Materialism Versus Freedom: Changes in Value from ‘Ala al-Din to Aladdin
Originally from The Story of ‘Ala al-Din and the Magic lamp in The Arabian Nights, Aladdin and the story of magic lamp have gained great popularity in the past few years due to various adaptations into films and other media. Among those adaptations, the most well-known one would be Disney’s version of Aladdin. Although employing the same story, the Disney animation is essentially different from the original narratives in The Arabian Nights, mainly in the values conveyed. In a drastic contrast to the materialism depicted in the original story of ‘Ala al-Din, the film Aladdin is centered around the freedom of finding and being oneself. In this paper, I will juxtapose elements in the book and film to illustrate this contrast in values, and I will also analyze the reasons behind the alternations in the Disney adaptation.
The contrasting values in the original story and the film is demonstrated by the differences in growth trajectories of the main character Aladdin. Based on the hero paradigm identified by Joseph Campbell, the “hero” undergoes four main phases: the call, education, journey and return. Although both ‘Ala al-Din in the book and Aladdin in the film complete this trajectory, the differences in the characters’ development reflect different values upheld by the book and the film. In the original story, Aladdin’s education consists of learning the value of the wealth and the strategies for spending it. In other words, it is mainly about how to enjoy and take the advantage of physical materials. For example, in the story, ‘Ala al-Din realizes the worth of jewelries and uses them as a present to the king, “I am speaking of what I brought in the two purses and in the belt, which you and I both took for colored glass. But now I know that I was wrong, and I tell you, mother, that they are jewels of inestimable value, fit only for the greatest king” (Haddawy, 126). The theme of materialism continues at the journey of ‘Al al-Din. His adventure is triggered by the vanishing of his materialistic wealth when the African magician steals his magic lamp and removes his magnificent palace to Africa. His endangerment is also resolved by retrieving his wealth when he kills the magician and brings his palace back. Even his romantic relationship with the princess is sustained by material wealth. He acquires the marriage through displaying his vast possessions to the king, and he is forced to separate from his beloved also due to the disappearance of his wealth.
On the contrary, the course of Aladdin’s education and journey in the film is quite the opposite of such materialistic presentations; instead, it highlights the development of Aladdin’s self-identity and freedom. In the film, Aladdin is initially presented as a thief who steals a loaf of bread. His education happens as he grows from a “stealer” into a “giver”: Aladdin gives away the loaf of bread to a little beggar at the street. His benevolence debunks materialism because it gives tribute to the sacrifice of “materials” for charity. This act of Aladdin also marks his development of self-identity as he makes this choice based on his independent morality. His initiative even influences others, in this case, Abu, to give up selfishness. As for the journey of Aladdin, he goes through both external and internal struggles to attain an image of himself. The external threat occurs when the villain J’ far discloses Aladdin’s identity as a street rat instead of a prince. At the same time, he struggles internally to speak the truth about himself to his beloved, the Princess Jasmine. Finally, those risks are resolved as he confronts his true self. Although Aladdin loses his material wealth, he eventually finds a spiritual wealth, which is his self-acceptance. Therefore, he completes his pursuit of individual freedom: he wants to be himself rather than someone else. His self-revelation also wins him the marriage with princess Jasmine who loves him not because he is a prince but because he is Aladdin. The film ends with the sultan abolishing the rules of marrying a prince with a princess and replacing it with the freedom of love. The conclusion challenges the confinement of material equality in marriage and celebrates the value of freedom in love.
Besides the development of protagonist’s education and journey, the differences in characterizations of demon in the lamp also shed light on the discrepancy in values expressed in the original story and the film. In the original text of The Arabian Nights, there are not many descriptions regarding with the demon. Demon’s characterizations are limited to an obedient slave who fulfills every wish from his master. In each appearance of the demon in the book, he anticipates orders in the same way: “What do you wish? Here I am, ready to obey you, as your slave and the slave of those who have the lamp in their hands, I and the other slaves of the lamp” (Haddawy, 135). In the book’s representation, the demon is just a tool for ‘Al al-Din to attain material wealth and no one ever cares about his feeling or spirituality.
