Ahhhhhhhh, the classic Disney fairy tale. The beautiful princess who overcomes adversity to walk off into the horizon with the prince while the sun sets and the birds sing a happy tune.
Disney have become the production company to go to when you want a happy ending, in fact the whole “Disney ending” has become a successful trope over the years and is part of our lexicon. You want a sugary sweet end to a story, you want to see the downtrodden female (most of the time) get the prince at the end and live a happy life? Then Disney are the films to watch. However, I remember some of these classic fairy tales from when I was at school. I recall the teacher reading us and reading for myself; The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and so on. I don’t remember that “happily ever after” thing though. In fact, as far as I recall, I remember death, disfigurement, depression and despair (and alliteration). Yes, pretty much all of those “classic Disney stories” that are so famous and loved were taken from slightly more nefarious and darker tales.
Hans Christian Anderson and The Brothers Grimm to name only a few. The writers of those much loved Disney stories… or at least the stories the Disney films were based on, had very different views, set ups, plot lines and endings to what Disney made famous and what we now know. So here, I’d like to take a look at some classic Disney stories and compare them to the tales they were based on to see just how much different and darker those old stories originally were.
Things are going to get a bit macabre, but I’ll start off with something a little softer…
Snow White: To be fair, the Disney version does not differ too much from the nineteenth-century German fairy tale (Schneewittchen) on which it is based. Some of the wording is a little darker, but the main plot and characters are pretty much faithful throughout. The evil Stepmother/Queen is there, the magic talking mirror is too as is the jealousy from the evil Queen to Snow White over who is the prettiest. Yes even those damn dwarfs are in both versions.
The Disney version jumps straight to the infamous poisoned apple, but the original story had two other encounters before that where the Queen tried to kill Snow White. In the story, the Queen tracks down Snow White to the cottage in the forest that she is staying in with the seven dwarfs. Disguising herself as an old peddler, the Queen offers Snow White a colourful, silky lace bodice. She convinces Snow White to try on the most beautiful one as a present. Snow White agrees to try it on and the Queen laces it up so tightly that Snow White can’t breath and she faints as the Queen to leaves her for dead.
The dwarfs return from work in time and find Snow White unconscious and loosen the bodice which allows Snow White to breath once more. The Queen tries to kill Snow White again, but this time disguised as a comb seller and convinces her to take one her her combs as a present. The Queen even offers to brush Snow White’s hair for her, but the comb used is poisoned. Same story as before, Snow White faints and the Queen leaves her for dead… and yes the dwarfs turn up just in time (again), remove the poisoned comb from her hair and she recovers. Its the third attempt where the Queen, disguised as a farmer’s wife, offers Snow white a poisoned apple. Snow white falls unconscious and this time, the dwarfs can’t revive her. Believing Snow White is now dead, the dwarfs place her in a glass casket.
In the Disney version, this is where the evil Queen dies when the dwarfs return home and chase her to a cliff-side, lightning strikes and the evil Queen falls to her death. A prince comes along, finds Snow white in the glass casket, kisses her and she is revived and they all live “happily ever after”. The end.
The story differs quite a bit at this point as the Queen does not die after Snow White eats the apple and she actually gets away before the dwarfs return. It is also not a kiss that revives Snow White either. The prince still turns up while Show White is in the glass coffin, but instead of kissing her, he lifts the coffin to take her away and drops the coffin. This dislodges the piece of apple Snow White ate and she wakes up. The prince declares his love for her, a wedding is soon planned and everyone is invited… including the evil Queen. At this point, the evil Queen believes Snow White is finally dead and is unaware that the woman the prince intends to marry is actually Snow White. She once again asks the mirror who is the fairest in the land and again the mirror declares that there is somebody else prettier and states that is it the woman the prince intends to marry.
The evil Queen arrives at the wedding and sees for the first time that the prince’s new bride is in fact Snow White, who she believed was already dead. The Queen literally chokes with rage and drops down dead right there and then. The story is a happy ending too with the prince and Snow White living a happy life together and they even visit the dwarfs to thank them for being so kind to Show White previously. There is another version of the ending from the Bothers Grimm where the fate of the evil Queen is to wear super heated red-hot iron shoes and “dance” until she drops dead, which is pretty brutal.
Its also interesting to note that it has been theorised that the whole Snow White story is somewhat based on fact.
From one classic Disney princess tale to another that has multiple “original” versions.
