Very Top Five... horrific stories which became Disney films

Monday, 26 October 2009
Disney have been delighting fickle kiddies for generations with tales of heroism and fabulousness. But just where did Disney get those zany story ideas from? Sometimes they made them up specially, but often they adapted a book, fairytale or myth.

Like strong coffee, these stories were often too hot and bitter for Disney’s taste, so they added saccharine and watered them down a bit, leading to this; the very top five horrific stories which became Disney films.

5. Hercules (1997):

This is from a Greek legend and they are always seriously messed up and usually involve a bit of incest or patricide (or both) or similar.

In the Disney film he does some quests, kills the Hydra and shiz, marries Megara, and the film ends. Happy happy.

But the fun is just beginning in the Greek version; Hercules and Megara have children and live together for many years. “That sounds lovely,” you might say. But then that naughty scamp Hades slips Hercules some potion, which drives him temporarily mad. “What fun this sounds,” you might delightedly purr, “but I’m sure Hercules wins out in the end, doesn’t he?” Well, sort of. He murders his Megara and their children in a fit of rage though. Woops.

Then he is all like; “Well, can’t be helped,” and gets married to another woman called Deianira. Then he starts having it off with Iole on the side, so Deianara soaks Hercules’ clothes in the Hydra’s acid blood, so that when he puts them on he is horribly burned. Now, as you may recall from the film, Hercules is immortal, so the burning just means that his skin is ripped off, and he survives, albeit in terrible agony. So he decides to voluntarily immolate himself on a funeral pyre, finally divesting himself of his mortal shell and joining his parents as a God on Mount Olympus.

Epic win for Hercules. But I can’t see Disney making that story into a sequel any time soon, to be honest.

4. Aladdin (1992):

Quite apart from the fact that Aladdin has a laughably (but apparently consolingly) white face among the other, swarthier denizens of Agrabah, this is another story based on an old legend. This one’s Arabic, from the Book of One Thousand and One Nights.

One main difference is that in the original story there were more genies, which might strike you as surprising. Surely Disney wouldn’t miss out on the chance to add to the cacophony of fun that is Robin Williams? Well, apparently they did.

Also, the Princess is called Badroulbadour, which has been sanitised for Western ears to the far less alien-sounding Jasmine. The change in name means that we are provided with a waft of exoticism, while actually it’s quite familiar and non-threatening. Plus Badroulbadour sounds quite like an embarrassing disease.

This logic of making the characters and setting as Western as possible did not apply to Jaffar the evil Vizier, who isn’t even in the original story and was caricatured to be as Arabic as Disney’s artists could manage before their pens split under the malign forces of xenophobia throbbing through them. Disney clearly thought that the original story had fewer evil Arabs than was suitable for a children’s story.

3. Snow White (1937):

Snow White is based on a fairy tale by the brothers Grimm, two writers who were renowned for having a good long think about stories that were completely unsuitable for children and then writing them into stories for children.

Although Snow White the film actually does contain many of the same elements as the book; An evil stepmother who tries to kill Snow White because she’s better looking (according to a magic mirror), and she gets some dude to take Snow White into the forest and chop her heart out as proof of death. But he takes pity on her and lets her go, and kills a pig instead. This is all in the film and book, and surely now that you’ve had a think about it you’ll agree that’s pretty intense. Oh, but in the book it’s Snow White’s actual mother, not her stepmother. Somehow a bit worse?

In the book, Snow White is encouraged to try and kill her mother, an aspect notably lacking in the film. One other difference with the book is that at the end the evil Mother comes to Snow White and Prince Charming’s wedding at the end. “They patch up their differences?” you say, “How jolly!” Well, no, actually, because the dwarves force the stepmother to wear iron shoes and dance until she drops dead. She conveniently dies in the film too, but due to falling off a cliff rather than being tortured to death at a wedding by some angry dwarves.

But Snow White the film and Snow White the book are daringly similar, on the whole.

2. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996):

This one’s based on a book by Victor Hugo, a 19th century French writer (and all round dreary git.)

