Hello everyone! It’s Allie, the resident JL Disney expert. I’ve been to Disneyland hundreds of times, probably due to the fact that my dad worked for Disney in the R&D department when I was in high school, and my husband works in the Ride Engineering department now. Oh, and my grandmother worked as an animator for Disney in the 50s. She was even at Disneyland on opening day. I’m a huge Disney nerd.
Like many people my age, I was raised on Disney movies. You know, those animated ones with the princesses who sing to forest creatures and are rescued by princes? They’re very popular. And that’s a problem.
*Cue the shocked gasps* How could someone who claims to be such a fan of Disney say that? Well, I’m glad you asked. There’s this thing I like to call the Disney Effect—the Disney versions of fairy tales have become so popular that people assume that’s how the actual stories go.
I encountered this problem frequently when I received feedback for a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. So many people were only acquainted with the Disney version that their feedback was unreliable. For example, all of my feedback suggested that my Beast character was not angry or mean enough when in actuality, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s and Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s tales gave the Beast a very kind personality. When Beauty arrives at his castle, he says that she is the mistress of the castle and he is her servant. Disney gave him the angry personality because it fit their version of the story, but now it is the only acceptable version of his character. If your Beast character isn’t angry, scary, or intimidating, then your version doesn’t follow closely enough to be considered a true retelling, when in reality, you follow the original more closely than Disney did.
So, I’m here to set the record straight. Here’s a (shortened, because I can’t explain every detail of every movie) list of how Disney rewrote previously known tales for their movies. I’m skipping some retellings, like The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, based on The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, because there are too many. Even Fantasia, which centers around Disney’s famed Sorcerer’s Apprentice scene, is based off a poem by Goethe. We’re going to start at the beginning, when Disney used commonly known stories to display their (revolutionary, at the time) animation rather than to tell stories.
Snow White, 1937-
The original tale was first published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. In their tale, the new queen (Snow White’s step-mother) attempts to kill Snow White four times. Disney included the hunter and the poisoned apple, but they left out the other two. After the new queen finds out the hunter didn’t give her Snow White’s heart to eat, she disguises herself as a peddler and sells Snow White a laced bodice, which she ties too tight, cutting off Snow White’s breath. The dwarves come home and save Snow White, of course. Later, the new queen comes back in disguise, and sells Snow White a hair comb laced with poison. Once again, the dwarves come home and save her.
With the apple, they don’t know what’s wrong and assume she cannot be saved, so they put her in a glass coffin. A passing prince sees her and immediately falls in love (yes, with a corpse) and insists he take her home with him. When they lift the coffin, the poisoned apple dislodges from Snow White’s throat and she wakes up (not because his magical kiss saves her). Because these two people don’t know each other, they instantly fall in love and plan a wedding. The new queen shows up to their wedding to find out that the princess is Snow White. Forced to wear iron shoes heated over a fire, she dances until she dies. While Snow White does get her happily ever after, the villain’s fate is a lot more cruel and morbid than Disney portrayed.
Written by Carlo Collodi in 1883, The Adventures of Pinnochio details the story of a wooden puppet who wishes to be a real boy. Disney adapted the story by cutting out the majority of Pinnochio’s adventures, like most movie adaptations of books. Instead, they focused on Pinnochio’s most well-known trait—his nose that grows when he lies. To make the main character more likable, Disney changed his obnoxious personality into one of naivety. They did keep certain characters, such as the talking cricket and the fairy with the turquoise hair who aid Pinnochio, and the fox and the cat who lead Pinnochio astray.
The first major change is that Pinnochio accidentally kills the talking cricket when he first shows up. Other changes are more mild. For example, the Dogfish was changed to a whale, and Toyland was changed to Pleasure Island. Disney also condensed the timeline for simplicity’s sake. Geppetto actually lives inside the Dogfish for 6 months, and the boys spend 5 months in Toyland before turning into donkeys. Finally, Pinnochio works hard for months to make up for his bad deeds, whereas Pinnochio does one good deed at the end (saving Geppetto from the whale) before the fairy turns him into a real boy. In the end, Pinnochio gets his happy ending either way.
This is an interesting tale to consider, because there are two original versions. The Brothers Grimm wrote one in 1812, but Charles Perrault’s version dates back to 1697. There are earlier versions as well, but these are the most well known. Disney used Perrault’s version as their inspiration.
Evil stepsisters force her into servitude, there’s a ball, Cinderella is not invited to attend, etc. Perrault’s version actually has a fairy godmother who transforms a pumpkin into a carriage, mice into horses, and her rags into a ballgown. She gifts her glass slippers, and sends her on her way with a warning that the spell will break at midnight. The only major difference between Perrault’s story and Disney’s story, is that Perrault wrote in a second ball the next night where Cinderella loses her slipper. When the Prince comes to the house for the daughters to try on the glass slipper, Cinderella produces the second slipper to prove she is the girl. In Disney’s version, the first glass slipper breaks and that is the only way for Cinderella to prover her identity to the prince. When Disney made the live action version, they altered the story so that the prince recognizes her without her trying on the glass slipper.
The Brother’s Grimm version is a very different tale than Perrault’s. This version is used in Into the Woods (both the broadway production and the Disney movie). There are three nights of balls, and Cinderella gets her dresses and golden slippers (not glass) from doves in the tree planted at her mother’s grave. They also help her finish her chores on time to make it to the balls. This version has the gruesome depiction of the stepsisters mutilating their large feet to fit in the slipper left at the ball. Later, the doves peck out their eyes as punishment. Cinderella still ends up with her prince and her happily ever after.
Alice in Wonderland, 1951-
Disney made a few changes from Lewis Carroll’s story, but the majority of the story remains the same. Like
Pinnochio, parts were left out to condense the storyline to fit in a movie. The White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse are all taken from the original tale. The Queen of Hearts even hates white roses and plays croquet using flamingos and hedgehogs in Carroll’s story. The big change from the original tale is that the Knave of Hearts goes on trial for stealing the queen’s tarts, whereas Disney puts Alice on trial when the Cheshire Cat frames her for playing a trick on the Queen of Hearts.
Peter Pan, 1953-
J. M. Barrie originally wrote Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up as a stage play in 1904, and later adapted the story to print as a book titled Peter and Wendy in 1911. As with Pinnochio, the timeline was condensed and character personalities were slightly altered to fit Disney’s needs, but the majority of the story remains intact. One of the biggest changes is that Wendy becomes the mother figure for the lost boys and Peter, encouraging them to take nightly medicine. After Hook kidnaps Wendy, her brothers, and the lost boys, Peter goes to take his medicine, not realizing it has been poisoned. Tinker Bell drinks it to stop him, and starts to die. It leads to an interactive scene with the audience where they clap their hands to show they believe in fairies, bringing her back to life. Disney used a time bomb, instead, and Peter Pan has to dig Tinker Bell out of the rubble. When Wendy and her brothers return home, they take the lost boys with them, leaving Peter bitter and alone.