«R e g i n a B e n d i x, P r i n c e t o n, N.J. Seashell Bra and Happy End Disney's transformations of The Little Mermaid * Oral tradition has ...»
R e g i n a B e n d i x, P r i n c e t o n, N.J.
Seashell Bra and Happy End
Disney's transformations of "The Little Mermaid" *
Oral tradition has always been used äs a vehicle to promote particular social
and political agendas — the role of the Grimm Brothers5 Household Tales in
shaping German nationalism is but one example *. But storytelling captured in
print is not the exclusive property of nationalists. Folktale plots and motifs
influenced the artistic Imagination from the Romantic era to the present, and have been appropriated by painters, composers and literary authors who have worked their own ambitions and psyches into renditions of folktales2. Social critique or economic gain can be achieved through folktale adaptations, and Disney's recent The Little Mermaid'is a particularly interesting case in point3. It represents a transformation of what was already a literary fairy tale into yet another medium, but in the process of transforming, the movie harkens back to patterns familiär from oral tradition. The structural and psychological changes in the animated film, borrowed partly from traditional folktales, partly from Disney's own 'tradition5, turned The Little Mermaid into a vehicle for the corporate American worldview which the Disney Studios themselves have helped to shape since the 1930s. Given the European expansion of the Disney empire with the opening of a new Disney World near Paris in April 1992, an examination of Disney's work with folk narrative would seem to be timely. • Once folktales are set into print, music, or paint, they lose the fluidity and adaptability of orality — they are fixated in time and space4. No medium drives this home more blatantly than film, for film by combining visual and aural * A brief version of this paper was read at the Northern Pacific Populär Cultural Conference in Portland, Oregon, April 20, 1991. Thanks go to Niels Ingwersen and Jack Kugelmass for providmg comments and references.
Dundes, A: Nationalistic Inferiority Complexes and the Study of Folklore. In:
Journal of Folklore Research 22 (1985) 5-18.
Voigt, V: Vom Neofolklorismus in der Kunst. In: Acta Ethnographica 19 (1970) 401—423; id.: Confmes of Literature, Folklore, and Folklorism. In: Neohelikon 7 (1979/80) 123-140.
Disney, Walt Co.: The Little Mermaid, distributed by Buena Vista Home Video.
Burbank 1990 (or 1989). In the German speaking worid, the film has been marketed under the name of the main protagonist, "ArieH". Reasons for the change in title might be that Andersen's tale is better known in Europe and the change in story line is more likely to offend Andersen aficionados. The second T in the spelling was prpbably added to set the film apart from the detergent named Arier.
Ong, W: Orality and Literacy. London 1982; Stone, K.: Three Transformations of Snow White. In: McGlathery, J. M. (ed.): The Brothers Grimm and Folktale. Urbana 1988, 52-65.
Fabula 34. Band (1993) Heft 3/4
communication, imposes one image to the cxclusion of all other Imagination.
Animation, especially in the dominant Disney mold, has generated particular images and styles: friendly animal characters, fast stunts, and quick jokes have become part of animation's own tradition, and a movie script of a tale is thus likely to adapt to the needs of the medium. But the script writers also assess the tale plot and alter it according to what they perceive to be appealing to a mass audience.
A comparison between Disney's movie and Hans Christian Andersen's tale The Link Mermaid on which the movie was based illustrates the different values that are communicated through narrative structure and character development.
Disney Studios claim to have updated their portrayal of social values since the mid-20th Century adaptations of the folktales Snow White, Cinderella, and Skeping Beauty5. But what models and images of women and men, gender roles and sexuality, family relationships and ethnicity lurk behind the dazzling and imaginative underwater animation?
