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Summary

  • Hans Christian Andersen’s original Little Mermaid story is much darker, featuring painful consequences for the main character’s choices.
  • In the original tale, mermaids have no souls and must earn one by getting a human to fall in love with them, leading to a tragic ending.
  • The sea witch’s home in Andersen’s story is even more sinister, filled with hybrid creatures and made of human bones, adding to the darkness.



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The Little Mermaid is a beloved Disney animated classic, but the original The Little Mermaid story is incredibly dark, and Disney was right to change some of the more horrifying aspects. The Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale is a very grim story, featuring all kinds of gruesome elements that wouldn’t fit well into a family-friendly animated film. Disney’s version of the tale is now more well-known than Andersen’s, with the darker details being stuck in the original story.


The Little Mermaid follows Ariel, a young mermaid princess, as she trades her voice for a chance to travel to land to experience the world of humans. In a time of financial struggle for Disney, The Little Mermaid revitalized the company, kicking off an era of massive hits known as the Disney Renaissance. The movie is still culturally relevant today, with The Little Mermaid getting a live-action remake that introduces a whole new generation to the story (with a few more changes). However, even many of the film’s initial viewers don’t know about The Little Mermaid story’s dark origins.

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The Original Little Mermaid Story Is So Much Darker

Ariel’s Deal Is Painful & Tortuous


Although the Disney version is pretty lighthearted, the original The Little Mermaid story was so much darker. Like in the movie, Ariel’s deal with the sea witch involves giving up her voice for legs. However, there is a catch. As the sea witch explains, every step the little mermaid takes will feel as if she is walking on sharp knives, making her time on land excruciatingly painful.

The mermaid has to repeatedly go to the sea to cool her feet in the water because of the pain she’s in throughout the story. When she does that, it’s also the only time she is able to see her family from afar since they didn’t know until after she made the deal with the sea witch that she would be leaving them. While there are a lot of similarities to Disney’s animated and live-action movies, there are slight differences even among the similarities.


Though there are plenty of aquatic creatures in Andersen’s tale, they are not friends who speak with the mermaids but are instead treated like pets. That’s not unlike how the mermaid is treated by the prince when she ends up on land either. He cares for her and wants to keep her close to him, but unlike the live-action movie where she’s treated to her own room, she’s given a small bed to sleep just outside his bedroom door as though she’s a pet he wants to keep an eye on.

The little mermaid’s sisters do make bets with one another about which ships will sink and which men will learn about the sea by drowning in it.

One of the darker aspects of the mermaid myth, and something that is touched on in Andersen’s original story is the siren song of mermaids. Andersen doesn’t see mermaids luring men to their deaths, but the little mermaid’s sisters do make bets with one another about which ships will sink and which men will learn about the sea by drowning in it. That’s very dark but something the live-action movie incorporates by giving Ariel the gift of the siren song and having humans be actively concerned about mermaids luring them to their deaths.


The original ending of The Little Mermaid is also dark. So many aspects of the original Hans Christian Anderson story would not have fit into Disney’s vision for a family-friendly movie. It’s no wonder that certain aspects were hinted at without being fully expanded on in both the animated and live-action versions of The Little Mermaid from Disney.

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Mermaids Have No Souls In The Fairy Tale

It Plays A Part In The Story’s Tragic Ending


One of the ways that The Little Mermaid’s original story is dark compared to the Disney adaptation is that Hans Christian Andersen’s original story pays particular attention to the souls and the potential afterlife of the individuals in the story. Death is an ever-looming part of Andersen’s tale, which is why it’s noted that the mermaid herself has no soul.

Creatures like mermaids can only gain a soul if a human being falls in love with them

It’s pointed out that only humans have souls. Creatures like mermaids can only gain a soul if a human being falls in love with them, which seems like an unfair point for the mermaid. The titular little mermaid wants to spend her life and afterlife with the human prince that she falls in love with. He, however, doesn’t fall in love with her. Instead, he falls in love with the woman who finds him on the beach after the mermaid saves his life. That woman turns out to be a princess and the one he marries in the original tale.


Without the prince falling in love with her, whom the little mermaid has spent all of her time focusing on and getting to know, there is no other human given the chance to fall in love with her. She spends the story never achieving her dream of getting a soul and having the human advantages of an afterlife away from Earth. Instead, her afterlife involves being a spirit of the air who has to help humans by doing good deeds for a few centuries before she might be granted a soul.

