Oh, Snow White, that classic, if a little retro, fairytale of good triumphing over evil. It’s a sweet story of an innocent young beauty who is banished by a vain, cruel, and jealous stepmother and who, with the help of seven lovable dwarfs, ultimately finds everlasting true love. Walt Disney turned the fable into the first full-length animated musical feature film in 1937. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is to this day one of the top-10 films of all time (adjusted for inflation), beloved by generations of children.
It turns out the American animator left out a few gruesome details. Disney’s well-known Snow White is a sanitized version of the original German Brothers Grimm fairytale, which was a lot more, well, grim.
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm didn’t actually come up with the story of Snow White or Cinderella, Rapunzel, or any other storybook princess associated with their (and now Disney’s) name, for that matter. The Grimms were German scholars, researchers, and authors who collected folktales that were part of a rich oral tradition, having been passed down from generation to generation of women telling the stories to pass the time. In 1812, they published the collection as Nursery and Household Tales.
Despite its title, the book was not originally intended for children. The text included violence, incest, sex, and perhaps most deadly of all—footnotes. In the Cinderella story, for instance, the stepsisters cut off their toes and heels in order to fit into the glass slipper.
In “Little Snow-White,” as the original story was called, the Evil Queen asks a hunter to take Snow White into the forest to kill, as happens also in the movie. (In the original version, the child is also only 7 years old, as opposed to Disney’s 14. Neither seems old enough to consider marriage.)
In the Grimm version, the Queen orders the huntsman to bring back Snow White’s internal organs, saying “Kill her, and as proof that she is dead bring her lungs and liver back to me.”
He kills a boar instead, and brings back to the Queen the boar’s lungs and liver—which the Queen thinks belongs to Snow White and so promptly eats. Ewww!
“The cook had to boil them with salt, and the wicked woman ate them, supposing that she had eaten Snow-White’s lungs and liver,” as the Grimm brothers wrote.
The Queen tricks Snow White three separate times in the Grimm version. The first time, she has Snow White try on a corset, which is so tight, Snow White passes out. (The dwarfs save her by cutting the laces.) The second time, she sells Snow White a poisonous comb, which the young girl puts in her hair, causing her to pass out. (The dwarfs take it out.) The third time the Queen tricks her with the same poisonous apple we see in the Disney film.
Having fainted and presumed dead, young Snow-White is placed in a glass coffin in both book and movie. When the Prince happens by in the Grimm version, he insists on taking the deceased beauty away, even though he’s never met her. The dwarfs hesitantly agree, but as they are carrying her coffin out of their house, one of them stumbles. Jostled from her resting place in the coffin, Snow White spits out the apple lodged in her throat and is immediately revived. Without the influence of the Prince’s kiss.
In movie and in folklore, Snow White and the Prince fall in love and get married (never mind that in the original tale, Snow is only 7 years old). In the movie, the seven dwarfs chase the Evil Queen into the forest, where she tumbles off a cliff—with a push from a convenient lightning strike—and falls to her death.
In the book version, the Queen attends their wedding where she is meted out a just punishment of dancing to her death. (Perhaps this last was thought up by a 19th century noblewoman forced to dance endlessly to the 1812 version of Bruno Mars’s “Marry You.”)
The more Grimm version of the Queen’s death goes like this: “They put a pair of iron shoes into burning coals. They were brought forth with tongs and placed before her. She was forced to step into the red-hot shoes and dance until she fell down dead.”
You can see why Disney wanted to clean up that unsavory image!
E.L. Hamilton has written about pop culture for a variety of magazines and newspapers, including Rolling Stone, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, the New York Post and the New York Daily News. She lives in central New Jersey, just west of New York City