Monday, June 4, 2012


After reading a (near) rave review in the New York Times, we dashed off to see Snow White and the Huntsman on the first weekend of its release.  I was attracted particularly by the description of the film as a fairy tale in the real Grimm tradition--i.e., grim.  The bowdlerization and inoculation of these stories to protect the delicate sensibilities of today's tots has long been a pet peeve of mine. The real fairy take is far from the cute and cuddly versions too often found in our modern coddle-the-child world.  Walt Disney has a lot to answer for.

Anyway, the movie... it suffers from undue length.  A fairy tale is by its nature short and pithy--not long and preachy.  To turn it into an epic, as this film does, is to risk sacrificing its magical, lyrical quality in favor of narrative longueurs that sidetrack attention.  This version of "Snow White" also muddies the archetypal waters of the original by denying us the clarity of a single hero/rescuer: the "huntsman" and the "prince" are here two separate characters, who seem to vie for the love of the princess/damsel-in-distress. The final scene offers up the coy suggestion that it is the sturdy huntsman who wins out, but the ending does not provide us with the clear satisfaction of the "happily-ever-after" resolution.  Our heroine, perhaps appropriately for our age, is no passively shrinking violet but a rather strong-willed miss (or ms.) who ends up spectacularly in charge of her own destiny and kingdom (or queendom,) thank you very much. Her rescuers are her fiefs.

That said, I did enjoy the movie.  Charlize Theron's deliciously wicked stepmother and evil queen is a pleasure to detest.  We wilt under her gaze.  She has not only her own wickedness but also the magic of digital special effects technology at her disposal, to work her satanic ways.  Her power, until the very end, seems unconquerable.  Snow White would not be Snow White, of course, without her seven dwarfs, whose arrival on the scene--only mid-way through the story--invigorates what had threatened to become an overly long passage through the depths of darkness, and marks her entry into the enchanted (and enchantingly presented) forest, a delightful fairyland of flora and fauna that is the movie's only nod to Disney.  A rough-and-tumble bunch, however, the dwarfs themselves are thankfully far from the cute hi-ho miners of the Disney version, but rather a band of unwashed and unruly miniature warriors enlisted in the mission to restore the princess to her rightful heritage.

It took me a while to warm to the heroine herself, perhaps because the characters around her--the queen, the (at first dour, but eventually loyal) huntsman--seemed by contrast more colorful and complex.  The poisoned apple prepared for her by the queen, who disguises herself as the handsome prince to gain her trust, induces the necessary coma, from which she awakes (not, notably, thanks to the prince's kiss, which proves a dud--but to the huntsman's) transformed from innocent girl/victim into self-assertive, Joan-of-Arc warrior woman, ready to lead her army of knights into the fray.

There are two principal rituals at stake in this "Snow White"--the personal and the societal, both the familiar themes of all dramatic action.  The societal ritual is the story of the lineage of legitimate power that holds the kingdom steady on its course: the rightful king is slain, the illegitimate usurper grabs the reins of power, the kingdom wobbles dangerously until the usurper is displaced and the rightful heir is restored to the throne.  It's the story of Oedipus and Hamlet (and the mythic pattern, by the way, that obsesses our Republicans "in real life" today.)  In fairy tale convention, the resolution usually takes place in the "happily ever after" marriage--a custom that this "Snow White" defiantly eschews.  The personal ritual is the ritual of initiation--until this century practiced exclusively by and for the male members of the human species.  It involves the descent from innocence, the journey through darkness and uncertainty, and the return--the always traumatic, often dangerous passage from boyhood into manhood.  That the boy-to-man ritual is adapted in this movie to a girl-to-woman pattern is also something of a challenge to convention--but certainly one for which the audience has been prepared by the cultural changes of the past fifty years.  It works just fine.

There is, of course, also a Buddhist theme that runs through the movie: the story of human suffering, the clarity that can be achieved through the kind of watchfulness that cuts cleanly through the fog of delusion, and the release from suffering that comes with awakening and enlightenment.  Unfortunately, though, for most of us there's no prince around to awaken us with a kiss--unless you count the dharma.  Not even a huntsman.  We have no one to do it for us but ourselves.  But we can still be charmed by the fairy story, which is in itself, surely, an apt and satisfying metaphor for delusion.

Enough verbiage.  Thumbs up.  See the film.  It's fun.

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