Walt Disney’s main concern was to fill cinemas with entranced anklebiters and their parents, but to do this he had to bowdlerise the original source material of his films to suit American tastes, so Bambi’s species was altered to one that could be recognised by home audiences. However, until the late 1960s he continued to search Europe for novels that 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, as well as Hindi and Tamil versions.
Perhaps the oddest Disney film to be based on a book was 1943’s Victory Through Air Power, a propaganda piece 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 J M Barrie, Robert Louis Stevenson and Lewis Carroll to Eleanor H Porter (Pollyanna), Johnston McCully (Zorro), Alois Podhajsky (Miracle of the White Stallions), Sheila Burnford (The Incredible Journey) and Gordon Buford (The Love Bug). Today, 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; back in 1940 Disney’s second feature was Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi. So, did Uncle Walt ruin great novels by trampling subtlety and replacing them with American philistinism? Certainly his version of the 100 Acre Wood in Winnie-the-Pooh seemed more like Central Park, and his film of T H White’s The Sword In The Stone was a travesty, but he drew 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 without The Jungle Book movie?