The Snow Queen

snow queen book
The “Amoco” Giveaway

Weird but true: my relationship with Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Snow Queen” started with a gas station. A small children’s book edition of the tale was given out as part of a promo at Amoco gas stations in 1989. This is the first time I’d ever read the story and it started a lifelong love affair.

First published in 1844, “The Snow Queen” is one of the unique fairy tales that Hans Christian Andersen penned himself. Unlike the Grimm Brothers who collected traditional folktales told in their country, Andersen most often wrote brand-new, original stories in the same vein. Many of the most famous fairy tales today, such as “The Little Mermaid”, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Ugly Duckling” we owe to Andersen’s brilliant imagination as they have no antecedent in traditional folklore.

Illustration by Kay Nielsen

Told in seven parts, the story of “The Snow Queen” begins with two children, Kai and Gerda, who are neighbors in their small town. Their houses are connected by a small garden between and they love to play and tend roses there together. One winter’s day a piece of enchanted mirror flies into Kai’s eye and it distorts his vision so that everything beautiful in the world appears to him as ugly. He turns his back on his friendship with Gerda and becomes mean and cruel. While playing with a gang of rough-and-tumble neighborhood boys he unknowingly hitches his sled onto the sleigh of the evil Snow Queen and she drives him off to her wintery palace. Gerda sets out after them, resolute in her desire to free Kai from the Snow Queen’s icy clutches. She travels far and wide on her quest, meeting princesses, ravens and robbers along the way. Finally, standing within the frozen halls of the Snow Queen’s polar palace, Gerda discovers that the power of love is the only thing that can destroy the Snow Queen’s formidable hold over Kai.

Over the years Andersen’s story has been adapted for nearly every art form – theater, music, film and opera to name a few. As part of my fairy tale year I explored many of the most significant adaptations throughout the month of March and wanted to share a few of my favorites here.

The 1957 Russian animated film was the first movie adaptation of the story. I watched the 1990’s English dub for the first time last month and I was impressed at the level of artistry on display. It’s not surprising to discover that master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki credits it as one of his inspirations for working in the field. The film adheres very closely to Andersen’s original storyline and I can’t help but wish that Disney’s Frozen had similarly stayed true to its original source material. Frozen has been acclaimed for its supposed feminist stance but Andersen’s original is even more so in the fact that the story involves a girl saving a boy.

4421670Joan Vinge’s 1980 novel adapts the tale for adult science fiction readers and was one of the first in the genre to include a cast of almost-exclusively female main characters. In the book Gerda and Kai are transformed into the characters Moon and Sparks, two lovers literally separated by time and space by the all-powerful Arienrhod, the Snow Queen who rules their planet. In her quest to reunite with Sparks Moon must uncover and confront numerous secret political machinations. She holds not only Sparks’s fate in her hands but that of their entire world. Andersen’s tale works well in this retelling as an epic journey across an alien landscape. Vinge’s novel starts out a bit verbose and flowery but soon becomes action-filled and tightly-paced. It’s shocking that such a vast and sprawling yarn can fit into less than five hundred pages and demonstrates Vinge’s masterful storytelling.

The 2002 film Snow Queen is the sweet, modern take on the tale you would expect from a Hallmark production. On my first viewing I appreciated the development of the relationship between Gerda and Kai in the first half, but this time around I found the second half more intriguing. Screenwriter Simon Moore (The 10th Kingdom) cleverly ties the main parts of Gerda’s journey to save Kai into the revolving seasons – in this version Gerda meets the Snow Queen’s three sisters who rule each of the other seasons respectively. From each she learns a different aspect of maturation: the Spring Witch wants to keep Gerda an eternal child; the Summer Princess possesses an adolescent preoccupation with choosing a mate; and finally, the Autumn Robber teaches Gerda the strength and courage she’ll need as an adult. This helps develop Gerda’s character and amplifies the importance of her relationship with Kai. Gerda and Kai’s eventual return home at the end is deservedly emotional and richly satisfying.

Tiffany Amber Knight as the Snow Queen

Composer Paul K. Joyce’s lyrical 2003 concert oratorio The Snow Queen was adapted for film by the BBC in 2005 with mixed results. I purchased the CD of the score when it was released prior to the film and was enchanted and moved by Joyce’s music. James Andrew Hall was responsible for the film adaptation and most of what’s wrong with it resides in his teleplay. Many of the most moving musical passages in the score are either eliminated (“The Mirror and Its Fragments”) or marred by dialogue (Kai’s rescue by Gerda during “The Snow Queen’s Palace”). Luckily the best song, “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” is retained and filmed adequately if not profoundly. Much was made at the time of the CGI special effects. They do give a “moving storybook” feel to the film but more often than not they seem to hinder the action rather than enhance it. Tiffany Amber Knight, however, is dazzling in her glorious CGI raiment as the Snow Queen.

