Everyone dreams of being a mermaid at some point in their lives. It’s a common childhood fantasy for a reason, and the sparkly peaceful iconography of the mermaid remains popular to this day on everything from bath bombs to notebooks. There are plenty of stories and folklore centered on mermaids but, obviously, the one that sticks out in most people’s imaginations when they think of the sea creatures of myth and legend is the fairy-tale The Little Mermaid.
Written by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, The Little Mermaid was published in 1837 as part of a collection of fairy tales for children. While Andersen remains renowned for his imaginative and often deeply emotional stories — from The Red Shoes to The Snow Queen to The Princess and the Pea — it's easily his story of a mermaid hungering for humanity that remains his most popular work. To be exact, it's the basic framework of that story that has endured for decades. Most people, when they think of The Little Mermaid, probably turn to Disney before the source material, a not uncommon occurrence with many of these stories. When you actually read Andersen's tale, you may be shocked by how relentlessly bleak it is.
The little mermaid of the title doesn't have a name, although she is still the curious young creature of the Disney reimagining that yearns to visit the world of humans. After saving a handsome prince from drowning, she chooses to become human, making a deal with the Sea Witch who promises her legs in exchange for her tongue. She'll be able to walk and dance beautifully but every step will feel like knives going through her feet. On land, the prince finds her and, although she is mute, he is entranced by her. Mostly, he likes to see her dance, which he does not know causes her excruciating pain. He views her more like a quaint accessory than someone worth loving. Eventually, he falls for a princess from a neighboring kingdom and marries her. The little mermaid is then given an ultimatum by her sisters: If she kills the prince and allows his blood to drip onto her feet, she will become a mermaid once more. Still overwhelmed by her love for him, she cannot do it and dissolves into seafoam, the ultimate fate of all mermaids. However, instead, she is allowed to ascend to heaven, a right permitted only for humans, and she is told that she will have the opportunity to earn her own soul and place in eternity if she does good deeds for mankind for 300 years. Unfortunately, whenever a child is naughty or wicked and the sisters of the air (essentially the angels) "we shed tears of sorrow, and for every tear, a day is added to our time of trial!"
So, yeah, this is, to put it bluntly, a f***ing dark story.
Scholars have spent over 180 years trying to figure out what the hell Andersen was aiming for with this story, which is ostensibly for children but has levels of misery that even Thomas Hardy could never dream of reaching. Andersen thought the ending, wherein the mermaid is able to attain an immortal soul through her own agency, was hopeful, although P.L. Travers, author of the Mary Poppins books, claimed that "this final message is more frightening than any other presented in the tale. The story descends into the Victorian moral tales written for children to scare them into good behavior." She even went so far as to call it blackmail! The cultural scholar Rictor Norton believes the story may have been written as a love letter by Andersen. A man to whom he wrote many intensely emotional letters, Collin, married a woman and Norton theorized that The Little Mermaid was Andersen's allegory for his lost love. There are certainly many fascinating interpretations of the story and it continues to intrigue to this day. Of course, when it comes to adaptations, the lion's share of them go for a less anguish-ridden approach.
In anticipation of Disney’s upcoming live-action remake, and to understand why this story remains so beloved, we're going to take a look at some of the best, worst, and weirdest adaptations of The Little Mermaid to see what creators take from the source material, what they leave out, and the themes everyone sticks to. As with all our Best, Worst, Weirdest posts, this is in no way a comprehensive list of every single adaptation. If there's one we missed out that you'd love to share with us, post it in the comments below.
Good: Disney's The Little Mermaid
Look, say what you want about the retrograde elements of the Disney version — and it still pales in comparison to the source material — but this movie is popular for a reason. The 1989 title essentially saved the fortunes of The Walt Disney Company’s animation division at a time when the big bosses were seriously considering shutting it down after a string of massive flops. This is a perfect example of the folks at Disney — who were, at the time, the beleaguered underdogs of the industry — firing on all cylinders and working in perfect tandem with the studio’s iconic narrative framework. It’s the ideal Disney movie in the best ways possible (with occasional forays into questionable dynamics that, while significantly less unsettling than the original story, are still problematic). The fluidity of the animation leaves every scene bursting with charm and character, and the musical collaboration between Howard Ashman and Alan Menken features some of the studio's best songs. Disney fans fight to this day over whether Ariel is a good or bad character — is she feisty and liberated or selling everything out for a man? — but her effervescent warmth is undeniable. And there’s definitely no denying the majesty of Ursula, one of Disney’s most fabulous villains. But the less said about the straight-to-video sequels, the better.
