Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales are now part of our collective imagination (I will not use Jung’s term “collective unconscious” since it is a bit problematic). Isabel dos Santos, the author of the article about Brothers Grimm “Reluctant Romantics”, writes: “Throughout the entire world, fairy tales have for generations played a significant part in children’s upbringing and in human consciousness. They teach about life and death, solitude and social skills, forgiveness and endurance. Their characters and themes have been reworked in literature and the media in different ways and in countless interpretations; currently there is a veritable renaissance of fairy tales in the film industry.“ Dos Santos refers to the three film versions of Snow White, and one of them, in my opinion the best, Blancanieves, is discussed in this essay.
She claims that Brothers Grimm were a product of their age: the Age of Romanticism. The Grimms adopted a Romantic term “childhood of humankind”, the appeal to the childlike innocence of the soul. She concludes her article: “The ancient stories of the people are probably indeed much more real than the public realizes. Having fascinated generations, they appear to be enormously relevant for adapting to a rapidly changing world. The Grimms seem already to have known that.“ This list of films deals with five Brothers Grimm adaptions, or films inspired by their stories. The films discussed were made in the United States, Spain, Czechoslovakia and Japan. This fact alone shows the extent of Brothers Grimms influence not only in Germany (their original intent was to unify Germany by the medium of fairy tales), but in the entire world.
1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Walt Disney Animation Studios, 1937) Lips Red as the Rose/Hair Black as Ebony/ Skin White as Snow
Based on the fairy tale Little Snow White
Little Snow White is rooted in our minds as a figure from our childhood and our children’s childhoods, to the extent that it hardly needs to be introduced in terms of the story. Walt Disney’s 1937 animated adaptation of the fairy tale was universally praised by the critics and Roger Ebert wrote: “The word genius is easily used and has been cheapened but when it is used to describe Walt Disney, reflect that he conceived of this film, in all of its length, revolutionary style and invention, when there was no other like it”. It is important to highlight the main difference between the Brothers Grimm’s version and Walt Disney’s; the evil queen in the Grimm’s story is Snow White’s mother, while Disney says that she is her stepmother. This makes the story a little less brutal, but also gives it another dimension, which is present in the Cinderella as well. Namely, the female siblings’ jealousy of the beauty of a relative which is not blood related.
In Grimm’s story, the murder which the queen tries to commit, firstly by commanding the hunter to kill the Snow White, then with a poisoned comb and then the apple is the attempt of murdering one’s own child in the prospect of facing the diminishment of one’s own beauty and faculties: it is grounded in the fear of decay, while the young blossom. Walt Disney’s revolutionary style of animation is present in every frame of the movie, but the contemporary viewer may be amazed the most by the surreal scenes when Snow White escapes into the woods – the planks in the stream appear to be crocodiles, innumerable eyes in the forest gaze at Snow White and create an atmosphere of eeriness and have a hypnotic effect – surrealism in Walt Disney’s animated films would be an interesting thing to explore in a paper, but this is beyond the scope of this essay.
Perhaps the most interesting part of both the Grimm’s fairy tale and Disney’s animated movie are the evil Queen’s conversations with the mirror. In the film, it reads: “Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?“ For the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the mirror image is the source of our desire and narcissism, at the same time it is the subject and is not; it is the other. The mirror replies: “Famed is thy beauty majesty, but hold a lovely maid I see, rags cannot hide her gentle grace, alas she is more fair than thee…” (Disney combined the elements of Cinderella with the story since in his Snow White, the young girl is forced to clean and dress in rags). For Lacan, the nature of the specular image characterizes the subject by a lack which cannot be satisfied. Little Snow White is a fairy tale which elaborates the position of a person who tries to overcome the unsurmountable lack, and satisfy her narcissistic desire – she does not stop at the attempt of annihilation of another human being to achieve completeness, which cannot be attained.
Thus, every attempt of the evil queen to destroy Snow White, a symbol of purity and modesty, must fail, since the thing she seeks, is the satisfaction of a desire characterized by the very impossibility of its fulfilment. Several time the Queen tries to get an answer that she is the fairest in all the kingdom, but the answer is always the same, it is Snow White which is the fairest, since in moral terms, she does not feel pride and has no need for envy, while the same vices consume the Queen. In Disney’s animated film this is brilliantly illustrated when the Queen, disguised as an ugly old witch proclaims that she will be the fairest. Disney’s film ends rather abruptly; the coming of the prince after Snow White is poisoned and put in a glass coffin is described in a title card, as in a silent movie. Nevertheless, the scope of Disney’s ambition resulted in beauty which is eternal, it is as if the film was put in a glass coffin, to be preserved and awakened to life every time a person decides to watch this classic work of art.
2. Blancanives (Pablo Berger, 2012) We’ll call you Snow White, like the story
Inspired by the fairy tale Little Snow White
Pablo Berger’s bold reimagining of the story of Snow White is a black and white, silent film, set in Sevilla. The story is centered around a young female bullfighter whose companions are seven dwarves (in this case not beings from a fairy tale but actual dwarfs). The backstory is an interesting reimagining which diverges from the original story structure in some very important ways, not just with regard to the introduction of contemporary themes in the story. In the beginning, we see Little Carmen’s mother, Carmen, and her father, a bullfighter, and how he is severely wounded by the bull, and he cannot move his arms or legs and is thus confined to a wheelchair. His wife, Carmen, dies at childbirth, and the rich bullfighter marries a nurse who is after his money, and is in fact the evil stepmother. Little Carmen works the toughest jobs at her estate, and this is, alongside a shot in which a slipper is put on her foot, shown in a close-up, a reference to Cinderella.
