Most adult audience goers are savvy enough to know that Disney’s versions of fairy tales tends to clean things up. Happy ending are tacked on to originally tragic tales and excessive violence is often made comedic. If the villains do die or receive punishment, it is often by accident (witness the Evil Queen falling in Snow White, Gaston falling in Beauty and the Beast, or Frollo falling to his death in Hunchback (admittedly not a fairy tale–but the principle holds)) rather than by the hands of the protagonist. You won’t see Disney princesses dishing out sweet revenge to their former abusers.
However, the inspiration behind Disney’s Little Mermaid–Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid”–may be surprising even to viewers who know that adaptations change things. Anderson’s tale is not really a romance–though the titular character does fall in love with a dashing young prince–as much as it is the story of an individual seeking immortality. But not the kind Voldemort seeks. “Immortality” might rather be read as “spiritual redemption” or “a place in heaven after death.” It’s the story of the search for a soul.
In Anderson’s version, the little mermaid’s dilemma is that supernatural creatures do not possess souls and so cannot rise to a new, blissful realm after death. Rather, after a long life of 300 years, mermaids turn to foam on the sea. But the little mermaid yearns for more and so she seeks the aid of the sea witch. She learns that if she can convince the land prince to fall in love with her and marry her, his soul will enter into her and somehow give her a soul, as well. But if she fails to gain his love, she will die the morning after he marries someone else. To gain her chance at redemption, the little mermaid allows the witch to cut out her tongue and she accepts a bargain. She will have legs, but each step she takes will feel like a knife cutting through her. Indeed, when she walks on land she sometimes trails blood.
This narrative presents an obvious problem. Why does the mermaid’s soul and her state after death depend on someone else? Shouldn’t her eternal state be a product of her own attitudes and efforts? The ending of the story tries to solve this dilemma by allowing the mermaid a second chance to earn redemption through her own activity. If she works for 300 years doing some good, she can have a soul. The mermaid earns this opportunity by her initial willingness to endure agony for a chance to receive a soul through marrying the prince.
This is not the type of the story that I can easily imagine Hollywood wanting to film. A mermaid who wants to get to heaven? A character who finds redemption through suffering? It’s not the type of thing people in Hollywood usually imagine will sell. Generally they seem to think that the general public would prefer a nice romance. Anderson’s story is provocative, moving, and, yes, disturbing. It’s a powerful tale. But somehow I doubt it will turned into a mainstream film anytime soon.
What do you think? Is Anderson’s story still worth telling? Can we expect a faithful film adaptation sometime soon?