The 1812 fairytale Schneewittchen (Little Snow White), by brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, is a grisly story about a queen whose jealously of her step-daughter’s beauty compelles her to order a huntsman to take the girl into the forest, kill her, and remove her lungs and liver for the Queen to boil and then eat. In other versions of the story the Queen asks for Snow White’s intestines and in another she demands a bottle of the poor girl’s blood with one of her hacked-off toes used as a stopper. However, Snow White has the last laugh when the Queen is forced to dance herself to death after being made to wear iron slippers heated in red-hot coals.
If this is not the version of the Snow White story that you are familiar with then it is likely that you recall the version of the tale that was re-told by Walt Disney Studios in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the first feature length animated film. As documented in the Dreams Come True: The Art of Disney’s Classic Fairytales exhibition, currently on display at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne, the legendary animator Walt Disney was renowned for repackaging classic fairytales, fables, folk tales, myths and nursery rhymes to give them what he perceived to be a modern and family-friendly spin.
The 2010 release of Tangled, the 50th animated Walt Disney Studio feature and a retelling of Rapunzel, another Brothers Grimm fairytale, suggests that Disney’s vision is still going strong. On one of the walls in the Dreams Come True exhibition is a quote from Disney declaring that, “Literary versions of old fairytales are usually thin and briefly told. They must be expanded and embellished to meet the requirements of theatre playing time”. Indeed, the Rapunzel story is expanded upon so that the story about a beautiful girl with long hair who is held captive in a tower (reportedly based on a 15th century folk tale about a woman imprisoned by her father for refusing to marry), becomes an all-out adventure where Rapunzel has magical hair and is the lost princess of a nearby kingdom.
Walt Disney Studio films have been criticised for sanitising the classic fairytales and losing their original cautionary messages, but in Disney’s defence, the fairytales had already existed in many different variations and guises. The way Disney adapted, re-interpreted, embellished and censored the stories was not so different to what the Brothers Grimm did when they published their ‘definitive’ versions. Also, the Brothers Grimm introduced their own style of morality. For instance, they were so enamoured with the sanctity of motherhood that they frequently changed the violent and cruel mother character from the original stories into the wicked stepmother archetype that is so commonly accepted today.
Walt Disney was no saint with his alleged anti-Semitism, membership of the Communist witch-hunt organisation the House of Un-American Activities Committee and his ultra-conservative depictions of gender, race and class in his films casting a dark shadow. Yet still, there are many occasions where it is difficult not to argue that his versions of the fairytales are far more palatable than the originals. For example, is the Brothers Grimm version of Cinderella, which so graphically describes the stepsisters slicing off parts of their feet to make the glass slipper fit, really preferable? How about the older German version where Cinderella forgives the stepsisters only to then have doves peck out their eyes while at her wedding? Hardly a noble gesture.
Then there are the versions of fairytales penned by Hans Christian Andersen, who was a bit like the Lars von Trier of his time in that his heroes only achieved happiness by finding a spiritual high ground once they underwent a series of tortures and humiliations. Imagine if the 1989 Disney version of The Little Mermaid stuck to Andersen’s telling, where the price Ariel had to pay to have a human form was for her tongue to be cut out and for her to experience unbearable pain whenever she walked on her new legs?
Considering the puritanical and Old Testament-morality origins of these stories, there is a strong case for Disney (who was hardly a model for progressive thinking himself) making the changes that he did. In fact, later films made after Disney’s death should be commended for discarding the lessons from the original texts. The Disney Beauty and the Beast (1991) is still a very problematic story about a supposedly independent girl who falls in love with her captor, but at least it is significantly removed from Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s 1756 version of the story, which was written to instruct upon young women the virtues of obedience and self-denial when entering an arranged marriage to an older man.
The 50 animated features from the Walt Disney Studios continue to resonate and their core message of following your dreams and being true to yourself lives on – without the fire and brimstone morality, fetishistic martyrdom and willing victim rhetoric of the original source material.
Dreams Come True: The Art of Disney’s Classic Fairytales is on at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image until Tuesday 26 April 2011.
Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 372, 2010