Walt Disney told his animators not to read the book. But the book’s author Rudyard Kipling could not have objected.
He wrote the book…without ever having been to that part of the world, anyway.
That was the situation when two famous creators collaborated on a Disney movie several years ago.
A more recent version of “The Jungle Book” came out the other day.
Have you seen it?
Which some reviewers said was at least faithful to the book.
Which as we’ve said was written by the well-known author without the knowledge he might have gained by actually going there. He based what he knew about the place on photographs and his wild imagination, according to Angus Wilson’s The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Works,
Disney himself thought the story was too depressing and downbeat to turn into a film. So his solution was simple:
Don’t read the book.
Just in case you were not entirely aware of it…Disney characters in movies and in the theme parks often don’t come out exactly as they originally appeared.
It’s not just in movies, however.
When you are visiting Central Florida and buying Disney World tickets, you are entering into a world controlled by Disney and his successors.
The influence of their Disney characters can be found at the parks as well as at the many movies you have seen as children (and perhaps as adults).
Fairy tales many centuries old
When you see the Cinderella characters hanging around the Magic Kingdom, you might have more awareness of their history. Centuries old from many stories around the world.
Ancient Egypt and China had their own versions of distressed damsels losing footwear only to be rescued by handsome suitors.
There are many versions of the Cinderella story but in at least one she kills her step-mother.
Maybe you don’t want to read that one, either.
Does all this mean there are Disney dark secrets they keep to make these fairy tales work in films and characters in theme parks?
Well, yes and no.
Children actually reading the stories that inspired these characters might be shocked. So, keep this away from the kids, ok?
But since you are an adult, you should be able to take in and enjoy the real stories the characters were based on.
That is not in any way a putdown of the magic created by Disney happy endings.
Instead, it might more be regarded as a celebration or a view of Disney as displaying a wealth of creativity in turning around some well-known and often grim-hearted stories into golden morality tales.
In addition to knowing the stories behind these Disney tales, there’s insight into Walt himself and how he viewed these efforts (as well as his successors).
Disney characters usually make heroic efforts to overcome adversity. They succeed despite adversity (just like Disney himself did, of course).
And their stories have happy endings.
The characters they are based on don’t always come out that way.
Reviewers who were generally happy themselves with the latest version of Disney’s “Jungle Book” praised its sticking mostly to the real Kipling story.
Too depressing for Walt Disney
But all reports were that Walt himself in the 1960s version of the story told animators not to read the book.
He found Kipling’s stories too dark, historians have told us.
Much too grim.
So Disney takes what might be called “poetic license” with its famous characters.
Again, nothing wrong with that.
Some critics and others think Disney actually improved on the stories.
If you have never thought about it, Disney characters are often based on classic fairy tales.
Many original fairy tales about “once upon a time” that ended with everyone living “happily ever after” were not.
Not like that, at all.
To put it bluntly:
Many of these stories involved sexual overtones and sometimes violence. Gruesome violence at that. Themes of adultery, incest, cannibalism, rape, murder and mutilation.
Disney Gs were Xs
In other words, in movie terms, few “G” ratings. Many, many “X” rated by our modern movie standards.
Later versions, and our own of course, took away some of the more disturbing elements (and we will not repeat many of them here).
Oddly enough, many of these tales were not related to one culture or civilization. Common themes often appeared across lines of language and geography.
One thing many had in common: warnings against bad behavior.
Some tales were obviously intended to frighten children. But many more had moral lessons for all ages.
Some of these stories go back to Biblical times.
Later, globetrotting folklore tellers popularized the stories.
The most influential person in Disney characters is not Kipling, but the Grimm Brothers. Jacob and Wilhelm.
In the 19th century, they would have understood Walt Disney’s own frustration with denied dreams and his bankruptcy for some very understandable reasons.
The brothers were around during very tough times. The Thirty Years War.
That left one third of the population dead in Europe. Those who were left were struggling with famine and disease.
Their folktales reflected that reality.
Tough times made for rough tales
Their tales were translated into more than 160 languages.
Their stories are known today to modern day people as “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Cinderella,” among many others.
Here’s one of the most famous stories about Walt Disney when he was making “Snow White,” released in 1937.
One winter night, he gave staff members 50 cents and told them to get dinner across the street from the studio (yes, dinners were a little cheaper then).
When they returned, the found Disney sitting along in the spotlight on a dark stage.
For the next several hours, they all watched in awe as he acted out the Grimm Brothers fairy tale.
He acted out every part. Convincingly. Even down to the queen and the seven dwarves.
That was the first they heard it would be a full-length animated feature film.
Walt as perfectionist
"We were just carried away," one animator recalled of Disney's solo performance. "I would have climbed a mountain full of wildcats to do everything I could to make ‘Snow White.’”
The film was not quite met with enthusiasm before its release.
It was known as Disney’s “folly.”
Disney’s sense of perfectionism was evident during filming.
Ultimately, more than 600 people produced upwards of 200,000 drawings, with some employees working 12-hour days.
The total budget for the film was $1.5 million — six times what the studio had anticipated.
Yes, he was a perfectionist when it came to just about everything he touched.
But Walt Disney felt very differently towards the truth of his many famous characters.
Take just one example: Pinocchio.
You know it: the guy with the wooden nose.