Andersen 's "Little Mermaid": Biograpby, Plot and Interpretation* The New Yorker magazine's Pauline Kael was a tough film critic to please, but her brief dismissal of Disney's Mermaid äs aa stale pastry", "harmless family entertainment", and "vapid" movie seems entirely deserved. The critique is based on Kael's — perhaps also inflated — assessment of Andersen's tale: "Hans Christian Andersen's tearstained The Little Mermaid' is peerlessly mythic. It's the closest thing women have to a feminine Faust story. The Little Mermaid gives up her lovely voice — her means of expression — in exchange for legs, so she'll be able to walk on land and attract the man she loves. If she can win him in marriage, she will gain an immortal soul; if she can't, she'll be foam on the sea."6
But KaePs voice is one among very few dissenters in the midst of overwhelming approval and applause for a 'successful adaptation'7. One critic wrote:
"Disney's The Little Mermaid' is everything an animated feature should be. [...] It resonates with all the warm emotional force of the Hans Christian Andersen story from which it wasadapted. [...] Disney's animation returns to its roots with The Little Mermaid'; it is Disney's first feature adapted from a fairy tale since 'Sleeping Beauty' in 1959."8 Clearly, this reviewer is not familiär with Andersen's tale, otherwise he would have been aware that Andersen's Little Mermaid'is not a fairy tale in the populär sense of the term, and that the 'emotional force' of the original resides in an entirely different plot than the one Disney created.
Since Disney's "Sleeping Beauty" (originally made in the 1950s) was rereleased shortly after The Little Mermaid* came on the market, one might come to doubt the sincerity of Disney Studios' efforts to adapt their gender images to new social values.
Kael, R: At the Movies. In: The New Yorker (Dec. 11,1989) 140.
Aside from Kael (above, not. 6) — who was known for her notoriously strong opinions — only S. Kauffmann in his review of The Little Mermaid" (in: The New Republic.
Dec. 25,1989,26 sq.) dared a mild critique; daily papers and populär magazines overwhelmingly endorsed the film.
Barol, B.: Toons: Good, Bad and Ugly. In: Newsweek (Nov.20,' 1989) 72 sq.
Hans Christian Andersen was born in modest circumstances in Denmark in
1805. Convinced of his calling äs a singer and dancer, he left home for Copenhagen at a young age. He became a writer of novels, travel accounts, and poetry, but he gained most success with readings of his artful tales for children, which he began to publish in 1835 9. Andersen's tales were not collected from oral tradition and edited for bourgeois tastes äs were the Grimm tales. Rather, Andersen's own tales are Kunstmärchen, stories that draw motifs and characters from oral tradition but that in essence only allude to the oral Imagination. Andersen (äs many contemporary authors, particularly in Germany) did not feel bound to the formulaic nature of oral folktales which rest on the clear syntagmatic structure that Vladimir Propp outlined in the 1920s10. In a folktale one expects the plot between Once upon a time' and 'they lived happily ever after' to progress from an initial problem through a series of trials to end with the victory of good over evil, the marriage of lowly hero/heroine to prince/princess, and the economic rise of poor protagonists. Andersen's tales, while invoking the magic of imaginary kingdoms, teach more subtle lessons and illustrate not only human hopes but also human weaknesses. There is the tale of the conceited emperor who is duped into parading through the streets naked, the story of the vain Christmas tree who fails to appreciate beauty when he experiences it, or the tale of the little match girl who freezes to death on Christmas night.
Some critics consider Andersen's tales too pessimistic for children, lacking the hopeful conclusions of traditional tales, and modeling servility and selfdenial instead of self-assertion. But others find that, on the contrary, Andersen's tales "touch some nerve in us". His protagonists, although their demise may move one to tears, are "not defeated in spirit", an important lesson that children need and appreciate in real life, but, äs will be shown, not a lesson deemed suitable at Disney Studios11.
Most interesting for an understanding of the values inscribed in The Little Mermaid are analyses taking in account Andersen's biography. Psychoanalyst Wolfgang Lederer has argued that Andersen's tales reflect his life history, that his tales are fictionalized accounts of "ego defenses* of a psyche that has experienced rejection, that has loved but not won love in return. Others have argued for the tales äs representations of a homosexually inclined individual forced into a heterosexual world12. John Griffith's analysis even more blatantly points in this direction when he quotes Andersen's admitted dislike for grown women and his abhorrence of sexuality13. Andersen's Little Mermaidctrteinly fits the description Bredsdorff, E.: Hans Christian Andersen. New York 1975.
Propp, V: Morphology of the Folktale. Trans. L. Scott. Austin 1958.
n Andersen, C.C.: Andersen's Heroes and Heroines: Relinquishing the Reward. In:
Butler, F. (ed.): Triumphs of the Spirit in Children's Literature. Hamden 1990, 122-126, here 122.
Lederer, W.: The Kiss of the Snow Queen: Hans Christian Andersen and Man's Redemption by Woman. Berkeley 1986,100; see also P. Bjornby's review in Scandinavian Studies 62 (1990) 491-495, here 492.
