Bruno Bettelheim’s study, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, offers insight into the reason fairy and folk tales are often used to teach children lessons, using illustrations for topics that would otherwise be difficult for parents to discuss with their children. While many adults only desire to present pleasant images to children, teaching that there is no evil in the world is inefficient; youth are quick to pick up on the notion that there is. Bettelheim argues that through Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis, mankind is enabled to accept life’s struggles without allowing themselves to be defeated, but instead strengthened by their experiences and thus given meaning for their existence. Fairy tales are able to deliver these themes to offspring through following a structure similar to that of a daydream, through which they can be taught that while pain and suffering are inevitable, they may overcome their problems with great effort. Therefore, due to the benefits fairy tales pose for child development, Disney’s retelling of Victor Hugo’s classic Notre-Dame de Paris is efficient in teaching children to appreciate and understand other cultures through telling the story in a simplified format. Additionally, although Bruno Bettelheim’s research on fairy tales is shown to lack objectivity, Heike vom Orde proves that fairy tales are essential in child development, due to their efficiency in teaching values while also keeping the attention span of their audience.
Many tales begin with the death of a parent or another traumatic event. In order for young children to understand, the situation is simplified and unimportant details are omitted. The stories have a large focus on battles of good versus evil; a character is either good or bad, teaching children to easily comprehend the difference between the two. Although no one is truly good or evil in reality, Bettelheim argues that presenting such complexity in characters may confuse the young audience. Therefore, the protagonist and antagonist are displayed as distinct opposites, often leading the child to favor the character they can sympathize with the most: the character they believe to be “good.” This is likely because children can relate to the common theme of a character’s desire for a sense of belonging or to overcome one’s fears. The fairy tale then becomes a symbol of hope, reminding them that even the meekest of souls can achieve greatness (Bettelheim).
Psychologist Heike vom Orde further studies this approach in her article, Children Need Fairy Tales, conducting research through surveying young audiences and discussing the reception and criticism of Bettelheim’s claims. In the survey given, it is shown that 56% of German children ranging from the ages of nine to nineteen enjoy fairy tales, while 38% of those surveyed do not. A small margin of 6% only enjoy a few fairy tales (Orde, 1). Additionally, Orde addresses the concerns of the theory’s critics, who often stated that the work fails to reflect on the socializing function of folk tales and differentiates too little between folk tales and modern literature. Furthermore, Orde states that research proves Bettelheim’s claim that children enjoy fairy tales more than other children’s literature to be unsustainable. Additionally, Bettelheim is criticized for not having acknowledged the subjectivity of his interpretations. However, it is agreed that fairy tales are essential in child development, teaching children cultural values and morals.
Several adaptations of fairy tales have come into existence, most notably the works of the Walt Disney Animation Studios. Famous for its adaptations of tales such as The Little Mermaid and The Beauty Sleeping in the Wood (Sleeping Beauty), in 1996 the company released The Hunchback of Notre Dame as a child-friendly version of the classic Victor Hugo novel.
Originally published in 1831, Notre-Dame de Paris begins at the 1482 Festival of Fools, for which the physically and mentally handicapped Quasimodo leaves the bell tower of Notre Dame against the advice of his adoptive father, Archdeacon Claude Frollo. Later, after ordering Quasimodo to leave the festival, he orders him to aide in attacking a gypsy performer named Esmerelda as she walks home. Quasimodo is later arrested and tried for his crime; however, he is shown mercy by the young gypsy when she offers him water to drink during his public punishment. Esmerelda wins the affection of Quasimodo and Frollo, although she does not return the same affection to any of them; instead, she falls in love with one of the King’s soldiers, Phoebus de Chateaupers. This makes Frollo jealous, leading him to become obsessive and filled with lust for her. That night, he finds Phoebus and stabs him, accusing Esmerelda of his supposed death. While she awaits execution, Frollo visits her in her cell and gives her an ultimatum: she can love him or face death. She decides to face execution, and is hanged. At the cathedral, Quasimodo discovers her corpse and becomes furious, sending Frollo to his death by throwing him from the north tower. Upon seeing the cadavers of both the man who raised him and the woman he held dear, Quasimodo cries, “This is everything I ever loved.” After the events of the story, it is revealed that next to Esmerelda’s remains are the bones of a “hunchback,” as a depressed Quasimodo starves himself to death and dies by her side (Hugo).
