Adapting a short story or fairy tale into a ninety-minute film is no easy task, especially when the origin story’s main plot points totally violate modern cultural taboos. In translating nineteenth-century folklore for a twenty-first century audience, Disney had to edit quite a bit – which we should be thankful for.
Tangled (2010) based on Grimms’ “Rapunzel” (1812)
Flynn Rider is a far more chivalrous savior than his German counterpart. In the original tale, Rapunzel lets slip to the Mother Gothel figure that her dress doesn’t fit because she’s pregnant. Hell-bent on revenge (mother knows best, after all), Gothel cuts Rapunzel’s hair and lures the dude into the tower. When Not-Flynn realizes his folly, he leaps from the tower – straight into a bed of thorns. Whoops!
Cinderella (1950) based on Perrault’s Cendrillon (1697) and Grimms’ “Aschenputtel” (1812)
The 1950 Disney development team took some extremely creative liberties with the adaptation – which they obviously had to. The seventeenth-century Cendrillon isn’t too scandalous – they hit the cutesy magical notes of the glass slippers, fairy godmother, and pumpkin carriage – but the Grimms’ version is less “a dream is a wish your heart makes” and more “let’s get vengeance on these bitches.” When the prince and his squad come calling with the slipper, Aschenputtel’s stepsisters literally cut off parts of their feet to get the slipper to fit.
It’s cool though. At her wedding, Aschenputtel’s dove bodyguards swoop down and peck out her stepsisters’ eyes. Hooray!
The Little Mermaid (1989) based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” (1837)
Upon its release, The Little Mermaid was hailed as the second coming of the Disney renaissance, kicking off a glorious decade of animated classics that our generation was so lucky to experience. While there are definitely a few problematic plot points that I didn’t catch as a pre-feminist five-year-old (i.e. changing her species for a man), Ariel puts herself through a lot more for Andersen’s version of Prince Eric. Rather than just going voluntarily mute, she gets her tongue cut out. She’s determined to dance for Eric even though it’s sheer torture: “Every step she took was as the witch had said it would be, she felt as if treading upon the points of needles or sharp knives; but she bore it willingly.” Ariel learns that when the prince marries someone else she’ll dissolve into sea foam (because mermaids have no souls! can’t imagine why that didn’t make the cut), so proto-Ursula offers her the chance to save herself by stabbing the recently married Eric. To save him, Ariel volunteers to die. She never even became part of his world for realsies.
Peter Pan (1953) based on J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, or The Little Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (1904 play, 1911 novel)
The original Neverland is even creepier than the fortress which later bore the name. Though the Disney movie stayed pretty faithful to Barrie’s works, there’s one line in the book that’s always seemed weirdly sinister to me: “The boys on the island vary, of course, in numbers, according as they get killed and so on; and when they seem to be growing up, which is against the rules, Peter thins them out; but at this time there were six of them, counting the twins as two.” This is some Lord of the Flies-status shit.
Sleeping Beauty (1959) based on Giambattista Basile’s Sole, Luna, e Talia (1634), Perrault’s “The Beauty Sleeping in the Wood” (1697), and Grimms’ “Little Briar Rose” (1812)
For once, the Grimm brothers’ tale is the less demented. In Basile’s tale (translated as “Sun, Moon, and Talia”), Aurora/Talia is raped by the king, then becomes pregnant with twins that she gives birth to while still asleep. When the king’s wife discovers the children, she orders them cooked and served to the king. (Good Guy Cook hides the kids and serves the king lamb instead). When the triumphant queen tells the king he just ate his own bastards and Talia’s about to be burned at the stake, the king orders that the queen be burned instead. “Good Guy” King marries Talia and Actual Good Guy Cook gets a royal title.
Cover Image by Jodeci Zimmerman
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