Pocahontas, Alice in Wonderland and Hunchback of Notre Dame: Real and Fiction in Disney
Walt Disney was known to capture the hearts of many through his characters that have come to life through the Disney universe. Whether it has been his amusement park, Disneyland, or his films, there is no doubt that Walt Disney has had a major impact on Americans then and now. But what people may not be aware of is the amount of historical influence behind some of his films. Additionally, most of the films that have displayed references to U.S. History were initially based off of books depicting the time periods. Throughout several of Walt Disney’s films, he has taken inspiration from real historical events, time periods and figures. But evidence displays that Disney’s depictions of all three, especially in terms of historical figures, have not been entirely accurate.
One example of this is Walt Disney’s film, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, which was loosely based off of Victor Hugo’s novel that was written during the July 1830 Revolution. Victor Hugo wanted to write a novel about what he learned during the French Revolution. After the 1789 French Revolution, French society was divided into two parts: those who opposed the Republic and those who supported it. The article and secondary source, “How Notre Dame, ‘Vast Symphony In Stone,’ Weaves Its Way Through Parisian History” describes the significance of the Notre Dame itself, stating, “Notre Dame has a conflicted role in French history, as a symbol of both national character and religious significance. The association with Catholicism became a liability during the French Revolution in 1789, as hordes of secularists stormed the structure, pillaging artwork and claiming the cathedral for the atheistic Cult of Reason.” Ever since Hugo was young, he identified with the themes of social and political equality that described the legacy of the French Revolution. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was written to express the two revolutions, but was also intended to portray the artistic and cultural representation of these social changes.
Considering the fact that the Notre Dame had religious significance, it is no wonder that the film based off Hugo’s novel displays religion as an important aspect of the plot. In fact, the book, “Notre-Dame de Paris” stated, “…yet she remains the cathedral of cathedrals, the epitome of the Gothic, the symbol of Paris and therefore of France.” Referring to the Notre Dame as symbolizing Paris and therefore of France implies the significant amount of historical importance that the Notre Dame has.
Disney films have a history of basing their films off of much darker tales and making changes in the plot and sometimes even characters in order to lighten the story and make it more kid-friendly. This is exemplified through Grimm’s Fairy Tales, most of them involving princess fairytales. Examples include Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Beauty and the Beast. All of these stories end in tragedies, but as many know, the Disney adaptations of these tales all have happy endings. But despite the fact that creators of Disney films tend to omit dark topics by keeping the plot but changing some aspects of it, Hunchback of Notre Dame is by far one of Disney’s darkest movies. The film dives into very mature concepts, and while it is only rated G, it still portrays topics such as lust, infanticide, sin, profanity, religious hypocrisy, the concept of Hell, prejudice, social injustice and the acceptance that Quasimodo desires for so long. And although the movie is based off of Victor Hugo’s novel, like with any other Disney film inspired by real-life people and events, there were definitely changes made. For example, the characters Quasimodo, Esmeralda and Pheobus are kinder than they are in the novel, and Frollo is a judge, priest and alchemist instead of an archdeacon, which he was in the Disney film. Another novel focuses on the character, Esmeralda and how she was depicted in Hugo’s novel, mentioning that,”…she has also attracted the vengeful of Frollo, a witch-hunting priest and alchemist, who directs his servant Quasimodo, the hunchbacked bellringer, to abduct her.” It is highly likely that the decision to make the character, Frollo, an archdeacon rather than a priest, was to be potentially less offensive than a priest being an antagonist. Additionally, the character Frollo represented how some religious people acted. While he was a cruel character and would instigate unethical and violent acts, he would justify his actions through his self-proclaimed loyalty to God.
Another thing to note is that while several Disney films are inspired by history, there are still many historical inaccuracies throughout the films, and one that displays the most is Pocahontas. Before stating the many differences between real-life and Disney Pocahontas, there were a few similarities between both. For starters, the setting, Jamestown, Virginia remained the same. Additionally, the motives of the colonists were the same. In both real life and the film, the intentions of the colonists were to search for gold as soon as they arrived to Jamestown. Other aspects of the film that accurately portrayed Pocahontas and her time period were the representation of Governor Ratcliffe, Chief Powhatan and Kocoum.
Another similarity was the portrayal of the life of colonists during that time. Also, Pocahontas saved John Smith both in the film and in real life. In the book, “Love and Hate in Jamestown” by David A. Price, the author stated that Pocahontas actually saved John Smith twice, describing the bravery of Pocahontas by stating, “Pocahontas, the king’s darling daughter, then about thirteen years of age, rushed between him and his executioner, and folding his head in her arms, and laying hers upon it, arrested the fatal blow. Her father was then prevailed on to spare his life.”
As for the differences in the film, the age of Pocahontas, some of the characters and most of the plot were all historically inaccurate. While the movie gained popularity and most did not seem to have a problem with the differences, many historians were outraged at all of the changes that were made. For starters, in the film there was a scene where colonists are singing about finding lots of gold, but in real life, the colonists did not find any. Also, the real Pocahontas was actually said to be about 10 or 11 years old when she met John Smith, who was 27 years old at the time. However, in order to have a romance between the two of them (which did not actually happen in real life), the makers of the film decided to make Pocahontas 18 and the age of John Smith close to 25. Some may be wondering why the story of Pocahontas turned into a love story in the first place. The reason why is because the filmmakers behind the movie revealed that they thought it would have a more dramatic effect in the story, especially during the scene in which Pocahontas saves John Smith. They were also inspired by Shakespeare’s story, “Romeo and Juliet” and wanted to emulate the concept of two characters from very different backgrounds falling in love.
