The Original Horrors that Inspired Disney Classics

Thanks for the nightmares, Brothers Grimm.

Hello, friends and foes! Today we’re taking a look at some of Disney’s fairy tale retellings and their way-scarier source material.

Let’s get one thing out of the way – I don’t consider myself to be a “Disney Adult”, but I do consider myself to be a general fan and avid Disney animation historian. And through my obsession with the evolution of Disney animation, I’ve come to learn quite a bit about the history of the company as a whole. And what a fascinating history, it is…

This is an image of the Disney Animators strike in 1941.

It all started with a mouse. Well… kind of. In 1923, The Walt Disney Company was started by Walt and Roy Disney under the name Disney Bros. Studio. Mickey Mouse came along in 1928 and was quickly followed by Pluto and Donald Duck, etc. And the rest, as they say, is history. A history rife with wartime propaganda (Der Fuehrer’s Face, 1943; Education for Death: The Making of the Nazi, 1943; Donald Gets Drafted, 1942), racism (Song of the South, 1946, an offensive depiction of cheerful African Americans post slavery), and anti-union and low pay corporate policies (resulting in multiple strikes between 1941 and present day). It was on the backs of those underpaid animators and musicians and cast members that the corporate giant we know today was built.

Now, I’m not here to discuss Disney as a corporation (at least, not any more than I already have). The stunning artistry of the animators and musicians and writers deserves to be appreciated for what it is – moving and emotional art. Many of these stories and characters are cornerstones of our adolescence. I watched The Lion King every day for a year when I was five, and my mom fast-forwarded past Mufasa’s death scene every single time… no one tell her I run a horror blog now.

Disney applied its show stopping and jaw dropping art to many preexisting and classic tales. For example, Pinocchio. It was originally written as a serial by Carlo Collodi between 1881 and 1883 in Italy. According to Francelia Butler, scholar and pioneer of children’s literature, Pinocchio is the most translated Italian book (in over 250 languages) and the second most widely read. What’s the first most widely read book in Italy? Oh, just The Bible. Disney’s film version of Pinocchio was released in 1940 and left out just one little detail… Jiminy Cricket was supposed to be dead. Yep. In the book, Pinocchio kills him with a hammer, but little Jiminy stays with him as his conscience, teaching him right from wrong.

Turns out, this is a recurring theme of Disney’s retellings – taking out some of the gnarly, scary stuff. We here at Little Book Blog of Horrors want the gnarly and the scary. So, let’s talk about it.

Charles Robinson illustrated Cinderella in the kitchen (1900), from Tales of Passed Times with stories by Charles Perrault.

I’m sure you’re all familiar with Cinderella (either the 1950 animated version or the 2015 live-action remake). The Disney film follows Cinderella, a maid to her evil stepmother and stepsisters, heckled and mistreated at every given chance. With the help of her fairy godmother, Cinderella gets to attend a ball – but only until the stroke of midnight. Her dance with the prince is cut short as the clock strikes midnight, and in her haste she leaves behind a single glass slipper. The prince tries to find his lost love by having all the maidens that attended the ball try on the glass slipper. Eventually it is revealed that Cinderella is the prince’s mystery girl and they live happily ever after.

The film is based on Charles Perrault’s 1697 version of the ancient tale (and I mean ancient – this story goes back to Rhodopis in Ancient Greece, around 7BC). Disney chose Perrault’s version of the tale because he was the first to include the glass slipper. Other versions have other calling cards like jewelry or notes. In the Brothers Grimm 1812 version of the tale, the glass slipper is gold and Cinderella’s name is Aschenputtel (literally just German for Cinderella). Also in the Brothers Grimm version and conveniently left out of Disney’s is the fate of the stepsisters Anastasia and Drizella. In their desperate attempts to fit into the glass slipper and marry the prince, one stepsister hacks off her toe and one hacks off her heel. Both times, the prince sees the blood on the slipper and says “no, thank you”. Then, at the wedding of the prince and Cinderella, pigeons peck out the stepsisters’ eyes and they were “punished with blindness as long as they lived”. Gnarly.

“Rook di goo, rook di goo!
There’s blood in the shoe.
The shoe is too tight,
This bride is not right!”

“rucke di guck, rucke di guck,
Blut ist im Schuck (Schuh):
Der Schuck ist zu klein,
die rechte Braut sitzt noch daheim”

Moving right along to another tale from those weird Grimm brothers: Snow White. The 1937 film was a benchmark for Disney; it was the first full length traditionally animated feature film EVER, and the first feature length film for Disney. In the tale we meet orphaned Snow White, living with her stepmother The Queen. The Queen forces Snow into servitude because she’s prettier than her. When The Queen’s magic mirror breaks it to her that Snow is still the fairest in all the land despite being demoted to lowly servant, The Queen orders a huntsman to kill Snow White and take out her heart.

