When Walt Disney passed away in 1966, he left behind a healthy stash of feature film ideas that never quite got off the ground. Animator and film director John Lasseter was given an unprecedented amount of access to this secret stash when he returned to the Disney Company in 2006. One of the ideas that Lasseter felt held promise for an animated feature film was an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen, a grim and meandering story that was drastically reworked into the Academy Award-winning movie Frozen. If any children or parents sought out The Snow Queen after watching Frozen, they discovered that some movies can be so far divorced from their source material that you wonder why anyone would bother uttering the words “based on” when describing the plot.
Renewed interest is still interest, however — an idea that British artist Sanna Annukka has seized upon by illustrating two new publications of the Andersen tales The Snow Queen and The Fir Tree. Annukka has a distinct style of matting and printing, one that has carried her reputation far and wide around the world. The simple shapes she weaves together to accompany these two stories is heavily reminiscent of her Finnish heritage. In both hardbacks, her miniature biography states that she “spent her childhood summers in Finland, and its landscape and folklore remain a source of inspiration.” Andersen may have lived and worked in Denmark, but Annukka understands that his tales cater to no particular nationality. The illustrations she conjures perfectly capture a combination of folkloric images and mythical mystery, the perfect reflection of these twisted tales.
Her layout and execution for The Snow Queen was probably the most challenging task of the two. Working off a recent translation by Jean Hersholt, Andersen’s jumpy narrative takes the story from one action to the next in a very short span of time. Between two pages of text, six or seven things can happen to the characters, forcing Annukka to choose which aspect of the story to portray on the corresponding page (a majority of the images fill up the odd-numbered 9″ by 4.5″ pages). The Snow Queen is also Andersen’s lengthiest fairy tale, another aspect that yet again forces Annukka to judge when to illustrate and when to let the text do the talking. The Fir Tree, on the other hand, is roughly half the length of The Snow Queen, and its singular storyline likely made Annukka’s job much easier. The two books could have easily been combined into one volume, but the colored cloth wrapped around the hardcovers is a nice touch. I don’t need to tell you which one is blue and which one is green.
The Fir Tree has a very straightforward message within its story: live in the moment. The story follows a solitary fir tree from its youth to its ashes. Along the way, the tree is always looking forward to the next phase of its life or is wishing to go back to a previous phase. When older trees are chopped down and hauled away, the younger fir tree longs for the same fate. When it is eventually chopped down for a family’s yuletide purposes, it misses the outdoors. When it’s taken to the family’s attic after Christmas, it misses being a beloved Christmas tree. After rotting for an extended period of time in the family’s attic, it’s dragged outside and burned. Hans Christian Andersen gets the point across as directly as he can without saying it outright.
The Snow Queen, on the other hand, is about as convoluted as a good-versus-evil fairy tale can get. The story is less about the title queen and her magical powers than it is a story about the friendship between two young children. Kay, the boy, and Gerda, the girl, live very close to one another and love to pay each other visits while admiring the roses. Things go bad for the happy playmates when a mirror shatters from the heavens. This mirror, constructed by the devil, has the ability to reflect back an ugly impression of whatever subject happens to be nearby. Certain pupils of the devil take to the skies with the mirror, determined to show God his own ugly reflection. When the mirror breaks, pieces are scattered everywhere, including in Kay’s eye. His mood sours and he loses all interest in being around Gerda. He is instead smitten by the mythical Snow Queen, a spirit that Gerda’s grandmother warned the young children all about. He grabs his favorite sled one day and is whisked away from the center of town by the mysterious Snow Queen.
From this point forward, The Snow Queen is about Gerda’s bizarre journey to get Kay back. In her travels, she comes across a lady with talking flowers, two married crows, a robber woman whose daughter wants to keep Gerda for a playmate, a reindeer held in captivity, and a prince and princess who supply Gerda with a coach. Rescuing Kay from the Snow Queen is remarkably easy. The danger of the Queen’s powers (killing people with three kisses) is never made out to be that important. Kay and Gerda return home to a happy grandmother who recites a passage from the book of Matthew, stressing the importance of remaining childlike so that one may enter the kingdom of God.
Sanna Annukka’s colorful prints provide warm company should you find yourself thrown off track by Andersen’s manic-depressive prose. The author and the visual artist may not share the same homeland, but there’s still a clear link between author and illustrator present within the pages. From another angle, their relationship could be more of a ying-yang variety than a complimentary one. The image of the Snow Queen that adorns the blue cover has a facial calm that belies the dark elements within, and I’m almost certain that Andersen would be delighted with such a skewed notion.