By Victoria Garcia
Disney’s recent obsession with turning classic animated movies into live-action adaptations is a controversial topic. Fans are often anxious to see whether the new versions will accurately represent their favorite childhood films.
When it comes to background, culture, and presentation, the audience expects a lot from Disney. Because Disney needs to create movies with themes and characters that reflect the current generation’s values, its movies necessarily differ from their sources.
But just how dark and twisted are these “fairy tales” compared to the stories we see on the silver screen?
Disney’s Live-Action Movie Adaptations
Beauty and the Beast
The original material that birthed Beauty and the Beast tells a different tale from the version we know today. Written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, the tale of Beauty and the Beast—originally known as La Belle et la Bête—was a story that surrounded a “stupid” Beast. In the original version, the Beast is a young prince whose father dies and whose mother leaves him to be raised by an evil fairy. When the prince reaches adulthood, the evil fairy tries to seduce him. After he rejects her advances, she turns him into a beast.
In the original Beauty and the Beast, Belle is not a merchant’s daughter, but the child of a king and a good fairy. The evil fairy tries to kill Belle so she can marry Belle’s father, leading Belle to take the place of a merchant’s dead daughter to protect her father from the evil fairy.
Needless to say, the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast is different from the original source material. In the original version, the evil fairy’s curse not only changes the prince’s appearance but also blunts his intellect. In the live-action, however, the Beast is an intelligent individual who had an “expensive education.” The evil fairy is also replaced by an enchantress who aims to teach the arrogant prince a lesson.
Additionally, the Beast’s backstory is altered so that his mother dies instead of his father, which causes the negative shift in the young prince’s personality. The live-action simplifies Belle’s backstory too. So as not to clash with the trauma the Beast experiences upon his mother’s death, Belle is the daughter of a merchant who lost his wife to the plague.
While in the original tale, Belle’s mother was a good fairy with no real contribution to the story, in the live-action adaptation her absence contributes to Belle’s character arc as Belle heals from the pain of never knowing her mother with the help of the Beast.
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Disney’s live-action adaptation of Sleeping Beauty is Maleficent, which tells Aurora’s story from the perspective of Maleficent, the villain. The source material for Maleficent comes from a collection of different influences, including Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, and Giambattista Basile. The original story comes from Basile’s story Sun, Moon, and Talia.
In this tale, a king is warned that his newborn daughter Talia faces danger in her future from a splinter of flax. The king does his best to prevent this fate, but after Talia has grown, she discovers an old woman spinning thread and pricks her finger, casting her into an eternal sleep. The king, ravaged by grief, locks Talia away in a castle he abandons forever.
Hundreds of years later, a hunter finds the sleeping princess. Instead of giving her Disney’s famous true love’s kiss, the hunter is wowed by Talia’s beauty and rapes her. Soon after, Talia gives birth in her sleep to twins. She is awoken when one of her children accidentally sucks the splinter from her finger.
Meanwhile, the hunter has become a king and decides to visit Talia; he finds that he now has a young mistress and two children. Everyone is happy now, except the king’s wife. She devises a plan to murder Talia and her children and almost gets away with it, but at the last second her husband shows up to save Talia, leading the jealous wife to kill herself.
Charles Perrault is the author who modifies this story into the Sleeping Beauty we know today by adding an angry fairy, good fairies, a brave prince, and true love’s kiss. The Brothers Grimm also created the foundation of the Sleeping Beauty we are most familiar with: the tale of a princess cursed to sleep until woken by a prince. When comparing Disney’s live-action movie adaptations to their sources, we find that Disney combines elements of several sources in its animated Sleeping Beauty and live-action Maleficent.
In Maleficent, the title character is wooed by a young man, Stefan, who betrays her in order to become king. This is similar to the original story as Stefan’s action of cutting off her wings holds underlying symbolism to rape. When Stefan marries and has a daughter, Maleficent curses the child in retaliation for the betrayal and hurt she experienced at his hands.
This differs from Sleeping Beauty in which Maleficent curses Aurora simply because she was not invited to her ceremony. In Maleficent, young Aurora is still raised by the good fairies as in the original stories, but is drawn to Maleficent through the power of the curse.
Unlike Disney’s animated fairy tale, the live-action retelling does not involve a prince saving the princess from her curse but focuses on Maleficent’s role to show her growing to love Aurora and saving the girl from the curse she herself created. Thus, the plots of both interpretations are altered from the original tale.
The original twisted horror story leads to a fairy tale about jealousy and love, which leads to a tragic tale about revenge, personal growth, and parental love. The stories that inspired Maleficent are unarguably different and dark, but the live-action Maleficent creates its own unique story through the villain-turned-protagonist.
The Jungle Book
The Jungle Book is a classic Disney movie sourced from a local tale of a boy who was raised by wolves. In the story, a woman was working in the fields and had left her child in the shade of a tree. She heard a cry and saw her child being dragged away by a large wolf. Years later, soldiers noticed a female wolf surrounded by her cubs and one odd cub. After more watching, they saw it was a human child. They managed to take the boy back to their village as a mascot. The boy only ate raw meat, refused to wear clothes, and howled at night. Eventually, his mother heard of the feral child and took him back, but the wolf child did not survive long after.
The child in the story is not the one who inspired Mowgli in The Jungle Book. The real Mowgli was a man in a legend. According to the locals, this man was known as a killer and a man-eater who lived near Jabalpur, India.
In the live-action adaptation of The Jungle Book, Mowgli is a village boy who loses his parents to a tiger attack, and is kindly adopted by wolves instead of stolen by them. In the Disney film, Mowgli chooses to stay with his wolf family, saying it is his true calling. In the source story, Mowgli is torn away from the wolf pack and dies because he cannot live as a human. Man is the enemy in both the source story and the movie.
In The Jungle Book, however, man is not the main antagonist but indirectly creates the villain, the tiger Shere Khan, by fueling his fury. The legend of Mowgli and The Jungle Book can only be compared due to the main character’s name and the theme of conflict between nature and man. Mowgli in The Jungle Book is never a threat to other people, unlike the legend of Mowgli the man-eater.
When comparing Disney’s live-action movie adaptations to their sources, you will perhaps be surprised to notice the sources always have a darker plot. While Disney transforms this sinister content into romantic princess movies for its modern viewers, the films’ dark origins can still be seen. For example, the name of the protagonist in The Jungle Book is the name of a cannibal, and the rape dialogue from the original Sleeping Beauty is present in Maleficent but focused on a different character.
While some might find this unsettling, others, like myself, may find it interesting to see how fairy tales have changed over time. I find it interesting how Disney chooses to communicate these stories to its audiences and after researching the sources of these classic Disney fairy tales, I believe Disney might be slightly tone-deaf.
It is encouraging to see how Disney reinterprets the original stories to engage with current social discussions. While the themes often stay the same from the source inspiration to the modern-day movie, the message they share is often altered to appeal to today’s viewers. Hopefully, our future Disney fairy tales are adapted from more positive scenarios.