Last weekend, I was still in the mood for fantasy but not quite up for starting an entire fantasy saga, and as I noticed the previous weekend, there are precious few standalone fantasy films. So, I ended up watching Snow White and the Huntsman, which is new to Prime. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it before. I remember the wisecrack I made at the time about how they got all those noted British actors to play the dwarfs by finding the pub where the renowned theater actors hang out, drugging them, loading them into a van, and driving them to the set, where they woke up already made up as dwarfs. But, oddly, there was only one scene in the whole movie that seemed at all familiar to me, and my memories of scenes I thought I remembered turned out to be inaccurate. As I recall, I watched it on HBO when I was sick, so it’s possible I was dozing off and on and didn’t see much of the movie. This viewing felt like I was seeing it for the first time.
And it’s not a great movie. It’s basically Fantasy Cheese with a bigger budget. They had good special effects, a mostly top-notch cast, and enough money to hire enough extras for crowd scenes (though a lot of them might have been computer generated). But the script may have been worse than most of the Fantasy Cheese movies. I had to fight to stay awake and wasn’t at all engaged, which may be why I didn’t remember much from the first time I watched it. I actually lost sleep that night from lying awake and trying to figure out why it didn’t work. It was an interesting exercise in story craft, so I thought I’d share my analysis. I’m going to try to keep it vague enough to not be spoilery, especially where this version deviates from the basic fairy tale this is loosely based on, but if you haven’t seen it and think you might want to, I suggest watching it before you read this.
I think the main problem for me was that I didn’t find the protagonists very engaging. I didn’t care enough about them to get emotionally involved in the story, which meant it was mostly spectacle and I mentally checked out. The villain was reasonably well-developed. We learn early in the movie what she wants out of life — what might be called her character goal or desire — and why. Then there’s the time when things change and she comes up with her story goal, the specific thing she needs to accomplish in order to set things right. We also get a pretty good sense of what her underlying drive is. These are the core things you need for a character who’s going to be driving the action, so they got that much right. Unfortunately, she mostly drops out of the movie around the time her story goal is established. She does a few pivotal things late in the movie, but for most of the middle of the film, she just stands around looking menacing and occasionally yelling at people.
The protagonists don’t get that much development. Snow White is just a void. We get a little bit about her as a kid in the prologue, but as an adult, we know nothing about her. She wants to escape the queen and we understand why, but she doesn’t really have any hints of goals or motivations beyond that until almost the end of the movie. They keep telling us how special and inspiring she is and how she’s some kind of chosen one the people will rally around and finally defeat the evil queen, but we don’t really see her do anything inspiring. Mostly, she just stands open-mouthed and with her chest heaving while various people and creatures stare in awe at her because she’s just that special. All the people around her want to restore her to her rightful throne, but we never learn how she feels about that until almost the end of the movie, and we don’t know if this is a difficult decision for her. Is it something she wants all along? Does she change her mind? Is she doing it because she really wants it or out of duty? I think the character development in the script stopped at “played by that chick from Twilight, so all the teen girls will love her.” I understand that Kristen Stewart got a lot of hate for this role, and she’s not good. She just has that one facial expression with her mouth hanging open and almost no inflection to her speech, but the script gives her absolutely nothing to work with. She’d have had to create a character from scratch and write an entire script for what’s going on inside the character to have had anything to play. She has very little dialogue and almost no action other than running away from people chasing her.
The Huntsman isn’t any better. He gets a sad backstory about having lost his wife, but we don’t know what he wants. He initially works for the queen to track down Snow White because she promises she can use her magic to bring his wife back, but he later agrees to help Snow White because she promises him a big reward if he can get her to the duke who’s still holding out against the queen. He doesn’t really have a story goal and we don’t know if he has a character goal. The character development went no further than “played by Thor, so maybe people will remember that and apply it to this character.”
Because the title protagonists don’t have a goal beyond surviving, they’re in reactive mode. They don’t do much other than react to what the queen and her minions do. They get chased around a lot, but there’s no narrative drive for them. The turning points come about because of things the queen does or things they stumble across rather than because of choices they make. I think that’s what makes me lose interest.
There is one good guy they actually did some development on, the duke’s son, Snow White’s childhood friend. When we see him as an adult, he’s fighting a guerrilla insurrection against the queen (character goal!), and then when he learns that Snow White is still alive after all those years as the queen’s prisoner, he sets out to find and help her so he can restore her to her rightful place on the throne (story goal!). And he’s proactive about it — he has a plan. He joins the queen’s hunting party that’s looking for Snow White so he can protect her before they get to her (and he can hamper them a bit). The scene in which he shoots his way onto the hunting party in a very Robin Hood way was the one scene I recalled from the first time I saw the movie. A movie about this guy infiltrating the hunting party as a way to find Snow White while also trying to sabotage them so they don’t find her might have been a lot more interesting than what we got.
