Snow White: Rescued from “Death by Poison Apple”
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs debuted in December 1937, becoming the first feature-length animated film to be produced in English and Technicolor. These are themselves enough to consider the film a landmark achievement, but there’s something more, something deeper, that’s even more significant.
Walt Disney and his staff of animators had by this time been delighting the public with characters for about a decade by this time, and one of the techniques they’d developed was the ability to make these characters feel 3-dimensional. Until Mickey Mouse, animated characters had been largely lifeless, carrying out actions on the screen but not really seeming like “real” people. But with Mickey, audiences felt for him, cheered him on, and sympathized with him.
These years of practice were put to good use, even beyond what Disney had expected. When the dwarfs were silly, the people laughed, but more than that, when they were sad, audiences cried. When Snow White ate the poisoned apple and fell into her death-like sleep, the crowd was stunned, and when she was awakened by the prince, they cheered! This kind of reaction from audiences was unheard of at the time, though we take it for granted now.
It was this connection to the film’s characters that made it so popular at the time, and now, more than 75 years later, is still widely-regarded as one of the best animated features ever created. To this day, Disneyland guests can meet Snow White by her wishing well, and experience for themselves her “scary adventures” in Fantasyland.
Of course, this story isn’t unique to Walt Disney. He adapted it from a fairy tale that had been told by many over the years, and he used the Brothers Grimm version as his basis. Naturally, he had to make some alterations to the story to fit the medium, the running time, and the culture of the day. And it’s one of these adaptations that is highly significant to us, because, like Sleeping Beauty more than two decades later, it sets the stage for Snow White to be an illustration of us.
In the Grimm version of the story, the Evil Queen tries to kill Snow White in three different ways (besides ordering the Huntsman to do it), not just one as in the Disney version. The Grimms recount these attempts as:
- offering Snow White a silky, lacy bodice as a gift, then lacing it so tightly she causes the girl to faint–from which the dwarfs revive her.
- offering her a beautiful but poisoned comb, again as a gift, and combing her hair with it. Again Snow White faints and again she is revived by the dwarfs.
- offering Snow White a poisoned apple, made from the darkest magic. This time the attempt appears successful.
It isn’t, of course, and the way that’s resolved takes a somewhat different path between the written story and the movie. But what intrigues me is that Walt Disney could have chosen any or all of these three methods for his telling of the tale, but he consciously selected the poisoned apple. With that choice, look at a basic outline of the story, as told by Disney:
- The daughter of a king is hated by someone evil, simply because she is who she is.
- This evil person attempts to destroy the princess, first by driving her from her rightful home, and then tried to finish the job with a piece of poisoned fruit.
- The fruit is not forced on the girl, but she is enticed to take it because, she is told, one bite will make all of her dreams come true.
- The fruit does not give her what she expects, but instead puts her in a death-like sleep.
- She is awakened from this sleep by the classic Disney fairy tale device, True Love’s Kiss from one who is himself royalty.
The parallel is almost unmistakable. Think of Adam and Eve. They, too, were the children of royalty–God Himself. But there was someone who hated you, not for anything they’d done but simply because they were who they were. So he attempted to destroy them, again with the offer of a piece of fruit (it may have been an apple, but the Bible doesn’t explicitly say). Like it did to Snow White, the offer came with a promise. The one thing they wanted most, “to be like God, knowing good from evil,” was promised to them with just one bite. So they took it, they ate it, and they were driven from what had been their rightful home. With that act, they were separated from God, and so death became their reality.
But as with Snow White, the story didn’t end there. For many centuries humanity remained in this sinful state, enduring physical and spiritual death. The Jewish people had the Law, the Prophets, and the Covenant to keep the full effects of this curse at bay, but these were a temporary measure. At just the right time, Jesus, the Prince of Peace, came and broke the curse.
In fairy tales, True Love’s Kiss is not a simple and meaningless act. It symbolizes the breaking of the curse and the restoration of the natural order. In our case, this “Kiss” came through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. With this act, the curse was broken.
As Sleeping Beauty reminds of the story of our salvation, so does the story of Snow White. In both cases, while we remain on earth we don’t experience the full effect of the curse being broken and our “happily ever after,” but that day will come.
That’s OK, though. Disney Legend Alice Davis once told Jim Korkis (Disney historian and recent Stories of the Magic podcast guest), “I believe in happy endings. If you’re not happy, then it just means it is not the end yet. And Walt believed that too.”
Kingdom Thinking: If you’re a believer in Christ, your “happy ending” is still to come, and it is a promise. Take a minute to thank God today for that.