My favorite adaptation of the tale also premiered in 2005 at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. It’s a folk musical version created by Michael Peter Smith. As a birthday present my partner bought us tickets to see the recent Park Square Theatre production in Saint Paul, Minnesota and I was enchanted by how beautifully it captured the spirit of the story. A talented ensemble of actor/musicians, haunting music and gorgeous physical design brought the tale to life and I felt like a child again, discovering the story for the first time. It was a truly moving experience that brought tears to my eyes several times.

“The Snow Queen” at Park Square Theatre

Emily Gunyou Halaas brought a warm presence to her multiple roles including the Narrator and Mother. I especially enjoyed the lovely lullaby she sang as the Finn Woman to Gerda right before the climactic scene in the Snow Queen’s castle. Similarly, Caroline Amos and Silas Sellnow were perfect as Gerda and Kai and Sara Ochs provided a memorable turn as the Sami Woman who led the hilariously punny “Fish Song”.

It’s unfortunate that no official recording has been made of the show since the score is absolutely beautiful. Luckily I was able to find a YouTube video of one of my favorite songs, a duet between Kai and the Snow Queen. It’s a great way to close out my fairy tale month of March:

Film Review: 10 Cloverfield Lane

10 Cloverfield Lane is that rare breed of sequel that surpasses the original in quality. Released in 2008, the original Cloverfield was by no means a bad movie – it breathed fresh life into the found-footage horror film, a genre still in desperate need of new ideas. The story of that film concerned a Godzilla-like monster attack on New York City, this time told from the viewpoint of the citizens of said city. It was a riotous, action-packed thrill ride that kept you on the edge of your seat.

10 Cloverfield Lane takes a vastly different approach and ends up delivering a more satisfying and suspenseful thriller in the process. Instead of a chaotic romp though various New York burrows, this installment is set in one confined and intimate space. Similarly, while the original Cloverfield‘s characters were merely one-dimensional fodder for the alien creature, 10 Cloverfield Lane provides three interesting, nuanced characters that are well-developed and sympathetic.

The story revolves around Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead),  a woman who gets in a car crash after packing up and leaving her significant other. She wakes up in what she later discovers to be a bomb shelter created by a man named Howard (John Goodman). He explains that he brought her there after discovering the wreckage of her accident and that they can’t leave the shelter because of an air-borne chemical attack that’s occurred up above.

Michelle doesn’t believe Howard at first, but after meeting Emmett (Tony-winner John Gallagher Jr.), the only other inhabitant of the bunker, she starts to change her mind. As time slowly passes in the hatch, further mysteries unravel that leave Michelle questioning not only the fate of the world above but also the motives of Howard himself.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman

John Goodman provides a virtuoso turn as Howard, a man we never completely learn the truth about. Thanks to fine writing and Goodman’s sensitive performance the character has depth and substance that would be lacking in an inferior production. Hopefully this opens doors for new opportunities in Goodman’s acting career. He obviously has a lot of unexplored potential.

Michelle is the central figure of this story, however, and it’s invigorating to see a female character on screen that is readily able to fight and outwit any obstacle thrown at her. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is more than up to the challenge and memorably makes the role her own. Near the end of the film she delivers a much-earned expletive that earned several sympathetic laughs from the audience at the showing I attended.

By shifting the intent and focus of the original film for this installment, writers Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle cleverly toy with our pre-conceived notions of movie sequels and what we expect of them. This approach works two-fold: for viewers who have seen the original, the added knowledge of what’s going on in the world above provides a sense of forbidding doom to the film; but for those who have not, this strange mystery only adds to the already intense atmosphere. Because of this, 10 Cloverfield Lane is one of the few sequels that can be easily watched without having viewed the original, and might actually be a more satisfying experience going in “cold-turkey”.

The ending of 10 Cloverfield Lane leaves things open for another continuation, but it’s hard to believe that another installment in this franchise could be as electrifyingly fierce as this one. Knowing his track record, however, there is hope that producer J.J. Abrams will throw another curveball and redefine movie trilogies in the process.

5 out 0f 5 stars.

Film Review: Snow Queen

Note: This is a review I wrote when Hallmark’s “Snow Queen” was first released on DVD back in 2003. Since I just revisited the film for my Fairy Tale Year I thought it was worth republishing my initial thoughts here.

As a cold, icy winter storm brews outside my window I can think of no better time to experience Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale The Snow Queen, which was just recently made into a fantastic new television mini-series by Hallmark and the Halmis.

