The action-packed Snow White and the Huntsman is less a subversion of an old story than a return to one.
"I guess you think you know this story.
You don't. The real one's much more gory.
The phoney one, the one you know
Was cooked up years and years ago,
And made to sound all soft and sappy
Just to keep the children happy."
–"Cinderella," by Roald Dahl
In the first minute of the trailer for Snow White & the Huntsman, Charlize Theron's evil queen Ravenna strips naked, sucks the "youth" out of a teenage girl, and plots to rip Snow White's heart from her chest. Given that most people think of Snow White as an innocent girl twirling through a forest, singing about the someday when her prince will come, this is less a trailer and more a statement of purpose: This story isn't for children anymore.
Snow White & The Huntsman is, yes, another fairy-tale film adaptation aimed at adults, coming on the heels of this year's Mirror, Mirror, last year's Red Riding Hood, and dozens of other works in the past decade. They're the latest in the long but accelerating trend that's undoing Disney's 20th century work of transform horrifying folk stories into genial animated musicals. While such retellings may seem subversive, they're actually throwbacks, marking a return to what these tales originally were—before, even, the Brothers Grimm got their hands on them.
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The contemporary idea of the fairy tale can be traced to 1812, when Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm published a collection of folk stories called Children's and Household Tales—now much more commonly known as Grimm's Fairy Tales. From "Rapunzel" to "Hansel and Gretel," from "Cinderella" to "Sleeping Beauty," and all the way up to "Little Snow White." By contemporary standards, the Grimms' original stories are packed with violence and sex: "The Juniper Tree" features a stepmother killing her stepson and serving him to his father in a stew, and "Darling Roland" features a mother-to-daughter axe murder, to name two of many examples. (No word on a Disney adaptation of those two stories yet.)
But despite the often-disturbing content of the stories, the Grimms' primary contribution to fairy tales was making them tamer. As author and scholar Maria Tartar notes in her seminal book, The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales:
Wilhelm Grimm rewrote the tales so extensively and went so far in the direction of eliminating off-color episodes that he can be credited with sanitizing folktales and thereby paving the way for the process that made them acceptable children's literature in all cultures.
If the Grimm brothers can be credited with the beginning of fairy-tale sanitation, there's another man who gets credit for carrying their standard into the 20th century: Walt Disney. When Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—the first feature-length cartoon by the company, and the 10th highest-grossing film of all time, when adjusted for inflation—it began a genre that would keep the company afloat for decades (and of course, it doesn't hurt that the vast majority of fairy-tale characters are in the public domain, making them free for anyone to use—that's how we can get two "Snow White" movies and one "Snow White" TV series within the same year). But it also set the template for the contemporary concept of the fairy tale: a whimsical, animated story appropriate enough for the entire family. In the years that followed, the company released its sanitized animated versions of Grimm stories like "Cinderella" and "Sleeping Beauty"—and its take on more recent stories like Alice in Wonderland—to significant critical and commercial success. (There's a reason, after all, that the colloquial term for sanitization is "Disneyfication.")
Despite the often-disturbing content of the stories, the Grimms' primary contribution to fairy tales was making them tamer.
Nothing breeds parody like success, and it didn't take long for self-aware riffs on Disney's earnest fairy-tale adaptations to emerge (see Rocky & Bullwinkle's "Fractured Fairy Tales" shorts for a brilliant example, and Warner Brothers' "Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs" for a particularly awful one). But while the older, un-Disney fairy-tale parodies were intended for children, the newer versions that have come to prominence in recent years are meant for adults.