When we were selecting which title we wanted to lead for #CannonBookClub, I offered to take The Little Mermaid and Sea Witch—having seen the Broadway show once and the animated movie approximately 10,000 times with my two daughters, I thought I surely knew the source material. A couple of days later, I was coincidently recommended Malcom Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History, and the next 3 episodes he aired was a series on the movie. (Listen to Episode 1 and/or read the article by the guest of Ep. 1, Laura Beth Nielsen: “Ahead of the Lawmen”: Law and Morality in Disney Animated Films 1960–1998) Strange coincidence, I thought, and then moving things around in my youngest’s room after she went to college, I came across some art she had gotten at Comic-Con years ago.
This podcast series covers how the 1989 TLM animated revived the Disney company. Ron Clemens, a writer and director at Disney, tells how all of the writers were tasked with finding new ideas. He had read the original fairytale, but thought it was too sad that the mermaid dissolves into a clump of seafoam at the end. It had a lot of potential but was too depressing, so he made it more of a good vs. evil story and a “love triumphs all” story. He and John Musker gave the mermaid a name, threw in a campy villainess, and fleshed out the characters. Bring in the great Alan Menken and Howard Ashman for the music, and you’ve got a formula for box office success. Both of my daughters mentioned the music as some of their childhood favorites, and a big reason they love the movie. The album went platinum six times over, so the formula works. Clemens tells of seeing little girls dressed as Ariel for Halloween in 1989 and knowing they had a smash hit.
I wasn’t a fan of mermaids growing up particularly (unicorns represent!), but I did see TLM in the theater with my boyfriend (now husband) when it was released my senior year of college; we still each remember how impressed we were with the animation. 20 years later, my comic-art-collecting husband would bring our daughters to NY Comic Con where they would meet Disney artist Rubén Procopio. A tremendous artist and all around great guy, Procopio drew the simply fabulous Ursula piece below and offered that they should to look him up again at other conventions. They did, and true to his word he blew it out of the park with drawing the fantastic Ariel/Sebastian the following year.
Around that time, we were fortunate again to be able to see the Broadway show iteration of TLM, and even meet the Prince Eric lead, Drew Seeley, through family connections. That show ran from 2007-2009 and was very entertaining and thrilling for all of us. So I thought my daughters would have plenty of reasons for their love of the story. I wondered what they thought of any of the problems Gladwell had mentioned, if they thought about that now. But really it all came down to “Mermaids, Mom. It was the mermaids.”
So just how far did this fish tale stray from its origins? Let’s take a look.
The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen
I hadn’t read Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairy tale, and I vaguely knew that Disney had changed up the ending. But my experience with the original tale was reverse from Menken, I read that last. A quick read via the link to Gutenberg, the source material is just over 9,000 words long.
Most is true enough to the Disney remake, but the final choice for the little mermaid doesn’t seem to be as terrible as Menken and Gladwell’s takes on it.
The choice for the mermaid at the end of the fairy tale allows her to obtain a soul. Granted she’s got to do it for 300 years, but the character seems humble and blessed by the choice:
A mermaid has not an immortal soul, nor can she obtain one unless she wins the love of a human being. On the will of another hangs her eternal destiny. But the daughters of the air, although they do not possess an immortal soul, can, by their good deeds, procure one for themselves.
And the mermaid bids a one-sided farewell to the prince and the his bride and seems thrilled with the whole deal. I am really interested to hear what you think about this story so take a quick read and comment below.
Sea Witch by Sarah Henning
In 2018’s Sea Witch by Sarah Henning we have another adaptation of the fairytale. I won’t go into too much detail in the plot in case you are still reading ahead of the book club discussion coming up. This version of the tale features 4 characters, the prince and his cousin, and two girls from the town. The first sentence of the book description does tell us about the drowning of one of the girls, Anna, so no real spoilers there.
For the most part, the novel reads as a YA romance. The first part of the novel is lovely and straightforward story of a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who’s of course “just friends” with the prince, and is heartbroken and ostracized from the community after Anna drowns. Add in a royal male cousin, and we wind up with a love triangle, or two—a tale we’ve heard before (as old as time?).
The structure of this novel is what didn’t work for me. We start off with a prologue set in an undetermined time in the past. Printed in italics, this flashback covers the death of the mother of the main character and narrator, Evie. The rest of the novel follows Evie and the other characters in present day, when Nik is a teenage prince on the verge of assuming his crown.
Interspersed with the current time are other italicized chapters set four years in the past. These chapters tell us what really happened during Anna’s drowning, and progress to a time three and a half years before, and then a week before present time, six days, four days before, and then coinciding with present time and point of view from another character. Moving the timeframe of the past chapters was confusing. I’ll admit that I missed that time had changed and had to go back to figure out where/when we were. Even with several chapters of plot development four years in the past, that part of the story felt rushed.
It was an quite a different version of the story, with points of view that Hans Christian Andersen probably never even considered. Even with my issues of the the structure, it was a worthwhile read, and I can’t wait to hear what others who read it think.
As far as The Little Mermaid altoghether, Meghan Markle recalled thinking of herself as Ariel in her interview with Oprah, having lost her voice because of her love of a prince. But she does get her voice back. And if the message of the movie that comes through to little girls is that they can get their voices back, I’m OK with that. I’d rather they didn’t lose their voices at all, but I’ll take it.