1998’s Ever After: A Drew Barrymore Jawn has a complicated relationship with my brain and my heart. The year it came out, I was 12 years old with a dedicated subscription to Seventeen and its monthly updates on what all the cool public school kids were wearing while me and my Catholic school uniform looked on in envy. Seventeen ran ads and features for this weird Cinderella movie with the girl from Scream, and it looked like it would be Romeo + Juliet except the girl wouldn’t behave so irrationally this time, god.
I saw the movie and I loved it. It’s still a fun movie that never fails to cheer me up. Among my circle of friends, it doesn’t hold the same Classic Lady Movie clout as Clueless, Now and Then, or 10 Things I Hate About You, but that makes me cherish it all the more. Truth be told, I think my favorite part of the movie was how little it resembled its cheesy trailer, which carefully omitted from the movie that Drew Barrymore’s Danielle spends 5 seconds whispering “Just breathe” and two whole hours yelling at everyone, especially the Prince of France.
Those are the emotional ties that Ever After has knotted around my heart. My relationship to the movie becomes complicated as I’ve tried to defend this movie as a Genuinely Good Movie. You see, the movie isn’t perfect. Blame the unreliable older narrator who opens the movie, but the historical facts of her story don’t add up. The Brothers Grimm, to whom she’s passing on The True Cinderella Story were working in the 19th century and her “great-great grandmother” had lived these adventures almost 300 years beforehand; the historical prince married a Medici princess before dying at age 40 from injuries sustained during a joust; did Danielle’s father ever mention that Utopia was an extended ironic thinkpiece from Wolf Hall dickhead Thomas More?
Let’s not forget Ever After included in a supporting role Manic Pixie Gay Renaissance Artist Leonardo da Vinci, even though he was way too dead to help Danielle win her prince back. While some of these are absurd comic elements in the story, they also seem to undermine the important ways the movie adapted the Cinderella story for contemporary audiences.
In thinking about this piece, I kept coming back to this idea of historical accuracy and the idea that Danielle’s fictional story could lose some of its strength because these inaccuracies (in a fictional story) undermined the world where she lived and therefore her entire story. However, these errors take nothing from the story; if these mistakes were resolved, they would bring nothing to the story. Ever After derives its real strength from the cast of fully realized female characters, who redefined the Cinderella story with a new way fairy tales should be told. Since this October marks 15 years since Ever After’s release date into theaters, let’s look back at Ever After and how it can inform the way we think about the adaptations, reboots, and remakes that populate our current media.
Every repurposed fairy tale work since Ever After has been attempting to capture what it did so well. We should look at the current landscape created by Ever After’s spiritual inheritors, so to speak, because the past few years have seen a resurgence in the repurposed fairy tale. Disney-ABC’s Once Upon a Time vomited the entire Disney canon into a small town in Maine and demanded Jennifer Morrison untangle its meaning (godspeed). NBC’s Grimm… exists? In movies, we have Tangled, Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Jack the Giant Slayer, with more in the pipeline because those weren’t enough. Yet most of these (with Tangled as the exception) have been dismal contributions to their respective fairy tales, particularly the closest analogues to Ever After: 2012’s two Snow White features, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman.
Each Snow White movie had its strengths, like Mirror Mirror’s Bollywood-esque closing dance number and Charlize Theron’s terrifying turn as the queen/stepmother in Snow White and the Huntsman. (Spoiler: the secret to Charlize’s particular brand of majesty is MURDER.) Mirror Mirrorpromised a fun new twist on Snow White, while SWatH seemed a gritty interpretation that literally coated Kristen Stewart in mud and grime when the plot failed to reveal new depth to Snow White’s story. That isn’t to say that they weren’t entertaining, but the movies fell short of their own potential to tell fully realized stories within the fairy tale world borrowed for the occasion.
These latest adaptations of the Snow White story share an interesting feature in that the most compelling character of either movie is Snow White’s antagonist, the evil queen. Each movie gives its queen an origin story and her own history; each shows the choices she made to create the woman who sits on a usurped throne and rules by sheer force of personality. Their realized stories from selfish beginnings to unsustainable ends are well-planned, but they’re too large to fit alongside Snow White’s story. Their unsustainable ends (Mirror Mirror’s queen and her lavish parties/spa treatments, SWatH’s Ravenna and her one-peasant-girl-a-day habit for flawless skin) rush in with Snow White’s resurrection, reducing Snow White to a deus ex machina within the villain’s story as well as her own.
