Which sounds more familiar; Snow White or Clever Elsie? Both were first published in 1812 in the same book, Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) by the Brothers Grimm. So why do we recognize the former and not the latter? If I had to guess the reason, I’d say Walt Disney.
In 1937, Walt Disney revolutionized animation with the first ever full-length animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Disney followed with many classic animated movies based on folk and fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm (for example, Sleeping Beauty is based on “Briar Rose”) as well as Hans Christian Anderson (The Little Mermaid is a famous example). In adapting these stories, Disney gave them new life. Yes, details were altered to suit family audiences (Cinderella’s step-sisters did not cut off parts of their feet to fit into the glass slipper nor did the Evil Queen plan to eat Snow White’s lungs, liver, and heart in the Disney versions), but this served to make the stories more accessible rather than water down the originals. A question of plagiarism shouldn’t even enter this discussion. So what if Disney didn’t come up with the basic story lines? Disney went through the creative process in character design, screenplay development, and musical composition. Many of the original scores and songs written for these movies are beautiful pieces in their own right. I know I’m not the only one who grew up listening to When You Wish Upon a Star, Part of Your World, and A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes. And it’s not just little kids vouching for Disney music. Disney has won 12 Academy Awards for best original song in a motion picture.
Intellectual property can’t apply to fairytales because they are a product of oral tradition. Who knows how many wonderful stories have been lost over the course of history? How many never touched paper, let alone the movie screen? Just as we can thank the Grimm Brothers for their chronicling, we can thank Disney for revitalizing fairytales and keeping them relevant.
above: Screencap from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
below: Illustration of the Brothers Grimm Snow White