It may be safe to assume that Walt Disney, Fox studios, Hans Christian Andersen and The Brothers Grimm, hold a monopoly on fairy tales and fables, in perpetuity. The studios have been required for the most part to produce rosy-hued adaptations of the 1800s-era folklore that Andersen and the Grimms compiled; ironic then that the elders in society lament the decline of their civilization as the fairy tales that they relay to their grandkids become more and more bland and sterile. Though this tendency away from harsher original source material and toward more escapist fare in the 20th and 21st centuries is probably unrelated to the decline of Western civilization, it is strange that as kids’ stories become more kid-friendly, they become an increasingly inaccurate reflection of a reality these stories were originally meant to ease children into.
In addition, the game of telephone that is folklore, has now become obsessively focused on changing the appearance, superficial traits, of protagonists so as to make these stories more universally accessible and relatable. Never mind the fact that the lessons taught in these stories are supposedly universal; which is why even Jack Skellington from Nightmare Before Christmas resonates with so many of (the more “emo” of) us. There is less focus these days on what fairytales say, yet we keep recycling them, dressing them up differently, arguing with each other about how our kids receive these stories, instead of expending energy to make sure our kids get the moral of these stories, which have been relevant since they were written, and that’s why they stick around.
The 15 stories described here range from urban legends like that of Anastasia, the long lost daughter of (the last) Tzar of Russia who like Elvis and Tupac still, according to remaining believers, is alive and well, to classic fairytales that were much more gruesome in their original tellings and now boast Academy Award-winning soundtracks and love interests.
Long ago in a kingdom far, far away…
This is the only legend on the list that was drummed up and spread as propaganda. Up until August 23rd, 2007, when the remains of Anastasia and Alexei Romanov were identified using modern forensic technology, there was still a possibility that these two youngest and last members of the now extinct Tsarist dynasty of pre-Communist Russia had escaped the brutal fate the rest of their family met (executed by firing squad, stabbing, and blunt force trauma in a sub-basement of their own palace in 1918 to conclude the “successful” Bolshevik revolution). Now, it is known that none of the Romanovs survived, though this did not stop several people from coming forward and claiming, sometimes convincingly, to be Anastasia. Neither did it stop 20th Century Fox from, in 1997, embellishing on a story (that began as Red Army smoke-and-mirrors) with a talking bat named Bartok, and a conspicuous lack of rifle smoke and bayoneted corpses.
14. The Frog King
Even after Disney adapted this Grimm Brothers’ story into The Princess and the Frog by getting rid of the domestic violence and pervy intentions of the royal-turned-amphibian, and setting the scene in modern-day New Orleans around Mardi gras, PC parents, critics who have to demonstrate their progressive attitudes, and racists alike, went to town with accusations of racial insensitivity going both ways. There is just no winning, so why not tell kids the original story?
The version of the story that most kids hear is a censored fable about a horny teenage princess and her newfound lecherous toad companion turned newly human lover also called, Iron Heinrich. Heinrich is a mean frog prince, possibly with molest-y intentions, and his curse is broken not by a kiss but by the princess getting fed up with his crap and chucking him against the wall… at which point the two get married as if he had not tried to sleep with her and she had not all but murdered him after his advances became too bold.
Contrary to popular belief, this classic tale of a downtrodden daughter triumphing over oppressive in-laws was first adapted from the oral tradition by a Frenchman by the name of Charles Perrault, before the German Brothers Grimm retold it in their seminal collection of folktales. At this point it is common knowledge that most Grimm Bros. tales boasted grim details by today’s parental standards, and these original tellings of Cinderella are no exception. While Disney’s 1950 feature length animated adaptation did see three cruel step-sisters struggle to wear glass slippers, nobody’s feet were mangled and no bleeding was involved as in the original tale. The ugly step-sisters also get their eyes pecked out by blackbirds in the 1800s versions; maybe the recent slew of manchild-perpetrated gun violence in the US is compensation for this sterilization of their childhood fairytales.
12. The Little Mermaid
Hans Christian Andersen rivals the Brothers Grimm in the popularity of his work and the extent to which his stories have been retold and burrowed their way into the collective consciousness, or at least onto the required watching list, for children everywhere. In all of its incarnations, The Little Mermaid is a story about a mermaid who, pining after a human prince, makes a deal with a devilish Sea Witch for a potion that will turn the Little Mermaid into a mute human, as long as she can also win over and marry her prince.
