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Media Read: Mirror Mirror

Who's Saving Whom? Gender Compromise Reigns in "Mirror Mirror."(Photo: Jan Thijs. © 2012 Relativity Media. All Rights Reserved.)


The Movie

In Mirror Mirror, which opens in U.S. theaters today, the mirror works pretty darn hard to earn its status as the title character. For starters, it’s not just kept quietly off to the side in the chambers of The Queen (Julia Roberts), but is housed in its own side-pocket universe that seems to lie somewhere on the outskirts of the Uncanny Valley: The Queen’s reflection is not so much a reflection but an intentionally crude-yet-accurate machinima-like avatar, as if the mirror is only half-heartedly embracing its duties as a mirror. Maybe that’s because it would rather participate directly in the action—which it eventually does in a kind of Harryhausen-lite sequence in which it sends some oversized marionettes to dispatch Snow White (Lily Collins) and her seven comrades-in-arms.

And that’s just a sampling of why I feel Mirror Mirror works—it’s got plenty of pre-teen-targeted excitement, and also plenty of interesting creative choices and subtexts for adults to pick up on… plus, lest you think your enjoyment might be purely cerebral, a pretty generous supply of laughs, too. In this sense, among others, it waaaaay exceeds my expectations, which were not set terribly high after viewing the trailer. In fact, I’d even say that Mirror Mirror recalls the best of the Disney tradition in that it takes pains to provide sufficient artistry—director Tarsem Singh is about the furthest you could imagine from a “family-friendly” hack—to make the accompanying adult not regret springing for a ticket. Of course Relativity Media can’t be blamed for both being pleased by and irked by my Disney comparison. While it certainly wouldn’t mind it if Mirror Mirror became the live-action children’s movie exemplar of the Snow White tale in the same way that the 1937 Disney film became the animated exemplar, it would probably appreciate coming out fully from under the latter’s shadow.

In other words, this may be a live-action film, but it’s not a live-action remake. Not even close. Just take a look at these talking points, which may be rather obvious but are still worth exploring with young moviegoers:

  • The Queen is now the outright rival of Snow White for the affections of the prince—here named Prince Alcott, possibly an ancestor of the author of Little Women.
  • The problematic idea of women fighting over a man—yes, men compete with rivals over women in movies as well but it’s rarely their chief motivation as characters—is here girded by a strong political subplot:  Snow White is not simply the rightful ruler, but the one who cares deeply about the commoners.
  • In addition, although The Queen plainly lusts after the prince, her desire to wed him is mostly informed by a similarly political incentive: a formal alliance with a powerful neighbor would shore up her bankrupt government.
  • The dwarfs aren’t simply oddball hermits or immoral bandits but reg’lar folks—one is even a teacher—who just happen to have been marginalized by The Queen’s pogroms.
  • Patriarchy looms in the background—its downfall marks the beginning of tyranny, and its renewal at the end is framed as a clear response to the failure of matriarchy. (A nice fanboy-ish cameo both underscores this unfortunate subtext and entertains us big-time—like much of pop culture.)
  • Most glaringly of all: there’s no “Huntsman” character. In fact, the entire plot has been reconfigured so that the prince is a both a more conventional love interest throughout and, wherever possible, shown as an equal in courage, if not skill, to Snow White.

The Seven Dwarfs: hand-wringing babysitters...


...or freedom fighters just waiting for the right leader?

All of these maneuverings might help explain why many mainstream critics just don’t get it with regard to Mirror Mirror. Yes, the filmmakers are trying to update Snow White, but again, not as shallowly as the trailer might have one believe. But that doesn’t mean they’re trying to pander to adult audiences either. Market to them, yes—and why not? But the content itself constitutes one of the more solid kid flicks I’ve seen in quite a while.

The missing piece of the conceptual puzzle: such critics may not realize that the nature of the “children’s movie” itself has changed in recent years. What they could be interpreting as cynical moves to go after dual target audiences is actually a bull’s-eye in terms of today’s precociously hip kids. I’m not commenting—not here, that’s a separate post, or ten—on the significance of this situation culturally, but rather merely pointing out that Mirror Mirror is spot-on in terms of the 8-12 demographic. Sure, there are movies like the Pixar releases that make us forget there are such distinctions in the first place, but they’re the exceptions that prove the rule. In short, if you’re viewing Mirror Mirror solely through that lens, then you’re probably not familiar with a lot of the product that’s typically geared toward kids these days. Mirror Mirror, while hardly flawless, is full of enough wit and imagination to make me confident about recommending to anyone who’s initially curious about it.

