06/04/2012 05:40 pm ET Updated Aug 04, 2012

Snow White -- Then and Now

The story of Snow White as told in 1817 by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm runs a little under 3000 words. The language is as spare and stark as the story itself, which is in its essence a morality tale. Medieval in its origins, dark in its tone and attitude, the story addresses the sin of envy and its consequences.

The newly released cinematic version, Snow White and the Huntsman, represents a study in contrasts with the original. Whereas the Grimm version is notable for achieving large effects with minimal materials, the movie achieves modest effects with lush and lavish cinematic tricks and a surfeit of embellishments upon the original story.

Walt Disney turned Snow White into a charming but saccharine tale, one suitable for the nursery, by emphasizing the element of the seven dwarfs. Snow White and the Huntsman goes to the other extreme. For this movie, it's not enough that the evil stepmother desires her daughter's death; here she fatally stabs her husband the king as he is making love to her on their wedding night, and she displays in many other ways an indiscriminate cruelty, not one directed merely at her rival in beauty.

And so in the movie, the essential element of the story is lost. This queen carries a grudge against men, in addition to a free-wheeling, all-purpose nasty attitude. Envy is just a small card in her playing deck of evil attributes. In the Grimm version, the Queen gazes at herself in her mirror every day, and she asks who is fairest of all no less than seven times. In the movie, the mirror hardly functions to reflect her image; it is merely the source of an amorphous being who pours forth from it on a couple of occasions and offers her counsel. We hardly even know why the queen hates Snow White so much.

The movie is saved by the performance of Kristen Stewart, who alone provides a sense of authenticity. With her delicate features and her genius for looking troubled and beautiful at the same time, Stewart invests Snow White with an almost plausible personality. She alone is a character in the film that we really care about.

We are somewhat accustomed to the reality that Hollywood is more concerned about digitally enhanced special effects than about meaningful plot, dialogue, and character development. Snow White and the Huntsman holds our attention for most of its two hours, but the dazzling visual displays all begin to seem rather banal after a while, and in the end we are left to wonder how so much energy and money can be devoted to something so ultimately superficial.

The distance from the Grimm brothers to Snow White and the Huntsman serves as a kind of barometer for the temper of our times. No doubt the producers of this film have calculated its market with precision. They know exactly which demographics it will appeal to and the cost-benefit ratio of each element of the film. They know all too well our collective weakness for stimulation over substance, and the profit margin for this film will probably reinforce their rationale and result in the release of many more movies of this kind.