Beyond that, details that never made it into the Disney-approved version of the story include: the fact that one of the side-effects of the Sea Witch’s potion was that the Little Mermaid would always feel like she is walking on broken glass and the unhappily-ever-after ending wherein the prince marries another and the mermaid dies sad and alone.
11. Alice(‘s Adventures) In Wonderland
Eventually, most literate people learn the fun fact that Lewis Carroll was an opiate user –these people are also the ones who have not read either book, but have seen Disney’s 1951 Alice In Wonderland, which is a synthesis of both of Carroll’s Wonderland books and devoid of any hint of the slightly-more-adult themes present in these books. The Disney retelling does not have any of the puzzles or riddles that are more than gibberish for pre-talking kids in the books and minus any real social commentary the wings of Lewis Carroll’s classics have been clipped.
What fewer know is that Walt Disney himself was recycling material in 1951’s Alice movie; some of his company’s earliest work were also some of the first live action-meets-animation shorts about a girl named Alice and her adventures in strange ‘toon-inhabited’ realms. In the end, the books are “trippier” than the films, and in the films, people like the opium-smoking Caterpillar and the nihilistic Cheshire Cat do not represent much more than zany characters as opposed to being metaphors for different elements of society.
10. (Hua) Mulan
The legend of Hua Mulan, a female warrior in China (most likely modeled after a real female military strategist Fu Hao, from the Shang Dynasty) first appeared as a poem, a ballad more specifically, in a 6th-century tome titled Musical Records of Old and New. Not surprisingly then, after a centuries-long game of telephone, neither the very original written piece nor the Disney version of this myth committed to celluloid ended with the protagonist taking her own life to avoid being taken as one of the Kahn’s concubines.
However, there is an extended version, published in the 1600s wherein Mulan comes home from war to a broken family and corrupt ruler rather than a pleasantly surprised community. Fun fact: the Brits burned Joan Of Arc alive at the stake for donning armor against them while the Chinese have literally ancient books that are just collections of biographies and legends, respectively about real and made-up women held in high esteem.
9. The “Oz” Books
L. Frank Baum explicitly set out to write a series of children’s fantasy books whose protagonists depended less heavily on the use of violence to overcome adversity and affirm their morality with his series of fairytales set in the magical land of Oz. The most beloved and enduring adaptation of any story from the fourteen official Oz books is 1939’s black-and-white/color, Judy Garland classic, The Wizard of Oz. However, other film adaptations, like 1985’s Return to Oz, have turned out even scarier and more bizarre than the books. As with Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, the social commentary was leached out of any adaptions of the Oz canon; the subtle comment on Western mental health practices in Return to Oz for example, must have been entirely lost on children of the 80s.
8. Snow White
One mark of the Old World fables of Grimm and Andersen (and the like), is repetition in threes; characters are required to seek out three things or attempt something or are thwarted three times before they learn their lesson. The original Grimm version of the story (published in multiple revised editions between 1812 and 1854) generally involved the Evil Queen/Wicked Stepmother attempting thrice to kill her more beautiful daughter. The poison apple made it into the 20th Century retellings, the other two Wile E. Coyote-esque attempts were cut, as well as the final scene where the Queen is forced to dance herself to death in molten hot shoes at Snow White’s wedding. The Dwarves were not named until a 1912 stage production titled Snow White And The Seven Dwarves, and the rest is Disney history. Despite deleting sadism from the story, the Evil Queen still manages to scare children, whether on the Snow White Disney park rides or at the movies.
More of a pawn and poster child than a color-blind romantic or role model, the Powhatan princess, Pocahontas, was immortalized in Disney’s 1995 revisionist account and 2005’s slightly more historically accurate, live-action The New World. Myths that persist about the supposed Native American Cleopatra include that she was romantically involved with colonial Jamestown leader John Smith, and the extent to which she earnestly plead with her warmonger father and others for peace between the English and native Virginians, despite risk to her own safety and survival have been drastically overstated, if not fabricated completely. In reality there are no correspondence or accounts that suggest that Pocahontas married another colonist after Smith left Virginia, and mostly as a political move, and she died of natural causes in England in 1617.
