by Terri Windling
Walt Disney made several other significant changes to the Grimms’ fairy tale when he chose Snow White as the subject of his very first full–length animated film. At the time, no one knew whether audiences would actually sit through an eighty–four minute cartoon, and the film was called "Disney’s folly"as he poured more and more time and money into it. Walt Disney was fond of fairy tales, but he was not shy of reshaping them to suit his needs, turning them into the simple, comedic tales he believed that his audiences wanted (a generation marked by economic depression and two world wars). He emphasized the dwarfs, giving them names, distinct personalities,and a cozy cottage in a sun–dappled wood full of bluebirds, bunnies, and flowers, not snow. The role of the prince is greatly expanded, and the square–jawed fellow becomes pivotal to the story. His love for Snow White, demonstrated at the very beginningof the Disney film, becomes the spark that sets off the powder keg of the stepmother’s rage.
In this singing, dancing, whistling version, only the queen retains some of the real power of the traditional tale. She’s a genuinely frightening figure, and far more compelling than little Snow White (despite early notes in the making of the film in which, it’s suggested, the queen should be a "vain–batty–self–satisfied, comedy type" and "verging on the ridiculous"). Snow White (who was drawn as a blonde at one point) is wide–eyed, giddy, and childish,wearing rags (Cinderella–style) at the start of the film, down–trodden but plucky. This gives Disney’s rendition of the tale its peculiarly American flavor, implying that what we are watching is a Horatio–Alger–type "rags to riches" story. (In fact, it’s a story of "riches to rags to riches," in which privilege is lost then restored. Snow White’s pedigree beauty and class origins assure her salvation, not her housekeeping skills.)
Although the film was a commercial triumph, and has been beloved by generations of children, critics through the years have protested the sweeping changes Disney Studios made, and continues to make, when retelling such tales. Walt himself responded, "It’s just that people now don’t want fairy stories the way they were written. They were too rough. In the end they’ll probably remember the story the way we film it anyway."
Regrettably, time has proved him right. Through films, books, toys, and merchandise recognized all around the world, Disney became the major disseminator of fairy tales in his century. "Disney’s vision," writes Marina Warner, "has affected everybody’s idea of fairy tales themselves: until writers and anthologists began looking again, passive hapless heroines and vigorous wicked older women seemed generic. Disney selected certain stories and stressed certain sides to them; the wise children, the cunning little vixens,the teeming populations of the stories were drastically purged. The disequilibrium between good and evil in these films has influenced contemporary perceptions of fairy tale, as a form where sinister and gruesome forces are magnified and prevail throughout — until the very last moment where, ex machina, right and goodness overcome them."
Fortunately, writers and anthologists have been looking again at Snow White and other fairy tales, finding that there is much more to the old material than Disney would have us believe. In the late 20th century (prompted by pioneering writers like Anne Sexton and Angela Carter), fairy tales found their way into many novels, stories, and poems for adult readers, reclaiming the tales from Disney cartoons and shelves marked "children only." For modern renditions of Snow White’s story that restore the dark magicand power of the original tale, see the recommendations that follow.