Schneewittchen; Darstellung von Alexander Zick (1845 – 1907)

Snow hides out with the seven dwarfs, safe until she is poisoned by a cunning witch with a poison apple. She falls into a coma and the dwarfs place her in a glass coffin in the forest, standing watch beside her. Then, a prince comes and kisses her and she wakes up to marry him. The End.

The 1812 Brothers Grimm version is pretty similar, though Snow White actually dies from eating the poisoned apple and the dwarfs put her in a glass coffin because she was still so beautiful after death (the poison kept her from decaying, apparently). The prince comes across the coffin in the forest and begs the dwarfs for it, claiming, “I cannot live without being able to see Snow-White!”… weird. As the prince’s servants are carrying the coffin to the castle, one trips and jostles Snow’s position. This dislodges the poison apple from her throat and she miraculously comes back to life! She still marries the prince and they live happily ever after, after all. Oh, but not before The Queen attends their wedding and is forced to dance on burning iron shoes until she drops dead. Perhaps an early rival to Game of Thrones‘ infamous Red Wedding?

Though there are plenty more Grimm x Disney collaborations to go through (Rapunzel, The Little Mermaid, etc.), let’s take a look at some different source material. Victor Hugo’s 1831 classic Notre-Dame de Paris, or, as we know it, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. DISCLAIMER: this article will contain usage of the word “gypsy”. This word is widely recognized as a slur against individuals of Romani descent. It is being used in the context of this article to refer to its usage in the works of Victor Hugo and the Walt Disney Company, and is in no way intended as derogatory by the author.

Illustration from Victor Hugo et son temps (1881)

Disney’s 1996 animated version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is arguably Disney’s darkest film (infanticide, murder, lust, sin and eternal damnation abound – and still rated G!). In 1460’s Paris, we meet Minister of Justice Frollo. He’s on a mission to rid the city of Paris of gypsies. He murders a gypsy woman while she pleads for “sanctuary” inside the Notre Dame cathedral. Frollo discovers a deformed baby in her arms. He attempts to drown the infant but is caught by the cathedral’s archdeacon, and is forced to raise the baby as penance for his sins. That infant grows up to be the hunchback Quasimodo (and his name literally means “half formed”… wtf).

Quasimodo has no friends – except for three cathedral gargoyles that come to life – until he meets the beautiful gypsy woman Esmeralda. Frollo lusts after Esmeralda and burns down half of Paris hunting her and the other gypsies down (see Jonathan Young’s metal cover of the original Disney track Hellfire here: https://open.spotify.com/track/3VLFgFwCPediasLOXX2cUD?si=87c908a48c54404e ). Frollo tricks Quasimodo into leading him to the gypsy camp and tries to burn Esmeralda at the stake. Luckily, this is a Disney movie, so Esmeralda is rescued by Quasimodo, Frollo burns to death in a pit of molten lead, and Quasimodo is accepted into Paris society as a hero.

So, it was already dark. Especially by Disney standards. Still not as dark as Hugo’s version, however. In the original French text, Frollo frames Esmeralda for murder (he’s still lusting after her, by the way). Quasimodo tries to give her “sanctuary” in Notre Dame but she is eventually hanged for her ‘crime’. In the end, Quasimodo murders Frollo and then starves to death, clinging to Esmeralda’s lifeless body.

In short, Disney did a great job of turning terrifying children’s stories into… slightly less terrifying children’s films. I absolutely recommend checking out the source material if you want the gritty backstory to your childhood favorites. I’m thinking of doing a list of scary moments in Disney films (think Dumbo‘s Pink Elephants montage). If that’s something you’d be interested in, let me know in the comments below!

Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.

xo Allison

SOURCES:

“The Walt Disney Studios History.” Walt Disney Studios, https://studioservices.go.com/disneystudios/history.html

“Walt Disney’s World War II propaganda production”. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walt_Disney%27s_World_War_II_propaganda_production

Mattera, Philip. “Walt Disney: Corporate Rap Sheet.” Corporate Research Project, 1 Aug. 2020, https://www.corp-research.org/disney

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Sneewittchen, Kinder- und Hausmärchen, (Children’s and Household Tales — Grimms’ Fairy Tales), final edition (Berlin, 1857), no. 53

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, “Aschenputtel,” Kinder- und Hausmärchen [Children’s and Household Tales — Grimms’ Fairy Tales], 7th edition (Göttingen: Verlag der Dieterichschen Buchhandlung, 1857), no. 21, pp. 119-26.

Bracken, Haley. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame: novel by Hugo.” Brittanica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Hunchback-of-Notre-Dame

COPYRIGHT DISCLAIMER:

All art is used Pursuant to 17 U.S. Code § 107 under the “fair use” defense.

All other images are certified public domain.

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2 Comments

  1. I’m so glad you included Young’s “Hell Fire” cover! I think it gives such a terrifying vibe to the already creepy song. I would love to see your list of scary Disney moments! I don’t think I’ve rewatched dumbo since I first saw it for that very reason.

    1. Had to give him a shout-out, he makes every Disney song a little scary! Dumbo will probably have multiple spots on the Disney scary moments list because it’s….. terrifying

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