The new film aired on the Hallmark Channel in December, and has just recently been released on home video and DVD.

This new adaptation of the classic tale is definitely an inspired re-imagining. Outwardly it bears little resemblance to its fairy tale counterpart, but it still retains the integral themes and messages inherent in the work. I love fresh new interpretations of fairy tales. That’s what keeps them alive and makes them so powerful. They can be retold in an infinite number of ways and still be vibrant and new.

The original fairy tale revolves around two childhood friends, Kai and Gerda. One day a piece of enchanted mirror falls into Kai’s eye and he starts acting viciously towards Gerda. Their friendship disintegrates, leaving Gerda alone and wondering what has happened to Kai. When the magical enchantress the Snow Queen spirits Kai away to her winter palace Gerda knows she must trek after them and bring Kai back home. She has many adventures until finally reaching the gates of the Snow Queen’s palace and the destiny that awaits both her and Kai.

The film Snow Queen attaches a new prologue to the story—it shows Gerda’s mother being killed by an icy winter storm dealt out by the Snow Queen. Gerda grows up a shy and quiet young girl, obviously affected by this traumatic experience.

The first half of the story now takes place at a remote hotel. Gerda’s father runs the hotel and Kai is the new bellboy just hired by him. The film translates Kai and Gerda’s age as much older—they are now teenagers. Kai and Gerda fall in love until the Snow Queen gets in the middle of their blooming relationship.

The story of the film is really about growing up, specifically for those children who have suffered from loss. Interestingly, this theme has also been dealt with in two other Hallmark mini-series: Snow White and The 10th Kingdom. The struggle to let other people in and be loved is beautifully dealt with in the film through story, symbolism, and imagery. Both Kai and Gerda learn to break free of their pasts and let in their future. They both learn what it is to love.

The first half of the three-hour running time is the strongest. The writing is very good and presents the viewer with a sense of mystery and foreboding. Simon Moore, who wrote the enchanting teleplay, also wrote the teleplays for Dinotopia and The 10th Kingdom. The world he creates in this film is much different than either of those in the two previously listed films. This is a much darker, surreal, dream-like world, where there aren’t always happy endings. Snow Queen has its light moments but those are more reserved for the second half of the film.

The second half is more action-packed, and I think suffers because of this. It’s a stark contrast to the more subdued, peaceful, but with a touch of foreboding atmosphere that marks the first. The addition of a rather annoying talking polar bear character in the second half is also tedious and unnecessary, but I suppose Moore had to think of something for Kai to do while waiting for Gerda in the Snow Queen’s palace.

In short, I think the movie could have been shorter. Two hours would have been sufficient. Tacking another hour on to the running time made it a bit long, I think. This is a fault I found with another Simon Moore script, The 10th Kingdom. I love the themes and ideas expressed in that work and this one, but both stories could have reached their denouements much faster. Otherwise they come across as a bit stretched-out, and they seem to lose sight of their original purpose and intention.

Jeremy Guilbaut and Bridget Fonda

What really holds the film together, though, are the outstanding performances. Jeremy Guilbaut brings a haunting, tortured spirit to Kai, while Bridget Fonda exudes a cold, icy chill as the Snow Queen. Their scenes together are quite sexually tense for a family film. But I mark that as a good quality—sexuality is present without one inch of provocative skin being shown.

Chelsea Hobbs does a fair job of portraying Gerda, but she could have done more. After a while she comes across as rather whiney and helpless, which is exactly the opposite of what her character is supposed to be. She has some charming moments near the beginning of the film with Guilbaut. Too bad there aren’t more of them in the film.

I’ve been toying around with the idea of writing my own version of The Snow Queen for about two years now. I haven’t done it yet, but it seems Hallmark’s Snow Queen comes fairly close to what I would do. It’s a pleasant surprise.

The Halmis (Roberts Sr, and Jr.) are responsible for producing a new batch of wonderful family television movies, including Snow White, Dinotopia, Arabian Nights, The 10th Kingdom, Alice in Wonderland, Merlin, and Gulliver’s Travels. Let’s hope they don’t stop. Films that spark the imaginations of kids and make them want to read are rare to find these days.

The Problem of the Beast

Like every fairy tale, “Beauty and the Beast” has had to metamorphose throughout the centuries to remain relevant to each succeeding generation. Unlike other popular tales such as “Cinderella” and “Snow White”, however, “Beauty and the Beast” has seen a profound shift in the character that is the focal point of the story. Beauty, the central character in the original versions, takes the backseat to the Beast in later retellings. In some cases this also heavily changes the moral of the tale, undermining its ultimate effectiveness.

