The Dark Derivation of Disney: The Original Tales From Which They Came
May 27, 2021
Hello movie lovers and welcome to (or back to) our column! Today we will be discussing Disney once again. Disney is famous for its upbeat movies with fantasy fairytale endings, but some of these stories are not so happy in their original tales. Here are some of the dark origins of the beloved Disney classics.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Disney’s first full-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, is based on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale called “Snow White.” Both stories start out the same way, with a young princess with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as ebony wood living in the palace with her extremely vain stepmother. The stepmother has the same magic mirror which informs her of Snow White’s unparalleled beauty. The queen then orders the huntsman to take Snow White out into the woods and kill her, but he has compassion and lets her go. The first big difference takes place here where he kills a wild boar and feeds its internal organs to the queen as proof of killing Snow White. The story remains the same as Snow White meets the dwarves and can stay there if she cooks and cleans for them. After the Queen finds out she has been tricked, she attempts to kill Snow White herself by selling her cursed products and fails time and time again before finally succeeding with the poison apple.
After being placed in a glass coffin and displayed in the woods for the dwarves to mourn over her, one day a prince came through the woods and noticed the beautiful young lady and fell in love with her splendor. He convinces the dwarves to let him take the coffin home with him. As he was carrying the coffin, the piece of poisoned apple dislodged from Snow White’s throat and she awakened. The two quickly marry and force the evil queen to dance in a pair of iron-hot shoes until she falls dead.
Lady and the Tramp
One of the less known folk-tales in this list is The Legend of Gelert the Dog. There is a scene in Lady and the Tramp where Lady sees a rat sneak into the baby’s room. Unable to do anything herself, she enlisted the help of Tramp, who bravely breaks into the baby’s room and battles the rat. After seeing the trashed room and unaware of the rat, the humans send him to the pound to be put down.
Similar to Tramp, Gelert became a victim of misinterpretation. However, Gelert’s story is set in thirteenth-century Wales. Prince Llywelyn the Great, his owner, was an avid hunter. One day, Llywelyn went on a hunting trip without Gelert. When he returned from his hunt, Gelert approached him, his snout red with blood. Assuming the worst, Prince Llywelyn rushed to his infant son’s room and found it completely ransacked. Without hesitation, Llywelyn killed Gelert only to hear the cries of his son a few moments later. Llywelyn approached his son’s overturned cradle and found his son unharmed alongside the bloody carcass of an enormous wolf. Full of guilt, Llywelyn buried his loyal dog where all could see and honor his grave.
One of the first versions of Sleeping Beauty, The Sun, Moon, and Talia by Italian poet Giambattista Basile, features a young girl named Talia, the daughter of a rich ruler. Upon her birth, it is prophesied that she would die from a flax splinter, but when it inexplicably happens she instead falls into a deep, deathlike sleep. Believing her to be dead and not having the heart to bury her, her father leaves her entombed in one of his castles. A few years later, a king stumbles upon the castle, sees Talia, tries to wake her, decides to sexually assault her, and leaves. Nine months later, Talia gives birth to twins who suck the splinter out of her finger, causing her to wake up. Unfortunately for Talia, this is not the end of the story.
A short while after she had awakened, the king decided to visit Talia again and found her awake with twins named Sun and Moon. The king tells Talia what he had done to her, and, despite knowing the truth, Talia tells the king that she loves him and he returns the sentiment.
The king’s wife soon finds out about her husband’s infidelity and summons Talia and the twins to the castle. She gives the twins to the cook, so he can bake them in a pie and feed them to the king. She then attempts to burn Talia alive. Luckily, the king intercepts and kills the queen instead. To avoid being killed, the cook confesses that he had saved the babies and the king pardons him. The king marries Talia, and, somehow, they lived happily ever after.
The Brothers Grimm also wrote a version of Sleeping Beauty, and it is uncharacteristically mild. Little Briar-Rose begins with a king and queen who are about to have a baby. When the baby came, the king decided to throw a massive feast in her honor and invited the entire kingdom — well, almost the entire kingdom. One of the kingdom’s thirteen wise women was neglected an invite due to a shortage of plates. Despite not being invited, she crashes the party while the other wise women were bestowing their gifts and declares that, at the age of fifteen, young princess Briar-Rose would prick her finger on a spindle and die.
