Mirror Mirror, the highly publicized film version of the Grimms’ famous fairy tale Snow White, finally stormed the theaters this past weekend. This is good news, for now the film’s bombastic trailers and the hubbub on blogs may subside somewhat so we can finally turn our attention to the actual significance of this new adaptation, which is not all that new. It is the culmination of hackneyed endeavors by diverse filmmakers to capture the essence of a remarkable fairy tale, and it probably will go down in history as one of the more feeble, slapstick renditions ever made, unless another forthcoming film, Snow White and the Huntsman, proves itself to be worse.
Ever since Walt Disney sanitized the Grimms’ tale in 1937 and sweetened it for family audiences, there have been more than 75 remakes to transform Snow White through their cartoons, TV shows, plays, ballets, and animated and live-action films.
The interpretations of the Grimms’ tale and the quality of the adaptations vary greatly, but none of the screenplay writers have ever done exhaustive research. Otherwise they would have discovered that in the manuscript of 1810 and first edition of the Grimms’ Children’s and Household Tales of 1812, it is Snow White’s mother, not a stepmother, who wants to murder her daughter, that the dwarfs regard the naive little girl as a domestic, and that the father saves his daughter and later marries her off to a prince. Moreover, the father arranges for his wife’s death.
Now, these familial tensions have, to my knowledge, never been reproduced on screen, for it is easier to blame a stereotypical jealous stepmother for wanting to cause disruption than it is to explore the intense combative relationship between mothers and daughters with the patriarchal father as referee. Even the sanctimonious Grimms, who revered their mother, thought it would be more appropriate to change their text and make the villain of the tale a stepmother in 1819. Since then, poor stepmothers have been vilified even when transformed into comic figures.
Mirror Mirror’s take on Snow White follows romantic-comic convention and the predictable Hollywood approach of the post-1945 period to the present: select a couple of celebrity stars to play the roles of Snow White and the queen; add a juicy prince as a delicious hero; make sure that the mirror is funny or looms as a sinister prophet; spice up some dwarfs who exhibit different traits for comic relief or cuteness; and finally, devise some twists and turns that lead to the demise of the wicked queen.
A quick glance at some of the late 20th-century Snow White adaptations reveal to what extent Mirror Mirror is mere coating of the cinematic Snow White tradition of romantic comedies. For instance, in 1961 Walter Lang directed Snow White and the Three Stooges, in which the Olympic gold-medal figure skater Carol Heiss stars as a helpless Snow White and must suffer the antics of the stooges before she is saved by a charming prince. In 1984 Peter Medak employed Shelly Duvall, Elizabeth McGovern, Vanessa Redgrave, and Vincent Price for a typical Fairie Tale Theatre production of melodramatic meaninglessness. As part of the Canon Movie series, Michael Berz’s musical, Snow White (1987), starring Diana Rigg and Sarah Paterson, is a pathetic, kitschy imitation of all the romantic versions of the Grimms’ tale, with terrible music to boot.
Even German filmmakers are prone to use kitsch to adapt Snow White. In 2004 and 2006, Sven Unterwaldt directed two live-action films, Seven Dwarfs—Men Alone in the Woods (2004), and the sequel, Seven Dwarfs—The Woods Are Not Enough (2006), which depict the absurd adventures of seven men named Brummboss, Sunny, Cloudy, Tschakko, Cookie, Bubi, and Speedy, all misfits who have all had mishaps with the female sex and want to escape women. But when Red Riding Hood and Snow White wander into their forest, they topple over one another to save the sexy girls from the evil queen. The jokes in this film are infantile and ludicrous, just as they are in the American computer-animated film, Happily N’Ever After 2: Snow White: Another Bite of the Apple (2009), a sequel to the banal Happily N’Ever After (2007). In this made-to-make-money sequel that tries so obviously to imitate the success of the Shrek films, Snow White is portrayed as a spoiled rich kid who prefers discos, clothes, and partying to the philanthropic work of her dead mother, Caroline. Viewers, however, need not worry, because she mends her ways in the end.
In Mirror Mirror, we have a different kind of poor rich kid. Snow White has lived in a cocoon most of her life and strains to get to know how the 99 percent of the bankrupt kingdom live while her preposterous stepmother, played by foppish Julia Roberts, decides to kill her. The didacticism and moral of this film are simplistically conveyed through the actions of a goody-goody princess, and its irony becomes boring. Apparently, Tarsem Singh, the director, sought to reproduce the humor of The Princess Bride, but the jokes are too cute and obvious, and the critique of greed in the film, which makes a false gesture to feminism, is contradictory. Are we to attribute the bankruptcy of a kingdom to a psychotic woman? Are we to think that the sword fighting of a prince and princess aided by seven motley dwarfs will eliminate evil for good? Should we believe that the restitution of a king is the answer to inequality and poverty?
Not only does Mirror Mirror deliver dumb messages in baroque settings, it is an insult to audiences of all ages, because it continues a tradition of dumbing down tales that deserve better treatment. Personally, I still prefer the Grimms’ tale with all its warts and wrinkles.