Bad: 2018's The Little Mermaid
Did you know this existed? It seems that not many people did, given that the movie only grossed $2.61 million on a budget of $5 million. Overall, this movie is mostly forgettable and pretty shoddy in terms of its production. It feels almost like an Asylum rip-off film, rushed out to capitalize on a big studio release, only there wasn't one at the time. You can almost hear the producers screaming at each other that they should have held this one back long enough to bank on the upcoming Disney live-action remake. With a cast that includes William Moseley from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and legitimate Hollywood legend Shirley MacLaine (cashing one of the easier checks in her career), The Little Mermaid of 2018 is syrupy and devoid of imagination. Even with a vaguely intriguing premise featuring a reporter sent to uncover the story of a miracle healing elixir offered by a circus-master who owns a mermaid, there's little to hold your interest. The film doesn't have much to say or offer beyond hopes that your kids will be entertained long enough to forget Disney exists.
Weird: The Lure
Here’s the pitch: It’s a 1980s set Polish synth-pop feminist musical re-imagining of The Little Mermaid, where a pair of mermaid sisters end up as a nightclub act and occasionally tear out men’s throats. I know, right? Agnieszka Smoczyńska made one of the most striking directorial debuts of the decade with this genre-bending horror musical. On top of being stunning to look at and listen to — even if you don’t speak Polish, those tunes are endless bangers — The Lure keenly understands the true cruelty of the original tale and how much it is rooted in misogyny. The mermaids, named Golden and Silver, are exploited mercilessly and when one of them decides to sacrifice her voice for a set of legs (and genitalia), the man she adores is too disgusted by her injuries to reciprocate. It's a blunt metaphor for the objectification of women and a society that reduces them to objects to be leered at and f***ed. Get it? Because fish smells and vaginas and oh god I'm so sorry. Still, out of all the Little Mermaid adaptations on this list, The Lure is the one I must give my strongest recommendation to. Despite the familiar story, you’ll truly never see anything like it elsewhere.
The legendary Hayao Miyazaki's tenth film as director, following Howl's Moving Castle, might be his simplest but it is by no means a lesser effort. This achingly adorable story of a goldfish named Ponyo who befriends a boy named Sōsuke and chooses to become a human girl has the basic markers of Andersen's tale but strips away all the melancholy and physical anguish in exchange for something much gentler and sweeter. There are few moments in Studio Ghibli's films so life-affirming and joyous as seeing Ponyo's irrepressible giddiness over a slice of ham in her ramen. Chock full of the kind of utterly spellbinding animation we expect from Miyazaki, Ponyo lacks the thematic depths of works like Princess Mononoke but will easily win you over.
Bad: Disney's The Little Mermaid on Broadway
Long before the live-action movie remake became Disney’s preferred business strategy, they were strengthening their branding synergy with big-budget Broadway musical adaptations. Beauty and the Beast was technically first but it was Julie Taymor’s reimagining of The Lion King that proved most successful. After a stage version of Tarzan fizzled out quickly, it made sense to return to the movie that kickstarted their ‘90s boon. The Broadway take on The Little Mermaid is not without merit, and as with all their remakes in this mold, the basic plot, dialogue, and iconography of the original are intact. Directed by Francesca Zambello, who mostly works in opera, it's certainly a visual feast but it lacks the originality and verve of what Julie Taymor pulled off with The Lion King. The new songs are substandard and the padding to the story saps the narrative of what made it so appealing in the first place. And then there are the Heelys. Not since Starlight Express have so many musical stars been put on wheeled footwear. Even if you can suspend your disbelief to imagine the stage as an underwater spectacle, every time one of the mermaids whizzes past on those shoes that your little cousin wore all the time, you just had to laugh. Eventually, the Heelys were replaced by aerial effects and harnesses, but the show itself has never fully been able to live up to the Disney original.
How do you make an adaptation of The Little Mermaid that doesn’t feature any actual mermaids? This Russian film from 2007 pulled it off with surprisingly interesting results. Written and directed by Anna Melikyan, Mermaid follows the curious life of Alice, a young woman who, after a tough childhood, discovers she has an ability to fulfill her desires at often bleak costs. For example, when she wishes to move away from her small town, she inadvertently causes a hurricane, forcing the family to flee. She saves a man, Sasha, from drowning after he jumps off a bridge and, like the little mermaid, instantly falls for him. Some critics called this the Russian Amelie and it does have a similar sort of whimsy but it’s far more melancholy than the French classic. Even without the magic, Mermaid manages to capture the overwhelming emotional strangeness of Andersen's story that's often missing from modern interpretations.
Good: The Idle Mermaid
This Korean TV rom-com is pure catnip for anyone who loves adorable silliness, hot guys, and occasional angst. Aileen is a mermaid who has had her eye on Kwon Shi-kyung, a human celebrity chef, for several months (especially his apple-bottom ass, which she makes a point of saying she wants to eat). When she saves him from drowning one day, she knows she must escape to the human world and let him know her feelings, but she only has 100 days to find true love or she'll turn into bubbles (a much prettier alternative to seafoam). If you’ve never seen a K-drama before and have always wanted to dip your toes into the genre, this is a fun starting point that’s easy on the eyes — and then some — and comforting in its familiarity without being pointlessly derivative.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.