As mentioned earlier in this blog, Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s tale (1756) was heavily inspired by Madame de Villeneuve’s original tale published in 1740. Villeneuve’s version is mainly concerned with sustainment of the period’s social class system: Beauty’s sisters are condemned for aspiring to an upper class into which they were not born, and in Villeneuve’s lengthy epilogue it is revealed that Beauty is not a common merchant’s daughter, but a royal fairy changeling – a proper bride for any enchanted Prince.

Illustration by Eleanor Vere Boyle

In contrast, Beaumont’s version does not concern itself with social castes. Instead, her version focuses on the complications of arranged marriages. In Beaumont’s time, and for many centuries to come, it was standard practice for young women of a certain social status to be married off to wealthy, socially-acceptable mates that, more often than not, were complete strangers to them. Beaumont’s text is sensitive to this issue and its primary objective is to assuage the fears of young women who find themselves in the predicament and offer them hope that eventual romantic love can be a possibility in such a situation. Folklorists have dubbed “Beauty and the Beast” the first “psychological” fairy tale, and the main reason for this is Beauty’s journey in Beaumont’s tale. She holds the primary power in the story. It is only through her own inward transformation that the Beast’s outward transformation can occur. The modern era has seen the claim that the story of “Beauty and the Beast” is an example of Stockholm syndrome, but this argument completely overlooks the historical background of the original tale and the topic of arranged marriages that it makes its central focus.

Because of the eventual denunciation of the practice of arranged marriages in most Western cultures, modern interpretations of the fairy tale have had to work around this issue to varying levels of success. The primary way to do this has been to shift the main spotlight away from Beauty and transfer it to the Beast.

At the end of Beaumont’s  story, the Beast of the fairy tale’s title is transformed into a handsome prince:

“A wicked fairy had condemned me to remain under that shape,” the Prince explains to Beauty in the original English translation, “until a beautiful virgin should consent to marry me.” No other reason is given for this strange punishment besides the apparent “wickedness” of the fairy mentioned.

tumblr_inline_ny50r2ssIT1sacq5r_540This lack of explanation has proved a creative asset to future retellings of the tale, the most obvious of these being the 1991 Disney Studios film. The enchanted Prince in their version is punished with his beastly visage for turning away an old beggar woman seeking shelter from a storm. It is when he refuses her because of her ugly appearance that she reveals her true self and punishes him to life as a Beast. This provides a powerful, direct link to the story’s theme of looking beyond appearances to find beauty within that most other versions don’t include. However, this strength is undermined by a necessary shift in the Beast’s character because of it.

In both the original Villeneuve and Beaumont versions of the story the Beast acts as the perfect gentleman towards Beauty. He shows her kindness and consideration and provides her anything she desires. She truly is mistress of his castle, her slightest whims becoming the Beast’s command. After dinner every night he asks for her hand in marriage and she politely refuses. He assents to this and never forces her into wedlock or indeed to do anything that displeases her. The only real impediment to a possible relationship with Beauty is the Beast’s alarming exterior.

In contrast, the Disney film makes the Beast/Prince “spoiled, selfish and unkind.” He has a quick and raging temper that is often unleashed upon Belle, the film’s Beauty. Instead of any kind of personal transformation of her own, Belle’s role in the story is changed to that of a “domesticator” of this unruly Beast. This unfortunately reduces the importance of Beauty’s role in the story, making her mostly a mother figure, and works to subvert the original theme of the fairy tale. Instead of the possibility of beauty already lurking behind a beastly exterior, the theme of this version is that beauty can only be found in a Beast if his savage nature is tamed.

Jean Cocteau attempts something similar in his 1946 film and ends up crafting something much more interesting in the process. Instead of a nasty temper, the main problem of Cocteau’s Beast concerns his actual beastliness. He is a full-fledged animal/human hybrid, trying to reconcile these two opposite natures within himself. When dining with Beauty he appears the perfect gentleman – well-dressed and conversant, if admitting that he’s no wit. At night, however, he succumbs to his feral side, hunting animals in the forests outside his castle and startling Beauty several times in her bedchamber after his midnight romps. There is no concrete resolution to this Beast’s dilemma – he does transform into a handsome prince, but he looks exactly like Avenant (a character Disney drew from for their brutish Gaston), a handsome but roguish would-be suitor of Beauty whom she has refused. This physical similarity to Avenant at first throws Beauty off. When asked by the Prince if she is displeased by his resemblance to Avenant, Beauty responds first with “Yes” and then a smiling “No.”

