Editor's note: Aaron Sagers is a New York-based entertainment writer and nationally syndicated pop-culture columnist. He has specialty knowledge in "paranormal pop culture," has lectured at conventions nationwide on the topic and is a media pundit on supernatural entertainment. He covers pop culture daily at ParanormalPopCulture.com and can be found on Twitter @aaronsagers.
Wielding a sword and embarking on a quest to vanquish an evil queen does not a warrior princess make. What it does make, however, is about $56 million and a top spot at the box office.
Released last Friday, the movie “Snow White and the Huntsman” is an attempt to launch a female-driven fantasy franchise. Based on the money it is pulling in so far, that attempt will likely succeed, but the movie falls far short of being a story worthy of the genre. And for fantasy nerds who have come to expect more from female protagonists, this armor-plated princess flick will not be the one to rule them all.
Within the fantasy genre, the exploration of humanity – in both its selfless acts and depraved depths – is what makes these stories of myths and magic more than just swords-and-orcs tales. J.R.R. Tolkien, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Robert Jordan, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling and many other fantasy authors know this when they put their characters on a quest.
The quest is clear with “Snow White and the Huntsman.” Instead of an animated Disney film with a porcelain-skinned heroine, this outing stars Kristen Stewart (the “Twilight” films) as the eponymous heroine from the Grimm fairy tales. The movie tries to go in a, well, grim, direction by making Snow White a virginal, innocent hero who escapes the clutches of her sorceress stepmother (Charlize Theron) and then returns to take her out.
Joining her on the journey – because the queen has been sucking life and youth from their lands – is an assassin- cum-protector Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), seven bandit dwarves (including Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Ray Winstone and Nick Frost) and the fairy magic of the forests which has deemed Snow “The One.”
But trading in on a reinvigorated fascination with fairy tales, and the popularity of “Twilight” (Stewart as Snow sports her same Bella Swan grimace and is caught between two suitors), the film fails to develop a believable heroine on a mission. It opts instead for a character who rapidly transforms from a pouty ragamuffin captive to a pouty source of light magic, and leader of men.
After a decade of quietly serving as a prisoner in a tower and coming- of- age, Snow gives into a flash of violence before shifting back into a meek girl. But Stewart’s princess is not only the fairest of them all;, she also appears to be the most superficial. Like the pristine surface of freshly fallen snow, she lacks the emotional drive to make fantasy fans care about her character.
Where is the rage and bitterness over having her father’s kingdom usurped or her youth robbed? Is there no desire to spike the head of a creeper who attempts to molest her? Is she not slightly unhinged and imbalanced – and not just shy or socially awkward – after being left to rot in a cell?
With regards to Theron’s Queen Ravenna, there is also a lack of complexity. There are brief moments that reveal how the queen became obsessed with youth and power, but how did she become so blasted evil? As a woman subjected to the rule and abuse of men, would she not have some empathy for other females? After killing her king husband, slaughtering his men, subverting the kingdom’s subjects and blackening the land, what compels her to keep Snow White alive instead of murdering her (especially when it is assumed Snow is already dead)?
Instead of addressing these questions, the film relies on interesting visual effects of light and dark magic to obfuscate the superficiality of black-and-white characters.
There are plenty of powerful and well-developed female figures to cull from in the genre. In "The Dark Tower" series, King gave fantasy nerds the character of Susannah Dean, a wheelchair-bound, vengeful heroine who overcomes multiple personalities and serious anger management issues.
Rowling created a non-magical Muggle girl who entered a world of fantasy with a fresh eye in the "Harry Potter" books; Hermione was an outcast to some, and know-it-all to others, yet became one her world’s saviors through her wits – all while maturing into a young woman. In her "Avalon" series, Bradley has several women who fight to alter, preserve or simply survive a harsh Arthurian world. Morgaine is a priestess and a lover who views an oncoming religious shift with hesitation and, eventually, pragmatism. Gwenhwyfar is her polar opposite: a character of depression, self-loathing and fear. Tolkien also gave fantasy fans complex women when he wrote Eowyn and Arwen in the "Lord of the Rings" series.
And over on HBO, “Game of Thrones” – based on George R.R. Martin’s book series, “A Song of Fire and Ice” – just wrapped its second season where heroines and villainesses (of various shades and motivations) not only share the stage with men but often dominate it. Instead of simply being character templates, the women of “Game of Thrones” are, at turns, likable and loathsome. They feel real despite existing in a fantasy world.
In works of fantasy, a widowed dragon queen can be a fierce ruler while also acting like a petulant girl. A queen can be a sexually awake woman who loves her children, but also be a conniving schemer – who relies too heavily on a goblet full of wine. A little princess can be a fighter who craves retribution, while her sister can slowly mature beyond being an entitled brat. Prostitutes and wildlings can likewise be more than what their character types might otherwise dictate.
Fantasy nerds are used to expecting complicated female characters within the genre as much as they’re used to monsters and magic. But “Snow White and the Huntsman” misses the opportunity to join these ranks.
The film could be (and should have been) one that flipped the vulnerable princess fairy tale into a fantasy epic where a strong, believable female protagonist leads a quest against a strong, believable female antagonist. The result, however, is a movie that will not likely cast a spell against genre fans.