The book has a complicated plot and lots of moping. Some highlights are that Esmeralda is hanged for attempted murder, and Quasimodo, who she has been totally blanking all the way through the book, lies inconsolable with grief at her grave until he starves to death.

The book is littered with killings; many of the central characters are murdered by Quasimodo for looking at his cathedral in ‘a funny way’.

1. Tarzan (1999):

A poor English infant is left in the jungle, and adopted by apes. The book (1912, Edward Rice Burroughs) and film are in agreement on this, except the film involves more Phil Collins music.

In the film, Jane is the first human that Tarzan meets. Not so in the book. Here, despite being brought up by apes, Tarzan is well aware of humans from an early age. Black natives, in fact. And this is where the whole story starts to take a nasty turn down a very dark alley.

Most of the book involves Tarzan swinging around the jungle killing black people for fun, either by dropping out of the trees and stabbing them in the chest, or by garrotting them with one of his vine ropes. Then he steals their bangles and swings off again, laughing at his skills and the natives’ stupidity compared to those of “the white race”. Seriously.

Then there is the chapter unapologetically called “His Own Kind” where Jane and some other white people turn up. Jane has a Louisianan maid called Esmeralda who, perhaps not coincidentally by this stage, is black. She is seemingly there only for comic effect, and screeches things like “Oh Lawdy!” when she gets a fright. Which is most of the time. Jane tries to shoot Esmeralda in the chest with a revolver at one point because she thinks it’s a kindness to put “The negress… the poor, faithful, thing… [out of her misery].” Bit harsh…

Tarzan doesn’t even get the girl, she goes off with his posh cousin Clayton from England instead. And Tarzan learns French from naval Lieutenant D’Arnot (with whom Tarzan spends far more time than he did with Jane, even when Jane was still in the jungle) and sets off onboard a steamship to Paris with D’Arnot. WTF?


Ewan said...

I thought Aladdin had a lovely big nose, bushy eyebrows and olive skin. They did get in trouble for negative stereotyping though. They had to change a line in the opening song from "Where they cut of your hand to spite your face." to "Where it's flat and immense and the heat is intense." (which is better anyway).
Awesome stuff. ^_^

Anonymous said...

I just stumbled across your blog through the group on 20sb - what a GREAT idea for a blog!! I'm adding you to my blogroll right now - looks like interesting reading :)

Meg said...

i also came across your blog from 20sb...very cool idea! also, very interesting post! I love reading about stuff like that!

julochka said...

and there's also the little mermaid which also has rather more tragic consequences in the end of the original H.C. Andersen. but disney does like a happy ending...

Very Top Five said...

Ah, The Little Mermaid; quite right, it's another of Disney's industrially airbrushed stories. It was the first film I saw at the cinema. I was 2, and it's one of my earliest memories.

heavealie said...

lolz i knew that most of fairy tales written by the grimm brothers were seriously altered by disney to match the taste of young minds.but i never any of the original stories.oh man there was some serious,gruesome work going on in all these stories.Disney has the habit of sugar coating everything and selling it to young minds.i think Disney does a more gruesome work then any of the original stories could do.excellent post,first time read and got an idea about the original ideas.all the original writers would be cursing Disney from above haha Disney would surely go to hell someday.keep writing!!

Jainomo said...

Cool post, but you missed a couple important things from the Hercules story - 1) In the Greek story his name is Heracles, they changed it to Hercules for the Roman adaptation, and 2) You said he "joined his parents" but that's only half true. Zeus was his father but his mother was a mortal woman. As was tradition with Zeus, he slept with a lot of women and had a lot of children with them. Heracles was a bastard child who Hera tried to kill on several occasions.

Very Top Five said...

Thanks Jainomo, I forgot about the Roman/Greek name differences. The reason I didn't mention his half-human, half-god parents was because in the film his parents were Zeus and Hera, but you're quite right; Zeus was well known for his tendency to turn up on Earth and have his filthy Olympian way with women. Thanks for the corrections.

Amandasaurus said...

I won't lie, I was STILL terrified of Snow White and Aladdin as a child, even the watered down Disney versions. I remember being taken out of the theater crying during Aladdin. Mind you I was about four at the time.