6. Chicken Little
There are very few versions of this story in print or on film that end well for its protagonist. Whether Danish one hit wonder J. Mathias Thiele’s 1823 protagonist Kylling Kluk, the Grimm Brothers’ more enduringly popular Henny Penny, or Walt Disney Company’s WWII-era Chicken Little, all of these fables start with a paranoid baby chicken thinking the world is ending or “the sky is falling!” after an object, usually an acorn or leaf, falls from the sky and ends with Mr. Little and all the friends he has convinced to spread the bad word being killed and/or eaten by a fox on their way to the King. In 2005 however, Disney released a revamped, sci-fi themed, computer animated version of the story, framed as a sequel, where Chicken Little’s concerns are not totally unfounded and the fox is a bully rather than a full-fledged murderer.
5. The Snow Queen
Another Hans Christian Andersen fairytale that by our standards is gory, but by 19th-century standards was watered-down already (or at least was a more polished version of the folklore version(s)) until Andersen and Grimm was only part of an oral tradition (i.e., spread by word of mouth). In the original, it is shards from a mirror that reflects only the negative or evil side of things and that the devil himself drops to Earth that freeze people’s hearts, as opposed to Elsa’s being a candidate for Professor Xavior’s School For The Gifted and ostracized for her out-of-control freezing skills, in Disney’s Frozen, which send the protagonists of these stories into isolation. That is just one of the more depressing aspects of The Snow Queen replaced in the movie by things like snowman Olaf’s comedy relief.
4. The Pied Piper Of Hamelin
Most kid versions stop with the man getting rid of rats and just entertaining the kids or recruiting one to join him on his adventures–and don’t get to the Freddy Krueger-inspiring part where the townsfolk are ungrateful and the Piper uses his skills to lead the kids away from their parents and with him, end of story. This particular story is supposed to teach children to honor their promises, not instill faith in the fact that fife-playing good samaritans come to those who wait. In 2000, the last Charles Schulz-approved Peanuts feature film, It’s The Pied Piper, Charlie Brown, has the kids, Charlie Brown and pals, all petitioning the honorless adults who refuse to pay Snoopee for clearing Haemlin of rats, so no kidnapping is involved in this retelling, but it is one of the few Peanuts home video involving adults who speak in English words rather than muted trumpet sounds.
The Brothers Grimm themselves were the first to make this story more gruesome than it was, and some extant variants of the folktale became more tame, with some even tacking on a happily ever after conclusion. Parents mostly are responsible for watering this fable down to the point where it is just about an obnoxious imp with an equally obnoxious name who is bad at being bad. In the original version, after the extorted princess finds out the imp’s name and says Rumplestiltskin (named partially for German rumplegeists [“rattle ghosts”], cousins to poltergeists [“noisy ghosts”]) out loud, he just flies away and nobody is better or worse off.
These days this conniving gremlin can be seen on ABC’s Once Upon A Time, a show that somehow manages to simultaneously neuter the character (“Rumple”) and rebrand him as the even more grotesque and evil “Dark One” (played by Robert Carlyle, known also for portraying criminally violent, Begbie, in Trainspotting).
2. The Fox And The Hound
Originally written in 1967 by Mannix, Daniel P., the story is really of a feud between fox and hound with neither animal meeting a happy or healthy end, and neither the person who raised the fox or the owner of the hound learning anything or relating to each other in any deeper way through their experiences. Disney bought the rights to this story as soon as it won a literary award, and a decade later started work on a heart warming buddy flick called The Fox And The Hound. Both versions are heart-wrenching at times, touch on the same deeper issues, and involve a fox inadvertently angering a hunter, and a hound being trained by the Hunter to kill the Fox. The film ends with fox, hound, hunter, and fox nurse all on good terms while the novel ends with hound chasing fox to death by exhaustion.
The Adventures of Pinocchio was first published as a fifteen-part series over the course of the early 1880s, until the author’s publisher demanded he add a few more chapters to make the original end of this wooden hero’s journey less depressing. Reading only up to Chapter 15, Pinocchio never redeems himself and builds the character, nor does he ever become a real boy. Instead, the story first ended with the puppet-boy suffocating to death for his sins–in this case, it was the editing and publishing world of the early 1800s that initially censored things. A century later, Disney productions ran with a streamlined version of the editorialized, G-rated book over a century later, in their 1940 animated feature.
Pinocchio was originally marketed as a novel for children; apparently we had more faith in our child audience back in the day. Upon further review, the moral of the story is: put violence back in fairytales. These stories are meant to introduce kids to the harsher aspects of the human condition in a non-threatening way, but in a way that teaches the difference between good guys and bad guys, that teaches how painful pain is and how final deeds and death are. These are the cut-and-dry lessons that are easily lost in translation if watered down by escapist tropes like animal sidekicks and “Happily-Ever-Afters”.