Here’s a link to my blog post about the film.
And here’s some additional commentary on the Grimms’ version from my Annotated Brothers Grimm:
More than Beauty in “Beauty and the Beast,” Snow White has become the quintessentially fair–both beautiful and just–heroine of fairy tales. The innocent, persecuted heroine par excellence, she succeeds in living happily ever after despite the plots designed by her wicked stepmother. Named after only one of the three colors that characterize her beauty (“skin white as snow, lips red as blood, hair black as ebony”), she is often connected with the purity and innocence that our culture associates with the color white. But the term “snow” adds another dimension to her characterization, deepening the meaning of her innocence. Snow suggests cold and remoteness, along with the notion of the lifeless and inert, yet it also comes down from the heavens. And Snow White in the coffin does indeed become, not only pure and innocent, but also passive, comatose, and of ethereal beauty.
Bruno Bettelheim, in exploring some of the alternate versions of “Snow White” recorded by the Brothers Grimm, came to the conclusion that the story turns on “the oedipal desires of a father and daughter, and how these arouse the mother’s jealousy which makes her wish to get rid of the daughter.” The oedipal entanglements, he argues, come to be disguised in the version chosen by the Grimms, which turns the biological mother into a stepmother and relegates the father to the judgmental voice in the mirror.
The many versions of “Snow White” heard by the Grimms suggest the richness of folkloric variation and remind us how we have allowed stories that once circulated freely to ossify into definitive versions. The Grimms describe one version of “Snow White” in which a count and countess drive by three mounds of snow, and the count wishes for a girl as white as the snow. After passing three ditches filled with red blood, he wishes for a girl with cheeks as red as the blood. Finally, three ravens fly overhead and he wishes for a girl with hair as black as the ravens. The couple discovers on the road a girl exactly like the one the count longs for, and they invite her into their carriage. The count immediately has tender feelings for the girl. The countess, however, cannot abide the girl and schemes to get rid of her. She drops her glove and orders Snow White to retrieve it, and then orders the coachman to drive off as speedily as possible. In a related version, the countess tells Snow White to gather roses, and then deserts the girl, leaving her to fend for herself in the woods.
Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) has so overshadowed other versions of the story that it is easy to forget that the tale is widely disseminated across a variety of cultures. The heroine may ingest a poisoned apple in her cinematic incarnation, but in Italy she is just as likely to fall victim to a toxic comb, a contaminated cake, or a suffocating braid. Disney’s queen, who demands Snow White’s heart from the huntsman who takes her into the woods, seems restrained by comparison with the Grimms’ evil queen, who orders the huntsman to return with the girl’s lungs and liver, both of which she plans to eat after boiling them in salt water. In Spain, the queen is even more bloodthirsty, asking for a bottle of blood stoppered with the girl’s toe. In Italy, she instructs the huntsman to return with the girl’s intestines and her blood-soaked shirt. The dwarfs are sometimes miners, but sometimes also compassionate robbers, thieves, bears, wild men, or ogres. Disney’s film has made much of Snow White’s coffin being made of glass, but in other versions of the tale that coffin is made of gold, silver, or lead, or is jewel-encrusted. While it is often displayed on a mountaintop, it can also be set adrift on a river, placed under a tree, hung from the rafters of a room, or locked in a room and surrounded with candles.
“Snow White” may vary tremendously from culture to culture in its details, but it has an easily identifiable, stable core in the conflict between mother and daughter. In many versions of the tale, the evil queen is the girl’s biological mother, not a stepmother. (The Grimms, in an effort to preserve the sanctity of motherhood, were forever turning biological mothers into stepmothers.) The struggle between Snow White and the wicked queen so dominates the psychological landscape of this fairy tale that Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in a landmark book of feminist literary criticism, proposed renaming the story “Snow White and Her Wicked Stepmother.” In The Madwoman in the Attic, they describe how the Grimms’ story stages a contest between the “angel-woman” and the “monster-woman” of Western culture. For them the motor of the “Snow White” plot is in the relationship between two women, “the one fair, young, pale, the other just as fair, but older, fiercer; the one a daughter, the other a mother; the one sweet, ignorant, passive, the other both artful and active; the one a sort of angel, the other an undeniable witch.”
Gilbert and Gubar, rather than reading the story as an oedipal plot in which mother and daughter become sexual rivals for approval from the father (incarnated as the voice in the mirror), suggest that the tale mirrors our cultural division of femininity into two components, one that is writ large in our most popular version of the tale. In Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, we find these two components fiercely polarized in a murderously jealous and forbiddingly cold woman on the one hand and an innocently sweet girl accomplished in the art of good housekeeping on the other. Yet the Disney film also positions the evil queen as the figure of gripping narrative energy and makes Snow White so dull that she requires a supporting cast of seven to enliven her scenes. Ultimately it is the stepmother’s disruptive, disturbing, and divisive presence that invests the film with a degree of fascination that has facilitated its widespread circulation and allowed it to take such powerful hold in our own culture.
Children reading this story are unlikely to make the interpretive moves described above. For them, this will be the story of a mother-daughter conflict, which, according to Bruno Bettelheim, offers cathartic pleasures in its lurid punishment of the jealous queen. Once again, as in “Cinderella,” the good mother is dead, and in this story the only real assistance she offers is in her legacy of beauty. Snow White must contend with a villain doubly incarnated as beautiful, proud, and evil queen and as ugly, sinister, and wicked witch. Small wonder that she is reduced to a role of pure passivity, a “dumb bunny” as the poet Anne Sexton put it. In its validation of murderous hatred as a “natural” affect in the relationship between daughter and (step)mother and its promotion of youth, beauty, and hard work, “Snow White” is not without problematic dimensions, yet it has remained one of our most powerful cultural stories. In 1997, Michael Cohn drew out the dark, Gothic elements of the story in his Grimm Brothers’ Snow White, starring Sigourney Weaver.