As a lover of both Disney animated classics and the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, I thought it would be interesting to look at the contrasting elements of both Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairy tale, and Disney’s animated film adaptation.
If for some strange reason you are not aware of what The Little Mermaid is, come on out of that rock you’ve been living under, and have a little read of this plot summary.
The Little Mermaid follows the tale (pun very much intended) of a young mermaid who is fascinated by the world above the sea, longing to explore a life up there with the mortals. When she swims to the surface and sees a handsome prince, she immediately falls in love and is willing to give up her life in the sea and her identity as a mermaid to gain a human soul and the love of said prince.
So just how different is Disney’s animated adaptation to Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale?
The answer? Very, very different.
Warning: The last section contains spoilers for the ending of both versions of this story, if you have not seen/read it and do not wish to know the ending, I advise you do not read the last part!
In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, the little mermaid’s family plays a very important role, and quite a substantially larger role in comparison to Disney’s 1989 animated adaptation. One of the major character differences would be that of the little mermaid’s grandmother, who partially acts as a catalyst for the little mermaid’s desire to explore the world above the sea.
Another difference in family is the king of the sea has six daughters (whereas in Disney’s version, he has seven).
Also in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, the little mermaid’s sisters encourage her to find the prince, whereas in Disney’s version, King Triton is notably angry and distraught at the idea of Ariel having human interaction.
The Little Mermaid/Ariel
To avoid any confusion, when I refer the ‘the little mermaid’ I am referring to Hans Christian Andersen’s character, whilst Ariel will be made in reference to Disney’s character. In Hans Christian Andersen’s story, the little mermaid didn’t have a name (nor did any of the characters).
There are quite a few notably different characteristics between the little mermaid and Ariel, the first being her age.
In Disney, we are aware that Ariel is sixteen years of age, however in Hans’ fairy tale, she is first introduced to us at nine years of age. We learn from the little mermaid’s grandmother that mermen can live up to 300 years of age, yet the king’s daughter each have to wait until their 15th birthday before they are allowed to visit the surface of the sea. As there is a one year age margin between each daughter, this means the little mermaid has five move years to wait until she will be allowed to see the surface.
Speaking of which, it is interesting to note that in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, the little mermaid is obedient and waits for her 15th birthday before swimming to the surface, despite her longing to see the world above her. Whereas Ariel portrays quite a disobedient princess who travels to the surface despite King Triton telling her not to.
Another interesting characteristic in the little mermaid is that her sisters were known for collecting strange items they found from wrecked ships, however the little mermaid was only interested in a “beautiful marble statue” of “a handsome boy carved out of clear white stone” (Andersen, p. 40). If Disney’s “Part of Your World” taught us anything it’s that Ariel was quite the hoarder.
A little fun fact I discovered while reading The Little Mermaid is that the little mermaid and the prince share the same birthday. Although never directly stated, all you have to do is connect the dots. The little mermaid travelled to the surface on her 15th birthday where she saw celebrations from the ship of the prince celebrating his birthday.
Another differentiating characteristic between the little mermaid and Ariel is that in the fairy tale, the little mermaid is often described as silent and pensive, however this would not make for a great film so I can see why Disney would have changed this.
Something which I found quite interesting while reading this fairy tale is that mermaids were described as having voices much nicer than any mortals, and the little mermaid had the loveliest voice of all mermaids…so eh…no pressure Jodi Benson!
Transformation from Mermaid to Mortal
Something which I feel Disney lacked in was the actual transformation process from mermaid to mortal. It seems as though one moment Ariel was a mermaid and then in the next shot she is waking up on a beach with legs. Now do not fear I am not bashing Disney (heaven forbid!) I am simply stating that I think a transformation scene would have been pretty cool visually (and from an animators prospective) to see.
Regardless, Hans Christian Andersen went into quite a lot of detail (well for a fairy tale) into the transformation of the little mermaid from mermaid to mortal. He begins with the sea witch explaining to the little mermaid how painful it will be to become mortal (which is also interesting because in Disney’s version Ursula was more interesting in deceiving Ariel). The sea witch explains that after Ariel drinks the potion, her tail will split and it will hurt as though there is a sharp sword piercing her tail. She proceeds to describe how every step she takes as a mortal will be like threading on a sharp knife so the blood will flow.
Another interesting condition attached to her transformation is that if the prince fails to fall in love with the little mermaid, the first morning after he is married to another, the little mermaid’s heart will break and she will die.
After agreeing to these conditions, the witch begins to make the potion which is described as quite a painful experience for the sea witch, “she cut her breast and let the black blood chip into the kettle” (Andersen, p. 55).
Contrasting from Disney’s version, which see’s a glowing light from Ariel’s throat leave her body, to take her voice away from her, the sea witch physically cuts out the little mermaid’s tongue.
Meeting The Prince
Just to once again remind us that real life does not meet the expectations Disney has set for us, a major differentiating factor between Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale and Disney’s animated film is the prince does not fall in love with the little mermaid. Yes we were all eager for Prince Eric to lean over and “Kiss the Girl” in Disney’s adaptation but sadly, Hans Christian Andersen is there to set us straight in his fairy tale.
Despite the little mermaid saving the prince’s life, he is blissfully unaware of this fact (he actually thinks a beautiful girl from the temple saved him from drowning) and is expected to marry the daughter of a neighbouring king. The prince soon finds out the King’s daughter is in fact the beautiful girl from the temple (who he ironically says looks just like the little mermaid).
It is also stated in the fairy tale that the prince loves the little mermaid as though she was a lovable child (aka she is in the friend zone).
The endings for both versions of The Little Mermaid are drastically different.
In Disney’s version, Prince Eric realised that it is Ariel he loves, and the pair marry in the sunset with Ariel’s sisters and King Triton present, and they live happily ever after and we as viewers are satisfied.
In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale however, things are a bit more bleak. The Prince marries the Kings daughter, the beautiful girl who the prince thinks saved his life, leaving the little mermaid to await her imminent death in the morning. Then in a twisted turn of events, her sisters arrive on the surface just before sunrise, to help save their little sister. Their hair has been cut off in exchange for the little mermaid’s life with the help of the sea witch. However there is a catch. The little mermaid must take the knife given to her from the sea witch and plunge it in to the prince’s heart before sunrise and the little mermaid will become a mermaid again. To sum up, either the prince or the little mermaid must die.
The little mermaid sees how happy the prince is with his new bride and throws the knife into the sea. She then dies and becomes foam on the sea (this is what happens to mermen when they die, the have no immortal soul, so they stop existing, they simply become foam on the surface of the water). She is then with the daughters of air who tell her a mermaid has no immortal soul and can never have one unless she wins the love of a mortal (which unfortunately for the little mermaid, she failed to do). The daughters of the sea have no immortal souls either, but by their good deeds, they can create one for themselves, and because the little mermaid was so selfless as to kill herself instead of the prince, she wins herself an immortal soul.
Needless to say Hans Christian Andersen and Disney portray two very different tales of The Little Mermaid, however there is no denying that they are both equally as thrilling, exciting, and lovable.
Andersen, Hans Christian. Fairy Tales. London: Penguin, 1994. Print.