Adapting an already existing story into a movie, especially when it comes to book classics, is one of the least gratifying jobs ever; no matter how hard the movie director tries, (s)he goes into no-win situation, since the audience will always find the discrepancies in the story, the plot, the characters or whatever needs changing for a longer running time.
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It would be wrong to claim that all adaptations are doomed to being washed away by the sands of time, but in most cases, people either love or hate the adapted version, and this nowhere come as in one of the Disney’s greatest animation stories of all time, the Little Mermaid.
Actually, the similarities between the two versions of the classic fairy tale are very basic. They follow the pattern of a mermaid seeing a human prince, falling in love for him and trying to win him over after bargaining a pair of legs for her voice from a sea witch. Besides that, the story was changed to the core. The settings also remained quite similar to the ones in the book; both the underwater world and the kingdom look quite generic in the movie, allowing for placing the story in a typical European country; presumably, Denmark.
The characters, however, have undergone a great makeover. First and foremost, each of the characters finally got a name – there was no longer the Little Mermaid, the Prince and the Sea Witch, but Ariel, Prince Eric and Ursula. Together with names, each of the characters acquired a clear personality, except from the Prince, who remained quite generic.
Ariel, for instance, while being under the sea, seems an annoying whiny teenager; however, when she gets to the surface, her curiosity comes out in full blue, and it makes her a compelling and interesting character. Ursula, in her turn, has become much more sinister and evil: “Yes, hurry home, princess. We wouldn’t want to miss old daddy’s celebration, now, would we? ” (The Little Mermaid), and sometimes even vulgar: “And don’t underestimate the importance of body language!” (The Little Mermaid).
In addition, a bunch of new characters arrived, creating a unique atmosphere. It would have been easy just to slip them in as puppets to create a foil for the romance between Ariel and Eric, but instead, the audience sees these characters, think, emote and converse, which altogether creates a unique and very believable atmosphere.
The weird thing, however, is that Ariel’s sisters, who were the next focus of the book apart from the prince and the mermaid: “The fourth of the sisters was timid” (Anderson 3), “The third of the sisters, who came of age the following year, was the most daring among them” (Anderson 2), are given little to no screen time. Perhaps, Clemens and Musker considered that adding another plotline would make the movie unnecessary complicated.
Among the most obvious changes, the songs must be mentioned. The Little Mermaid was made into a movie with occasional musical numbers, which is another reason why it differs so much from the source material. They help build a particular character, and each of them, from Poor Unfortunate Souls to the unforgettable Under the Sea and Part of My World, are a gem. Quite honestly, it could not have been any other way around, with Alan Menken at the helm of song-writing process.
Of course, in contrast to the real story, in the Disney version, the Little Mermaid survives – Disney did not let her die; in fact, one can claim with certainty that they could not let her die, seeing how the Disney’s trademark was the magical happily-ever-after, the stories where the characters’ dreams come true. Clemens and Musker also made a number of subtle yet significant alterations of the original story.
As it has been mentioned above, the witch and the girl whom the Prince mistakes for the Mermaid are two different people in the book, and the witch does not seem to be the least bit interested in taking over King Triton’s realm. The given addition, however, makes Ursula much more complex than her book protagonist, adding another dimension to her character and making the story more intense. Finally, the Prince and the Mermaid are given much more screen time than they are in the story.
This allows for watching them develop their relationships, which they, in fact, have to start from scratch and, more importantly, work on, in contrast to other typical Disney fairytales. All of these editions of the original story do not change the story to the point where it becomes barely recognizable, yet clearly intend to change what quite honestly should be called a tragedy into a traditional fairytale with a princess, a prince, an evil witch and a happy ending, which is all that a family flick needs.
All in all, it is clear that the Disney Company has made tremendous changes to the story and its characters in order for it to be considered safe enough by the parents of the target audience. However, even though it is clearly obvious that the changes to the original are huge, it cannot be said that these changes destroy the tale.
Instead, they give it a new life and allow people to relate to the characters and enjoy a more traditional and, quite honestly, desired outcome of the good-vs.-evil battle between the mermaid and the witch. A perfect family film that spawned the Disney Renaissance, this is a true gem of hand-drawn animation era.
Anderson, Christian. The Little Mermaid – Den Lille Havfrue. 1837. PDF file. 20 August 2013.
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The Little Mermaid. Dir. Ron Clemens and John Musker. Perf. Jodi Benson, Christopher Daniel Barnes and Pat Carroll. Disney, 1989. Film.