Snow White gets weird

This weekend I rewatched Snow White: A Tale of Terror (1997) and I realized it’s another example of how magic can work without obvious rules.
The movie stars Sigourney Weaver as the wicked queen (actually a wicked noblewoman), newly married to Sam Neill, although initially a sympathetic one (well. overlooking the implication that she murdered her predecessor). She makes every effort to be nice to her stepdaughter Lillie, but when the girl’s cruelty stresses her out and provokes a miscarriage, Weaver snaps. And the magic mirror she inherited from her mother suggests it would be sooo simple to get rid of all her enemies …
The magic here is classic fairy-tale (albeit very, very grim [pun intentional]): No explanation how it works, no magic “system,” just … eeriness. In her first attack, after Lily joins the dwarves (actually seven outlaws mining gold to support themselves) Weaver puts a bird inside a large hourglass, turns it over and as the sand piles up, the mine suddenly starts to cave in. The rest of Weaver’s scheming works much the same way.
As I’ve said before, you don’t need a coherent magical system to write fantasy, you just need magic that feels like it makes sense. To the extent it has rules, we can set them up early on: If we see someone tying a lock of hair to a doll, then stabbing the doll, even someone who’s never heard of sympathetic magic or voodoo (my apologies for reducing the various voudou religions to the “voodoo doll” stereotype) can probably understand what’s happening when the hair’s original owner keels over dead.
Similarly, Weaver buries a bird, Lily almost dies. Weaver topples a statue, a tree almost crushes her target. The movie doesn’t explain what happens when Lily smashes the mirror, but it feels logical.
L. Frank Baum was wonderful at this. Whether he was writing about a powder of life, popcorn snow or a city of living china dolls, he could make it feel quite believable.
The one rule you can’t break is changing the rules mid-game. If Weaver suddenly pointed and zapped Lily’s friends dead, that would be a cop-out, since she’s shown no ability to work death spells.
Beyond that, anything goes. And it’s fun when it does.

1 Comment

Filed under Movies, Writing

One response to “Snow White gets weird

  1. Pingback: Movies and a Book | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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