In the 1996 Walt Disney film adaptation, the story follows a pattern that is much simpler for a child’s cognitive ability and attention span to follow. The film begins with the murder of Quasimodo’s mother, following the typical trope of fairy tales beginning with the loss of a parent. Then, despite the original novel’s diverse personalities in each character which often blur the lines of good and evil, Disney structures the story to fit the format of a fairy tale; there is a specific villain, Claude Frollo, whom is given few redeeming qualities; viewers are rarely shown his paternal side, and instead are conditioned to dislike him as he limits Quasimodo from accomplishing his dreams, attempts the genocide of those of Roma ethnicity, murders Quasimodo’s mother, and sings of his lust for Esmeralda (revised spelling of her original name), praying that “she will be mine or she will burn [in Hell] (Hulce et al.).” Through seeing the effects of Frollo’s oppression of Quasimodo and the gypsies, the audience is unable to sympathize with him, and instead are drawn to Quasimodo. In addition, not only are viewers taught to dislike Frollo, they are repulsed by the symbols for which he stands: corrupt leadership, racism, and sexism. Although children may not fully understand either concept at their age, they are shown the consequences that Frollo and the other characters face for his actions and the turmoil it causes them, leading the audience to understand how his behavior is harmful to society. After Frollo’s defeat, Quasimodo’s wish to be accepted into society is fulfilled, the gypsies are able to live in freedom, and the Parisians appear to be pleased with the outcome.
While Disney’s retelling is not as complex as the original literature, one must understand that the target audience would not have the capacity to truly appreciate the work in its unabridged form. However, the story’s themes of acceptance and freedom are still highly important for children to be taught; therefore, the only way to ensure the message would be instilled in a child’s mind is to follow the format of stories children are used to hearing.
Furthermore, the original novel deals with explicit themes of sex and murder; while the Disney version does touch upon these topics, it does so in a subtle form so that the audience is not distracted from the most important theme: acceptance. Utilizing every single detail from the original tale would only confuse a child, as their brain is not yet fully developed and does not yet understand the complex nature of many of Hugo’s topics. In addition, Hugo’s work is difficult for many adults to comprehend, often leaving the common citizen confused and only able to focus on the tragic ending in which all three principal characters meet a devastating death. Children are especially sensitive to traumatic events, often becoming psychologically damaged and subconsciously fearful due to being exposed to traumatic events at a young age. However, through giving the story a happy ending in which Quasimodo achieves many of his dreams, they are encouraged to believe that they too can leave a positive impact on their society, and that no matter where they come from or what they look like, there will always be something they can contribute. The film concludes with the quote, “What makes a monster and what makes a man?” (Kandel et al.) This final question proves the tale’s main point, which is that one’s character cannot be judged off appearance, but on their integrity. This is a lesson that many children will take with them into adulthood; they may only remember a few details, but they will remember all of the ones that matter.
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. N.p.: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976. Print.
Hugo, Victor. Notre-Dame De Paris. N.p.: Gosselin, 1831. Print.
Hulce, Tom, and Tony Jay. By Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken. Heaven’s Light / Hellfire. 1996. CD.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Dir. Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale. Perf. Tom Hulce, Demi Moore, Tony Jay. Walt Disney Company, 1996. Videocassette.
Kandel, Paul. By Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken. The Bells of Notre Dame (Reprise). 1996. CD.
Vom Orde, Heike. “Children Need Fairy Tales.” Televizion (2013): 17. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.