Snow White's Strange Cinematic History

By Scott Meslow

Mirror Mirror is the latest telling of a tale that's inspired the most influential animated film of all time, a deeply racist kids' show, and scores of other adaptations.

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From left: Snow White (1916), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (1943), Mirror Mirror (2012)

If an enterprising Hollywood executive asked a magic mirror which fairy tale made the fairest box office-gross of all, the answer would undoubtedly be "Snow White." Even for the fairy-tale film genre, the character's history is unusually rich and varied: IMDB currently lists 91 films and TV shows featuring a character named "Snow White," which is dozens more than other comparable fairy-tale heroines, including Belle of Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty of Sleeping Beauty. Hollywood has banked on Snow White's success for decades, and this year, two rival studios are independently banking on it again. Does Mirror Mirror, the new, Julia Roberts-starring adaptation of the Grimm brother's classic tale, have anything to add to a story that's been around for more than 200 years? To find out, we'll have to dig into the long, strange history of Snow White adaptations:

Snow White, like The Three Musketeers and Sherlock Holmes, has existed in cinema for almost as long as cinema has existed. The oldest film adaptation of the Grimm Brothers' fairy tale hit theaters in 1902. Though the Snow White story was retold by film directors three more times over the next 15 years, the most significant adaptation came in 1916. The Margeurite Clark-starring film was well received, but its true cinematic legacy came with the impact it had on a 15-year-old newsboy named Walt Disney.

With 'Seven Dwarfs,' Disney established the Platonic ideal of Snow White, and filmmakers have spent the past 75 years trying to escape its shadow.

It was more than 20 years before Disney would release his own cinematic version of Snow White, but it was 20 years worth waiting. Discussing Snow White's cinematic history without mentioning Disney's legendary 1937 animated adaptation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, would be like discussing the ocean without mentioning water. The very existence of the film was groundbreaking. As Disney's first feature-length animated film, it's the progenitor of a genre that kept Disney afloat, both critically and commercially, for decades. Upon its release, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was immediately deemed a masterpiece: Shirley Temple awarded Walt Disney a specially designed honorary Academy Award for the film: one regular-sized Oscar statuette—with seven additional miniature statuettes attached. The film's luster hasn't diminished with age. Due in part to the film's regular theatrical rereleases, which successfully drew audiences in 1944, 1952, 1958, 1967, 1975, 1983, 1987, and 1993, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is the 10th highest-grossing film of all time, when adjusted for inflation.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' place in film history is secure. But less remarked-upon—though no less relevant—s the impact that Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had on the story of Snow White itself. Though the personalities of Disney's seven dwarfs are widely known, the dwarfs in the Grimms's original story were a singular unit, without names or personalities. (It consequently took months for Disney animators to agree on the film's final seven: Rejected ideas included Blabby, Dirty, Jaunty, and Hoppy-Jumpy, among dozens of others.) And Disney's decision to throw out the Grimms's appropriately grim ending—which sentences the evil queen to dance in heated iron shoes until her death—has meant that ending is all but forgotten. With Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney established the Platonic ideal of Snow White, and fairy-tale filmmakers have spent the past 75 years trying to escape the Disney version's long shadow.

The results have often been ugly. There's a subtle racism at play in the Grimms's original story, which holds that "skin white as snow" is the highest form of beauty, but a parodic 1943 Merrie Melodies short, Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs is so hideously, unforgivably racist that it's hard to know where to begin. Coal Black recasts Snow White and Prince Charming with black protagonists named "So White" and "Prince Chawmin'" and feature an organization called Murder, Inc. that proudly advertises its services: "Midgets - half price. Japs - FREE." The N.A.A.C.P. mounted a then-unsuccessful campaign to get the cartoon banned prior to its original release, but history has born the organization's efforts out: Coal Black is one of the infamous "Censored Eleven" Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes banned for offensive racial content, and it hasn't seen an official home release since 1968.

Though the Snow White story has never had as offensive an adaptation as Coal Black, there are plenty that are just as offbeat. Snow White has met the Three Stooges and Nintendo's Mario. She's been reimagined as a Native American princess and a freshman in college. She's made appearances in the kiddiest of kid fare (including a Hallmark-produced TV movie in 2001) while also appearing in films as adult-oriented as Showtime's 1997 Snow White: A Tale of Terror, which features implied rape, miscarriage, and suicide.

And there's Mirror Mirror, which sits alongside ABC's popular TV drama Once Upon a Time and next June's Snow White and the Huntsman in a trio of high-profile Snow White releases. Like decades of Snow White adaptations before it, Mirror Mirror defines itself in opposition to Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Its trailer pointedly invites audiences to "experience the untold adventures of Snow White," as lead actress Lily Collins narrates,"I've read so many stories where the prince saves the princess. It's time to change that ending."

It remains to be seen whether Mirror Mirror will channel any of the same magic that made Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs such a classic (though its trailer attracted considerably negative buzz, early reviews have been positive). Its postmodern approach looks like a blend of Princess Bride-style wordplay/swordplay (good) and ­Shrek­­-style references to movies like Scarface (not so good). But however audiences respond to Mirrror Mirror, we can be sure "happily ever after" is only temporary. There's always another Snow White around the bend.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/03/snow-whites-strange-cinematic-history/255222/