Cinderella: As I said, there are multiple versions of this story that vary from country to country and even century to century. But for this comparison, I’ll be using the Brothers Grimm version (Aschenputtel) from the 19th century as this is the one I am most familiar with.
Everyone knows the Disney version of this story right? Evil Stepmother (again), dead father, ugly sisters, Fairy Godmother, pumpkin into a carriage, mice into horses, amazing ball gown with glass slippers, invitation to a ball, prince, dancing. Clock strikes midnight, spell is broken, glass slipper left behind… and so on. Prince finds Cinderella, she tries on the glass slipper and they live “happily ever after”. Its a classic tale and probably one of Disney’s most famous and popular. But the Brothers Grimm version (as well as all the others) differ quite a bit.
The Grimm’s version, Aschenputtel, is much more… well grim I guess. While the bare basic premise is the same telling the story of a downtrodden and mistreated girl being used essentially as a slave. In this version, there is no Fairy Godmother to provide Aschenputtel with all the things required for the ball. Instead, it is a tree that provides her with all she needs… but no ordinary tree. You see the tree grew from a twig that Aschenputtel placed on her mother’s grave and watered with her own tears over several years until it grew into a tree. Kind of beautiful and depressing at the same time, no? A white dove would nest in the tree and whatever Aschenputtel wished for, the dove would provide via the tree (AKA Mommy).
The King announces a three day festival and invites every young female of the land to attend so that the prince can find a bride. Pretty much the same as the Disney version here too with a few slight changes other then it being a three day festival instead of a ball. The two stepsisters are invited and Aschenputtel begs to also go, but the stepmother refuses and forces Aschenputtel to do cleaning around the house instead. Mainly having to clean up lentils that the stepmother throws on the floor, the stepmother says Aschenputtel can attend the festival if she cleans up all the lentils within two hours. With the help of a flock of doves, Aschenputtel manages to clean them all up in less than an hour. The stepmother redoubles the amount of lentils, halves the time and tells Aschenputtel to clean them all up again or she can’t go to the festival. And again, with the help of the doves, she manages the task but the stepmother breaks her word and leaves Aschenputtel at home but takes her two daughters (the stepsisters) instead hoping that one of them will marry the prince. Aschenputtel is left alone crying.
Aschenputtel returns to the tree and wishes to be dressed in silver and gold. The dove drops a silver and gold gown along with a pair of silk shoes. Aschenputtel attends the first day of festival in her new clothing where she dances with the prince until sunset and has to leave to go back home. The second day of the festival and Aschenputtel turns up in even more dazzling clothing and again dances with the prince until sunset and again she returns home. The third and final day of the festival, Aschenputtel arrives in even more grander clothing than before and a pair of golden slippers. This time, the prince is determined to not let her go home. He devises a plan of covering the stairway in sticky pitch and as Aschenputtel tires to leave as the sunsets, one of the golden slippers gets stuck and the prince declares that whoever fits this golden slipper is the girl he will marry.
The next day, the prince goes to the home of Aschenputtel in search of the person who owned the golden slipper. The first to try it on is the eldest of the stepsisters and under instruction from her mother, she cuts off her own toes so the slipper will fit. Satisfied he has found the right girl, the prince rides off with the first stepsister for his new bride. As they ride back to the castle, two doves fly down and tell the prince that blood is dripping from the foot of the stepsister. Knowing he has the wrong girl, he returns to the house and this time the other stepsister tries on the golden slipper. This sister cuts off her own heel so the slipper will fit… rince and repeat as before and again two doves fly down and inform the prince of the blood. Third time lucky and the prince asks Aschenputtel to try on (the now blood soaked) golden slipper and of course it fits. This is where the Disney version ends with the wedding and a live “happily ever after” ending… but the Grimm version goes on just a little longer here.
In this version of the story, Aschenputtel and the prince have a wedding and the two stepsisters are bridesmaids. As Aschenputtel walks down the aisle with her stepsisters, two doves fly down and attack the two stepsisters, the doves each peck out one of the stepsisters eyes. The wedding goes on as normal (as normally as it can with two bridesmaids each with a pecked out eye) and Aschenputtel and her prince leave the church… shorty after the two doves return and peck out the other two eyes of the stepsisters leaving them blind. I did tell you they would be back.
Some pretty brutal stuff in the Grimm’s version of this tale. Toes and heels being cut off, eyes pecked out… and there are even worse stuff from the numerous other variations too.
Next up a nice “tail” about a young mermaid looking for love.
