I was telling Everyone’s Favourite YouTube Ceratosaurus that I routinely get my articles done mere minutes before they’re due, which reminded me that I should really figure out what I was going to write about for this week’s column. (For once, this is being written early; it was part of a discussion about other things.) He suggested that I should talk about the original ending of “The Little Mermaid” and how radically different the Disney version is. Now, this ties into some of the things we’ve already talked about, when it comes to the idea that “Disney is saccharine,” but it’s definitely true that some choices were made, particularly during the Renaissance, that don’t make a whole lot of sense as things to adapt.
Now, obviously, to do this properly, I’d have to actually watch Pocahontas and Hercules. Because those two didn’t just change the ending. They changed the everything. But I’m not going to do that, because no one has paid me yet. (The offer remains open on Patreon and Ko-fi.) Still, we can take two main data points that are beloved of general, or at least in one case possibly more Millennial, audiences and show that Disney was making some very strange choices in those days. And one of them, they’ve recently remade—and if by all accounts it’s got a lot of changes from the original, I’m quite sure restoring the ending wasn’t one of them.
Now, “The Little Mermaid” is a lot more screwy than people remember, because it was written by a man who was using it to woo someone who didn’t even realize Andersen was interested in him. But it explicitly ends with Our Heroine’s death, and if there’s that weird “spirits of the air” epilogue, well, yeah. It turns out that the prince believed the whole time that some other girl rescued him, not the mermaid, and the arranged marriage his parents are setting up—because he’s a prince—turns out to be with her. There’s really no villain to the story, just cruel twists of fate. “Oh, well, I guess he doesn’t love you then” is not an expected Disney ending, even though we’d probably all be healthier if it were.
As for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, that’s even stranger. Here is where I admit that I’ve never made it all the way through the book, I suppose. We’ll be using its French title, Notre-Dame de Paris, to distinguish between book and movie. The Hunchback of Notre Dame I suppose does have the “I guess she doesn’t love you then” ending, inasmuch as Esmeralda and Quasimodo do not end up together, but Esmeralda isn’t quite the same object of devotion in the movie. I mean, obviously they leave out the sexual tensions, because kids’ movie, but that does make Notre-Dame de Paris an extremely weird choice to adapt into a kids’ movie.
In both “The Little Mermaid” and Notre-Dame de Paris, major characters end up dead. In Notre-Dame de Paris, it’s most of the cast. Including a random nun who from what I can tell shows up just long enough to shown to be Esmeralda’s birth mother, because of course she couldn’t really be Romani; what are you even on about? In “The Little Mermaid,” it’s the main character who dies, victim of Andersen’s inability to write a “check this box” note like a normal person. These two are not quite far off enough to be “in name only” adaptations; The Hunchback of Notre Dame has most of the characters and at least some of the plot points of Notre-Dame de Paris. And easily half of “The Little Mermaid” made it into The Little Mermaid. They’re both still odd choices for adaptation, yet somehow still not the oddest in the Disney animated pantheon.
It’s also worth noting that, while these are the most noteworthy changes, there are changes from well before then. 101 Dalmatians is one where I’d have to read the book first, though I’m well aware that there are plenty of changes—and the direct-to-video sequels definitely don’t have anything to do with the book sequel, which involves space travel and extraterrestrial dogs. But even all the way back to Snow White, there’s the detail that she’s actually nearly killed twice before the apple, once with too-tight bodice lacings and once with a poisoned comb, and Lord I’ve been both of those places. That latter change is so ubiquitous that it’s the standard telling of the story now, so far as I can tell.
The other changes seem to fall into three basic categories—adaptation tweaks, “holy crap no,” and “you know, for kids.” So we get differences in 101 Dalmatians and The Jungle Book from their source material because that’s the nature of adapting source material, as Camera Obscura gets into every month. For “holy crap no,” we get into things like “in certain tellings of the story, Sleeping Beauty had twins while still asleep.” (Of course, she was also asleep for a hundred years in non-Disney tellings; I kind of feel as though that aspect is changed because by the 1950s audiences didn’t want to see Our Heroine in an arranged marriage unless she’d already fallen in love with her prince. Making all those heroines’ meeting and falling in love with their princes before we got on with the story a “holy crap no” change as well.) For “you know, for kids,” we get things like the kids in Robin Hood, intended to be perspective characters for the child audience.
In that sense, the changes to Hunchback from Notre-Dame aren’t even that extreme. We’ve left out Cruella DeVil’s husband and an entire other adult dalmatian, and that’s not even getting started on the Kipling. But the ending of The Little Mermaid is arguably the sign of a new age for Disney where fidelity to a story people have known for generations was not at all important, leading to, let’s be real, such beloved properties as The Princess and the Frog and Frozen. So, you know, there we are, I guess?