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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Watching Snow White by Storyteller Julie Della Torre

There was no escaping Snow White in early 2012. At least two feature films were made of her, and made with big box office stars. So I took my adult daughter to Snow White and the Huntsman, and then borrowed a number of Snow White films from the library and sat down to watch.
Since  reading an article “Creating Variants With Illustrations” by Patricia Cianciolo (Blatt: Once Upon a Folktale), I’ve been studying picture book versions of stories I tell and noticing how the stories are informed by choices the illustrators make.  Different scene choices, styles, and character illustrations make their own variants of the story. As a storyteller, I have also been working with the Snow White story and its many print variants. I decided to explore this same concept of variants through film by watching films with an eye to specific choices made by script writers and directors. Here are some discoveries I made. Please note that my discussion of the movies will not be focused on the actors’ performances, the quality of the film or the director. I will not recommend, nor will I dismiss the films. These notes are not film reviews.

What I watched (Though I watched many more films, these are the ones I would like to discuss)

·         Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) with Charlize Theron as the Queen and Kristen Stewart as Snow White

·         Mirror, Mirror (2012) with Julia Roberts as the Queen and  Lily Collins as Snow White

·         Willa: An American Snow White (a Tom Davenport film  1998) with Caitlin O’Connell  as the Stepmother and Becky Stark as  Willa (Snow White)

·         Snow White episode in Fairie Tale Theater (Shelly Duvall 1984  ) with Vanessa Redgrave as the Queen and Elizabeth McGovern as Snow White

·         Snow White, Fairest of Them All (made for TV 2001) with Miranda Richardson as the Queen and Kristen Kruek as Snow White

What makes Snow White Snow White? What needs to be included so that we know the tale is a Snow White tale?
·         an evil, beautiful stepmother
·          enchanted woods
·          a particular season
·          dwarves
·          a mirror
·          a huntsman
·          a prince
·          magic killing objects
·         coffin, sleep
·          and of course, Snow White

I’ll concentrate on only a few of these.

Snow White is a tale of winter and return of spring. Willa is set in the southern part of the United States. No winter here, but all the other films have scenes of cold winter, ice and frozen lands. Sometimes winter is just mentioned at the beginning… three drops of blood on the snow. Sometimes just including an animal associated with winter is enough. Interesting in Fairest of Them All that the film starts with apple blossoms falling like snow. Father wishes for a daughter with skin as white as snow, etc. There is snow throughout this movie. The enchanted forest in Mirror, Mirror is blanketed with snow.

Going over and into the enchanted woods is a part of all of the movies. The woods Barker goes through in Willa are realistic, but scary woods. The time she spends with the ‘dwarves’ is on the road in a traveling medicine show. Duvall’s woods are supposed to be just realistic woods. The others are truly magical. We know we are in an enchanted place. In Huntsman and Fairest we are transported to these woods with sweeping aerial views.

Be she Queen or not, all the stories have a beautiful, evil stepmother. It’s a wonder that the title is Snow White since the strongest character is really that evil Queen. What’s motivating this stepmother? Choices made by scriptwriter and director give different impressions. In Huntsman and Fairest of them All, the Queen is surely beautiful, but more than vain, she is power hungry. Theron wants to rule the kingdom and live forever. She doesn’t just need to see Snow White dead; she needs to eat the girl’s heart. Richardson does eat the girl’s heart… or so she is led to believe. The message here is beauty equals power. Julia Roberts also wants to rule the kingdom, but more than craving power, this Queen is vain and terrified of aging. She can’t bear to see the daughter, young and beautiful. Redgrave is only concerned with beauty and age. O’Connell (an aging actress, not a Queen) is obsessed with aging and a fading theatrical career soon to be usurped by her beautiful stepdaughter.

