I’m so glad Snowpiercer is about adults, even if it’s told with the visual vocabulary and demented sense of humor of Roald Dahl. More on that later.
Listen, don’t get me wrong — I love young adult fiction, and I’m one of the first book geeks to argue that such novels deserve a seat at the big kids’ table. For me, the best YA fiction is written with the same seriousness, craft and care as a grown-up novel. The only difference is that its lead characters happen to be in their mid to late teen years. That’s it.
But even I’m getting a little tired of the trend. I mean, how many puffed-up, “you’re the chosen one” narratives can we be told? How many sets of rippling abs and exposed midriffs can we expect to admire before we revolt? How many love-triangles must divide us into Team Shithead and Team Asshole before we say enough’s enough?
OK, enough of the doofy belabored metaphors, but I’m not kidding. Just imagine if the wrong studio head had gotten their hands on Snowpiercer and turned it into yet another YA vehicle. The story, taken from a 1982 graphic novel, has many of the elements seen in the recent trend of dystopic YA: A society divided sharply by class lines; a rebellion; a leader; and a mysterious villain sitting at the top of it all, waiting to be toppled. It wouldn’t have taken much to age Chris Evans down from a grizzled 34 to a more audience-friendly 17 or 18. (Though I wouldn’t have minded if they switched the gender of the lead role.)
Snowpiercer is about adults and grown-up ideas like loss and regret, including that most insidious form of regret — regret for what you never had (and maybe never will). Snowpiercer also speaks to a belief in an underlying kindness in the human heart, even under great duress. Speaking from my own experience as a writer, the stuff I wrote in my YA/early-20s years was much, much angrier; far more concerned with retribution, revenge and obsession. In short, I wrote a lot about holding grudges, but as I got older, I started to write about letting go of grudges. Letting go of a grudge isn’t as sexy as planning and carrying out an elaborate plan of revenge — a plotline that figures prominently into one of my early novels — but I think it makes for better fiction.
Whoops. I used the “B” word, better. It feels like I’m edging ever so slightly toward the idea that “grown-up” fiction is better than YA, never mind that I’ve barely talked about why I enjoyed director Bong Joon-Ho’s take on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, written by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette.
I don’t think grown-up fiction is better than YA fiction. It’s all subjective, of course, but I do think that you have to be writing for grown-ups from a grown-up perspective to write fiction that can achieve capital-G greatness — and I eagerly invite any flaming or dissent in the comments. I’d love to talk in detail about this idea. In fact, I’m moved to remember a fairly nasty comment exchange I had years ago where I was arguing that The Lord of the Rings was a “greater” novel than The Hobbit. Here comes the theme of regret: I was being a jerk in that thread, and I wish I could’ve discussed my points when I wasn’t in such a bad mood — but in addition to those feelings, I’m sad the discussion ended when it did, because it was just getting interesting. No doubt due to my unpleasant tone, the people on the other side of the discussion withdrew, leaving me with this point: That reading is a subjective experience and that The Hobbit is simply a more enjoyable read than LOTR.
I wish we could’ve kept talking. Sorry I was being such a jerk.
So finally, let me pivot over to Snowpiercer, a hard-driving, super-fantastical riff on claustrophobic actioners like Die Hard that tells an adult tale of sacrifice and regret all while drawing on the imagery and iconography of classic children’s authors like Roald Dahl and L. Frank Baum. It’s bleeding-heart-liberal polemicism told with the cloying bluntness and stark moral boundaries of The Hunger Games or Atlas Shrugged. It’s an extended ode to the 99%, with a one-percenter villain who’s equal parts John Galt and Willy Wonka. It’s a social-justice allegory told in a series of perfectly paced action set-pieces, all of ‘em populated with heroes out of Upton Sinclair and villains culled from the ranks of both Under Siege and James and the Giant Peach. (Side note: Snowpiercer boasts an impressive roster of heroes and villains, many of whom manage to get under our skin while never uttering a line of dialogue. No small feat.)
If I were to voice one minor disappointment with Snowpiercer, it’s that the front of the train didn’t hold any real surprises for me. Somehow I managed to go into the movie unspoiled — I didn’t even know Ed Harris was in it, much less that he was the man behind the curtain — so as I was watching it, I couldn’t wait to see what secrets were held in the front cars. (My strongest suspicion was that the “haves” would be just as screwed as the “have-nots.”) But what the tail-section irregulars discovered was about what I expected: opulence, plenty and excess. That said, even though the ingredients in Snowpiercer were a little stale, the resulting dish tasted fresh. The train’s front section borrowed as much from Brazil as it did Ayn Rand, while also smuggling some delightfully minor-key Verhoeven-esque satire in my favorite scene: the classroom.
Midway through their journey, the tail-sectioners walk in on an elementary school class, where we finally learn the origin of the train. The brainchild of an eccentric billionaire survivalist, the “rattling ark”’s history is revealed to us in a bombastic propaganda newsreel straight out of Starship Troopers and the darkest reaches of North Korea. The teacher is a perky-blond gog-eyed grotesque belched from the hellscape of Soundgarden’s music video for “Black Hole Sun” who leads her students in rah-rah call-and-repeat chants that extol the benevolence and genius of their fearless leader (the aforementioned Galt-Wonka hybrid played by Ed Harris) and recall the conformist mania of any number of fascist regimes. (I also flashed on the wake-up calisthenics done in a lot of far-eastern nations.)
The classroom’s jaundiced primary colors and demento energy also reminded me of an underrated little movie called Running Scared, a Paul Walker vehicle that suffers from a shitty title but has amassed a cult following for its striking visual style and kick-ass source material — the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Roughly, the movie follows Walker’s good-hearted dad as he tries to find his lost child in a city (actually called Grimm, as I recall) that’s packed to the rafters with sicko-intense modern spins on fairy-tale ghouls like the Big Bad Wolf and most memorably, the witch from Hansel and Gretel.
Just stop and check out this mesmerizing scene:
Like Running Scared, Snowpiercer draws on classic children’s literature for a more grown-up purpose, but here’s the thing: Snowpiercer’s chief influences — Dahl and Baum — are quite a bit more layered than the fairy tales of old. Both movies are potboilers, but Snowpiercer’s got a slightly more advanced engine under the hood; the metaphor runs a little bit deeper, even if the morals are black and white.
I’ve invoked the names of both Roald Dahl and L. Frank Baum, but which author contributes more to Snowpiercer’s cinematic DNA? Well, there are elements from both. Both stories involve an escape from a dank doom-dimension (the Buckets’ shack, Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge’s house, dustbowl-era Kansas), as well as a voyage to a gilded paradise realm (the Emerald City, Willy Wonka’s factory) that presumably holds all the cures to what ails our heroes. (Oh, there’s also a little bit of The Poseidon Adventure mixed in here, too, with the rag-tag team of survivors fighting through industrial horrors to a heavenly escape. They even threw in a man hanging from a hatch-wheel. Don’t fall, Reverend Scott!) When Chris Evans’ Curtis arrives at the front of the train, the caesura before the story’s final movements feels like the delay before the Emerald City’s gatekeepers finally admit Dorothy and her posse.
That said, the train in Snowpiercer — from engine to caboose, from bow to stern, from within and without — feels most like a creation of Roald Dahl, including and especially Willy Wonka’s factory. Dahl’s delightfully deranged novel is like The Screwtape Letters for kids, with its cast of little shits who act like the Deadly Sins made corporeal and given a sweet tooth. But what links Snowpiercer to Dahl most clearly is its central set-piece: an industrial leviathan that devours children. Snowpiercer’s final mind-fuck — that enslaved children have replaced some of the unstoppable locomotive’s most crucial components — gives us a glimpse of what happened to Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt and Mike TeeVee after their mishaps on Wonka’s grand tour.
Consider these memorable lines from Dahl’s book in light of that imagery from Snowpiercer:
Charlie: Mr. Wonka, they won’t really be burned in the furnace, will they?
Willy Wonka: Hm, well, I think that furnace is only lit every other day, so they have a good sporting chance, haven’t they?
Mr. Salt: [about the squirrels taking Veruca] Where are they taking her?
Wonka: Where all the other bad nuts go: Down the garbage chute.
Mr. Salt: Where does the chute go?
Wonka: To the incinerator. But don’t worry, we only light it on Tuesdays.
Mike: Today is Tuesday.
Wonka: Well, there’s always a chance they decided not to light it today.
I was also struck by the implication that Tilda Swinton’s buzzard-like fussbudget had been one of those enslaved children; go back and note how often the camera lingers on her repetition of a single gestural tic, like she’s trying to twist open a Wonderland-tiny doorknob with a geriatric’s gnarled hands.
(Side note: Is there any way to over-praise Tilda Swinton? She’s such an unusual creature — vulpine and alien, otherworldly and statuesque. She’s blessed with a classical actor’s diction and a method maniac’s propensity to transmogrify into her roles. Her character in Snowpiercer stoked memories of her social worker in Moonrise Kingdom — another movie that has deep roots in children’s literature — all while incorporating the pea-brained, tin-plated officiousness of a cult-leader’s second-in-command. If Tommy Davis decided to follow Colonel Kurtz to Oz, the result might look like her character. She’s like a female Sluggworth done up in the faux-military regalia of a banana republic)
Anyway, just as Wonka’s factory gobbles up children, the mighty train in Snowpiercer must devour of tail-section kids in order to keep running, but unlike Wonka’s factory, which consumes wayward children, Wilford’s train hungers for an endless supply of Charlie Buckets. Like Wonka, Wilford attempts to bequeath stewardship of his creation to Curtis, but when Curtis discovers the train’s final dirty secret, he rebels. Bravo.
That’s all I’ve got for now. It’s been awhile since a movie got me as jazzed as this one, and I’d love to talk about it with you in the comments, especially about the movie’s troubled history.