Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” is a short story that I teach year after year, and in one class I show a number of adaptations of the story. The Shirley Temple Show version from 1961 is surprising, both because it takes place pre-Disney adaptation (and as such hasn’t been corrupted by the Disney machine) and because it updates the original story in some intriguing ways.
First of all, Temple’s made-for-TV version is absolutely kitsch through and through, the character actors in the episode are iconic in that time period, and the sea witch and her minions are camp to an extreme, not to mention how early 60’s the makeup and costumes are (I can’t with Temple’s wig, the bangs, I can’t). All of that needs to either be enjoyed or overlooked to understand the significance of the changes the show made to the original story. How ever “dated” the Temple version, I still strongly believe that some of the changes made to the story actually act to modernize it while retaining the integrity of Anderson’s original story. I started this as a long form article, but, as I worked on it, I decided that it needed to be a list, so I humbly submit to you 9 Reasons that The Shirley Temple Show’s Version of The Little Mermaid is a Good Adaptation.
#1 No Soul, No Problem
In Andersen’s 1837 version the core of the story is love, yes, but also the mermaid’s quest for an eternal soul. After she learns about it, the mermaid never mentions the prince without mentioning the soul. Why? Simply put: in Anderson’s world mermaids are animals, and, when they die, they cease to exist. This is something that is always left out of reinterpretations because of the colossal Christian controversy that would follow if it were left in. When the soul is taken out, you just have the love of a newly teen-aged girl to drive the plot forward, which is not enough to die over, but is enough to learn from. Even Anderson gave the mermaid a reprieve and had the Daughters of the Air rescue her and give her a chance to “earn” a soul. In Temple’s version, without any discussion of a soul, the mermaid is given a second chance at life as a mermaid by the god of a sea (note: not her father). I feel this is an appropriate change considering that the stakes have been lowered so much by removing the whole soul controversy.
#2 Sea Witch + Minions = Fun
In Anderson’s story the sea witch is not “evil” as one would expect, and neither is Temple’s (the mer-witch), though both are slightly malevolent. Anderson’s witch has a toad that eats sugar from her mouth and snakes that cuddle with her bosom (Flotsam and Jetsam anyone?), and these pets clearly influenced the introduction of minions. Andersen’s sea witch is slightly antagonistic to the mermaid, saying that even though the mermaid is foolish, the witch will help, but Temple’s minions (a lawyer stingray and a hateful octopus) allow the witch to become a more fully-realized character without fading into the background as Andersen’s character does. Andersen’s sea witch is mentioned at the end of the story, but never appears again, whereas the mer-witch gets more screen time and, while she doesn’t have any strong feelings about the mermaid, she does have an ethical compass that she follows. The mer-witch is also given a back story that involves the mermaid’s grandmother, which means more complex character motivations and a richer story.
#3 Better Grandmother
In Andersen’s story the grandmother becomes a sort of replacement for the absent mother, memorably telling the little mermaid that “pride must suffer pain,” and suffer she does, presumably for the audacity of her desiring a soul. In the Temple version the grandmother is also a replacement for the absent mother, but she nurtures the mermaid and is given a more complex back story. She, too, fell in love with a “land prince” as a young girl and, after being laughed at by her prince, returned to the sea. The audience finds out the the prince was in love with the grand-mermaid-ma, but got over her and had a string of lovers after, that fickle-hearted so-and-so. This back story, that only the audience can put together, foreshadows the relationship between the little mermaid and the prince before it happens. Additionally, in Temple’s version it is the grandmother who visits the mer-witch and negotiates on the mermaid’s behalf and who makes a significant sacrifice to assist the mermaid.
#4 Hair Apparent
In Andersen’s version the mermaid’s sisters give up their hair to get a magical knife from the sea witch; the mermaid has to plunge it into the prince’s heart and get his blood on her feet to become a mermaid again and return home. In Temple’s version the grandmother gives up 50 years of her life for a magical knife that will turn the prince into a mermaid. Andersen’s version, while much more dramatic, barely holds up to modern logic. Buying hair? How nice was that hair? Stabbing your love to death and bathing in their blood? Who is going to go for that deal? Temple’s version instead creates a more convincing conflict: not life over death, but free will over control.
#5 Come back … to the sea!
