Posted by: jeannineatkins | July 23, 2008

Sarah Miller’s Disney Challenge

Among the many bloggers who seem to read books faster than I can get them to my tables, is Sarah Miller author of Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller, a wonderful novel about the accomplished teacher, Annie Sullivan.

Right now, in between delving into Russian history and reviewing an array of books, Sarah raised a Disney challenge. She’s compiled a list of fiction that inspired Disney films and hopes to read and comment on many.

In my children’s literature class, we’ve glanced at ways the Brothers Grimm shaped literature in the 1700s, Hans Christian Anderson in the 1800s, and Walt Disney the 1900s. We do read Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, most do go Ew about the ending, and we almost unanimously gave a thumbs up to Disney and Ashman and Menken who collaborated on many of The Little Mermaid’s charming lyrics and music. I’m a Disney fan, but I’m taking on a book I wish he hadn’t touched, T.H. White’s amazing The Once and Future King. The first part, The Sword in the Stone, led to the Disney animation, while the sexy and complicated adult lives of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot inspired the musical Camelot and more Knights of the Roundtable lore.

Although the novel is about a boy, I’d say it’s more about society and politics than coming of age, and is not written for the very young. Animation turns what’s wry to slapstick. This Disney version doesn’t have redeeming music and also seems to lack much in the way of heroics. The book makes much of Arthur/aka Wart having no legal father, and that’s cleaned up in Disney, so his sense of disconnection makes little sense. T. H. White plays with Merlin as imperfect wizard, which is charming, but in Disney he seems overboardly inept and plain silly. Wart’s big confident foster-brother-rival is not nearly as funny as Gaston is in Beauty and the Beast.

What I remember most from Disney is Wart turning into various creatures in and above the moat, which is kind of cool, but the novel spends pages on each transformation and is breathtaking. The interaction between humans and animals is one between equals; in Disney, I’m afraid the respect gets washed out. In the book, Wart is easy to identify with in his complexity, yet you observe the makings of a ruler (somewhat against his will). I don’t remember much about the animation, but I had little impression of seeds for a future king in Wart. When he draws that sword from the stone, instead of feeling –ah, I knew he could! – it seems just a piece of magic, not the personal triumph, rich and conflicted, that it is in the novel.

Sarah gives good reasons to give Disney slack on using folklore – that’s it’s always been passed along and changed, and much of what we know has been translated as well. Some great images survive, but the language itself isn’t much. You can’t say this about some novels, and especially White’s, whose winding sentences and often ornate vocabulary is part of its pleasure. J.K. Rowling acknowledges this novel as one of her inspirations. It was just made into a book on CD – and once summer’s over, and my driving becomes more regular (the car is where I listen) I hope to check it out.


  1. Ah, Disney…much as I cherish the memories of Sunday evenings snuggled on the sofa with my beloved Granddad — who looked much like Walt himself, to my 6YO eyes — watching the fireworks over the castle, Disney does NOT always do a great job.
    You hit it right-on with ‘The Sword in the Stone’ — I hate that one. Ditto with ‘The Jungle Book’ — the animated version — GACK! New Cubs in our Pack soon learn NOT to sing ‘The Bear Necessities’ around Raksha, or she’ll howl!
    Yet I still love Disney, and I like Sarah’s attitude re the license to use folklore. Stories should be told and retold — there will be losses as well as gains, each time, but it’s the telling that matters, really. For every ‘Jungle Book’ gack, I can cite my many loves…’Mary Poppins’ or ‘Lion King’ or…

  2. I so agree with you. Jungle Book made me cringe too.
    And I agree, too, re Mary Poppins, though I know some complain the film lost the book’s zen and tartness, and Lion King. I taught college students last semester and one reported on hyenas and the bad rap they get in that movie. We all agreed it was a flaw, but we still left happily humming The Circle of Life (in our heads — I’m corny, but not that corny!)

  3. I can remember all the Disney scenes you’re talking about and most of the ones from the book, too. I think you’re dead on–although I think good animators and writers could come much closer than Disney chose too, way back when. I especially like what you say about the development we see in Wart and the way that makes us feel when he does pull out the sword; in the book, we know he couldn’t have done it without all that has come before, no matter who he was by birth.

  4. Thanks, Becky for the reassurance that this made sense. Writing about a book I read years ago and a movie I saw even longer ago felt risky with my memory being so, shall we say, tricky. I do love that book and want to read it again soon — though I am kind of excited about the idea of listening to it on tape, having an English accent around! I may have to plan a long road trip!

  5. Those accents can be dangerous. I once listened to Liam Neeson (SP?) read a book about Irish history, and let me tell you, there were lots of passages where I just sort of drifted along on his voice & got NO content. 🙂
    If you ever get a chance to listen to Martin Short read Dr. Doolittle, it’s wonderful.

  6. Aw heck, I guess this means I’ll have to read T.H. White after all. 😉

  7. You will be glad! I’m usually much more about reading realism and history, but the magic and adventure in this book is grounded in the kind of life I recognize.

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