as referring to menstruation. But then all blood, for Bettelheim, is menstrual.

In the movie, we have to stop short of real sexual maturity (or get an older age restriction, I suppose), and all this sanguinary symbolism is reduced to some motivating stuff about purity of heart. Naturally Snow White, as her name implies, is pure; so pure, in fact, that it is only her heart that will rejuvenate the fading (read postmenstrual) stepmother once and for all. We simply have to take that as a given. After all, the CGIed mirror told the evil queen so, hence her raving desperation to catch the runaway Snow White, and hence her employment of the huntsman (Thor Guy, remember) to retrieve the refugee princess.

Thor Guy, actually, is the pleasant surprise of the movie. Hemsworth was a distinctly underpowered Thor, apparently lacking any real personality, let alone the oomph to give us a truly godlike god of thunder. Here, though, with the help of an odd accent that sits somewhere between Lancashire and Australia, he growls and gruffs his way to some kind of actorly solidity in the role of huntsman.

The action of the (somewhat too long) movie proceeds smoothly and engagingly enough, with some good production design to help it along. There’s a great troll, for one thing, though the fairies are surely too Gollumlike to appeal much. And some of the outfits and headgears worn by the evil queen might lead one to believe that she’s channelling Donna Summer — more disco than diabolical. Doesn’t her magic mirror tell her when she’s looking preposterous?

Theron, at least, chews the scenery with gusto. She’s not quite as much scary fun as Michelle Pfeiffer in Stardust, another evil witch-queen with ageing issues, but she’ll do.

Pouty-mouth Stewart is as Stewart is, though happily not as drippy as her Twilight persona. By the midpoint of the movie you may begin to feel she actually deserves to be

Author Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.


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