Colour Symbolism in Fairy Tale Film Adaptations. "Mirror Mirror" and "Snow White & the Huntsman"

Seminar Paper, 2013

16 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Fairy Tale Films

3. Colour symbolism
3.1. Cover pictures
3.2. Snow White and her Stepmother, the Evil Queen
3.2.1. White, Red, Black
3.2.2. Silver & Gold
3.2.3. Yellow & Green
3.3. Scenery

4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Once upon a time - 200 years ago to be precise - two brothers put down a collection of previously orally bequeathed wondrous and fantastic stories that would continue to amaze children and adults all over the world.

These so-called folktales or fairy tales with their simple stories, magical characters and educational morals fascinated people for hundreds of years. The stories written down by the brothers Grimm represent the sociohistoric and cultural context from their time1. As the world changes old styles of oral storytelling give way to newer ones, particularly technologically advanced ways of narration: books, CDs, DVDs, video games, cinema, et cetera. Although there are numerous newer fantastic stories such as Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, the fairy tales' timeless themes like good versus evil, love, friendship, fear and bravery still reappear in contemporary narrative media. Today these fairy stories are still engaging for children, teenagers as well as adults. However, one may not find them very often being told in gloomy, fire-lit spinning rooms or read aloud at children's bedsides any more, but rather on a huge screen with surround sound, special visual effects in 3D and lots of popcorn and candy to nibble.

One of the most popular of Grimms' folktales is S(ch)neewittchen (KHM 53), internationally known as Snow White, Snow Drop, Blanche-neige or Blanca Nieve2. No doubt, Snow White is “die beliebteste, meistillustrierte, meistverfilmte, aber auch vielfach parodierte und verkitschte Figur der Kinder- und Hausm ä rchen [der Gebrüder Grimm]”3.

The tale of Little Snow White has been transformed into many media during the last 200 years, however, Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs from 1937 is supposedly THE classic feature-length animated fairy film par excellence. Since the film won a special Oscar and was one of the most successful films of the 1930s, it was a milestone in the career of the Disney studios and the genre of fairy tales as well4. “Der Welterfolg dieses Filmes ist ungebrochen. Noch im Jahre 2001, 64 Jahre nach der Premiere und rechtzeitig zum 100. Geburtstag Walt Disneys, erlebte der Streifen ein Comeback als Video- Kasette für das Heimkino”5.

In 2012, as if to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the original fairy tale, two brand new Hollywood cine films were released: Tarsem Singh's Mirror Mirror (with Lily Collins as Snow White and Julia Roberts as her stepmother) and Snow White & the Huntsman directed by Rupert Sanders (starring Kristen Stewart as Snow White and Charlize Theron as the evil Queen). Interestingly enough both adaptation seem to have nothing in common, although they are both based on the classic fairy tale Snow White. One glance at the age ratings (Mirror Mirror: U, Snow White: 12A) and cover pictures of these two film adaptations is all you need to see how different they are in genre, setting and mood. There are several features one can investigate in film analysis, however, this paper will focus on the colours being used in the films and the mood they create on the audience. As there is no original literature on that specific topic, literature concerning film adaptations (of fairy tales), the two films on DVD, and some sources on colour symbolism will be consulted.

2. Fairy Tale Films

“[B]ehind every film adapted from literature there is a long-standing controversy about whether the medium of film can ever approximate the complexities and nuances of the original text”6 There is an everlasting discussion about whether film adaptations should be produced at all, given the numerous restrictions in film making and various possibilities of interpretation. But we must not forget that misinterpretations can also happen when different people read or hear the original text, due to their diverse cultural context, education, expectations and preferences.

Fairy tales are “true stories [or] Ur-stories”7 that are available to everyone, unlike elaborated high-culture literature of allegedly sophisticated writers. Their simpleness and publicity allowed for film makers to picturize them easily using basic technology and experimenting with new special effects, which is why fairy stories were very popular in early cinema at the beginning of the 20th century8.

Besides, fairy tales may be a common subject to adaptation because “cinema, especially classical Hollywood, is closer to the energy and engagement of oral storytelling than other narrative media”9. The editor and director become the storyteller by creating a specific interplay of perspectives, sounds, music, images, lighting and colours.

For example, David Hand directed the first full-length fairy tale film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and created thereby an important and influential model for future Disney and fairy tale films10. “Disney was concerned with the socialization of American childhood in the 1930s and '40s, a time when America was suffering an economic depression”. The target audience were families and children, which can be seen in the fact that Disney left out scary and disturbing parts and replaced them with a lot of singing, dancing to “reaffirm the moral lessons”11 and charmingly individual and cheerful dwarfs. These happy and mainstream features of the film resulted in incredible success, but the same ones also met with criticism.

