The Entropy of Fairy Telling

Lightwing23 e-mailed me the other day, fresh from seeing the splendorous absurdity of Immortals, to inquire about my thoughts, which I provided. I’m sure my readers are shocked.

He also mentioned that he wanted to see more of Tarsem’s work, recalling the adulation I heaped on his previous film, The Fall, but that the trailer for Tarsem’s upcoming Mirror, Mirror dissuaded him. In his words: “There aren't enough bad things to say about that trailer… [It] looks like such crap that my colon actually responded, like ‘hey, speaking of that, I need to, you know, unload.’” Ouch.

He contrasted that with his reaction to the trailer for that other Snow White adaptation, the Kristen Stewart vehicle, Snow White and the Huntsman, which he also thought looked terrible but appreciated the possibility of seeing it as a crossover between Twilight and Marvel Comics’ Thor (Chris Hemsworth plays the role of the huntsman).

I think they look awful in complimentary ways, although I must admit to being far more ambivalent towards Snow White and the Huntsman and its awful following of a truly awful fad. The attempt to take old stories and rework them for contemporary cinema has taken a particular tack which can be summed up as such:

1) Insert large-scale battle scenes.
2) Incorporate sub-Tim Burton surreal imagery.
3) Make it grim/dark/grimdark.
4) ????
5) Profit!

This method can be seen in a number of recent films, but not so clearly as in Tim Burton’s own imagining of Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland. Burton’s inventiveness has declined over the years, to the point that his films now resemble bland computer driven theme-park rides. His Alice in Wonderland is a pastiche, yanking elements from both its literary namesake as well as Carol’s Through the Looking Glass and "Jabberwocky," with a dash of C. S. Lewis’ Narnia to embitter the pot.

We have the cowed Victorian stereotype Alice learning about herself and picking up a sword and armor to do battle with the Jabberwocky in a toothless cartoon world presented to the audience as a dangerous jungle of phantasms. It plays on current trends (action-gurl being the most obvious), as though the original source could benefit from a twenty-first century sensibility and still maintain its integrity. The film could not any more miss the point.

Snow White and the Huntsman looks to follow in its footsteps, albeit without the whimsy that made Burton’s film bearable. The trailer opens with ominous music and narration, the voice of the evil queen. The trailer treats us to images of such startling originality as creepy forests, milk baths, and clashing armies. And, most impressively of all, we see Kristen Stewart, the eponymous character, in a suit of armor wielding sword and shield, sans helm or helmet.

Wondering what possible service a tiny young woman like Kristen Stewart could serve in a massive melee is deafened by the consideration of what purpose massive battle set-pieces could serve in a film based on a fairy-tale like Snow White. It seems almost inspired by Catherine Hardwicke’s recent bomb, Red Riding Hood, another supposedly gritty reimagining of a fairy-tale in which everyone’s skin and hair looks nothing less than perfect, even when chased through the woods by a marauding were-creature.

Films like these are vapid entertainment, which fairy-tales, the most humble folk literature, were most certainly not. I recall a passage from Gene Wolfe’s Castleview:

"They kissed, and it was not (as Mercedes has always heard it was supposed to be) before she knew what was happening. She knew perfectly well what was happening -- that a whole world, new and strange, terrible yet wonderful, was unfolding for her. She understood, when their lips touched, exactly why Snow White and Sleeping Beauty has been awakened by a kiss, knew what those old grandmothers of eight hundred years ago had been trying to tell her, and knew that they had told her, their coded message coming clearly across the years, and that those dear old grandmothers--the bent crones at the firesides--had triumphed, their word not lost with the crackling of the sticks in their fires. That she and Seth or some other like Seth would someday ride on one white horse, laughing in the sunshine."

I’m also reminded that when Seth and Mercedes uncover a book and sword in the illusory castle of Morgana le Fey, Mercedes forgets the book, preferring the sword.

The ultimate purpose of fairy-tales is to transmit those truths about life which the young cannot know because they are young, to assure them of a magic that is not that of occultists or (as it must now be said) generic fantasy novels and video games. They tell children – and remind the teller – of true magic; they tell us that the entropic world in which we live, a world of the arbitrary cruelties of circumstance or fate, is not the whole of things.

What films like Snow White and the Huntsman do is ignore the book for the sword (I hope Mr. Wolfe would forgive me for appropriating his words). The finality of the tale might be similar, or even the same, but its audience leaves with quickly forgotten images of pandering simplicity: girls in armor, clashing armies, and eroticized evil.

If Snow White and the Huntsman looks likely to fail as a cinematic fairy-tale, Mirror, Mirror looks likely to fail as anything but an unwitting parody of Snow White and the Huntsman. While the former follows the trends of Burton and Hardwicke, the latter marches down the trail blazed by Shreck.

Shreck’s message – that you are fine no matter how grotesque, smelly, annoying, disgusting or objectionable you or your actions are – is an ugly reversal of the fairy-tale that compliments the grating insouciance to which most mid-tier children’s films of recent vintage aspire. Mirror, Mirror is similar in that respect. “Snow White?” one of the dwarves exclaims in the trailer, “Snow Way!”

The best I can say for Mirror, Mirror is that it might provide a little amusement, much as Shreck did, with knowing performances and pop culture references. Tarsem’s expert visual sense certainly could not hurt it. But for all of the minor amusements of the movie itself, probably the best thing about Mirror, Mirror is that it seems almost to have been an unwitting parody of Snow White and the Huntsman. At least it seems to realize that it is itself ridiculous, even if its writers mistakenly took their source material for being ridiculous too.


  1. I believe you forgot number 3.5 in your list of the contemporary cinema trend:

    "Steal underpants"

    Also, and I know this will just kill you, it's spelled "Shrek". The day in which I get to correct YOU is a rare on indeed. I will tell my children of this triumph someday.

  2. Just be happy I'm even publishing your comment.