Melting the Ice on Frozen: Why the Original Author Wouldn't Want to Build a SnowmanThursday, April 10, 2014
A cursed queen. A snowman with adorable buck teeth and an unhealthy obsession with summer. Powerful vocals. Stunning winter scenery.
These are all elements that make up the much loved, much acclaimed Frozen. My first winter in Chicago took on a new meaning while my friends and I pranced through the wonderland belting, “Do you wanna build a snowman?”
While it’s true that I definitely caught the Frozen-fad, it’s also true that I at first had reservations regarding the interpretation of the original fairytale. As a writer, I was sensitive to the use of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen as the inspiration for a movie that is completely different from the story he created. (Then again, aren’t most movie adaptions guilty of this?)
The main reason I like Frozen is the music and Idina Menzel’s breathtaking voice. However, the more I’ve thought about the movie, the more I’ve realized that Disney’s interpretation represents a cultural shift over the past several years.
Andersen’s art was meant to teach. Disney’s was meant to entertain.
There is a rigid difference between the way art was utilized in Andersen’s time and the way our more all-accepting, equalized culture views it now.
What do I mean by this? Let me explain with a bit of history and backstory.
Hans Christian Andersen was a devout Christian. He wrote about heavy, sometimes sadistic, consequences for actions, a concept we see clearly in the real story of The Little Mermaid. The non-Disney Ariel wasn’t exactly waltzing with her prince; she was a spoiled child who wanted so desperately to be a beautiful human that she ended up dying in the end after pursuing her vanity. These themes were throughout his work because Andersen viewed his writing as a tool to instruct and even to rebuke. His stories helped people to examine their own lives, pinpoint their “vanities” and address them. His fairytales led to self-investigation.
The Snow Queen, while softer in tone than his other works, was written to serve this same purpose. The tale begins with an evil troll, named the Devil, who created a magic mirror. It was charmed to only reflect the vile and the ugly in anything—it would distort any image to take away its beauty. The Devil decided to try to trick God and the angels of heaven by shining the mirror upon them—but the closer he got to the celestial kingdom, the more the mirror began to slip from him until it fell to the earth below, shattering into a million pieces. The small shards of the enchanted mirror infiltrated the earth, piercing some people and causing their hearts to freeze and become cold and callous. Like the mirror, they were only able to see the bad and and the ugly.
The narrative shifts to the lives of a young boy named Kai and his best friend Gerda. One winter, Kai sees the Snow Queen outside—she is beautiful and cunning and she beckons to him to come to her, but he refuses. That summer, Kai becomes accidentally splintered by a piece of the mirror’s glass and he becomes cruel and violent. The Snow Queen succeeds in convincing him to come away with her, so she abducts him to her winter palace in the north pole. Desperate to save her friend, Gerda sets off on a rescue mission. She succeeds by entering the palace, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, and her warm tears melt Kai’s heart. The book ends with a passage from the Bible.
The Snow Queen is an incredibly complex story that represents duality. The kids learn that evil is in the world, that it’s powerful and that it can exist within themselves. The story is a warning about temptation, giving into immorality and it is also about distorted beauty, lust for power and the lethality of sin. Andersen strongly emphasizes Christian ideals. We are meant to see the truth of the human condition in the story—we are susceptible to the lure of danger and darkness. And immorality through a warped perception of truth dominates the social order.
But Andersen’s story is also progressive in that there is not an emphasis on romantic ideals. It is highly grounded in realism. The world is marked by depravity and humanity by perversity. Only through childlike faith can someone overcome the powers of darkness.
And if Andersen can still be considered progressive, with a story written almost 200 years ago, what does that say about where we are today? Are we regressive, retreating back to unattainable romanticized dreams that are not true reflections of the world?
We are meant to learn from stories like The Snow Queen. They inspire and illuminate.
What can we learn from Frozen?
Perhaps we learn about sisterly love. And we see that it’s not a good idea to marry someone you’ve known for a day. But we also see that there is still a focus on romance, that unlike Gerda, Anna needs a man (Kristoff) to complete her mission. The focus is no longer on trust and faith in goodness, but on magic, happy dancing trolls (very different than Andersen intended), cute songs and finding one’s voice.
We don’t usually leave movies today feeling introspective about the “mirror shards” that control our own lives. This is because we have reduced the capacity and power of art. Now, don’t get me wrong. I still love Frozen! But I also like movies—and books—that challenge me to reflect on my life.
In today’s culture, we want happy, romantic endings.
The entertainment industry is there to entertain. To provide amusement and joy. Stories like The Snow Queen were written to teach.
The thing is, original fairytales were rarely about the happily ever after. Today, we want stories that make us feel good about ourselves. But I would like to see more stories that help us learn. I want to see books that challenge things like pride, anger management, impatience, vanity or gossip. I would like to see Hollywood address social and cultural issues through personal stories that can truly impact people.
While I like Frozen because its chilling story is beautifully heartwarming, I feel that Andersen would be disappointed. We have succeeded in minimizing a fairytale that had a potent and powerful style which dared to question the unquestionable.
So in regards to Frozen, should we build a snowman or should we let it go?