Even though both 2012 adaptations of Snow White are mainstream films with big budgets and famous actors, Mirror Mirror and Snow White & the Huntsman draw on the original fairy story rather differently and present alternative contemporary cultural perspectives and preferences.

According to Bottigheimer images can reproduce, expand, replace or even contradict textual information which is why an image is able to produce a whole different effect on the viewer than the text would. Furthermore, when reading a text, everybody creates their own picture in mind and thus imagines a particular setting and mood for the story. However, when watching a film, the pictures and mood are already created and given. The audience accepts them unquestioningly.12 So by creating two completely different adaptations and throwing a whole new light on the same story, the audience is given the possibility to enjoy other interpretations, maybe ones they would not have thought of by themselves.

When comparing the two adaptations of Grimms' tale of Snow White, Mirror Mirror and Snow White & the Huntsman, one will not only find that the characters and the plot line has been changed or additions have been made for which the original text offers no foundation. The films are generally quite different in nature when it comes to genre and mood. This is where one can see two different interpretations of the same text. It has to be noted, though, that fairy tales are quite simple and direct in structure so that they allow for everyone to imagine their own fictional world and images. Plus, “die Erzählzeit des mündlichen Märchen [ist] kurz, die Handlung ist es darum aber nicht. Denn seine knappe Erzähltechnik verzichtet auf Attribute und Motivierungen, die Handlung ist also verdichtet. Der Film muss […] die Leerstellen der Vorlage kokretisieren”13. Not many adjectives or descriptions will be found in fairy stories, thus the film maker has to imagine their own. As in film adaptations music and images oftentimes replace text entirely, the story and setting is set by the actors, sound, light and colours.

Since colours are visualized emotions and the viewer reacts emotionally to different colours and colour combinations14, the focus of this paper will be the effect and mood colours and lighting create in the two film adaptations of Snow White.

3. Colour symbolism

There are so many variables and criteria one could analyse in terms of film analysis in general and colour symbolism in the fairy tale and its two film adaptations, however, since the extent of this paper is limited, the main focus will be on the predominant colours found in the looks and costumes of the protagonists Snow White and the evil Queen, her stepmother, and the setting of some key scenes.

3.1. Cover pictures

One quick glance at the two cover pictures of the films shown on DVDs, cinema posters or advertisement is enough to see how very different these adaptations are. While Mirror Mirror, as seen in Fig.1 - the German (covers of the) DVDs were used for the analysis in this paper - promises to be a cheerful and happy comedy with its nice, bright and shiny colours and smiling actors; the cover of Snow White & the Huntsman in Fig.2 forecasts a gloomy, adventurous and maybe even scary fantastic drama, given the dark colours, weapons, the black ravens and dramatic looks and gestures of the actors.

Further explanations to the symbolism of specific colours follow in the next chapters.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Fig.1 Mirror Mirror Fig.2 Snow White & the Huntsman

3.2. Snow White and her Stepmother, the evil Queen

3.2.1. White, Red, Black

The colour order of archaic, classic and traditional societies - the basic colour terms - is composed of black, white and red. This colour trilogy is used in literature to refer to an enhanced sexual attractiveness in Shakespeare for instance15, and in fairy tales as well:

The Queen wishes for a child as white as snow, as red as blood and as black as ebony, and that is how Little Snow White looks like in the fairy tale and in both film adaptations as well. She has got skin as fair as snow, lips red as blood and her hair is black as ebony, conforming to the aristocratic ideal of beauty during those times. It was very noble to have pale skin, protected from the sun.


1 Sawers 2010, 42.

2 Diederichs 1996, 293.

3 Röhrich 2008, 10.

4 Hahn et al,1986, 434 f.

5 Röhrich 2008, 28.

6 Manna 1988.

7 Dunnigan 2004.

8 Verstraten 2010, 237, 248.

9 Dunnigan 2004.

10 Sawers 2010, 44.

11 Sawers 2010, 45.

12 Bottigheimer 2010, 154 f.

13 Schmitt 2008, 150.

14 Röll 1998, 322.

15 Buther & Jacob 2012, 113.

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Colour Symbolism in Fairy Tale Film Adaptations. "Mirror Mirror" and "Snow White & the Huntsman"
Catholic University Eichstätt-Ingolstadt
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colour, symbolism, fairy, tale, film, adaptations, mirror, snow, white, huntsman
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Dorothea Wolschak (Author), 2013, Colour Symbolism in Fairy Tale Film Adaptations. "Mirror Mirror" and "Snow White & the Huntsman", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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