Long live the medieval epic!
I had mixed feelings about Snow White and the Huntsman as I walked to the cinema last weekend. I love fairy tales (and I think I was one of the few people who actually liked Mirror Mirror, the other Snow White retelling that came out this year), but I was put off by several factors: Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, the emphasis on the darkness of the film, and the fact that the title appeared to set up a romantic pairing between Snow White and the Huntsman that seemed like it would take too many liberties with the traditional story. However, I was happily surprised. The film is now on my “to purchase” list. [I was also pleasantly surprised to see that Roger Ebert agreed with me.]
As for the factors that had me concerned about the film: Kristin Stewart and Charlize Theron were perfect for their roles, the film was actually a good mix of darkness and light with a healthy dose of humour, and there is no romance to speak of between Snow White and the Huntsman. Love, yes – romance, no. Why? Because, as I realised about a third of the way through, this film is in the style of a medieval epic – and not from the High Middle Ages, either, but from an era earlier than that. This is the type of story that I would expect to encounter in 1012. [I should explain that this era is one of Katy Konservativ’s favourites.]
Back in the day, which is to say, back in the day before artificial lighting, but particularly in the day before industrialization, work hours coincided with daylight. In the summer, people worked early the morning and well into the evening, with a long break during the hot midday; in the winter, the work day generally started late and ended early. As a result, there would be long periods of time when people had very little to do, or could do very little even if they had a long list of chores. Our ancestors, despite stereotypes to the contrary, liked entertainment as much as us, and storytelling was a highly-prized art form. Most could not afford to hire professional storytellers (or entertainers such as jesters) on a nightly basis, so the bulk of the population told stories to each other. Stories often had a seasonal nature – as Shakespeare put it: “a sad tale is best told in winter.” Thus, Rupert Sanders’s retelling of Snow White is one best told in February – dark, but with promise of renewal. Why it is being released in June is beyond me (perhaps that shows how disconnected our modern society is from nature?), but that fact detracts little from the film itself.
The viewer’s first clue that this is a medieval epic is that the director devotes valuable time to introducing the adult Snow White at Christian prayer. She recites the entire Lord’s Prayer in such ordinary fashion that one might forget that most of the viewers do not know it. Pagan and Christian imagery permeate the story throughout in a blend that reflect the dual nature of Western Europe (particularly the British Isles) in the Early Middle Ages. I could well imagine some viewers being confused as to why a world was being presented as “Christian” when it also had faerie magic as important as the Queen’s evil magic. Simply put, until recently, all “good magic” was considered to be angelic, while all “bad magic” was demonic, particularly in stories. Complaining about good fairies would be like complaining that Star Wars featured sound in space.
The second clue that this film is a medieval epic is that much of the story is historically accurate. Furthermore, the characters act as to their roles in medieval society. They are all also rather wooden, because they are clearly playing roles. Character development happens and the characters are identifiable, but they are difficult to connect with. Of course, this is mostly due to the nature of the epic, which would have the characters embark on many more adventures. I could imagine that I would identify a lot more with the characters and story if it were being told orally – a narrator would help decipher some of the actors’ expressions, or at least embellish them.
This brings me to the final point: a lack of romance. For all the title is worth, Snow White is a princess, while the Huntsman is most definitely not. He loves her as he should his Queen (as, with her father dead and her stepmother an usurper, she is), and she loves him as a protector and brother-figure. She also reminds him of his dead wife, so his love for his wife is manifested in his love for Snow White, but it is not the same. As I said, everyone acts according to the proper roles of the time. For the Huntsman, Snow White is no serious love interest, and he respects her too much for mere lusting and fantasizing, as some men might if they discovered they had a princess at their mercy. (He probably did that in his head earlier in the story, but as we lack a narrator, there is no way to tell.) There is also Duke William, the son of Snow White’s father’s most trusted courtier and her childhood friend, who is also presented as a valid love interest. SPOILER ALERT:
Neither character marries her or even appears to be in a romantic relationship with her by the end, although in the true style of an epic, that might make for a whole other story altogether.
A medieval princess would not marry a huntsman, even one who saved her life. This is not to say that he would not be honoured: if there is no sequel, I will comfortably fill in an ending where Snow White marries the Duke and gives the Huntsman nobility and the role of a trusted advisor and protector (with all the ale and women he could want – arguably a much better fantasy for the average medieval man). And thus, they all lived happily ever after!
I also recommend this film for its dazzling special effects and wonderful music, and for its musings about feminism and gender roles, but those are just added bonuses.