On the other hand, the “Genie” in the Disney adaptation shows more richness and vividness in his personalities and freewill. He appears to be talkative, vibrate and solicitous. His relationship with his supposed master, Aladdin, is that of intimate friends. In this sense, the film respects the individuality of the Genie, who is depicted like a vivid person rather than a tool. Furthermore, far from a submissive slave, the Genie in the film has freewill: He communicates his wishes of freedom to Aladdin. Finally, his freedom is granted when Aladdin gives up the opportunity to retrieve his wealth. Again, the value of materials pales in comparison with the preciousness of freedom.
Besides the changes made in characters, deletions and additions of significant images in the film adaptation serve to highlight the value of freedom while concealing the materialism portrayed in the original story. In the The Story of ‘Ala al-Din and the Magic lamp,the dominant image includes the “sparkling”, for example, the jewels at the cave and the diamonds, rubies, emeralds, gold and silver decorated in ‘Ala al-Din’s fancy palace. The recurring image of the shiny jewelries offers a direct perception of extravagance. The focus on the luxuries and possessions in the original story aptly demonstrates a materialistic view of the world.
However, in the film, although Aladdin is also promised with wealth, there is no such emphasis on images like those shiny jewelries portrayed in the original text to showcase his possessions. In this sense, the materialistic value is reduced and concealed in the film adaptation. Instead, the film focuses on other images to deliver the theme of freedom. The first image is the dichotomy between “market” and “palace”. Aladdin comes from the “market”, a free and unrestrained environment in which he plays around and enjoys life. Jasmine, on the other hand, is a prince restricted in the “palace”, who desires freedom and escape from confinement. Another important image in adaptation of film is “the magical carpet”, whose flying property associates with the pursuit of freedom. In the film, there is one scene in which Aladdin and Jasmine ride the magical carpet to soar upon the sky. This flying carpet brings Jasmine out of the “palace”, her confinement, and it symbolizes an invitation she receives from Aladdin to the world of freedom. Those images and symbols in the film really convey the beauty of freedom to its audiences.
In this sense, several major changes witnessed in the adaptation of Disney film Aladdinare intended to replace the original value of materialism in the texts with the contemporary value of freedom and individualism, but why the change in values is necessary and important for the adaptation? The differences in social backgrounds and intended audiences between the original story and the film adaptation can explain this. Although The Story of ‘Ala al-Din and the Magic lampcannot be considered as Medieval but pre-modern literature, it is still estimated to be written at around seventeenth to eighteenth century. At that period signified by colonization and expansion, capitalism and desire for material wealth really prevail among both Arabs and Europeans. Therefore, the story of ‘Al al-Dinacts as an escape literature that satisfies audiences’ fantasies about extravagance and unlimited purchasing abilities. However, when Disney animation of Aladdinwas first made in 1992, the social environment had changed drastically from that of seventeenth and eighteenth century. Daniel Yankelovich identifies social values at sixties-to-nineties America in his social analysis: “More academically, Ron Inglehard referred to the new values as ‘post-materialist’ and documented their spread from the United States to other industrialized democracies. A label for new ethos that I and others prefer is ‘expressive individualism’’ (Yankelovich, 1). Therefore, it is not surprising that the 1992 Disney adaptation erases the elements of materialism but lauds the value of individual freedom. Also, as a film specifically for children, Disney animation wants to avoid instilling the impression of greediness and obsession with wealth, but aims to cultivate morality and self-identity in an entertaining and educational way.
Therefore, due to the influence of American social value and intended audiences, Disney film Aladdin conceals the elements of materialism in the original text and celebrates the core value of individual freedom. Significant changes in plots, characterizations and images in the film all serve to express this value. Although the values are different, both Aladdin and Al’ al-Din succeed in reflecting the society and eliciting resonances among audiences.
Aladdin.Dir.John Musker, Ron Clements. Walt Disney Home Entertainment, 1992. Film.
Haddawy, Husain, trans. The Arabian Nights II: Sinbad & Other Popular Stories.New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1995. Print.
Yankelovich, Daniel Middle. “How American Individualism Is Evolving.” The Public Perspective(1998): Pages 3-6. Print.
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