The Books

A lot of libraries frown upon acquiring movie tie-ins of the sort that Scholastic published a couple of months ago, possibly as an understandable stand against commercialization. However, I in turn frown upon this practice as a matter of policy for a couple of reasons:

1)  It prevents fans from interacting with storyworlds across multiple media, and conducting their own critical analyses of such works. Admittedly, a property such as Mirror Mirror may not develop much of a fan base per se—it’s hard to see the requisite sequel developing out of where the narrative leaves us—but if transliteracy is a skill we value, why make movie tie-ins off-limits?

2) Media literacy education depends on the free-flowing access of students to media products, including pop culture releases, so that they can be studied and thus promote the development of critical thinking, if not critical literacy. So if it’s a “protectionist” position you’re taking, are you also hoping to shield students from all tangential texts in every part of their outside-of-school/outside-of-library lives? Fine if you are, but if some media messages slip through the cracks, where have young people gained the critical perspective that can help them evaluate such texts?

Mirror Mirror: The Movie Novel is a briskly-paced, highly readable prose adaptation of the novel that manages to capture much of the screenplay’s wit and arch tone while keeping the reading level accessible. It also does a nice, smooth job of translating into prose some of narrative elements that in the film must inferred from visuals.

But of course in saying “it” does this and that, I’m avoiding the issue of authorship.

Which means that you may want to point out to young readers that there is, in fact, no author mentioned on the cover or spine of the book. That’s not unusual with this kind of text, which I’m guessing is a licensed product (folks at Scholastic and Relativity, please feel free to correct me on that). On the front cover we read “Based on Relativity’s Motion Picture,” and on the title page the phrase “Adapted by Lexi Ryals” must be teased out of the total of six lines that cite everyone from the screenwriters and Singh to “the Grimm Brothers.”

Again, kudos to Ms. Ryals for a job well done.

But was it her bright idea, or that of an editor at Scholastic, to create a prologue to handle The Queen’s voice-over at the start of the movie? You may want to point out that editorial decisions of this sort can’t always be attributed to the writer, who’s typically a seasoned freelancer who takes direction from both the licensor and licensee. I know this because I’ve been there myself.

There’s also a neat epilogue that does not correspond to anything in the film, but serves to reiterate the keynote of gender parity that the film (mostly) advocates. (Aside: these same two pages, however, perpetuate the misconception that mano a mano has something to do with a “man” instead of being the Spanish phrase for “hand-to-hand.”)

And yet another smart aspect of this book that I’m sure someone in editorial can take credit for: go ahead and show the gallery of color stills plus captions to students who have seen and those who have not seen the movie, and ask them if they’re spoilers. I don’t think so, not remotely, but even just discussing that point demonstrates an awareness of how people read such a book—they skip to the pictures first—which in turn demonstrates a literacy about how readers experience the medium. Simple, straightforward stuff for us, surely, but with young people it’s always valuable to make these kinds of issues explicit, thus helping them develop metacognition about themselves as readers.

Yes, there is a “happily ever after” caption at the end of the photo section, but does that really qualify as a spoiler?  This itself, by the way, is a good springboard for a conversation about spoilers and genre (i.e., don’t you just expect certain things to happen in particular genres?).

Mirror Mirror: The Movie Storybook, as pleasantly innocuous as it seems, is both richer and more problematic in a lot of ways. And that speaks to a core pedagogical principle of mine (in case you were curious): texts for younger audiences hold tremendous potential for critical thinking by older audiences, and should be embraced for that very reason.

One would expect a lot of narrative reduction in the process of abridging the text for beginning readers, but remarkably the book departs so much from the film that it can barely be considered an adaptation.

Snow found herself banished to the dark woods. She became very frightened.

More of the same ensues until the next page:

…seven small men came upon the Princess. They carried her home and watched over her until at last she awoke.

All very reasonable and straightforward—unless one has seen the movie. Then you’d know that, as in both the original Grimm version and in the Disney version, Snow White is brought to the woods to be killed. The film actually tweaks things cleverly in this respect, but the plot point is still there.

…so is this simply considered too dark for readers below a certain age?

Similarly, the forest-dwelling “Beast” that plays such a big part in the film is absent in this storybook version, as is the key scene when our protagonist fights Alcott and (mostly, again) proves his equal, not to mention the notion that commoners even exist. Instead, Snow White seems concerned with winning what should proprietorially belong to her. That’s it. Her kingdom, her man.

…which begs the question: how has this text really “progressed” any further than the Disneyfied version from 75 years ago?

To be clear, I’m not trying to pick on these books—they’re handsomely produced, and they engagingly tell the stories that they want to tell—but like all movie tie-ins their value partly lies in their stunning divergences with the source material.

About Peter Gutierrez