Each Snow White’s lackluster treatment becomes all the more apparent in comparison to the lavish attention paid to the villains in these movies. Snow White becomes a more difficult story to adapt because even in the popular Brothers Grimm version, Snow lacks action in her own story: she buys every damn murderous thing those traveling forest witches/evil saleswomen hock at the dwarfs’ door. She can’t even cough out the poisoned bit of apple she choked on until a necrophiliac prince’s searching tongue dislodges it from her mouth.
Mirror Mirror and SWatH’s Snow Whites have similar passive roles, though Kristen Stewart’s Snow does demand an army of dudes to make her their weapon. She defeats the evil queen by snarling at her, “I’m everything you’re not,” defining her strength by how much she hasn’t done. Actually, that might be enough since the movie establishes that Ravenna maintains her “fairest blood” status in the world with a steady diet of SUCKING YOUNG WOMEN DRY. (Nature, or God, or that crazy Miyazaki stag, or whatever does the magical law-keeping in their world, seems to think it’s a fair cop.) Strength here still isn’t defined by making the right choices, but by the luck of surviving a lifetime of victimization.
(Except it’s Snow White so she still has to survive, then die, and she has to wait for the right Hemsworth to resurrect her. Sorry, Liam. The lips of Thor are the lips of a healer, or something.)
These Snow Whites (like other Cinderellas) suffer from contemporary writers’ desires to portray their “true stories,” and so fail to understand that there’s no correct way of re-telling a fairy tale. Each tale changes constantly through new attitudes, mis/translations, miscommunications, and appropriation, with the woman’s story at the center of each as the only constant. Snow White escapes, finds some friends, and finds herself; Cinderella escapes her stepmother, wins over her prince, and ensures her freedom. It’s up to each artist to take those bare bones and create a new figure that can captivate audiences across centuries and countries. The settings and props can change, but keep the girl and make it her story—she’s the one we came to see.
If comparing Mirror Mirror and SWatH to a movie like Ever After that has withstood the test of time seems unfair: I absolutely agree. It’s disheartening, ridiculous, unbelievable, rage-inducing stupidity that has narrowed this field to a handful of movies with enough substance for comparison. It’s unbelievable that fairy tale heroines are so pervasive in our world, yet we’re hopeless to find movies where those characters are women with their own thoughts who make their own decisions and live their own lives. That’s it. That’s all that Ever After does differently. That’s the big secret that Drew Barrymore’s Cinderella has been hoarding all these years: she’s a person with a history and a family, and her own thoughts and desires. That’s it. That’s what so few movies, most of them built on premises and franchises rather than characters’ stories, can accomplish.
Instead of recapping the entire plot of Ever After and Danielle’s story (Cinderella has a name!), we can best gauge Danielle’s definition as a character by looking at her story’s culminating moment. Near the end of the movie, Danielle has been sold to Local Rich Creeper to pay her stepmother’s debts. When the prince learns that she’s been sold, he gathers several men on horseback to join him in freeing his ladylove! The prince rides up to Castle Creeper, but Danielle has already liberated herself by threatening to bisect Creeper with his own swords. Danielle gives the prince a baffled look as he announces that he came to rescue her.
“SO UNREALISTIC,” cried haters. “Women didn’t sword fight in Those Days, or even once in the history of sharpened sticks as weapons, so how could she be good enough to do that?”
Here’s how: Ever After isn’t the story of Danielle growing up. The movie skips from her father’s death to her life several years later. By the time the movie picks up again, Danielle is an adult who knows that her locust stepmother and stepsisters will be moving on when they find the next man to bankroll their expensive life, and she can bide her time until they leave and she can take back her home and live her life. Before that, Danielle had a weird upbringing—she even knows how to read. With her mother dead and her father traveling frequently, and the household servants all old as balls (and only getting older), who was going to protect Danielle while her father was away? Who was going to protect their house, their lands, their animals and crops? The household servants could do their best but, ultimately, it’s Danielle who would manage the property, and Danielle who would prosper or starve depending on its management. The least her father could teach her, as soon as she grew old enough, was how to use a sword.
Tags: anachronistic feminism
, drew barrymore
, ever after
, fairy tales
, historical inaccuracy
, kristen stewart coated in mud and grime
, michelle vider
, romantic comedies