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Rapunzel': The Difference Between a Book and a Film

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We all grew up hearing it. Rapunzel: a tale of a beautiful, dutiful maiden, locked in a tower awaiting a gallant prince to save her from her isolation. But its 2020. Not all girls are weak and feeble. Not all men are bold and strong. Not everyone wants a prince.Since the earliest version of Rapunzel, some 400-years ago, the context has drastically changed. But how successfully have various adaptations of the tale Rapunzel remained relevant?

Lets first take a look at some of the older versions of the tale. For most texts, the role of fictional women does not diverge much from the original story Petrosinella (1643) by Giambattista Basile. Originally, Petrosinella (Rapunzel) is a girl locked away in a tower after her parents steal parsley from an ogress. She escapes with her magical abilities and defeats the ogress with the help of a prince. A simple plotline but brimming with adventure, bravery and romance.It starts to all go wrong when the Grimm Brothers come in, introducing a tale of dark turns and twists of teen pregnancy, falling out of towers, premarital sex and death – themes you could only call grim. But here’s what else the brothers do to the tale: they take a skilful and intelligent heroine and make her passive and naive.

Rapunzel by the Brothers Grimm was originally written in 1812, but due to criticism of inappropriate themes for children, it was rewritten in 1857. This by itself reflects some issues. A story named after a female, written by men, critiqued by men, changed to please men. As Harvard Professor Maria Tartar puts it “rewriting the text provides us with concrete evidence of the changes the Grimms made to satisfy themselves and the German audience.”

This version of the tale certainly reflects its context, firstly, Rapunzel is no longer the main character. Our once brave Petrosinella has now lowered herself to a mere symbol in the story, a treasure that the prince embarks on a journey to claim. Rapunzel no longer has magic powers, and therefore loses the ability to defeat the witch (another trouble female added to the story!). The tower acts as a symbol of chastity, but Rapunzel becomes impregnated after an encounter with her prince, and she raises twins alone. The Grimm Brothers use this as a warning to girls on the dangers of sexual activity.

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Let’s just clarify why this would be an undesirable tale for young readers. Don’t get me wrong, these once served as a cautionary warning to young 19th-century girls and provides a historic lens into the morals at the time. But now? They shouldn’t be more than history books.Young girls should not still be reading this to expand their imagination when the only characters they can be are the dutiful maidens or the haggish witches. And here’s where Tangled got it right. To some extent. On November 24th 2010, Walt Disney Studios released Tangled to the world, advertising a ‘very modern heroine’ and aims to ‘reverse audience expectations.’ A classic fairy tale, we’d all heard as children, brought to life. And we were all crossing our fingers that it would do us justice. And for the most part, it did. We got an adventurous cheeky princess armed with a frying pan. She even rocked a pixie cut at the end and falls in love with a “bad boy” thief.

The filmmakers are clearly attempting to create an active heroine figure. An intrinsic element of her bubbly character is her own aspirations and dreams, the plot is predominantly centred around her desire to see the floating lanterns at the palace. She’s curious, and craves adventure, sure the prince encourages her to escape, but she is fueled by her own desires.

Most importantly though, is, of course, her lengthy gold locks, in earlier tales a symbol of virginity. Rapunzel’s hair is untouched, uncut and is part of the reason she is locked up, to protect her magic hair from the outside. Eventually, Rapunzel uses her own hair to escape the tower first, symbolising a disregard for the traditional expectations. In final scenes, her hair is cut short, to the witch’s shock, which kills her as she falls out the window. Rapunzel’s hair turns brown, loses its magical abilities and becomes shorter than that of the male thief.Unfortunately, this film is a bit too good to be true. As good as if sounds, I felt a bit disarmed by how traditional the film still remains. Deeply entrenched conservatism is still harboured in Disney films who as fairy tale theorist Jack Zipes states “tend to demonise older women and infantilise young women.” This suggests that Disney has still stuck to the formulaic characteristics of gender. Moreover, Disney’s portrayal of older women seems to stray from the original representation with the creation of Mother Gothel who is the evil witch leeching on Rapunzel to remain youthful. In the earlier works the ‘witch’ or ‘witch figure’ only plays a minor role in the story and their identity is ambiguous. Zipes goes further to state that the film “trampled over the Grimms’ and other versions of the tale” as he believes Mother Gothel should be a well-meaning character, protecting Rapunzel from the outside world.Additionally, there have been controversies surrounding her appearance, as the film seems to promote long blonde hair as the epitome of femininity, which challenges the idea that women of non-white ethnicities are feminine or desired. Furthermore, ‘beauty’ in the film is depicted still as thin, blonde and white, and whilst Disney would stick to the German origins of the fairy tale, the film lacked any size and ethnic diversity with minor female characters.

Ultimately, despite the problematic lack of cultural diversity and the conservation of the older women villain archetype, the reimagining of Rapunzel as an active heroine shows promise and signifies a step in the right direction.

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Rapunzel’: The Difference Between a Book and a Film. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/rapunzel-the-difference-between-a-book-and-a-film/
“Rapunzel’: The Difference Between a Book and a Film.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/rapunzel-the-difference-between-a-book-and-a-film/
Rapunzel’: The Difference Between a Book and a Film. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/rapunzel-the-difference-between-a-book-and-a-film/> [Accessed 3 Feb. 2023].
Rapunzel’: The Difference Between a Book and a Film [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 15 [cited 2023 Feb 3]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/rapunzel-the-difference-between-a-book-and-a-film/
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