Different Shades of Snow White

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The Brothers Grimm (1857)

Snow White in her coffin by Theodor Hosemann (1852).

The original version of the Snow White story is, as with all Grimm fairy tales, quite dark: Snow White, forced to flee an assassin sent by the Queen in order to rid the world of the girl's superior beauty, takes refuge in the home of some dwarfs who extract an agreement from her to do all their household chores in exchange for room and board. The Queen tracks her down, giving her a poisoned apple, and she appears to die and is arranged in a glass coffin by the grieving dwarfs.

But the Queen's handsome son sees her supposed corpse becomes enraptured by her beauty, and asks for the body to take home and moon over; as he takes possession the apple is knocked out of her throat and she wakes. They marry, and the Queen, appalled at this turn of events, is further humiliated by being given a pair of red-hot iron shoes that she's required to dance in until she dies. They just don't throw wedding receptions like that any more.

What were the subtexts of this venerable tale? One of the implications of the original story is the contrast between the active woman and the passive, which equates with impure and pure womanhood: in this way the Queen and Snow White might be equally beautiful, but what creates a difference is the gap between their levels of purity. This is emphasized by Snow White living platonically with seven men (despite their being symbolically emasculated by their stature). The Queen's actions are active and Snow White's are reactive, until she is finally brought to life in her ideal role as wife and future mother.

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'Snow White' (1916)

'Snow White' (1916). Famous Players/Lasky

A silent film was produced by Adolph Zukor and Daniel Frohman, adapted to the screen by Jessie Braham White from his play Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The film starred Marguerite Clark reprising her stage role as Snow White, Creighton Hale as Prince Florimond, and Dorothy Cumming as Queen Brangomar. The director was J. Searle Dawley.

The play itself ran from 1912 to 1913 on Broadway for 72 performances, reportedly to good reviews.

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'Snow White' (1933)

Betty Boop in 'Snow White' (1933).
Betty Boop in 'Snow White' (1933). Fleischer Studios

Max Fleischer's studio produced an animated short version of Snow White featuring Betty Boop, who is of course the fairest in the land. The cartoon has a lot of fun features, including the resemblance of the Magic Mirror to Cab Calloway and the presence of animation icon Koko the clown. The film was developed over six months by Roland Crandall as his masterpiece at the studio.

It makes perfect sense, in a way, to cast Betty Boop as Snow White -- but it's also subversive. Betty is not just a great beauty, she also possesses provocative sexuality -- an attribute that undermines the purity and passivity of the original character.

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'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' (1937)

'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' (1937). Walt Disney Pictures

The famous Disney feature film, named in 2008 as AFI's greatest animated film of all time, embroiders the Snow White tale as a musical comedy, giving all the dwarfs exaggerated attributes to make them funny to young audiences even as the plot itself was kept more or less serious. But Disney and his respective teams of writers and directors hewed closely to the core idea of the story -- that the ideal beauty remains pure and passive, and that this brings her substantial rewards: the cheerful help of woodland creatures, the agreeability and protection of the dwarfs, and finally a handsome and devoted suitor.

In order to evoke the idea of love as a reward for purity, the mechanism by which Snow White is revived from her seeming death is changed: instead of the dwarfs' dislodging the poisoned apple as they stumble through the forest carrying her supposedly dead body, here the prince, again enraptured by her beauty even in "death," kisses her -- "love's first kiss" having been previously established as the only cure for the eternal slumber conveyed by the poisoned apple. The kiss, borrowed from the fairy tale for Sleeping Beauty, shifts the climax of the story away from the contest between Snow White and the Queen (who still dies a gruesome death, here crushed by a boulder after falling from a clifftop) to the new life Snow White is entering with the prince.

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'Snow White and the Three Stooges' (1961)

'Snow White and the Three Stooges' (1961)
'Snow White and the Three Stooges' (1961). Twentieth Century Fox

Snow White and the Three Stooges was the Stooges' parody of the Disney film, taken as a likely property for their 1960s comeback. It starred Moe Howard, Larry Fine, Joe "Curly-Joe" DeRita, and Olympic figure skater Carol Heiss as an ice-skating Snow White. The marketing emphasized Heiss's presence, showing her in figure skating poses, and the failure of the film itself was subsequently blamed on the Stooges themselves seemingly being pushed to the background and the slapstick minimized.

In a way this echoes the production of the Disney film -- originally it had been planned as more of comedy focusing on the dwarfs (thus their inclusion in the title), but Disney decided that the film would only work if is centered on the relationship between the two women. What worked for Disney flopped for the Stooges. Or maybe it was just too weird at first seeing the Stooges in Technicolor, as if color film added too much dimension to the trio's elemental slapstick.

