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The Books That Inspired Disney: Part 3

By Adrienne Rivera. Jul 27, 2023. 10:07 AM.

Topics: Children's Books, Movie Tie-Ins

The stories we read when we are young often stay with us for the rest of our lives. These stories serve as cultural touchstones with people we meet in our adult lives. They're the stories we want to share with our children. Whether or not we realize it, these early stories impact the people we become. The same can be said for movies. Disney is a company that for decades has transformed our favorite stories into our favorite movies, allowing us to experience beloved tales in a new way. Join us today as we take a look at some of the stories Disney has transformed in part three of our The Books That Inspired Disney series:

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

“That was Flint's treasure that we had come so far to seek, and that had cost already the lives of seventeen men from the Hispaniola. How many it had cost in the amassing, what blood and sorrow, what good ships scuttled on the deep, what brave men walked the plank blindfold, what shot of cannon, what shame and lies and cruelty, perhaps no man alive could tell.”

Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventure novel Treasure Island (originally published as Treasure Island or the Mutiny of the Hispaniola) is arguably English literature's most famous pirate story. It's adventure, betrayal, and interesting setting make it a perfect movie candidate. The story has been adapted over fifty times, including live-action movies, television shows, and a muppet version. Perhaps this is why Disney adapted the story with a twist, resulting in the science fiction movie Treasure Planet. Using both 2D and computer animation resulted in this ambitious film becoming the most expensive animated feature ever made to this day. Knowing this, it may be unsurprising that this film was a rare Disney animated flop. However, like other flops in this Disney series, it has gained a well-deserved cult following.


The Frog Princess by E.D. Baker

“Look at me! I'm big! I'm strong! I'm a superior example of froghood and capable of protecting us both!”

Disney’s The Princess and the Frog is based on E.D. Baker’s 2002 young adult novel The Frog Princess, based on the classic German fairy tale, "The Frog Prince." Baker's novel inspires the princess to turn into a frog after her kiss fails to return the prince to human form, but otherwise, both the novel and movie differ significantly from the fairy tale. Originally collected by the Brothers Grimm, the folk story is one of the oldest tales included in their book. Scholars suspect the story may date back to Roman times as a reference to Emperor Nero, who was often criticized and referred to disparagingly as a frog.


Grimms_Kinder-_und_Hausmärchen,_Erster_Theil_(1812).cover"Rapunzel" by the Brothers Grimm

“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!”

Tangled, Disney's 50th animated feature, is an adaptation of “Rapunzel,” a story collected by the Brothers Grimm. While their version is the most popular and is the most direct inspiration for the film, it has its roots in the French story, Persinette by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force, which was in turn inspired by Giambattista Basile's Petrosinella. While many people tend to forget the plant aspect of the story, Disney's version brings back the stolen plant in the form of a flower which grants youth to the witch.


"Snow White" by the Brothers Grimm

“Looking glass upon the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”

Disney's first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, finds its roots in the German fairy tale first recorded by the Brother's Grimm. This dip into the Brothers Grimm oeuvre marks the first of many times Disney turns to famous folklorists for inspiration. The original story doesn't involve Snow White being revived by true love's kiss. Instead, as the prince returns her coffin to her father, a piece of poisoned apple is dislodged from her throat, and she wakes. The film, the first feature-length animation produced, was considered a risky and foolish move by others in the industry at the time. However, it provided the foundation for one of the biggest companies in entertainment.


The_Wind_in_the_Willows_cover“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving and Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

“In the dark shadow of the grove, on the margin of the brook, he beheld something huge, misshapen, black, and towering. It stirred not but seemed gathered up in the gloom, like some gigantic monster ready to spring upon the traveler.” – “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"


“I'm such a clever Toad." --The Wind in the Willows

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is a film comprised of two segments, one adapting the short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving and the other a portion of the classic novel The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. The Wind in the Willows portion depicts the saga of Mr. Toad nearly losing Toad Hall due to his fascination with cars and reckless spending, while the other is a more complete adaptation of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." While the two stories have no connecting theme or narrative, the movie is charming. Of it’s two inspirations, the Irving story has become an enduring Halloween classic and is considered one of the earliest American short stories. While initially receiving negative reviews, the Wind in the Willows is now considered a classic example of British literature and is one of the most beloved children's books of all time.

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Adrienne Rivera
Adrienne Rivera received her MFA in fiction from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She currently lives in southern Indiana.


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