Invisible Ink: Disney’s Hidden Authors
As we know from ‘Saving Mr Banks’, Walt Disney was good at persuading authors that he could be trusted to turn their treasured works into films, but Pamela Travers was not his only conquest.
Nobody now remembers the Swiss beekeeping pastor Johann David Weiss, but in the late 18th century he was so impressed by ‘Robinson Crusoe’ that he wrote a book for his children which would act as an adventure and a series of life lessons. ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’ is the tale of an ordinary family who become shipwrecked on an uninhabited tropical island and christen it ‘New Switzerland’.
Their chronicle of survival against pirates, wild animals and the elements went on to become a beloved classic, and the most popular book ever to hail from Switzerland, but it’s the Disney version with John Mills that sticks in the mind, and readers of a certain age will not be able to see an ostrich without thinking of the film’s animal race. Jules Verne wrote a direct sequel, ‘The Castaways Of The Flag’, which no-one I know has ever read.
Wyss wasn’t the only author to reach a wider audience because of Disney. Fred Gipson was a journalist who wrote for the Daily Texan. His novel ‘Old Yeller’ was filmed in 1957 and became a massive hit for the studio. The moving story of a fourteen year-old boy left in charge of a homestead, helped only by the titular stray dog, filled cinemas everywhere with sobbing children. Gipson wrote two sequels, ‘Savage Sam’ and ‘Little Arliss’, but he never topped the original.
Felix Salten was a Jewish Hungarian-Austrian author whose books were banned by Hitler. He sold the film rights to his most famous work, ‘Bambi’, for $1,000. Although he also wrote a sequel to his biggest hit, Disney used two further works for the basis of his films ‘Perri’ and ‘The Shaggy Dog’. Before he began writing animal stories Salten was the anonymous author of an erotic novel about a Viennese prostitute.
‘Dumbo’, hastily made to bail out the studio after the disaster of ‘Fantasia’, was created by author Helen Alberson for a novelty toy called ‘Roll-A-Book’ which never took off, unlike its big-eared elephant star. And ‘Song Of The South’ was structured from stories collected by Joel Chandler Harris, but has never been released in its entirety on US home video because the song ‘Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah’ echoed the racist folk song ‘Zip Coon’.
Walt Disney’s main concern was to fill cinemas with entranced weeping anklebiters and their parents, but to do this he had to bowdlerise the original source material of his films to suit American tastes (international sales were less important then), so Bambi’s species was altered to one that could be recognised by home audiences.
However, until the late 1960s Walt continued to search Europe for novels he could adapt. ‘Lottie and Lisa’ was the second most famous novel by the German author and satirist Erich Kästner (his first was ‘Emil And The Detectives’). It told of two reunited identical twins who switch places to help their parents’ respective marriages, and was filmed by Disney as ‘The Parent Trap’, starring Hayley Mills. It managed three sequels and a remake with Lindsay Lohan. There were also Hindi and Tamil versions.
Perhaps the oddest Disney film to be based on a book was 1943’s ‘Victory Through Air Power’, propaganda created from a non-fiction bestseller by the Russian aviation pioneer Alexander P de Seversky.
In fact, out of the 80 Walt Disney features produced over two decades (the 1950s and 1960s) only 19 were not based on novels. Disney re-imagined works by an astonishing array of authors, from JM Barrie, Robert Louis Stevenson and Lewis Carroll to Eleanor Porter (‘Pollyanna’), Johnston McCully (‘Zorro’)’ Alois Podhajsky (‘Miracle of the White Stallions’), Sheila Burnford (‘The Incredible Journey’) and Gordon Buford (‘The Love Bug’).
By the time we get to the present day, only a tiny handful of Disney films are produced from original works. Most now stem from park attractions, TV shows, remakes or time-weathered traditional sources. ‘Frozen’, very loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Snow Queen’, brings the studio full circle; after 1940 Disney’s subsequent features were from Carlo Collodi and Charles Perrault. The new roster continues to trade on fairy tales, but is rounded out by unnecessary sequels (A non-Carroll ‘Alice’ and ‘Frozen 2’) plus weird live action remakes like ‘The Jungle Book’ which can only use material cleared in the original Disney versions for copyright reasons.
So, did Uncle Walt ruin great novels by trampling subtlety and replacing it with philistinism, or did he encourage a new generation of readers? Certainly his version of the 100 Acre Wood in ‘Winnie-The-Pooh’ seemed more like Central Park, and his film of TH White’s ‘The Sword In The Stone’ was a travesty, but he did draw huge numbers of new readers to rare works.
There were disasters; Mark Twain’s ‘A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court’ became ‘Unidentified Flying Oddball’, and let’s not mention ‘Treasure Planet’, but many superb authors with only local readership found themselves basking in worldwide adoration thanks to his adaptations. One has to ask if Rudyard Kipling would still be so revered if his musical animated version of ‘The Jungle Book’ hadn’t come along.