The idea that the Stooges might be house-sitting for a houseful of dwarfs, leading to their encountering Snow White instead of their diminutive friends, is funny, but the film was a hiccup in their 1960s resurgence, and its heroine too lightweight to add much to the legacy of the Snow White character.

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'Faerie Tale Theatre' (1984)

"Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"
"Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", an episode of Faerie Tale Theatre starring Elizabeth McGovern and Vanessa Redgrave. Showtime

One of the virtues of television productions of old stories like Snow White is that they sometimes are able to briefly assemble a remarkable accidental cast. In 1984 Shelley Duvall had a children's television show on Showtime called Faerie Tale Theatre, involving live-action versions of various fairy tales and legends.

In the third season, after tackling Frog Prince (with Teri Garr), Sleeping Beauty (with Christopher Reeve), and Hansel and Gretel (with Rick Schroder), they mounted an hour-long version of Snow White featuring Vanessa Redgrave as The Evil Queen, Elizabeth McGovern as Snow White, Rex Smith as the prince, and Vincent Price as The Magic Mirror.

Elizabeth McGovern is an interesting choice for Snow White, coming across as beautiful but not seductive, yet without seeming unusually naive.

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'Snow White' (1987)

'Snow White' (1987)
'Snow White' (1987). Cannon Films

This version was ground out by Golan and Globus's Cannon Films as a part of their straight-to-video Cannon Movie Tales series, filmed on location in Israel and based on the Grimms' tales or stories of similar vintage, mixing name stars with an Israeli supporting cast. Nine such films were produced in the space of a single year, with two films often being shot at the same time to save money.

For Snow White, which was the second in the series after the theatrically released flop Rumpelstiltskin (1987) and which shared its crew with the next film in the line-up, Beauty and the Beast starring John Savage and Rebecca de Mornay, otherwise-undistinguished writer-director Michael Berz cast British actress Sarah Patterson as Snow White -- but the real draw, as with the Faerie Tale Theatre version, was the wicked queen, here played by Diana Rigg. Billy Barty, as Iddy, heads the cast of dwarfs.

With all that going for it, it turns out that Snow White may have been the best of the lot. One reviewer, having found the other eight films "cheap and grotty," was surprised by Snow White: it's not only competent but even, in places, imaginative (the Queen finds her end when she becomes a mirror and shatters -- which is awesome).

Where does it stand in the legacy of Snow White? The slapstick dwarfs aside, it follows the original Grimm version closely, including the revival by means of dislodging the poisoned apple when her coffin is jostled, but plays up the natural/magical aspect of Snow White's purity, complete with woodland creatures, as in the Disney film.

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'Snow White: A Tale of Terror' (1997)

'Snow White: A Tale of Terror' (1997)
'Snow White: A Tale of Terror' (1997). PolyGram Filmed Entertainment

Who can resist a title like that? It must have seemed to many like a deviation, in much the same way as familiar films recast as porn titles, despite the fact that fairy stories before Disney often contained as much of what we now call horror as they did romance and happy endings. It was released theatrically in Europe but aired in the United States as a TV movie.

This 1997 entry, directed by Michael Cohn, starred stars Sigourney Weaver, Sam Neill, and Monica Keena in a significant twist on the Snow White theme, departing both from Grimm and Disney. In particular, the girl's difficulties are more closely connected to social conflicts in their grubbily medieval setting, and the dwarfs, now miners, are, for perhaps the first time, explicitly sexualized (their leader is played by handsome Ally McBeal star Gil Bellows).

Unfortunately, in order to establish credibility as a horror film Snow White: A Tale of Terror descends into hapless gore. In the midst of the mayhem the central, indeed title, role of Snow White vanishes into nothing: Monica Keena's Snow White is not only passive but empty, and her virtue gains little in the way of magical reward. As you might expect, Sigourney Weaver, in yet another Snow-White-eclipsing star turn for the Queen, is the only one to emerge unscathed.

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'Snow White: The Fairest of Them All' (2001)

'Snow White: The Fairest of Them All' (2001)
'Snow White: The Fairest of Them All' (2001). Hallmark Entertainment

Like the 1997 horror film, the TV movie Snow White: The Fairest of Them All, starring Miranda Richardson and future Smallville star Kristin Kreuk, expanded considerably on the original story -- this time in the direction of the fantastic, complete with a gallery of demons and vicious magic spells.

