Given the impact Covid-19 is having on education, like a lot of schools we are offering transition or ‘Step Up’ courses for the GCSE and A Level years. In addition to the traditional academic subjects, we are running some short courses, and I have offered one entitled ‘The Rise and Rise of Fairy Tales: From Grimm to Disney’. Though I love fairy tales, I must confess to having avoided Disney for much of my life.
No longer though!
Yesterday I began by watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and comparing it to the Brothers Grimm tale. I could write several posts on each of them, but some of the adaptations made from the Grimm story to the Disney animation are particularly fascinating and worth exploring.
One of the most obvious differences is the lack of a king in the Disney film. The character of the king in the Grimm’s tale casts something of a shadow over the events as there is a supposed higher authority – one that, one hopes, would be more sympathetic to Snow White – that utterly fails to intervene. Not so in Disney. As far as we are aware, the Queen is the highest status character in their world, and her malicious and deceitful antics therefore understandably go unchallenged and unchecked. This will become more significant at the end of the tale with the arrival (or return in Disney) of the Prince.
The second significant difference is Disney’s Queen’s dressing of Snow White in rags. The Grimms’ tale goes straight to the mirror on the wall telling the Queen that Snow White is fairer than she, causing the narrative with the huntsman to be introduced. Disney instead show the Queen’s deliberate attempt to debase Snow White. Though a princess, she is made to dress in a way designed to detract from her beauty. What sort of person, the Queen seems to be saying, would recognise beauty like hers when clothed in rags?
The arrival of the Prince – another Disney addition – answers this. From the moment he arrives he recognises Snow White’s true beauty despite the rags. The Prince in Disney is immediately able to look beyond the superficial and see the true beauty of Snow White.
The danger posed by Snow White is answered in both by the Queen’s ordering a huntsman to take Snow White into the forest and kill her. He spares her, and his role as huntsman suggests he is used to killing prey for sustenance rather than malice, which is not what is intended by the Queen; thus he puts his true beliefs above his fealty. Subsequently, in both Disney and Grimm’s stories, Snow White flees the danger posed by the Queen’s envy and travels through a forest. Though much more sinister in Disney, they serve the same function in symbolising the chaos of Snow White’s world now that she understands the Queen’s true nature. In many respects it is the forest of uncertainly when faced with the reality of human nature from a position of naivety.
This reality is made far more brutal by the Brothers Grimm as the boar’s heart that is returned to the Queen in place of Snow White’s is consumed by her rather than treasured in a box as in Disney. If the Queen is envious of Snow White then it makes sense for her heart to be a symbol of her beauty and innocence. The symbolic consumption of this is therefore the Queen’s triumph over Snow White, and the huntsman’s role becomes even more significant. It also has a deeper significance though. Whether it is read as her attempt to ingest elements of Snow White’s character and therefore become more like that which she envied and destroyed; or whether it is the ultimate destruction of the purity that she despised; the idea of the older generation consuming the younger is certainly unnatural and speaks of the ill that lies at the heart of the Queen and her castle, hence her descent in the next stage of the film.
This evil is especially well represented in Disney. Rather than superficial disguises (as adopted in the Grimm tale) Disney’s Queen supernaturally transforms herself into a hideous hag – an external representation of her inner self. As such, the beauty of Snow White and the ugliness of the Queen juxtapose physically, and it is perhaps less unbelievable that Snow White would be gulled by her than by the repetitive and superficial disguises and language used by the Queen in the Grimm story.
There is also a fascinating yet subtle difference in Snow White’s relationship with the dwarfs and the way they are represented. In Grimm, Snow White enters the home of the dwarfs, finds it clean and tidy, and falls asleep. She is then told by the dwarfs that she can stay if she keeps house, cooking and cleaning, perhaps implying a sense of helplessness or vulnerability in Snow White of which the dwarfs take advantage. Not so in Disney. The dwarfs here are so focused on their mining of jewels that their house is unclean and untidy. Snow White, on entering the house, brings order and light to the home, and on the return of the dwarfs offers to cook and clean in exchange for refuge. Disney place her in a much more powerful position, enabling her to negotiate with the dwarfs. She is also a civilising presence on them, changing them from the children she initially mistakes them to be.
Finally we have the actual awakening of Snow White after her poisoning by the Queen. In Grimm, the Prince (thus far absent in the story) arrives, falls in love with Snow White’s beauty, offers to purchase the coffin – which is refused – and then requests it as a gift, which is permitted. The suggestion here is that love is not something that can be bought but something beyond money, though this is somewhat undermined by the Prince’s description of her as his ‘dearest possession.’1 On travelling back with the coffin, a bump in the road dislodges the apple from Snow White’s throat enabling her to breath and thus be revived. A such, it was the Queen’s lasting presence that needed to be overcome in order for Snow White to be reborn into a new life with the Prince, and the role of the Prince is comparatively irrelevant.
In Disney, however, Snow White is dead and it is the kiss of the returning Prince that awakens her. Far from being a symbol of her needing to be rescued by a male figure, this is more about the transformation in Snow White from the start of the tale. She has transitioned from a manipulated figure who is naïve and sheltered (named Snow White for her purity and innocence as well has her beauty), who experienced the deceitful nature of the world (as represented by the Queen), been poisoned because of her innocence and naivety (despite the warnings of the dwarfs) and is awoken by the primary symbol of maturity and adulthood: a kiss, representing love and the potential to create one’s own family. As such, the kiss symbolises the promise of a new life beyond that which she has known as a child, and this is why the castle at the end is in the clouds.
This is also why Snow White is a princess and her partner a Prince. Neither are what they can truly be until they are united and are able to confront the world of the future together. They are embodiments of potential that required each other – and the challenges that they have faced – to move forward into the world they will create without the Queen who has been brought low by her own vices.
1. The Brothers Grimm, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ in The Complete Illustrated Fairy Tales of The Brothers Grimm (Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 2007) p.270