And, oddly, this guy was apparently the “Mr. Wrong” in a weirdly undeveloped romantic triangle, but that’s a pretty complicated topic I’ll save for the next post.
That means we have no narrative drive from the protagonists whose names are in the title, and no real emotional or relationship development between them, while the one they give narrative drive and emotional development to is peripheral. And that’s why I couldn’t make myself stay engaged with the movie. The lesson learned here is that your protagonists need to be trying to get or achieve something, and we need to have a sense of what relationship they have to each other. Those are the things that keep an audience engaged in a story.
Another problem related to the lack of narrative drive is the role of what seem to be coincidences in furthering the plot. There’s something later that hints that maybe it wasn’t just coincidence, but it’s never made explicit what’s going on, and while I don’t have to be spoon-fed, I do like to have my guesses verified, and I’d like to know if the characters have made the connections and figured things out. Snow White is able to escape from the tower where the queen has kept her imprisoned for about ten years because some friendly birds get her attention and get her to notice a big nail sticking out of the rock wall near her window. She’s able to pull the nail out, and it comes in handy when a moment later the queen’s brother comes to get her to bring her to the queen. She’s able to fight him and lock him in her cell so she can run. Then when she’s made it out of the castle, she happens to find a horse waiting for her on the beach. Since we later see that fairies were riding those birds, I think we’re meant to assume that the fairies set up her escape, including having the horse waiting for her. But they never make it clear, so it just seems like everything lined up conveniently.
I think if I were going to do a rewrite to fix it, I’d start by doing more to establish Snow White. She’s been kept a prisoner for about a decade, but we don’t know what she’s been doing all that time or how it’s affected her. She’s going to be doing a lot of physical stuff in the rest of the movie, so I think I’d set it up by showing her regular daily routine, with her walking and running laps around her cell, doing some shadow fencing, and maybe some other physical training stuff to show that she’s preparing to escape. Maybe she’s already got the nail and has been waiting for the chance to use it, but they slide things through a slot in the door instead of opening it. Or the friendly birds, her only companions in her imprisonment, have been spying on the queen, hear what her plans for Snow are, and bring her the nail. I’m still not sure what a nail was doing sticking out of the wall of a stone tower and why she hadn’t noticed it before. Finally, she gets her chance to use the nail when the queen’s brother comes to get her. The friendly birds lead her to the horse, so it’s more obvious that this has been set up.
Then we need to know where she stands on what she wants to do next. It’s treated as a big turning point when she wakes up from the apple curse and announces that she knows how to defeat the queen and she’s going to lead the army into battle, but up to that point, she hasn’t really had a position. It might be somewhat understandable if she feared that the queen was too powerful for her to defeat and she was too traumatized by her long imprisonment to face the queen again, so all she wanted was to get to a place of safety and hide, but that wouldn’t really be a heroine you’d root for, especially after she’s seen what the queen is doing to her people. During her initial escape, the people in the nearest village made no move to help her and even cleared a path for the queen’s men to come after her, so Snow White may have taken that to mean she didn’t have support among the people and no one would rally behind her, but everyone else she encountered after that was in awe of her, which kind of kills the “she didn’t think anyone would fight for her” theory. Maybe take a middle ground in which she thinks there’s some magical McGuffin she needs to defeat the queen, not realizing until later that the reason the queen needs her is also the reason she alone can defeat the queen. At any rate, we need to know what she wants to do, whether it’s just survive, fight back, or buy time. We’d also need a bit more evidence of how inspiring she is and why. Snow White is known for her kindness, so use that here. Let her help some of the magical creatures she encounters along the way and have that pay off. There’s a scene in which she keeps the Huntsman from killing a troll and the troll seems in awe of her, so why isn’t the troll fighting in her army against the queen later?
Likewise, we need to see something of what’s going on with the Huntsman. What does he think about Snow White? Does he want to defeat the queen and restore Snow to her rightful throne? Does he just want to get away somewhere the queen won’t find him? Is he in love with Snow but worried that a guy like him doesn’t stand a chance with a princess? We don’t know (and I’ll deal with this more when talking about the love triangle). The guy who doesn’t want to get involved and is just in it for the reward — until he has a change of heart at the end and joins in the big battle — is a cliche at this point, so maybe he realizes from the start that now that he’s betrayed the queen he doesn’t stand a chance of having a life unless she’s defeated, so he’s all for that plan for selfish reasons, until he later comes to be a true believer.
These are all minor tweaks that wouldn’t require any additional budget and that could easily have come in the time they had available by shaving some of the slow spots, but I think would have made the movie more engaging.
Next up, I deal with the issue of romantic triangles and how this movie does it wrong.