Once upon a time (in 1812 to be exact), Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm recounted a fairytale about a girl named Snow White. She had skin “white as snow“, lips “red as blood“, and hair “dark as ebony wood“. She also had a wicked stepmother so jealous of her beauty that she sent a huntsman to kill Snow White and bring back her lungs and liver; Eating them would ensure the stepmother’s eternal youth and beauty.
After various early film and TV adaptations of Snow White, Walt Disney came along in 1937 and made the fairytale into the most famous movie based on the story: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Because the film was aimed for the under-ten crowd, it was animated and took a lot of the Grimm ink out of the story and made it into a colorful romp about the same girl, but with lots of cuddly creatures hovering about her. Later numerous adaptations came along, including the recent and rather tame Mirror Mirror starring Julia Roberts.
Thankfully, the fairytale’s latest film adaptation by first time director, Rupert Sanders, puts the bite back into Snow White. Snow White and the Huntsman, starring Kristen Stewart as Snow White, Charlize Theron as the evil queen, and Chris Hemsworth as the huntsman, is a modern remake that gives the story its teeth back.
The adaption adheres to the Grimm version, but also takes from the Disney film, employing the queen’s desire for Snow White’s heart, quite literally. In the Grimm fairytale the focus is on physical beauty, but Disney concentrated more on Snow White’s “pure heart”, capitalizing on the fact that beauty is beyond skin deep: a more empowering message for a young audience.
Snow White and the Huntsman takes the empowering idea a step further and makes Kristen Stewart a heroine who saves herself, in full armor no less. She’s no housewife to the Seven Dwarves as she was in the Grimm and Disney version, and the feminist angle doesn’t stop there. It goes even further to depict the evil queen (named Revenna in the film) as a rabid man hater.
Revenna’s hatred does not stop at men, however. With the help of her creepy brother Finn (played by Sam Spruell), she regularly takes young girls as prisoners and literally sucks out their youth to make herself stronger and more beauty (as her power is found in her beauty). The plot point is reminiscent of the story of Elizabeth Bathory, the 16th century Hungarian countess who brutally murdered hundreds of young women because she believed that drinking their blood would preserve her youth and beauty.
Charlize Theron is perfect for the role of Revenna. Venom seeps through the talented actress’s eyes and her face twists with each emotion; She can make herself appear both evil and vulnerable (and beautiful) simultaneously.
Kristen Stewart, on the other hand, tends to wear three different facial expressions as Snow White: bored, sad, and even more bored. Despite her frozen face, there are moments whe she manages to squeeze some emotion out of her otherwise expressionless face. She has little dialogue, but when she does speak, she’s surprisingly good at aping a British accent.
In a plot twist, Snow White doesn’t fall for the bland prince played by Sam Claflin, but rather for the hunky, axe-wielding huntsman played by Hemsworth instead. At the end of the film when she needs to rally her troupes — including the hunky huntsman — against Revenna, Stewart pulls through, looking like Joan of Arc on her horse, and suddenly, Snow White is badass.
The film’s special effects were its strongest component (along with Theron, who steals the show). Coupled with the exquisite cinematography, the look is dark, mythic, and genuinely dreamlike. Two examples involve the “dark forest“ and a good forest that lies beyond the kingdom. The dark forest is a creepy place with black withered trees, a terrifying “troll“ that looks like a cross between a T-Rex and Ridley Scott’s Alien, and lots of crows. The good forest is equally mesmerizing: a place where flowers made of butterflies alight into the glittery air and fairies, which could have gone terribly wrong CGI-wise, instead look authentically alive. There’s even a majestic white horse with a crown of branch-like antlers that bows before Snow White while standing on water.
To make it all the more splendid, the film was shot in the highlands of Scotland, England, and Wales, hence several scenes of green rock-studded fields and snowy cliffs crowned in fog.
Sanders’s controversial choice to use regular-sized actors to play the dwarves instead of little people worked well. The dwarves, played by a talent host of British actors including Toby Jones, Nick Frost, Brendan Gleeson, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Ian McShane and Eddie Marsan, are charming and a very bright spot in an otherwise glum but entertaining film.
They’re not the sweet dwarves of the Grimm tale or Disney movie, however. In fact, they’re gruff and dirty, and after beating the daylights out of the huntsman and stringing him and Snow White up by their ankles, they settle down to become the most likeable characters in the film. It’s too bad they get so little screen time; They don’t even show up until the second half of the film.
The film ends differently than the Grimm tale, leaving Revenna to die, not by dancing to death in hot iron shoes, but in another dramatic fashion, which employs flying arrows and fire. Snow White’s fate is a little more ambiguous. She comes to reign over her father’s kingdom and connects with the huntsman without a glitzy wedding or showy lip lock. It’s refreshing to see a film that doesn’t have a happily-ever-after fairytale ending tacked onto it, which is in good keeping with the dark spirit of Brothers Grimm.
While taking some liberties with the Grimm tale, Snow White and the Huntsman is a visually outstanding and entertaining production. After some bland remakes of this classic fairytale, it’s nice to see the poison put back into Snow White’s apple.