Griffith, J.: Personal Fantasy in Andersen's Fairy Tales. In: Kansas Quarterly 16 (1984) 72—89, here 81 sq.
Brought to you by | St. Francis Xavier University Authenticated | 184.108.40.206 Download Date | 3/12/14 9:26 PM Seashell Bra and Happy End 283 of amiable but suffering social misfit who finds neither rest among her own nor acceptance among humans. Andersen used motifs from Folklore — mermaids, a Neptune-like sea-king, a witch with magical powers — and aspects of folktale sequencing. There are sixyoung mermaids, the Heroine is the youngest and therefore the last to be initiated into adulthood. To reach her goal of winning the love of a human, she has to undergo loss and physical pain. But the differences outnumber the similarities. Folktale characters in oral tradition never feel the pain of wounds, nor do they dwell on emotional yearnings14. Cut-off limbs grow right back, blood loss is not noticed, hearts may break, but they do not hurt. But Andersen's little mermaid hurts with every Step she makes on her legs, she suffers for being rejected, and she yearns for her family. In sharpest contrast with the folktale, the heroine dies; she loves too much to kill the prince with her sisters' gift of a magic knife which would have restored her fishtail. Her grim failure to gain an immortal soul is softened only by the fact that she is given the chance to become one of the daughters of the air who may, after three hundred years, redeem themselves and through good deeds earn immortality15.
"Nowhere eise in classic children's literature is there so terrified a vision of sex, seen through the eyes of innocence", states Griffith, and it is difficult indeed to deny the sexual symbolism in Andersen's description of the mermaid's loss of her fishtail16. First she swims to the sea-witches house through a forest where "all the trees and bushes were polyps [...]. They looked like hundred-headed snakes growing out of the ground. All the branches were long slimy arms with slithery worm-like fingers." Once the witch has cut the mermaid's tongue out in exchange for the potion — interpreted äs symbolic castration by one literary critic17 — the mermaid sadly leaves the home of her childhood and makes her way to the prince's palace, and äs she drinks the "sharp burning draught, she feit äs if a two-edged sword cut through her delicate body; she swooned with agony and lay äs if she were dead"18. But the mermaid sacrifices not only her voice and her fishtail, she ultimately abandons her body "to earn the reward of an eternal spiritual existence"19. The tale is then an expression of Andersen's personal fantasy, infiised with Christian morality, which helped Andersen overcome the trials posed by his own troubled sexuality.
Lüthi, M.: The European Folktale: Form and Nature. Trans T. D. Niles. Philadelphia 1982,11-23.
Andersen, H. C.: It's Perfectly True and Other Stories. Trans. P. Leyssac. New York 1938.
Griffith (above, not 13) 84.
Dahlerup, P.: "The Little Mermaid" Deconstructed. In: Scandinavian Studies 62 (1990) 418-428, here 427.
Andersen (above, not. 15) 44, 47.
N. and F. Ingwersen (A Folktale/Disney Approach. In: Scandinavian Studies 62  412—415) observe that in her "inevitable tragic destinv", Andersen's mermaid undergoes struggles resembling the characters in the ballad, not the folktale genre (414).
Disney9s Adaptation.f Real or symbolic loss of virginity, social failure, and death are hardly the stuff of a Disney tale, äs the producers themselves readily observed: "The idea of generations of moppets and their parents and grandparents rushing off to see an animated film in which the heroine dies for trying to rise above her acquatic Status, so to speak, fairly well answered itself."20 Thus the Disney folks, äs so often before, tinkered with the narrative, until a 'Disney Version' was created21.
The Disney formula is most clearly evident in the realignment of dramatis personae and the structural reorganization of the storyline facilitated by the changes in cast (see table above). The changes in dramatis personae allowed Champlin, C.: Diving into the 'Little Mermaid'. In: Los Angeles Times (Dec. 5,1989 [Sexism Issue]) p. F l, F 6.
Schickel, R.: The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney.
New York 1968.
Brought to you by | St. Francis Xavier University Authenticated | 220.127.116.11 Download Date | 3/12/14 9:26 PM Scasbcll Era and Happy End 285 Disney to stress different interpersonal constcllations and to bring about a different formal narrative structure.
Disney eliminates the grandmother, and the relationship between daughter and widowed father moves into the foreground. Andersen's grandmother is a kind authority figure — authority that the Disney version shifts to Triton.