Andersen does, in the end, allow his mermaid to live and even grants her the boon of an eternal soul. The Daughters of the Air transform her into one of them and, even though she can never see her family again, and they all think she’s dead, at least some day she can get into heaven. This, I feel, has to be updated for a modern audience to accept it. In Temple’s version she is in the prince’s wedding party, then runs out to the ocean, accepting death. The god of the sea then says that she loved someone enough not to violate their free will, which is worth forgiveness, and allows her to become a mermaid again. In the Temple version it is a coming-of-age story, the teen-aged mermaid returns, stronger and wiser for her mistakes. This makes a lot more sense for a modern audience than either 1) love at first sight being the real deal or 2) the mermaid’s mistake being grave enough that she can never see her family again. Anderson’s mermaid has no future, she is essentially a ghost, and Temple’s mermaid getting a second chance makes sense in the context of the story.
#6 A Likable Princess
Love at first sight that actually ends in marriage? It’s in both stories, people. In both stories the prince thinks that the human princess rescued him, and that doesn’t change (though I do appreciate that at least Temple’s princess tries to correct the prince). Anderson’s princess is just a cardboard cutout and seems written in only to show that the prince is kind of a jerk. For example, he tells the mermaid he’s not interested in marrying the princess, then kisses the mermaid on the mouth. Why? When he does see the princess he thinks she’s the one who saved him and she, being a completely irrelevant character, says nothing … in the whole story. In Temple’s version they actually flesh out the “other princess” and make her likable. She believes she is being forced into marriage and is relieved that she gets to marry the prince who she fell in love with months ago (we will get into the marriage details soon). She then befriends the mermaid after a small bout of jealousy and there are open comparisons made between them, meaning the princess goes from cardboard cutout to a foil for the mermaid.
#7 Prince Jerkface McFriendzone
The prince in Anderson’s story is an ass. Anderson’s mermaid cannot talk, and, as I mention earlier, is connected to animals, and that is exactly how the prince treats her. He has her sleep on a pillow outside his door like a dog and kisses her while playing with her hair, then nonchalantly mentions how he could only love the woman who saved him. Ouch. So the mermaid is obviously being used as a place holder until the “real” princess shows up, only the mermaid knows there isn’t one, and can’t speak because she has no tongue, so she has to be the ultimate good sport about the wedding. In the end, after she dies, “she saw [the prince] and his beautiful bride searching for her; sorrowfully they gazed at the pearly foam, as if they knew she had thrown herself into the waves.” Yes, you read that right, the prince marries knowing that the mermaid will probably throw herself overboard because she loves him. He knows she will commit suicide yet cannot bother to even talk with her about it. That is not a likable character. Temple’s version, on the other hand, is way more likable. He never leads the mermaid on (who can talk) and calls her his “little sister” which is universal code for “I’m never going to date you.” Furthermore he does not want to marry and has sworn himself to a life of chastity, only changing his mind when his kingdom faces a war they cannot win and, as such, have to create an alliance. When the princess comes in and he realizes it’s the maiden he fell in love with on the beach, he’s relieved, and thanks the gods for their intervention.
#8 God Becomes Gods
Because the soul controversy has to be removed from the story, we are left with a bit of an “empty sky,” as it were. Temple’s version changes the setting to Greece where there are many gods and goddesses referenced. This seems out of left field at first, but a close reading of Anderson’s story actually firmly establishes that the “mermaids” are, in fact, sirens. Regarding the sisters, Anderson writes: “before the approach of a storm, and when they expected a ship would be lost, they swam before the vessel, and sang sweetly of the delights to be found in the depths of the sea, and begging the sailors not to fear if they sank to the bottom.” Wonder why Disney’s Ariel sings? Because she’s a siren. The addition of the Greek pantheon to Temple’s story makes logical sense, assists with the plot, and is faithful to the original story, all while modernizing it.
#9 A Talking Mermaid
Anderson’s witch takes the mermaid’s tongue (not voice, you just can’t talk without a tongue so …) because the potion requires the witch’s own heart blood (it’s black blood at that). In the Temple version the witch creates the potion in exchange for goods and puts a time limit on it, but the mermaid’s voice remains intact. Temple’s mermaid doesn’t talk about the sea, the potion, or her home, because she chooses not to, not because she is prevented from speaking. That means that so much of the agency that is stripped from Anderson’s mermaid remains intact for Temple’s.
Andersen’s story hovers close to being 200 years old and the values of his time are so different than our modern values that a film interpretation requires change (I hope to write about Miyazaki’s feminist Ponyo soon). Temple’s version of the story is fascinating because it resolves some of the conflicts in the story in a modern way, and those changes have survived well. If an audience can look past the kitschy exterior there are some pretty impressive updates taking place. This is also considering that Temple’s version was filmed before Disney’s version was conceived and, as such, is not in dialogue with the major film standard for that story.
I hope you enjoyed my analysis, which I hope to expand to more films soon. If you have any questions, corrections, ideas, or anything else please feel free to leave a comment below.