The Sea Witch’s Home Is Particularly Dark

It Includes Hybrid Creatures & Mermaid Remains

Both the animated version of The Little Mermaid and Disney’s live-action version hint at just how evil the sea witch in the story can be. The creatures Ursula keeps in her home in the animated version are revealed to have formerly been mermaids who didn’t follow through on their deals with her. In the live-action version, there’s the skeleton of a mermaid outside of her home that Ariel doesn’t see. Anderson’s tale of The Little Mermaid has an even darker take on the sea witch’s home.


The path to the home of the sea witch is littered with bodies of mermaids who were strangled by them.

Andersen has the sea witch’s home surrounded by “polyps,” which are meant to be half-human, half-plant creatures. They actively reach out and try to grab the mermaid on her journey to visit the witch, and she has to keep away from their grasp to stay alive. The path to the home of the sea witch is littered with bodies of mermaids who were strangled by them. If that’s not dark enough for The Little Mermaid’s original story, the sea witch doesn’t just live in a cave or an abandoned ship, but a home made of human bones.

The Little Mermaid Is Expected To Kill The Prince

She Must Choose Between His Life And Her Own


A drastic difference between the Disney version of The Little Mermaid and Anderson’s much darker original tale is that the mermaid in Andersen’s story doesn’t have the same amount of time to get the prince to fall in love with her. While Ursula gives Ariel three days to get Eric to fall for her or she forfeits her voice forever, the sea witch in the fairy tale doesn’t give the little mermaid a specific amount of time.

Instead, the idea is that if the prince falls for someone else instead of the mermaid, the mermaid forfeits her life instead of just her voice, having only 24 hours to live.

Instead, the idea is that if the prince falls for someone else instead of the mermaid, the mermaid forfeits her life instead of just her voice, having only 24 hours to live. When the mermaid finds that the prince has fallen for another princess in the original story, the little mermaid’s sisters realize that she is in danger, and they all go to the sea witch to make a deal on her behalf. They all give up their hair to get a magical dagger from the sea witch.


If the mermaid kills the prince through the heart with that dagger, she won’t die at the 24-hour deadline. Once his blood touches her legs, they’ll become fins again, and she’ll be able to go back to her life as a mermaid instead of dying as a human. The mermaid, however, loves the prince so much that she wants him to be happy with his new bride. She chooses to die instead.

Andersen’s original The Little Mermaid ending is so much darker than Disney’s as a result. While she makes an incredibly selfless decision and becomes a spirit of the air, it’s still a tragic ending for the character who doesn’t find love or a welcoming life above the water. She has a vastly different experience with a much darker side of humanity than Ariel does.

Why Disney’s Little Mermaid Had To Change Hans Christian Andersen’s Story

The Tale Was Simply Too Dark For An Animated Disney Movie


The Little Mermaid ends on an incredible downer, with the main character getting what’s far from a happy ending, instead dying and ending up stuck in purgatory. This would not have worked for the Disney adaptation, causing the 1989 film to have to change some elements. Things like the walking on knives detail would have been way too dark for the film’s target audience of kids. On top of that, the dark ending would have gone against the film’s lighthearted tone.

Disney’s The Little Mermaid changes were also required due to Andersen’s story structure. The original story adds so many details to Ariel’s deal with the sea witch that don’t help the story. The detail of Ariel feeling like she’s walking on knives doesn’t have a thematic purpose, meaning that Disney had to condense the original darker fairy tale for the good of the story. Luckily, this paid off, with Disney’s The Little Mermaid still being much more popular than the original.


The Little Mermaid 1989 Poster

The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid is a 1989 Walt Disney animated film written and directed by John Musker and Ron Clements. It stars the voices of Jodi Benson, Pat Carroll, and Christopher Daniel Barnes, with music from Alan Menken. The plot follows a young mermaid named Ariel that wishes to abandon her life underwater and join the humans on land.

Director
Ron Clements , John Musker

Release Date
November 17, 1989

Cast
Jodi Benson , Samuel E. Wright , Rene Auberjonois , christopher daniel barnes , Pat Carroll , Jason Marin

Runtime
63 Minutes



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