Life in the Dark Forest: Snow White, The Hunger Games, and the New American Fairy Tale

For years, “Cinderella” has been the fairy tale movie producers turn to when looking for a quick adaptation and an easy buck. There have been countless by-the-book adaptations but even more versions loosely adapted to fit a different milieu while maintaining the story’s popular, pre-feminist sensibility. In fact, it seems that a near-majority of modern rom-coms would fit into this category, including but not limited to: “Working Girl,” “Maid in Manhattan,” “The American President,” “The Beautician and the Beast,” “Milk Money,” “Sabrina,” “While You Were Sleeping,” and, of course, “Pretty Woman,” in which the female lead succinctly conveys the movie’s gender politics in one line: “I want the fairy tale.”

It should be no surprise that most of these films were released in late 1980s and early 1990s. “Cinderella,” in which a put-upon working-class woman gets the keys to a kingdom of wealth and prestige, is at its core an ode to capitalism and traditional family values. In the 1980s, Americans were sold an economic fantasy, and in the 1990s, during the dot-com boom, many lived it. But that boom never trickled down to the working class. Income inequality in the 1990s continued to increase, even as those in higher tax brackets saw their portfolios grow. Then the bubble burst, and it all came crashing down. After a brief period of resurgence following 9/11, a deep recession took hold, and most Americans are still fighting their way out of it.

Our feelings about the economy run very deep – they speak to our most primal fears of failure and abandonment. Emotionally, the economy is a parent to us. If it is doing well, it will protect us. If not, we are left to fend for ourselves in a dark and dangerous world in which companies are not hiring and the government is likely to start cutting the safety net. Fears that run so deep in our collective psyche cannot help but manifest themselves in our art.

The dearth of recent movies that follow the “Cinderella” template indicate that we have grown disillusioned with the American dream. As Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) told us in 1999’s “Fight Club”: “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

Enter the dark tale of Snow White. Last weekend, “Mirror, Mirror” opened to a $19 million box office gross – a substantial but not eye-opening number that indicates the film will make back its rather significant budget. More notably, another Snow White movie, “Snow White and the Huntsman” opens in June and appears to play up the story’s darker and more violent elements. So after decades of Cinderella stories, why have movie studios decided to give us not one but two Snow White movies in the space of three months? What is it about the tale of Snow White that is resonating right now?

I can’t help but think it has something to do with Katniss Everdeen.

The heroine of “The Hunger Games” has a lot in common with the Snow White of “Mirror, Mirror.” Both are teenage girls, abandoned by the death of their fathers and by mothers who are either evil or emotionally absent. Both are thrust into a dangerous wilderness and are defenseless but for their wits and their innate goodness. And in that wilderness, they both survive and thrive, inspiring or leading revolutions in societies ruled by despots.

There are any number of reasons why these characters resonate in our particular time and place. Let’s examine a couple of them. The first is that Snow White and Katniss Everdeen, as children forced to survive on their own in dangerous worlds, speak to a generation of children bereft of parental guidance. Economic recessions cause stress on families, but the divorce rate during such periods does not increase. The number of divorces in America peaked around 1980 and has been steadily declining ever since. Even since the recession hit, divorce rates are at worst holding steady. So we must put aside the idea of Snow and Katniss as symbols of a new generation of latch-key kids.

Interestingly, divorce rates in the United Kingdom have actually gone up since the global recession began. The most likely reason for this discrepancy is that Britain has a national health care system, and spouses there are not tied to their family’s insurance. Because Americans do not as often seek divorce due to economic woes, there are probably more individuals staying in unhappy marriages that should have been dissolved. Not that there aren’t downsides to staying in an unhappy marriage made worse by financial problems. There is a wealth of evidence showing that domestic violence in the U.S. does increase during an economic recession. This makes sense: domestic violence is obviously more likely to exist in an unhappy marriage than a healthy one. Taking into account Britain’s uptick in divorce rates, it is not a stretch to suggest that the prevalence of domestic violence in America, which so deeply impacts the lives of children who are exposed to it, is an indirect effect of a political system that is failing to provide health care and a social safety net for all its citizens. In other words, a recession hits all facets of the American dream – the house, the family, and even the very idea of a “happily ever after.”

Both “The Hunger Games” and “Mirror, Mirror” reflect not just our fear and isolation stemming from this realization but the ways in which government has contributed to it. Indeed, “Mirror, Mirror” contains a small, poorly-developed subplot about the Queen’s excessive taxation of the villagers. Before she ascended to the throne, the villages, we are told, were happy places, full of dancing and laughter. But the Queen has appearances to keep up, and the kingdom is going broke from her lavish parties and huge wardrobe. Her solution is to impose steep taxes on the villagers, which have buried them in poverty. This narrative, in which the country is running a deficit on the backs of working people, reflects principles of both the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement. This story element is also prevalent in “The Hunger Games,” in which the richest citizens live in the Capitol and the working citizens of the 12 districts provide them with resources. Much like Snow White, Katniss becomes a hero for the working class, and her success in the games inspire a revolt.

The revolt, which will become a much larger part of the story in the sequels, demonstrates that while Katniss is the catalyst, she is part of a larger community of shared beliefs and problems. Snow White, too, becomes part of a community – she moves in with the seven dwarves, and they fight the Queen together. This is a far cry from the action movies of the 1980s (“Die Hard,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) that reflected the conservative celebration of the individual.  The portrayal of these two heroines, particularly Katniss, as leaders of movements for change reflect a sea change in the politics of our culture towards something closer to collectivism.

Katniss is a feminist icon and a leader for a new generation, but – as the middle-aged woman sitting across from you on the train will tell you – the appeal of “The Hunger Games” cuts across generational lines, as well as age and race.  The trend of apocalyptic fiction that has invaded the young adult market signifies a much deeper problem relevant to both the generation these books are written for and the generation they are created by. Whether it is due to family strife, the threat of an apocalyptic event brought on by climate change, or the failure of a government tied too deeply to corporate interests, Americans no longer feel protected, and movies – the myths of our time – are starting to reflect that. Both “The Hunger Games” and “Mirror, Mirror” portray Americans as abandoned children, lost in the wilderness and beset by unseen enemies. Snow and Katniss may find their way out of the dark forest of disillusionment, but our path to recovery is less clear.

Read my original review of “The Hunger Games”.

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2 thoughts on “Life in the Dark Forest: Snow White, The Hunger Games, and the New American Fairy Tale

  1. This was a really interesting read, thank you. Another thing I noticed with the Snow White films that still leads to the Hunger Games is also that they show SW getting trained/becoming harder. I think it’s important now to show the struggle and hard work that lead to a happy ending. “And then a handsome prince chose her out of millions of other pretty girls by pure chance and fixed her life” in a lottery style way no longer seems to wash.

    • Thanks for commenting! I think you’re right. I didn’t really touch on it my post, but there is such a strong feminist perspective in both stories. They are the heroes – not just for themselves but for the whole society represented in the story.

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