Although the relationship between Pocahontas and John Smith was platonic in real life, something that was somewhat accurately portrayed was the relationship between Pocahontas and John Rolfe, which was romantic in real life. However, there were motives behind the marriage that was not portrayed in the film. According to an article, John Rolfe was “a pious man who agonized for many weeks over his wish to marry a ‘heathen.’ He composed a long, laborious letter to Governor Dale asking for permission to marry Pocahontas.” In addition to this, another letter he composed was Sir Thomas Dale in 1614. The primary source reveals his thoughts after marrying Pocahontas and converting her to Christianity, and says, “but for the good of this plantation, for the honor of our country, for the glory of God, for my own salvation, and for converting the true knowledge of God and Jesus Christ, and unbelieving creature, namely Pocahontas.” It is evident in this quote that, while John Rolfe did have a desire to marry Pocahontas, he was hesitant about it because of her status. This makes sense since Native Americans were often looked down upon, and in the movie, the character, Pocahontas acknowledges how Native Americans are typically viewed as savages. The quote from the primary source also reveals that John Rolfe takes great pride in converting his wife, Pocahontas to Christianity. Conversion of religion was not the only change that occurred when Pocahontas and John Rolfe married, though. There was also assimilation that happened, and this was portrayed in the sequel to the film, Pocahontas.
Another example of Disney being influenced by historical events or figures being influenced by historical events or figures is the movie “Alice in Wonderland”. The film is loosely based off of a story titled, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” which is set in the time period 1865 and takes place in the middle of the Victorian Era. Since the book takes place during the Victorian Era, the author, Lewis Caroll created parallels between his characters and real-life people, and utilized his book to express the downfalls of the Victorian Era itself. For example, the tyrannical ruling of the Queen of Hearts was supposed to be an exaggeration of Queen Victoria to display her cruel way of ruling. In an interpretation of the novel, it is said that, “One popular approach to Alice has been to read it as a political allegory, with Wonderland a symbolic England, ruled tyrannically by the Queen of Hearts, who of course would correspond with Queen Victoria.” For the purpose of storytelling, it makes sense as to why the Queen of Hearts was an exaggerated version of Queen Victoria.
The book was written by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, but his pen name was Lewis Caroll. He was a very popular author during his time period. His book, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and through the Looking Glass,” was actually a form of satire to mock the children’s literature at the time. Lewis Caroll’s story stood out due to the fact that it was set apart from other stories at the time, not only because of its satire but because it had something that most books were lacking at the time, which was imagination.
Most books at the time were intended merely to teach children morals, but none of them were as creative as Lewis Caroll’s book. Another historical reference was found in how much the Tea Party in Alice in Wonderland tied with the Boston Tea Party. In fact, when the Mad Hatter asked Alice what day of the month it is, she replied, “The fourth,” which was a reference to a historical date. Now, in many places, July 4th is known as “Alice’s Day.” This day is in honor of the Disney film, “Alice in Wonderland” as well as celebrating the day that Lewis Caroll told his well known children’s story to his young readers.
Additionally, the scene in which Alice attends the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party is based off of the Boston Tea Party. In fact, on December 16, 1773, the city people dumped some imported tea into the harbor to act as a protest of a tax that had been imposed on it by the British government. The “Boston Tea Party” actually has a double meaning, because party not only referred to the tea party but to the concept of a political party.
Although the book itself has historical context in terms of the Victorian era, political allegory and even the character, Queen of Hearts ,which many readers compare with to Queen Victoria, the Disney movie, “Alice in Wonderland,” still has many historical inaccuracies and doesn’t reveal as much about the Victorian Era as Caroll’s book, “Alice in Wonderland” does. When watching the film, the focus shifted more towards Alice exploring her surroundings, and while the book included that aspect as well, a key difference between the film and the movie is that the historical references were removed. Examples would be how there was no mention of when the tea party took place, which was on the Fourth of July, and changes the book’s dialogue by removing any references to the Boston Tea Party. Because of this, the historical reference to the Boston Tea Party is far more subtle because viewers of the film must only rely on visual cues rather than the actual conversation between Alice and the Mad Hatter.
Disney films have been enjoyed for decades and while the movies are associated with fiction, the inspiration behind a few of them have been linked to historical figures and books that focused on representing the time period it was placed in. Throughout the essay, the films that exemplified this inspiration were Pocahontas, which was loosely based off a real person, as well as Alice in Wonderland and Hunchback of Notre Dame, which were based off of novels. Although the books had fictional characters and plots, they still had historical context. Caroll’s novel, “Alice in Wonderland” depicted the Victorian Era and Victor Hugo’s novel, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” placed emphasis on portraying the importance of the Notre Dame. There is evidence that have suggested historical context within the books or people that the Disney films such as “Pocahontas,” “Alice in Wonderland,” and “Hunchback of Notre Dame.” But whether it was through leaving out aspects of the books or retelling stories in a different way in order to save film time or enhance the storytelling, Disney films have had a history of having many historical inaccuracies.
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