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Ice Maidens: How Frozen changed Andersen’s fairytales

Disney’s Frozen was based off The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen, and here’s what got changed, or even lost, in translation.

Released in 2013, Frozen was intended to be Disney’s long-awaited production of Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairytale, The Snow Queen. It’s a film that the folks at Disney have been shelving since 1937, either due to troublesome financial situations and other films taking priority, or due to excuses of being unable to rewrite the story for a modern audience. This long history makes The Snow Queen retelling a kind of misfit ‘pet’ story of Disney studios, and as such it’s nice to see that the film was finally made in 2013.

Concept art for the shelved Snow Queen movie
Concept art for the shelved Snow Queen movie

However, the end film that resulted from these multiple attempts at the project is nothing like the original fairytale, and in fact includes elements from many different HC Andersen fairytales. Some of the ways in which it changed are pretty cool, others not so much. Regardless, the end product is something of a patchwork blanket – some originality is there amidst the culture mush of Scandinavian folk tales, and through this it has become its own thing.

But patchwork blankets are way more interesting when you find out exactly where each square came from. So in this article, I’m going to show you how this insanely-successful behemoth was constructed.

First of all, let’s look at the central characters. In Andersen’s The Snow Queen, we have Gerda, the young, warm-haired girl who is pitted against the Snow Queen herself, a powerful and dangerous woman who lives in the Northern mountains alone. Frozen casts the princess Anna in the slightly clumsy but determined shoes of Gerda, and makes its first massive change in having Elsa, this story’s Snow Queen, being Anna’s sister. Elsa’s not evil like the queen in the original, but she is unable to control her powers, and through this she exiles herself to the North after an incident at her coronation.

The decision to make Elsa a protagonist rather than an antagonist is a massive shift from the original tale, and seems to have followed in the footsteps of recent popular shows like Wicked, which tells the story of  the Wizard of Oz, but sympathetically from the Wicked Witch of the West’s point of view. In fact, the Broadway star of Wicked, Idina Menzel, provides Elsa’s singing voice in Frozen.

Gerda and Kai. Illustration by Arthur Rackham.
Gerda and Kai. Illustration by Arthur Rackham.

And thinking further on main characters, there’s the alarming absence of the story’s damsel in distress – Gerda’s best friend, a young boy called Kai who essentially gets kidnapped by the Snow Queen and has to be rescued by Gerda. But Frozen manages to do away with him completely, which is a shame because there are very few stories where girls embark on epic quests to save boys (and if any readers have some examples, do leave a comment!). Instead of Kai getting the sliver of ice stuck in his heart, in Frozen it is Elsa who accidentally strikes Anna with a sliver of ice to the heart, leading Anna to have to go and save herself.

Now, I fibbed a bit earlier, because Kai and Gerda are actually present in Frozen as side characters – servants in Anna and Elsa’s castle. They aren’t referred to by name in the script, though, so it’s only something you’d know from reading the wiki pages. It’s a little disappointing to see such unadventurous-looking characters be awarded these names, but the wee nod to the original story is still there nonetheless, no matter how silly the form.

What is incredibly nice about both stories old and new is that they don’t focus on true love in the romantic sense, like a lot of stories end up doing. Instead, The Snow Queen focusses on the love held between best of friends, and Frozen focusses on the love held between sisters. There’s no need for a prince to come and save either Anna or Gerda. This means that, even though it lost something that was quite integral to the original, Frozen is still innovative and stands apart from other popular kids’ movies today. Sadly this still was not enough for one FOX News host, who recently proclaimed that Frozen sends out a negative message as the girl doesn’t need a boy to save her in it. Just imagine the criticism from these folks if they’d stuck to the original!

Elsa and Anna - sisterly love
Elsa and Anna – sisterly love

Now, The Snow Queen is set in Norway, with the Queen’s domain being in Finnmark, the northernmost part of the country. Apart from a cursory reference to Finland, no other countries are really mentioned. Frozen also keeps the Norway setting (although they call the country Arendelle, possibly after the town of Arendal in southern Norway), and instead of Finnmark, Elsa’s ice palace is in a location simply referred to as the North Mountain. But Frozen includes a wider range of countries; Weselton is the analogue for the UK, and Prince Hans comes from the Southern Isles, which are basically Denmark.

Funnily enough, there is also a prince in Andersen’s original story, who meets Gerda but is unable to help her. He’s not quite as antagonistic as Hans, but the similarity is still there.

During Elsa’s coronation there are also royal visitors with darker skin, from much further afield countries that are never directly mentioned, but this seems to be a reference to Norway’s strong trading history with regions as far afield as the Middle East and India since the Viking times. And, another interesting point, the castle is positioned next to Arendelle’s harbour in a way that is very similar to the Akershus fortress in present-day Norway’s capital Oslo.

There aren’t any trolls in The Snow Queen, but their presence in Frozen is reminiscent of many Norwegian folk tales. Trolls are often like people, forming social groups, wearing clothes and even helping out humans, so their friendship with various human characters throughout the film makes sense.

And now on to some other Andersen fairytales. Even if you haven’t seen Frozen, you’ll know there’s a talking snowman called Olaf who has a strange obsession with heat. This is a direct reference to the fairytale The Snowman, which sees a snowman become so obsessed with the sun that he seeks out heat and eventually melts away. Luckily, Olaf doesn’t meet such a grisly end, thanks to Elsa’s powers keeping him cold. But he’s pretty much the same character – so naive and innocently addicted to something that would, realistically, kill him. And like the snowman’s dog companion in the story, the other characters in Frozen try to make him aware of how silly his wish is, but lack the desire to hurt his feelings by telling him the truth directly.

There’s another Andersen tale called The Story of the Year, which sees a couple of sparrows panicking over the fear of an endless winter. In this tale, the confusion arises from the fact that the Gregorian calendar starts the new year halfway through winter. In the course of the tale, the birds discover that winter doesn’t last forever, and spring soon comes, although they still think that what happened was unnatural, a freak weather event. Elsa’s accidental ‘eternal winter’ in Frozen reminds me of this tale a lot. The spell she casts over the land is something that, at first, seems pretty hopeless and unfixable. But the instant the misunderstanding is sorted, and love and warmth enters her world again, she is able to stop the winter and nature carries on as normal.

So there’s a lot more present in Frozen than you might notice at first glance. It’s full of references and the story is certainly engaging enough to turn people into pretty big fans, despite its differences from the original tale.

Next time you watch it, keep an eye out for these things, and maybe check out a copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s old fairytales too! And, as always, if you notice any other interesting things about this film, let us know in the comments!

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