Jean Marais as the Prince and Josette Day as Beauty

The Prince tells Beauty at the film’s conclusion: “Love can make a Beast of a man. It can also make an ugly man handsome.” This intentional blurring of the morality of the tale runs deeper than Disney’s take and provides a more satisfying modern sensibility to the story: Beauty comes to discover that she can be alternately attracted to and repulsed by a potential domestic partner – she can enjoy both the beast in the man and the man in the beast.

The duel for the main spotlight between contemporary Beauties and Beasts comes to its most happy medium in the 1987 television series created by Ron Koslow. The setting for this version is updated to twentieth century New York City. The Beast, named Vincent, dwells in the tunnels below the city with an entire community of people who have found themselves cast off from the cruel and unforgiving World Above. His Beauty, Catherine Chandler, works as an Assistant District Attorney and through this comes face-to-face with the evils of her metropolitan society. With Vincent’s help she often thwarts them.

Ron Perlman as Vincent and Linda Hamilton as Catherine

Similar to Beaumont’s original envisioning of the Beast, Vincent is a thoughtful and compassionate humanitarian. He is the embodiment of a fully developed, spiritual human being, reading classical literature in his spare time and reciting poetry at the drop of a hat. However, as with Cocteau’s Beast, Vincent also battles the animal side of his nature throughout the run of the show. There is no ultimate transformation for him, though – Vincent’s intangible and unexplained existence as a man/beast is permanent and something both he and Catherine must learn to cope with as the series progresses. But unlike previous Beauties, Catherine has an even footing with her mate: she is not his captor and moves independently between his realm and her own. For the first time since Beaumont, then, the ultimate decision of whether Beauty and the Beast can be a pair is placed once again in Beauty’s hands.

These unique twists provide an even balance between the two characters, resulting in a satisfying drama and romance, one that was unfortunately cut short due to actress Linda Hamilton leaving the show. Perhaps if the show had lasted even a season or two longer we might have a contemporary “Beauty and the Beast” that actually outshines its already impressive origins.

Film Review: The Witch

The Witch Movie Poster“A New England Folktale”; It’s important to note that subtitle when watching the new film The Witch directed by Robert Eggers. There is no pretense at trying to emulate a factual account of the religious hysteria that gripped that part of the country in the 17th century. The Witch is instead inspired by the dark and fantastical stories and myths about witchcraft that spread through Colonial America like wildfire, ultimately culminating in the executions of twenty innocent people in Salem, Massachusetts.

The story revolves around a Puritan family exiled from their home plantation due to a difference of religious beliefs. With the help of their children, William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) fashion a homestead on the edge of a somber and foreboding forest. At first they are able to eke out a life upon the land, but eventually a mysterious force that seems to be emanating from the woods ensnares them in its shadowy grasp. First the baby of the family disappears while being watched by eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). Like collapsing dominoes, more and more strange occurrences follow one after the other, all implicating Thomasin as being their manufacturer. The final trail for answers leads inexplicably to the heart of the forest where all is revealed in a perverse denouement.

The main performances are all exemplary, despite some indecipherable dialogue at times due to the authentic Puritan accents. As William, Ralph Ineson brings strong presence to the role of a husband and father at the crossroads between family and faith. Anya Taylor-Joy is also memorable as the doe-eyed young woman caught in the middle of this supernatural tempest. But the truly standout performance of the film is Harvey Scrimshaw’s, as eldest son Caleb. He’s the central focus of a key scene near the middle of the film and pulls off an equally terrifying and euphoric performance.

Despite these performances and otherwise excellent crafting in direction and cinematography, The Witch is ultimately unsatisfying. The main fault for this lies in Eggers’s screenplay, which is lacking in depth and texture. A final end titles screen describes the story as being inspired by various folk tales and legends published during the time period, with much of the dialogue being lifted from various first-hand accounts. Watching the film it is obvious Eggers only haphazardly cobbled together his screenplay from these sources. A defter hand would have utilized them to help strengthen an original plot. Eggers has substituted them for the plot itself, eschewing any type of natural development in the story or characters. There is much drama and tension built throughout the run of the film but no underpinning to help ground the audience in the story that transpires. It leaves a sense of bewilderment, but also a sense of pointlessness.

Anyone who has heard the false accusations raised in Salem will know how this insidious folk tale ends so there’s no surprise in the final resolution. The film’s thematic heart lies in the dangers of extremism, but the ending does nothing to serve this concept. Due to this, the whole effort comes across as superfluous. Especially when the true story of supposed witches in New England ended in a much more horrifying and malignant way, not by the seductive whims of the Devil, but at the hands of humans themselves.

3 out of 5 stars.