One of the wise women cushions the curse by proclaiming that the princess would only slumber for one hundred years. The king orders all the spinning wheels destroyed, but one day, Briar-Rose was left alone in the castle and the prophesied tragedy came to pass. The entire kingdom fell into a deep slumber along with the Briar-Rose and a thick wall of thorns began growing around the kingdom. Many kings and princes attempt the breach through the thorns, but all find themselves caught in the thorns until, at the end of the 100-year curse, a young prince manages to reach the castle. He finds the sleeping princess and, entranced by her beauty, kisses her. She and the entire kingdom wake. The prince and princess then marry and live happily ever after.
The Little Mermaid
Many people know the Hans Christian Anderson original version of Disney’s The Little Mermaid has quite a different ending than the movie. Most of the story remains in line with the original, with a few small differences. None of the characters in Anderson’s version have names and are referred only by their titles. The little mermaid, aka the youngest sister and the protagonist of the story, does not have an obsession with human trinkets, yet still desires to go up to the surface and see the human world. Each of her sisters gets to go up year by year until it is finally her turn. Like in the movie, the little mermaid goes to the surface and saves the prince from drowning, falls in love with him, and goes to a sea witch to gain legs and find a way to gain an “immortal soul” so she can be with the prince forever. In order to accomplish this, the story gets a bit darker. The witch cuts the little mermaid’s tongue off, tells her that every step she takes with her new legs will feel like knife wounds and that if the prince marries someone else, the little mermaid will turn into sea foam at once.
The story continues with its similarities once she gets to the surface, as she falls harder for the prince every moment while he holds out hope for finding the girl who saved his life – thinking that it was someone different from her. The story shifts again from Disney’s take on it when the prince is set to marry a foreign princess, who happens to be the girl whom he believed to have saved him. The little mermaid is upset over this, but she loved the prince so much that she refused to get between him and his love, even if she would die because of it. Her sisters, on the other hand, did not want her to die, so they sold their hair to the sea witch for a knife that would save the little mermaid’s life if she killed the prince before the following morning. The little mermaid could not kill the man she loved, so she allowed herself to become seafoam, becoming a “daughter of the air” to gain the immortal soul she so craved.
Honestly, both versions of the story share more similarities than differences, Disney really kept up with Hans Christan Anderson’s main ideas save for some of the darker parts and the unhappy finish.
Aladdin comes from orally told stories originating from the Abbasid Empire in the centuries 600s-900s CE, the most famous being One Thousand and One Nights, better known as Arabian Nights.
The basis of One Thousand and One Nights rests on Shahryar, the king, discovering that his wife was being unfaithful, declaring that he would marry a new woman every night and kill her the next morning. One such wife, Shahrazad, devised a plan to save herself from execution. She told the king stories each night, stopping at a suspenseful moment and promising to finish the next night. This went on for 1,001 nights, hence the name of the story. First written down by French writer Antoine Galland in the early 18th century, one of the stories Shahrazad tells Shahryar is called “Aladdin’s Lamp.”
In One Thousand and One Nights, Aladdin is from China. In addition, he receives help from not one, but two genies, one from the lamp and one from a magical ring and still managed to help Aladdin outsmart the Jafar equivalent, Maghreb. Similarly to Jafar, Maghreb is a sorcerer who tricks Aladdin into going into a cave to retrieve the lamp, lures him in with promises of wealth, and gives him a magical ring with the genie inside to do so. Once inside the cave, Aladdin manages to retrieve the lamp, but refuses to give it to Maghreb, so Maghreb traps him inside the cave.
Aladdin suffers inside the cave for two days before rubbing his ring and summoning the jinn inside. Upon Aladdin’s request, the jinn brings him and the lamp home to his mother. His mother discovers the lamp jinn while cleaning it. They immediately take advantage of the jinn’s power and live in great luxury for several years.
One day, Aladdin glimpses the Sultan’s daughter, Princess Badroulbadour, and, entranced by her beauty, decides that he must marry her. The royal vizier, however, convinces the sultan to allow his son to marry the princess instead. Aladdin does not take this news well and orders the jinn to transport the newlyweds to him on the night of their wedding and several nights following until the couple, believing they are cursed, separate. Aladdin marries the princess and has the jinn build an enormous palace for them. Unfortunately, the grand nature of this palace draws the attention of Maghreb. He travels to Aladdin’s palace and tricks the princess into giving him the lamp.