Little Carmen meets her father, although she is banned from going to the top floor by her stepmother, and he inspires her and teaches her bullfighting. The evil, murderous stepmother is a rich celebrity who engages in sadomasochistic practices with her lover, a soldier. The way this is portrayed is one of many humorous aspects of Blancanieves. The stepmother (the evil queen in the original story) arranges the murder of Little Carmen, and as she barely survives drowning in the pond, she is rescued by dwarves and agrees to live with them, and ultimately to perform bullfighting. After a triumphant bullfight, Snow White is poisoned with an apple her stepmother gives her and dies. The ending of the film is truly unique, with references to the story Little Snow White, of which the characters in the story are of course aware of. In this manner, Berger elegantly uses metanarrative techniques, and the ending is both sublime and surreal.
One must note that the editing in the film is brilliant, most particularly the reminiscences of Snow White, and the parallel editing at the beginning when the birth of Little Carmen is shown alongside the operation performed on her father. The main difference, in regard to the structural similarity of the original Grimm Brothers fairy tale, is the role of the father. In their fairy tales if not entirely absent, the father is “impotent” and powerless, the evil queens and stepmothers are designing the fates of young female characters. In Blancanieves, the father is powerless since he is paralysed, but at the end we see that he is Snow White’s inspiration for fighting, to be more precise, bullfighting. This unique film uses the main themes of Grimm Brothers story in an original and aesthetically compelling manner, reimagining both silent cinema and a beloved fairy tale.
3. The Sleeping Beauty (Walt Disney Animation Studios, 1959) Red Rose is for Love Triumphant
Based on the fairy tale The Sleeping Beauty (Briar Rose)
In the Brothers Grimm’s version of the fairy tale, the King held a feast and the Wise Women bestowed many gifts on his young newborn princess. One of the Wise Women was not invited and because of her hurt vanity, she throws a curse on the princess saying that in her fifteenth year the princess will prick herself with a spindle and fall dead. The curse is mitigated by one of the Women so that the princess falls asleep for a hundred years, instead of dying. The king commands that all the spindles in the country are to be destroyed, but her destiny cannot be escaped and after the princess sees an old woman with a spindle, she pricks herself and falls to sleep for a hundred years, along with the whole castle, which is now surrounded by thorns. After a hundred years, a prince comes, kisses the princess and the whole castle and herself are awoken from their sleep.
Disney’s animated version of this classic fairy tale is different in many respects. It is a masterpiece of animation, which wonderfully uses light and shadow, colors are in costant playful change, and along with gothic imagery, an almost surreal ambient is created. In the Disney version, the offended Wise Woman is replaced with an evil sorceress Maleficent, thus significantly changing the nature of the story. In the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, the Wise Woman was offended because she wasn’t invited to the feast, and her act of throwing a curse on the infant princess can be understood as an act originating in vice, resulting in evil. Maleficent, on the other hand, is pure evil. When she throws a curse on little Aurora (the Dawn), which says that she will be pricked by a needle and die at the age of 16. We can see cosmic imagery when this happens, which indicates that the act which is being performed truly is Aurora’s destiny, it is written in the stars.
The three good sorceresses mitigate the spell, as in Brothers Grimm’s version, so that she falls asleep instead of dying. They take her to the woods and raise here there, and the song which is a laitmotif of this animated movie, Once Upon A Dream, from The Sleeping Beauty ballet by Tchaikovsky is sung by Aurora. Evil Maleficent sets the spell in motion, and Aurora, pricked by a needle, falls asleep, soon after falling in love with the prince. There is little in this story that is not decided from birth and ordained by fate (Aurora was meant to marry the prince from the day of her birth). The prince mistakes Aurora for a peasant girl, falls in love with her, but finds out her true identity. The main difference between this Disney’s animated feature and the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tale is that in the latter, the prince rescues the princess from her sleep with a kiss, only after the curse is lifted and one hundred years have passed, while in Disney’s version, it is the same prince which fell in love with the princess before she was enchanted into sleep.
When the prince believes that he wants to marry a peasant girl, he jokingly says to his father, the king “Come on, it’s the 14th century!“. The Brothers Grimm created in the early nineteenth century, the age of Romanticism, which celebrated the folklore, traditional culture and the Middle Ages. It is interesting that in their version of The Sleeping Beauty, it doesn’t matter much that one hundred years have passed before the princess is awaken from her sleep – everything has stayed pretty much the same in the meantime. In the fairy tale, after the young prince decides to face the dangers and rescue the princess from her sleep it is told: “But by this time the hundred years had just passed, and the day had come when Briar Rose was to awake again.”
In Walt Disney’s version, however, we witness the events which happen not merely in one life-span, but in sixteen years only. Modern mind such as ours cannot possibly imagine a span of one hundred years without any change at all (politically and socially speaking), an order of things in which one prince succeeds another and everything is one tumultuous continuity sanctified by tradition. In the animated movie, the same prince we see at the beginning saves the princess from the hands of the evil Maleficent, kisses her lips red as rose, wakes the whole castle from slumber, and we witness the triumph of love.
The second part of this list deals with films based on the fairy tale Red Riding Hood
If you enjoyed this list, and would like to own a copy of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, you can purchase the complete illustrated edition on Amazon:
You can also purchase an excellent biography on the Brothers Grimm: