The world appears ordinary, and then the snow falls. Like a mysteriously wrapped Christo sculpture, everything becomes new again. It’s the same world, but different. Snow, like a work of art, changes how we see things.
Snowfall hides the land, replacing green and muddy browns with pristine white, filling in the dips and hollows. This blanketing effect is sometimes likened to memory, or hidden emotion. Inner reflection plays a crucial role in Snow falling on Cedars, where the central character recalls a past love, and comes to terms with his life. A small town, surrounded by a snow covered forest, and the icy sea — visually represents the human struggle within a harsh landscape, and the protagonist’s feelings of desolation and loss.
A melancholic tone pervades many stories set in snowy environments, as if the snow accentuates a certain sombreness, in the way rainfall acts as a metaphor for sorrow, the thunderstorms foreshadow violent drama. Snow is quieter, slower acting, more personal. The act of walking across snow is a unique experience — distant sounds are hushed by the insulating effects of the snow, while nearby sounds like one’s breath, and the crunch of snow underfoot seem accentuated. Each footstep leaves the physical mark of a person’s presence, a map of where they’ve been. But that poignant physical trace will, in time, disappear, covered by more snow, or by it melting away.
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the evil witch casts a spell that turns Narnia into a perpetual winter world, essentially condemning the entire realm into an ongoing state of depression. The emotional resonance of snow, ice and winter is heightened in Misery, when a psychopath ‘takes care’ of an injured man after his car crashes during a blizzard. She keeps him prisoner, all the while maintaining that she is looking after his welfare. The impenetrable winter snow outside accentuates his isolation and disconnect from the rest of the world. Here, snow is associated with melancholy, isolation, and horror. The ‘cabin fever’ in The Hateful Eight forms a crucible for the action, which takes place at a staging post, in the middle of nowhere. The frozen wilderness forces the characters together and makes it impossible for them to escape.
Horror stories work well in winter snowstorms, unidentifiable figures can escape into the blizzard night, and communications can go down leaving people isolated. The outside is transformed into an ever-present menace, a frightening and dangerous alien world. In The Thing scientists defend themselves against a mutating alien lifeform, while having to keep alive in the unforgiving Antarctic environment. The cold adds an additional challenge to the hero’s survival. In The Shining, the central character loses his mind and ends up chasing his wife and son around a creepy hotel, and finally outside into the snow. The winter snow provides a resonant horror location; sounds are mysteriously muffled, antagonists and monsters can slip away, and rescue may not be possible until the weather changes. There’re many opportunities to put characters in danger: avalanches, cracks appearing on thin ice, and death by freezing. The arctic island setting of Bear Island is arguably the most prominent character in the film, as it is in The Revenant and The Day After Tomorrow. The snow makes a terrifying environment, which tests the protagonist’s resourcefulness and survival skills. Nature is harsh. On the ice planet in Interstellar its coldness echoes the psychopathic instinct of the antagonist.
While not on the same scale, winter snow is often used to show the ordinary challenges that normal people face in the real world. Characters struggling with their day-to-day lives, now have the additional burden of travelling and coping with the snow. In Groundhog Day the hero is forced to relive the same day, repeatedly enduring the same snow storm. While in The Ice Storm, the frozen world of a snap storm heightens the domestic drama, externalising social distance and emotional coldness; creating a hidden danger that lurks within the everyday.
Snow isn’t all misery and hardship. It can be a vehicle to celebrate the hero’s skill, like the chase scene at the beginning of The Spy Why Loved Me; the birth of an unlikely friendship in Planes Trains and Automobiles; or the determination to succeed in Cool Runnings. In these stories the winter snow increases the challenge, creating another obstacle for the protagonist to overcome. From Frozen to New in Town, and It’s a Wonderful Life, the central character triumphs in the face of difficulty.
The snow-scape also provides a space for comic fun, or family bonding. In National Lampoons Christmas Vacation, despite the weather outside, the hero brings his family together and protects their future, a dream of a future that is built on the memories of his own childhood — childhood memories, like Charles Foster Kane’s on his deathbed in Citizen Kane where he clasps a snow globe, holding onto it until his final breath.