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The magic trick behind Disney’s adaptations
Courtesy of Walt Disney Productions

The magic trick behind Disney’s adaptations

The world does not need another article about Disney. It’s not like this behemoth is growing obsolete anytime soon — nobody is joining hands, chanting “I believe” to bring the Disney fairy back to life. This studio is a media glutton, and the works produced by this brand will continue to influence generations to come.

I find it funny, however, that while Disney’s animated films linger in the minds of children and adults alike, the original tales that inspire many of these films seem to have been overshadowed.

I’m talking about the “Briar Rose” to Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty,” the H.C. Anderson novel to Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” the “Snow Queen” to Disney’s “Frozen” (I bet you didn’t even know the latter HAD a fairy tale). The Walt Disney legacy is built off of the art of adaptation, but it is the variety of ways this studio transforms these original tales that is most striking. These films are entities of their own — this is what makes Disney so unique and exactly what adaptations have the potential to do.

Even in the studio’s fledgling years, these films often recreated their original tales (I dare you to read the original “Pinocchio”). But even in instances where the movies resembled their predecessors more closely, there were vital changes made in order to adapt the storyline to a cinematic platform; in the case of “Sleeping Beauty,” for instance, these changes stand out in the public consciousness to this day.

The original “Sleeping Beauty” — “Briar Rose” — has some problems in its narrative, especially if you expect to retain audience attention for a long period of time. A princess is born, and wise mages from all across the land are invited to celebrate … all except one, who responds to being snubbed by cursing the girl to a spinning wheel-related death, as you do. One of the mages counters the spell, instead having the princess sleep for a hundred years; right when it’s time to get up, a prince just happens to walk inside the castle and kiss the princess before the spell wears off. Already, something should stand out about this plot: There’s no tension. Something is said to happen, then without hassle, it happens — this doesn’t feel like a story. It feels like a checklist.

The movie, however, adds some kinetic energy to this plot. The additions remain the most popular elements of the retelling.

While in the original fable the spell just wears off on its own, the Disney movie adds stakes; only the prince’s kiss can bring the princess back, which not only gives him purpose but also gives the story a sense of urgency. A happy ending isn’t just given to us. The movie even adds a little bit by having the princess and the prince meet before the spell activates. Yes, it’s only one scene and their chemistry is about as impressive as water on cardboard, but it’s a step above nothing. Maleficent, too, adds immensely to the tale; while the original evil mage kind of just hexes and exits, Maleficent becomes a constant presence and gives the story a satisfying climax. The fundamental story isn’t changed drastically, per se, but the changes made here allow the story to fit with more modern expectations of storytelling. The film would not have worked as well without these inclusions.

This degree of transformation is expected from a typical adaptation, though; come the 90s, Disney would push that definition as these brands become independent of their source material. Not only are characters and plot points tweaked, but even the arcs that defined the original stories are changed. This is when an interesting phenomenon takes place.

Here’s another example. One could easily make a case that Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” is the hardest to adapt into a Disney movie because this story is defined by its complex narrative and mature themes — without them, the story would not be the same. So, I would argue that the two versions use the same building blocks to tell a different story with different characters. The two Frollos perfectly exemplify this: Hugo’s Frollo starts off as a kind-hearted, religious man whose new-found lust for a gypsy girl drives him to commit atrocities, while Disney’s Frollo is a corrupt justice who uses religion as a justification for his atrocities. Both versions work with similar material but twist it in different, yet interesting ways: Disney explores the misuse of religion while Hugo explores the corrupting power of sin. One could say that Disney’s Frollo is a flat character when compared to the fallen hero in Hugo’s novel. But then again, Disney’s Frollo works as a clear antagonist very well. Thus, wouldn’t it be unfair to tie these two narratives together and hold one to the standards of the other?

Doing so for one would ignore the virtues of the other. This is, in my opinion, what makes Disney so magical. Like the magician that turns a playing card into a rabbit, Disney takes classic stories and turns them into something else entirely. Sure, giving your little child a playing card during their birthday won’t give you any parent points, and those looking to play some poker won’t have any use for a rabbit, but they each serve their own functions. A trading card is not any less playable just because it cannot be snuggled.

And nowaday, in the world of “Frozen,” “Tangled” and “Moana,” we see transformation realized in full force. “Frozen” transforms the villainous snow queen into the three-dimensional, markedly tortured Elsa, while Tangled takes a rather straightforward fable and gives it a rich sense of history that completely changes the motivations of its characters. These films hardly resemble their original source material, and really, they didn’t need to resemble them in the first place. At this point, Disney films take up a life of their own, even deconstructing their own precious products. Isn’t that fascinating? And all that is a product of 70 years of experimental adaptation!

If there is any one thing I’d like to express here, dear reader, it is that this presumption that adaptations are best sticking to the source material is so restricting. Why must we say “this wasn’t how it went in the book” as if that’s automatically a flaw? Nobody watches Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” and is disappointed that the mermaid lives at the end (I … think, anyways). Most appreciate the film as its own work. Without changes, we wouldn’t have the magical ballroom scene from “Beauty and the Beast,” the lovable Genie from “Aladdin” or the jaw-dropping stampede from “The Lion King.” We wouldn’t have the eye-catching animation and the earworm musical numbers. And most importantly, we wouldn’t have a generation inspired by these films, making products of their own.

If we wanted to experience the same story yet again, we would just read that same old book — those words aren’t going anywhere! So, when it comes to adapting these stories into different mediums, let’s hope for something different.

 

Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu.