The Next Disney Movie That Will Never Be: The Snake Sister

The Three Skulls, Paul Cezanne

I am finally getting around to Franz Xaver von Schönwerth's The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales, the collection of previously obscure tales found a few years ago in an archive in Germany. Only halfway through the book, I've been struck by how visceral the tales are; it isn't unusual for folklore, to be sure, but the tone is very matter-of-fact. I recall several reactions to the discovery of the stories in 2012 along the lines of, "Think of the new Disney films that will come from these!" I suspect it to be unlikely, though they've certainly shown they don't mind cleaning things up (compare Disney's Snow White to the Grimms' Schneewittchen, or Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame to Hugo's), but if they did choose one to adapt, I'd like it to be this one.

"The Snake Sister" has elements of Cinderella (Schönwerth's "Ashfeathers" is a more straight-forward Cinderella) but is different enough that you don't think of it as just another Cinderella. The father has two children, a boy named Hans and a girl named Annie, and their mother has long since died. Annie's friend's mother, a witch, curses Annie to be ill until Annie's father agrees to marry her. He does, and then conveniently disappears.

The father leaves them with two houses, one in which Hans gets to live by himself, because that sounds normal, and the other in which Annie lives with her new stepmother and stepsister. The stepmother puts Annie to work, though whenever Hans comes to visit, they dress her up and serve splendid feasts to make Hans think Annie is being treated well. Hans eventually discovers the truth and decides leaving Annie there while he goes to seek his fortune is the best course of action. Hans is not the brightest.

So of course Annie continues to be mistreated while Hans is out seeking his fortune, ostensibly to save her. One day the stepmother sends Annie to fetch water from the well, believing the wild animals guarding the well will destroy Annie. Along the way, she encounters a dwarf, who rewards her kindness with a crust of bread to throw to the animals. She safely fetches water from the well, and on her return home, she hears three skulls call out to her, asking to be cleaned with the fresh water she was carrying. She uses up all her water cleaning them, but as she leaves they call out blessings to her:

"May you become even more beautiful than you already are!"
"May you succeed in everything you decide to do!"
"May you become queen, even if it means that you are first turned into a snake!"

Interestingly specific, third skull.

Annie returns home more beautiful and not torn to shreds by wild animals than ever, and the stepmother furiously sends her own daughter to the well to get some of that magical beauty. The stepdaughter has no trouble with the wild animals, apparently, but when the skulls ask to be washed, she tosses them in the mud, and they call out curses to her:

"May you return home even uglier than you already are!"
"May you fail at everything that you decide to do!"
"May you be burned at the stake after you become queen of the land!"

That third skull is pulling no punches.

Meanwhile, Hans is penniless and sleeping in the king's stables, so that's going well. The king's grooms notice Hans kissing a portrait of a beautiful young woman and weeping. They tell the king about it and the king demands that Hans let him see the portrait. Of course, he immediately falls in love with Annie's portrait and asks that Hans bring his family to the castle.

Castle Anif, Salzburg

As the four of them - Hans, Annie, the stepsister, and the stepmother - cross the lake to get to the castle, the stepmother pushes Annie in the water and turns her into a snake. When the three remaining get to the castle, the king is furious that the beautiful girl in the portrait isn't among them, but he marries the stepsister because he feels like he has to, and throws Hans in the dungeon after sentencing him to death. A brighter man than Hans would probably choose this moment to speak up, but that makes a shorter story, I suppose.

The stepmother tells her daughter to ask the king for mercy for Hans, and the king relents, saying that Hans's life will be spared if he can build a bridge over the water. Instead of doing that, Hans sits by the lake and weeps. Suddenly a mysterious snake shows up and tells Hans to go to sleep and that in the morning everything will be done. When the sun rose, the bridge was complete, and Hans was now given something to eat once a day.

The stepmother is still feeling guilty, though, and asks her daughter to again ask the king for mercy for Hans. The king tells Hans to build a castle opposite the one currently standing. Hans again sits by the lake and weeps, the snake tells him that everything will be done, and Hans goes to sleep. Hans now gets two meals a day but remains in the dungeon.

The third time this happens, the king tells Hans to bring the snake into the courtyard. As usual, Hans goes to the lake and cries. The snake shows up and says that she will go with him to the courtyard, where they will chop her to bits, and then Hans must take up her right eye and bury it at the entrance to the new castle. All of this comes to pass, and a few days later, the king looks out his window to see Annie springing up from the ground at the entrance to the new castle. Hans is summoned to dig her out, the whole story is revealed, and the stepmother is torn to pieces by horses and the stepsister is burned at the stake. Annie marries the king and becomes the queen.

I would love to see this as an animated film - with live action there would surely be extensive reliance on CGI which just leaves me cold. Ideally a traditional 2D animation would be spectacular, probably lending itself to a The Black Cauldron vibe. But as that's one of the least successful Disney films, I don't think we can much count on it. But the talking skulls, the snake, and the animals at the well would all be potentially really beautiful animations. The story mentions a knife Hans sticks into a tree that should remain shiny while he is alright and would rust if he ran into trouble, but once he puts it in the tree it is never mentioned again; it would be a fascinating motif if expanded into a film, though.

Something should probably be done about Hans if this was to be made a film. At the very least, have Annie call him out for finding out about her abuse and then leaving her there and then not speaking up when their stepmother turns her into a snake, instead having his newly-made snake sister build a bridge and a castle (which - okay, I know it's magic, but she doesn't have hands. How was this achieved. Maybe bring in those animals from the well?) and then get chopped into bits and have to regenerate herself in the dirt. Really, Hans?

In fact, having Hans's actions remain the same but have Annie explicitly call him out for them would probably be the best way to handle it. It illustrates the dangers of not speaking up when something is wrong, and shows a way to point out when you have been mistreated rather than silently accepting it. And perhaps the stepsister is part of that, too - everything she did, aside from throwing the skulls in the mud, was done at her mother's insistence. If she knew what her mother was asking was wrong, if she had told her mother she wouldn't do it, if she had told her mother what she was doing was wrong, would things have been different?

As far as casting, as I mentioned, I'd prefer animation to live action. We know Keke Palmer's got a lovely voice, and if it were to be made a musical, you'd be all set. I think it would also be interesting to see Annie and Hans played by Willow and Jaden Smith.

I am just about halfway through the book, but I may be back to discuss more Schönwerth when I finish it!


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