Watching these women lose control and come unraveled was quite intriguing. Redgrave does it just with her hair. The more her hair is out of control, the more crazed she becomes twirling madly to her death at the end.  Only in Willa does the Evil Stepmother meet her demise by fire.
Some of the films bring in mythological allusions. In Mirror, Mirror and Fairest of Them All, there are explicit references to the moon goddesses through use of jewelry and moons. And peacock feathers can be found in Disney’s queen and on Julia Roberts. Is that mythological?

The mirrors were the most fun to study-- some fantastic mirrors and what a different message the physical properties of the mirror send. First of all, who or what does the stepmother see when she looks into it? Who or what responds? Do the mirrors have any other magical powers? In Huntsman and Duval’s Snow White the face/voice of the mirror is a man. In Duval’s the mirror is Vincent Price and is the narrator of the story, holding conversations with the Queen: a mirror with attitude. In Willa, the mirror is a vanity table mirror that reflects the stepmother’s last performance of Romeo and Juliet with all of the ovations she received clearly audible. Apparently, all mirrors are dangerous to her for all are covered throughout the house or locked up in drawers. In Mirror, Mirror, Julia Roberts walks into the mirror (like Alice?) and sees her beautiful self-reflected. She also holds conversations with the mirror (herself): another mirror with attitude.

I thought the Huntsman mirror was the most arresting. (you can see it here YouTube) Then I saw the mirror in Fairest of them All. The concept for this mirror outdid the rest. It’s a bit complicated. The Queen is ugly at the beginning of the movie. She is given an evil mirror which she breaks because she is afraid to see her reflection. A piece of it flies into the eye of the King. (Anderson’s Snow Queen?) He sees her as beautiful and he is now in her power.  But one bigger piece remains and it is placed on a special stand in a special room. This room is a dressing room and the mirror is a dressing room mirror, the kind where you see your full self-reflected on and on and on. I had done some study on labyrinths and one labyrinth is just such a mirror. You can lose yourself in a mirror like this. Very fitting. Richardson sees her whole self-reflected until Snow White becomes more beautiful and from then on Snow White reaches out from every mirror and answers “Who is the fairest of them all?” with “I am, I am, I am…” The remaining piece of mirror has other powers as well. It can show the Queen exactly where Snow White is. (I remember this quality in some other films as well) It can transport the Queen when she steps into it. It can transform the Queen once, to look like Snow White’s mother.  It is the weapon used to kill the huntsman. Quite a powerful mirror indeed.

Some other things I noticed and found intriguing
The sashes in Duvall’s piece and in Fairest of Them All were worth noting. Vanessa Redgrave’s beribboned crone twirls around making those beautiful ribbons impossible to resist. And the magical sash in Fairest quickly turns from a pretty, tied bow to a suffocating knot.

Puppets played prominently in Mirror, Mirror and in Willa.  Both movies start with puppets. The beginning of the tale is told through puppets in Mirror, Mirror. Later Julia Roberts is able to destroy the dwarves’ house by manipulating puppets. Willa opens with Willa (Snow White) playing out a fairy tale with her little puppet theatre. Learning of her stepdaughter’s interest in theatre, the stepmother is enraged when she finds this puppet theatre.  The whole of Willa is about acting and theatre.

I was fascinated to find a Betty Boop cartoon (1933) of Snow White on YouTube. It is of its time, but it does include many of the attributes of Snow White discussed above. Watch and notice the Evil Queen, the mirror, snow, the huntsman (prince?) the ice casket and the demise of the queen.  (Betty Boop 1933 Cab Calloway "Snow-White" on YouTube - Betty Boop)
Julie has been telling traditional and literary fairytales to audiences of all ages since 1985. Her nine years of elementary school teaching and her study of child development and curriculum have made Julie finely attuned to stories that are age appropriate. Julie says, “My background in education helps me to choose stories that are appropriate to students’ developmental levels. The myths and folktales which I tell are filled with ethical dilemmas which provide a catalyst for deep discussion and reflection. For this reason I prefer classroom telling.”