Using the power of the lamp, Maghreb transports the princess and the castle back to Africa. The princess seduces, poisons, and kills Maghreb, which allows Aladdin, who had used the ring jinn to follow the magician, to steal back the lamp. The two go back to China, where they encounter Maghreb’s brother, who disguised as a holy woman, attempts to trick them. The jinn discovers the plot and tells Aladdin, which allows Aladdin to kill the brother. Aladdin becomes sultan and he and Badroulbadour live happily ever after.
The Lion King
Known as one of best Disney movies of all time, The Lion King is actually based off of one of the better known Shakespeare plays, Hamlet. Both stories include an evil uncle killing the father of the protagonist and conclude with the prince seeking vengeance. The main characters of The Lion King are an obvious example of the hommages to Hamlet. Simba reflects Hamlet, Mufasa mirrors Hamlet’s father, Scar is the evil uncle Claudius, and Timon and Pumba combined make up Hamlet’s college friend Horatio. Some other similarities would be Simba’s exile from Pride Rock, as Hamlet went through something similar when his uncle convinced him to leave for England. Another major connection between the two would be the appearances of the dead Kings to Simba and Hamlet.
Despite all of the similarities and callbacks to Shakespeare’s tragedy of Hamlet, The Lion King has a happy ending. The main character does not die in the end, and there is less death throughout the Disney version overall, as the trend seems to be with these movies. The Lion King is also considerably simpler, as it is a movie more for children than Shakespeare’s multi-faceted play with all of its layers.
Pocahontas is not based on a fairytale but is instead a misinterpretation of a historical event. Pocahontas really was the daughter of Chief Powhatan, the ruler of the Powhatan tribal nation, but she never had a romantic relationship with John Smith. As soon as she encountered the settlers of Jamestown around the age of ten, her life began going downhill. Despite being nothing but kind and peaceful to them, the white settlers decided to take her prisoner for ransom and killed her husband, Kocoum, in the process. During her time as their prisoner, they forced her to give up her firstborn child, change her name to Rebecca, and convert to Christianity. After the ransom was paid, she married John Rolfe to form an alliance and gave birth to a son named Thomas. In 1616, she went to England with her new husband, fell ill, and died around the age of twenty-one. Some historians suspect that she was poisoned.
Pocahontas obviously did not have as whimsical of life as was depicted in the animated movie. Though the movie did include some characters from the time, it severely messed up and romanized the events that actually occurred. Pocahontas was aged up to nineteen years to make it more kid-friendly and John Rolfe was only mentioned in the sequel movie. The movie managed to get one thing right, however, as it heavily focused on the negative effects of colonization and prejudice towards Native Americans.
The classic story of Rapunzel and the Disney movie Tangled both start out with a pregnant woman and a plant. In Tangled, the queen is sick and needs the “magic golden flower” to heal her. In Rapunzel’s case, however, there is no magic golden flower that gives healing powers. Instead, there is only a woman with cravings for her neighbor’s rapunzel greens. Within this version of the story, Rapunzel was not kidnapped from her parents, the king and queen, but was sold to the witch next door for the stolen greens.
Rapunzel lived in her tower for years, singing out the window every day when a young prince came by and heard her. Enthralled by her voice he called up the classic moniker, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!” She lowered her hair and was afraid of him, but when he was kind enough to propose, she accepted right away. The prince kept returning to the tower to build a ladder so Rapunzel could escape, but one day she slipped up and allowed the witch to know her plans. Rapunzel was then whisked away to the wilderness without her telltale hair so the prince would never find her. When he found her missing from the tower, he jumped out in despair, landed in a thorn patch, blinded himself, and wandered around the wilderness for years before one day hearing the voice of his long-lost love. During her time in the wilderness, Rapunzel had given birth to twins, and she was so happy to see their father, her tears healed his marred eyes. The happy couple then returned to the kingdom and actually managed to live happily ever after.
Tangled certainly changed a few things, including switching the royal status of the prince and princess, the personality of Rapunzel, and the different magical aspects. Overall, the stories are still roughly the same and share more qualities than many other Disney movies to their original counterparts.
Almost every single Disney movie is based on something, whether it be a true story, a story within a story, or a legend passed down for years. Disney certainly does change things, but it is quite interesting to learn the darker origins of the much loved, much happier, Disney classics.