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. Continue reading