Since most of the Disney princesses are derived from fairy tales they have gone through many transformations before Disney took their stab at it. I’m going to use the stories I grew up on as “the original”.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
In the original Brothers Grimm story the evil queen tries three times before the poisoned apple to kill Snow White and fails, ones with a poison comb, once with a murderously tight hair ribbon and another time with a similarly tight corset. Each time she is saved by the dwarves. Disney also gets rid of the queens violent smashing of the magic mirror as well as changing the cause of the queen’s demise. In the fairytale she is invited to Snow Whites wedding and forced to dance in red-hot shoes until she drops dead. For the purpose of family film I’m glad they went with the alterative.
Cinderella is actually very similar to the original story by Perrault. The only real difference is the exclusion of the first ball. In the original the king gives two balls and Cinderella only rushes out during the second one. Any other differences have to do with adding scenes rather than removing them. Lady Tremaine's promise, the first dress, the escape from her room, and the smashing of the slipper are some of the elements added by Disney.
Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Sleeping Beauty is also very similar to Perrault’s tale. Very little was taken away or changed. The big difference between the two is that the prince in they fairy tale did not enter the story until the princess had been asleep for 100 years. However, a lot was added to the Disney story. In the original the fairies, both good and bad play a very little role past the christening and the only precaution taken to protect the princess is the outlawing of spinning wheels.
The Little Mermaid (1989)
The little mermaid deviates more from its original source than any of the other classic princesses and for good reason, as the original story is really depressing. In Anderson’s Fairy Tale the little mermaid trades her voice for a potion that changes her into a human so that she can pursue her true love. This is made harder by the fact that it is extremely painful for her to walk. Even so she dances with the prince long into the night hoping he will fall in love with her. Despite her best efforts the prince marries another princess and the little mermaid is heartbroken and alone. As in accord to the spell she will never be able to return to the sea. However, her sisters sell their hair for a knife that will change her back into a mermaid if the blood of the prince drips on to her feet. But she cannot bring herself to kill the prince so she throws herself into the sea in an attempt to end her suffering. Before she drowns the daughters of the air take pity on her and change her into an air spirit.
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The original Beauty and the Beast is just as interesting as Disney’s wonderful classic. But there are still big differences between the two. The biggest differences are the characters. In the fairy tale Belle is the youngest of three daughters. Her older sisters who are selfish and greedy and their role in the story mostly consisted of them being unkind to Belle who is just as kind and brave as she is in the movie. Unlike the movie the beast is a kind host to both Belle and her father. He orders a feast be set for her father when he arrives at the castle and only gets angry when he takes a rose from the garden to take back to Belle. When Belle finds out she willingly goes to the castle to pay for her fathers mistake. Everyday the beast asks her to marry him but she tells him she only sees him as a friend. She does not change her mind until after she leaves and the beast is dying from a broken heart. With the help of a magic mirror and magic ring she rushes back to him and confesses her love. This last part is identical to the movie. I believe Disney admitted the sisters so the story would not seem too much like Cinderella. I also suspect Belle’s love of books comes from Robin McKinley book, Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty & the Beast that was published 11 years before Beauty and the Beast came out.
There are many big differences between Disney’s Aladdin and the original story from the Arabian Nights. First, the original story takes place in China. Second, if you know anything about middle-eastern myths you know there is no three-wish rule. That was made up by Hollywood in the early days of film to make them more interesting. In the story there is also another less powerful djinni, which Aladdin uses to both get his hands on the more powerful djinni and to retrieve it from the sorcerer when it is stolen. Also the romance between Aladdin and the princess - called Badroulbadour in the story, changed for obvious reasons - is not the center of the story. In fact it’s almost an afterthought he wished for a palace and he got a princess.
Pocahontas is the only Disney princess to be based on a historic figure and as you would expect they didn’t follow the events very faithfully. The big thing - sorry if I burst anyone’s bubble - is the romance. John Smith and Pocahontas never had any sort of romantic relationship. John Smith had been captured by the Indians and was to be executed when the chief’s youngest daughter spoke up for him. Some historians even believe the whole thing was a stunt set up by the chief to earn the man’s trust. After Pocahontas saved him the chief adopted Smith as a son. In the years he lived in the new world Smith became very close to Pocahontas, they would discuss trade between their people and their love of the wilderness. But their relationship never went any farther then the love you would have for a sister or brother. As for the sequel, Pocahontas did in fact marry John Rolfe and then
moved to England. She reconnected with smith to discuss relations between their people. Unfortunately on her trip back to American Pocahontas dies.
Hua Mulan is a legendary figure from Chinese folklore. Little is clearly specified as to the events of her story so it’s sort of free to interpretation by anyone how wants to have a go at it. However most legends agree that she was not disgraced for her service in the army but honorable discharged.
The Princess and the Frog (2009)
The Princess and the Frog is clearly very different from its source as it takes place in the 1920’s. In fact it would be easier to state its similarities… It involves a frog. In the original Frog Prince by the Brothers Grimm the princess never actually kisses the frog the spell is undone when the princess threw it against a wall in disgust after sharing her meal and her pillow with him in return for a favor he did her. The kiss didn’t come into play until Edgar Taylor translated it to English. So Disney is far from the first to change this story. So, why did they decided to so completely abandon the fairy tale? Well, the truth is The Princess and the Frog isn't really based on the fairytale at all. It's actually based on a book written in 2002 by E. D. Baker called The Frog Princess that was in turn based on The Frog Prince.
Rapunzel is the only Disney princess movie that does not share its sources name and that’s not the only thing it doesn’t share. The story of Rapunzel was my favorite Grimm’s fairy tale as a child. Despite what most people think the story of Rapunzel doesn’t end with the prince rescuing her from the tower. Rapunzel and the prince plan her escape together by weaving a ladder from silk the prince brings her. However the witch discovers their plan before the ladder is finished. In anger she cuts Rapunzel’s hair, casts her into the wilderness to fend for herself, and sets a trap for the prince. When the prince arrives she pushes him out of the tower and he is blinded on the thorns below. He wanders injured and heart-broken through the forest when he hears Rapunzel singing as she gathers water. He calls to her and when she sees him in his sorry state she begins weeping uncontrollable. Her tears fall into his eyes and cure his blindness. Although this story was changed drastically on it’s way from fairy tale to movie you can see similarities, whether purposeful or not between the two. The characters backgrounds are switched Rapunzel becomes a princess and the prince becomes a commoner who like Rapunzel’s father in the story is a thief. Gothel set a trap for Flynn and Rapunzel’s tears cure him. This cure also involves singing.
Even with the many changes Disney has made, both the original ladies and their Disney counterparts have had a great deal of influence on my childhood and I love them all equally.