Perhaps most remarkably, this German-American version, produced for Hallmark Entertainment, gives Snow White a magical origin story that separates her from ordinary women: she was born from a drop of blood in a flurry of apple blossoms (an element hinted at the Grimm story but otherwise downplayed). This may seem like a natural progression from the empathy with nature exhibited in earlier productions, but it also effectively nullifies the story's central theme of beauty deriving from purity and resulting in reward, by making her beauty supernatural instead. Also present are a such figures as a Granter of Wishes, an interval in which the Prince is turned into a bear, and so on.

There are a number of dark edges -- Caroline Thompson's breakthrough script was Edward Scissorhands -- most strikingly the queen keeping control of Snow White's father with a piece of enchanted glass embedded in his eye (causing him to fail to see her unworthiness). The connection between magic and nature (and therefore virtue), while present, is downed in a glut of supernatural encounters and situations.

Thompson spins a great yarn (her other films include The Secret Garden, 1993 and City of Ember, 2008), though as in previous versions she falls into the trap of making her dwarfs, here named after days of the week, too burlesque. The Snow White genre has now become well-established as a vehicle for older stars to put on a grand performance as the queen, and Miranda Richardson does not disappoint; in the previous film Snow White had nothing to do but look scared, and here, she is required to manage merely demureness.

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'Once Upon a Time' (2011)

'Once Upon a Time' (2011)
'Once Upon a Time' (2011). ABC

With this series, ABC changes the dynamic by bringing Snow White and the Queen into weekly conflict, in a modern context mixed with fairy tales. But the Snow White/Queen dynamic is part of the background for Emma, a very modern woman (she's a bail bonds collector -- can't get more non-fairy-tale than that) who's called to Storybrooke by her son Henry, whom she'd given up for adoption, because Henry has discovered Emma holds the key to saving both the enchanted world and its real counterpart.

In this scenario, the fairy tale figures also exist in the real world: Snow White's alter ego is, jarringly, Sister Mary Margaret Blanchard, introducing blatantly religious ideas of virtue into a story tradition that had had its roots in much more pagan ideas of natural magic (and social ideas of female subordination). As played by Ginnifer Goodwin, she's older and wiser than past Snow Whites, and seems designed to evoke the vague idea of "goodness" and decency without being trapped by old ideas of purity.

Her Snow White exhibits determination and resolve in a way that might seem an innovation for a character whose main hallmark since her emergence in 19th century storybooks has been passivity. In 2011 it's no longer acceptable for a leading lady to be passive. With that set aside, the Once Upon a Time Snow White is freed to confront the other still-timely threat lurking at the heart of the story -- that Snow White, the fairest of them all, is vulnerable to the same perspective-warping vanity that consumed the evil Queen.

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'Snow White' (2012)

Lily Collins stars in Relativity Media's Untitled Snow White Project. Jan Thijs/Relativity Media

A new live-action adaptation of the tale is being produced by Relativity Media, designed to recreate the story in unexpected ways. Says the press release: "Visionary director Tarsem Singh (Immortals) rewrites fairy tale history as a wicked enchantress (Julia Roberts) schemes and scrambles for control of the throne of a spirited orphan (Lily Collins) and the attention of a charming prince (Armie Hammer). When Snow White's beauty wins the heart of the prince that the Queen desperately pursues, the Queen banishes her to the forest, where a ravening man-eating beast hungrily awaits."

This description catalogs a mass upsetting of longstanding elements of the Snow White story. Start with the end: demonizing the forest, making it the home of a terrible beast (representative of the story's first threat, the huntsman assassin?), threatening to sever the ties between the raw and magical purity of nature and Snow White's own purity. Of particular interest is the enchantress's rivalry with Snow White over beauty being specifically contextualized in a competition for the Prince's amorous attentions. In past versions the Queen's beauty-damaging flaw has been ambition and vanity, but always asexual: she was a harridan, not a cougar. Still, the subtext of female rivals for beauty is always the appreciation of that beauty by men, so this is not as much a departure as a desubtextification.

Also interesting: the story seems to find Snow White already in possession of the throne, rather than fated to receive it as a reward for her virtue. In some versions Snow White is already a princess, her father being the king and the evil witch her step-mother; but still it seems odd that Snow White should already be in a socially elevated state, making her a peer in power with the Queen figure (whose power is dark magic).

Either way, this classic story of beauty and purity means different things to us than it did to the audiences of mid-19th-century Europe; the question remains whether its poles can be shifted into better alignment with ours without unmooring it entirely, making it just the story of two pretty girls, one of whom is jealous of the other. Because we've got plenty of those already.