So I went to see Snow White and the Huntsman last weekend despite its 46% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and the frequently scathing reviews. Actually I went to see it partly because of the scathing reviews. (And because in the trailer menacing soldiers burst into showers of black shards when struck with swords. That seemed worth watching on a large screen.)

I liked it. I liked the cinematography, I liked the acting and, contrary to received critical wisdom, I liked the story. At least, I liked the story I constructed.

(*spoiler warning* plot details about Snow White and the Huntsman ahead)

Most of the negative reviews seemed to be working from some variant of this plot synopsis:

  • After being confined to a tower for most of her life, plucky princess Snow White escapes evil magical stepmother who wants to eat her heart to obtain immortality (and eternal youth; no Eos and Tithonus “oopsies!” moments where the goddess’ mortal lover wizens to a cicada because she forgot to ask Zeus for that bit).
  • Evil  stepmother sends drunken huntsman mourning his dead wife to the Dark Forest to bring Snow White back.
  • Huntsman has a change of heart, and he and Snow White muddle about in the boring middle bits of the movie having adventures with scarred women and eight amoral bandit dwarves and an idyllic enchanted forest (I admit the enchanted forest bugged me a little in the way enchanted forests do when the badgers and foxes have all apparently gone vegan).
  • Evil stepmother manages to trick Snow White with a poisoned apple, and she lies as if dead until the Huntsman speaks of love.
  • Snow White dons armor, gives a lousy inspirational speech and leads a peasant revolt to overthrow the evil stepmother.

It was a given that the movie was a feminist updating of the fairy tale: Snow White meets Joan of Arc (without the burning at the stake). Because, after all, what else are you going to do with her in this day and age? But as Dana Stevens of Slate put it, Kristen Stewart makes a terrible Joan of Arc because her “whole manner, her slouchy bearing and general aura of sulky passivity, make her ill-suited to play a deposed princess whose irresistible charisma enables her to lead a peasant revolt.”

Well, there you go. I’ll grant that she seemed passive, though I’m more dubious about the sulky and slouchy part. Now, here’s a synopsis of a different story:

  • After being confined to a palace for most of his life, a plucky prince escapes from the destiny his father has mapped out for him.
  • Out in the wider world he encounters suffering for the first time in his life.
  • The prince decides he must find a way free of suffering, either experiencing or causing it.
  • On the path to realizing his goal he is challenged by the personification of illusion and death.
  • The prince overcomes his challenger and turns to helping others escape their suffering.

Yes, the revisionist aspects of Snow White and the Huntsman reminded me more of the Buddha than they did Joan of Arc. On the face of it that might sound ludicrous, but consider this. What was the Buddha’s central realization? That those of us caught in the endless cycle of death and rebirth are hemmed in by maya, illusion, and breaking free of this is the only way to break the cycle. In the supernatural variants of Buddha’s life story he is challenged by Mara, the Lord of Death to whom the realm of maya belongs.

In Snow White and the Huntsman Queen Ravenna isn’t just a beautiful woman jealous of her nubile stepdaughter. She’s a magician, an illusionist. How does she ensnare Snow White’s father? With an army of unreal soldiers and herself as a false captive she deflects the king’s attention away from confronting his grief over his wife’s death and onto a heroic quest with a princess as the prize. And then murders him, because her love was as illusory as the soldiers. She appears eternally youthful but that is an illusion as well, one cruelly maintained by stealing the youth and beauty of her subjects.

Snow White didn’t live a pampered life in a pleasure palace the way Siddhartha did. But she was removed from the world, and from the reality of suffering in daily people’s lives. And if you view what happens between her escape and her rousing the people in revolt as a renewed acquaintance with that world it begins to look a lot less muddled.

Her journey begins with more illusion in the Dark Forest, where psychoactive substances and her own fears and weaknesses prey upon her. She gains the Huntsman as a reluctant follower after pointing out to him that Ravenna’s claim that she can bring his wife back from the dead is a lie, a trick, a false reality.

At the women’s village, where the men have gone away to fight and the women deliberately scar both themselves and their children to render themselves useless for Ravenna’s predations, Snow White discovers the suffering her mere presence can cause others as Ravenna’s brother burns their homes to flush her out. Even the Enchanted Forest – vegan badgers and foxes notwithstanding – can’t remain untouched by suffering; as Snow White receives the blessing of the White Hart (with antlers that are spreading branches – Bodhi tree, anyone?), the noble beast is shot by one of Ravenna’s agents. One of the dwarves is killed as they flee.

Even Ravenna suffers. Ripped from her mother’s arms and taken as a spoil of war while her mother cried to her for vengeance. The spell of beauty her mother cast on her requiring an ever higher price to maintain, her fear of losing her position and her power driving her to keep on paying it. And when the Huntsman kills her brother her grief and despair ravage her. And drive her at last out of the castle to strike down Snow White herself.

The Huntsman and the Prince force Ravenna to flee before she can capture Snow White’s heart, but the girl lies lifeless. And what brings her back isn’t the Prince’s mooning about a rose-colored – illusory – childhood romance between the two of them but the Huntsman saying, not that he loves her, but that she reminds him of the beloved wife whose loss sent him into the downward spiral of drunkenness and suffering that Snow White enabled him to reverse.

When Snow White rises from her bier, why do the people rally around her? Is it because of a single speech? Or is it because, as far as they are all concerned, she has met death once and prevailed? And promised the same for Ravenna, for maya? “I can kill her. I’ve seen how.” And then the suffering will come to an end. During the assault on Ravenna’s castle Snow White contributes nothing until the moment comes for her to defeat the illusionist, the queen of death whose very presence ravages the lands around her. That passivity isn’t the actress’ fault – it was written into the script.

I have no idea if this was the intended interpretation. Given that the screenwriter said in an interview that his guiding principle was, “What if, instead of saving Snow White, the Huntsman teaches Snow White to save herself?” I doubt it. But it made for a more interesting, engaging movie than sniffing, “Well that was a crappy Joan of Arc.”