Friday, June 07, 2019

The Fairy Tale Project | The Grimm Brothers' Snow White, or Snow White: A Tale of Terror (1997)

Who's in it?: Sigourney Weaver (Alien, Ghostbusters, Galaxy Quest, The Village), Sam Neill (Jurassic Park, Crusoe, Hunt for the Wilderpeople), and Monica Keena (While You Were Sleeping).

What's it about?: A widowed nobleman (Neill) marries an insecure woman (Weaver) with dark powers, but his daughter (Keena) is less than welcoming to her new stepmother, instigating a series of horrifying tragedies and betrayals.

How is it?: I'm not clear on which name came first, but the print I watched has The Grimm Brothers' Snow White in the titles and that's also the name on what appears to be the original poster (above). Every place else though, it's called Snow White: A Tale of Terror. But even though IMDb lists that as the "original title," it feels like a post-release marketing move; letting home video audiences know that this is a dark, horrific version of the classic fairy tale. Whichever was first, I like the version with the Grimms' name, because Michael Cohn's film is clearly working from their version as his inspiration.

Like in the Grimms' story, Weaver's character is the protagonist, at least at first. She's not a queen, nor are Neill and Keena a king or princess. This is a grounded version of the story that keeps the fantastical elements to a minimum. Snow White is never called Snow White, she's just Lilli Hoffman. Her father is Frederick Hoffman and her stepmother is named Claudia. The Hoffmans are wealthy, live in a castle, and are clearly influential in their area, but they aren't royalty. And though Claudia is a witch with a mirror, her powers have more to do with potions and sympathetic magic than actual sorcery. Her mirror's power is ultimately undefined, but the film leaves open multiple interpretations about it. I like to think that it's all in Claudia's head, but that's a tough reading considering that the mirror does affect another person at one point.

Claudia clearly enters her new marriage with good intentions, but when she's rejected by young Lili (played by a 12-year-old actor named Taryn Davis in those scenes) and Frederick continues to dote on his daughter and talk about how much she reminds him of his deceased wife, Claudia's low self-esteem becomes unmanageable and she starts plotting ways to increase her security in her new home. This is very much in line with the motivations suggested in the Grimms' story and it's impossible not to feel sorry for Claudia until she takes things too far.

There's no huntsman in this version. Instead, Claudia has a brother whom she orders to murder Lili. And when Lili escapes, she discovers a secret hideout in the forest belonging not to dwarfs, but to a group of bandits, many of whom have been unjustly outlawed and outcast for various reasons. Some of them have deformities, which causes Lily to question the value of physical beauty.

And that's the real message of the film. Lili has grown up hearing that she's beautiful, including the story about how her mom wished for her after seeing red blood on the white snow through a black window frame. The story of the wish is straight from the Grimms, but in the film it's a childish tale meant to make Lili feel loved and connected to her mother. Add that to a thousand other attentions and Lili becomes a bit spoiled and focused on physical attractiveness. Which then combats explosively with Claudia's hangups about beauty. By the end of the film, Lili has taken over as protagonist, because she's the one who learns something from these experiences.

This is never going to be a definitive version for me, because of all the deconstruction it does to the fairy tale, but it's a fascinating and powerful take.

Rating: Four out of five Sandra Bullock's sisters-in-law.

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