In the film portrayal, “Nothing could be further from the acid spirit of the original story” by Carlo Collodi.
He wanted to create a real Italian literature for children in the 1880s when the country of Italy was undergoing a united effort.
The real original tale sounds like “West Side Story” or a tale of youthful teen criminals.
Creator Geppetto thought his wooden creation would dance and do backflips to entertain others. The idea was to earn a living with donations of a crust of bread and a cup of wine from people amused by the strange-looking puppet.
Pinocchio really a dangerous juvenile delinquent
After being created by the wood carver from a living log. Pinocchio runs away (the creator’s mistake was also teaching him to walk).
Puppet creator Geppetto runs after him, catches him, give him a fierce shaking.
Geppetto does not earn parent praise for his actions.
He is arrested for assault. He goes to jail.
This is as familiar a tale as “Frankenstein.”
The creator has lost control of his creation.
When Pinocchio finally comes home, he meets another familiar character: The talking cricket.
That is Jimmy, of course, in the film.
Revealing himself on the wall, the officious insect proceeds to give Pinocchio some hundred-year-old advice:
“Woe to any little boy who rebels against his parents and turns his back on his father's house.”
Pinocchio does not only not like this advice, he rebels against it (“Rebel Without a Cause,” as seen in the movie).
The puppet kills the cricket with a wooden mallet.
Yes, kills him.
Knock on wood: not a good guy
Not exactly what happens in the movie, is it?
The book “Knock on Wood,” by Tim Parks called Disney’s version a “sugary adaptation.”
But that is far from the only poetic liberty taken with the stories.
Many of Disney’s characters involved princesses.
And they all ended happily.
How was that?
Marrying the prince, of course.
But that did not always happen when it came to stories and folk tales by the aptly-named Grimm brothers, Hans Christian Andersen and Victor Hugo, among others.
So you know the story of Snow White?
Or think you do.
The prince kisses her in the movie. She wakes up. She is carried to his castle.
The prince gets the girl, vice versa
The villain, the Evil Queen, dies when she falls off a cliff.
Bad enough, perhaps, but the real original story is worse.
Far worse, in fact.
The Grimm brothers’ story had it that the Evil Queen was invited to the prince’s wedding. Fine.
But when she arrived, she was forced to wear a pair of hot iron shoes. She was then forced to dance. To her death.
While the wedding party all watched.
In “Sleeping Beauty,” the prince defeats a dragon.
Then he kisses the sleeping maiden. She wakes and dances with her new boyfriend.
In the real story, the prince took advantage of her sleeping condition. She woke up months later with twin babies, Sun and Moon.
She was then reunited with the married king.
She got the king in the end but only after the current queen tried to make the king eat one of his own babies.
The king threw his current wife into the fire, which pre-dated any legal divorce option.
Then the king married the sleeping beauty.
The movie did get that part right.
We all know the story of Cinderella and her slipper. And her horrible stepsisters.
In the film, their only punishment was to be angry and jealous.
Murder is involved in some versions of the story, as we said.
But in the Grimms’ own tale of “Aschenputtel,” the sisters met a grisly, bloody and horrifying end. In the story, one sister cut her toes off to fit in the slipper. The other sliced off her own heel.
Endings not always happy ones
That was bad enough. But there was worse.
When Cinderella got married to her prince, the wedding ceremony had some grisly entertainment when doves flew down from Heaven and pecked the sisters’ eyes out.
In “The Little Mermaid,” the character Ariel falls in love with Eric who is already a prince. Ariel trades her voice for legs so she can court the prince.
Ariel the beautiful mermaid marries Prince Eric. Happy days.
But in the tale by Hans Christian Anderson, Ariel finds walking on two feet is very painful. She also has to face the fact Prince Eric musts fall in love with under threat of death.
Yes, she will die otherwise.
Ariel does die.
But Prince Eric falls in love with another girl.
When Ariel dies, she dissolves into sea foam.
Real Ariel was too young to die
A sad end for a girl only 15 years old
As you already know, Pocahontas is a real historical figure. Of course, Disney turned her story into a pleasant tale about the power of love, which isn’t really how it went down in real life.
In real life, historians tell us she was only about ten years old when the colonists arrived. John Smith was much older.
We don’t think they ever met, but it would have been difficult anyway.
Smith returned to England.
She was kidnapped. Converted forcibly to Christianity.
She did marry an Englishmen, however.
And did had a son.
She later visited London.
But after returning home, she died.
She was only in her 20s.
And so how about Rapunzel? In one Disney movie, she has a super controlling mother who wants her to stay put in the tower. But a charming fugitive prince helps her escape.
The two find out she is really a princess (lucky break).
They marry. Happy ever after.
In the story, the controlling mother finds out the pair of lovers are meeting. She cuts off Rapunzel’s famous hair and uses it to lure the prince to the tower.
The prince realizes he has been tricked.
He jumps from the tower. Breaks his fall on a bed of thorns.
But he is blinded.
Call it a bleak ending
And even Pinocchio did not start out as a pleasant story.
His only ambition in movies is the heartbreaking goal of wanting to be a real boy.
But in the original story he is a monster. The good-natured puppet is a version of a juvenile delinquent who needed a lot of guidance.
Geppetto would have been better off breaking him up for kindling in the fireplace.
That’s the real story.
But don’t tell the kids. ###