The Little Mermaid: The Disney take on this tale is, for the most part, pretty much the same as it is in the original Hans Christian Andersen version (Den lille havfrue). The basic plot is the same of a mermaid falling in love with a prince and she strives to become human. But there are several notable differences and small details that make the original story a little darker then Disney’s effort. There is no Ariel, no Prince Eric, no big bad Ursula. Nor is there a talking crab, etc. The original version doesn’t give the characters names, they are just the little mermaid, the prince, etc.
The set up to the main plot also differs slightly. In the original story, when a mermaid turns 15, she is allowed to swim to the surface to see the world for the first time. The little mermaid is the youngest of six and each of the mermaids are born one year apart. When the sisters become old enough they each go up to the surface to see the world for the very first time, one by one, year after year until it is finally the little mermaid’s turn on her 15th birthday. When she gets to the surface, the little mermaid witnesses a birthday celebration for a prince and she falls in love with him. This is when a violent storm hits and the prince is knocked into the ocean and the little mermaid saves his life. She takes the prince to a shore near a temple and this is where he is discovered by a young woman as the little mermaid retreats. The prince recovers and never learns that it was a mermaid that saved his life and believes it was this young woman from the temple who saved him.
The little mermaid, now back underwater with her family, becomes depressed and melancholy knowing she can never see the prince again. She talks to her grandmother and asks how long humans live for. The grandmother explains that humans have a much shorter life expectancy then that of mermaids, which is around 300 years. But the grandmother goes on to say how when a mermaid dies, they just turn into sea foam and no longer exist, but humans have a soul that will live on forever in heaven when they die. The little mermaid longs to be with the prince at any cost and she goes to visit an evil sea-witch for help. The witch agrees to help and sells her a potion that will turn her human and give the little mermaid human legs and a soul… but there is a price to pay. The cost of the legs comes in exchange for the little mermaid’s beautiful voice, this pretty much happens (a few details aside) in the Disney version too… but things go a little further in the story. Not only will the little mermaid lose her voice, but once she becomes human, she can never return to the sea. There’s more, as consuming the potion will make her feel as if a sword has been stabbed through her body and will cause her great pain. Not enough? Well while she will now have legs, she will feel as if she is continually walking on sharp knives, so each and every step she takes will be more and more painful. And on top of all of that, the little mermaid can only have a soul if she can win the love of a prince and they marry. If this does not happen then the little mermaid will not gain a soul and at dawn of the first day after the prince marries somebody else, the little mermaid will die of a broken heart and dissolve into the sea. The little mermaid agrees to everything, she swims to the surface near the palace, drinks the potion and becomes human (except for the soul) where she is found by the prince.
The prince is stunned by her beauty and grace, though everyone in the kingdom believe her to be dumb and mute as she can’t talk. One of the main things the prince loves about this mysterious girl is her dancing and she dances for the prince all the time despite the huge amount of excruciating pain she feels due to the effects of the potion. The two fast become close but this is when the prince’s parents demand he marries a princess from a neighbouring kingdom. The prince says he can not marry anyone but the girl from the temple who he believes saved his life and it just so happens that the princess from the neighbouring kingdom is the same girl from the temple. The prince declares his love for the girl and a royal wedding is announced.
The prince and princess marry and the little mermaid’s heart breaks, just as the sea-witch said it would. All of the pain she has endured and knowing that death awaits her by dawn had been for nothing. But before dawn comes, her sisters swim up to the surface and give the little mermaid a knife. The knife is from the sea-witch that the sisters exchanged for their hair. If the little mermaid kills the prince and lets his blood drip onto her human feet, she can become a mermaid once more and live out the rest of her life with her family. She sneaks into the prince’s bedroom where he is asleep with his new bride ready to kill him, but she can not go through with it. Instead she throws the knife and herself into the sea just as dawn breaks and she dissolves into sea foam. However, she does not just cease to exist as grandmother said she would, she feels warmth and realises that she has been turned into an ethereal spirit. She ascends into the atmosphere where she is greeted by other spirits and told she has obtained an immortal soul due to her selflessness and will one day rise up into the Kingdom of God.
There you have it. For the most part, a lot of the story is the same but there are still some dark parts in the original story, these mainly come from the effects of the potion. But that ending is hardly a “happily ever after” is it? I mean, the little mermaid doesn’t get the prince in the end like in the Disney version but its not exactly a terrible ending either right? Its bittersweet I guess.
I’ll end Part I here, but I have three more Disney/fairy tales to look at in Part II.