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What is the oldest story that Disney has ever adapted?

As a Nutcracker movie hits theaters, a reminder of just how far back Disney will go for a good story

Source images: Disney | Illustration by James Bareham/Polygon

Walt Disney built his career on the back of adaptations and today, 80 years after the premiere of Snow White, his company’s animated retellings of fairy tales and myths are considered to be the definitive versions for countless generations. Take Hans Christen Andersen’s Little Mermaid, published in 1837, which ends with the mermaid casting herself into the ocean and dissolving into sea foam rather than murdering her beloved prince. Most people know the redheaded, purple seashell-bra-wearing Ariel and her happy ending.

Disney’s latest big-budget spectacle, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, is an unusual entry in film-adaptation history. Written by Ashleigh Powell and Tom McCarthy (Spotlight), the fantasy is based on the popular Tchaikovsky ballet, which itself follows the plot of Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 “The Story of the Nutcracker.” The Dumas version, however, is a reworking of an 1816 story by E.T.A Hoffman called “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” Four Realms is the Inception of family-friendly-ifying.

This new Disney adaptation of an adaptation of an adaptation, and a legacy spun from source material dating back hundreds of years, made us wonder: what is the oldest work that Disney has adapted? How far back has the company gone to mine for box-office gold?

The Rite of Spring from Fantasia Walt Disney Pictures

First, let’s set some record-determining ground rules: this isn’t a matter of “what Disney movie is set furthest in the past.” If those were the only parameters, the feature-length winner would be 2000’s Dinosaur, the movie in which a bunch of dinosaurs look for water for an hour and half. But, technically, the events of Dinosaur take place after the catastrophic asteroid hit, which means the “Rite of Spring” segment from 1940’s Fantasia — which chronicles the evolution of life from the Big Bang to the end of the dinosaurs reign — pre-dates it ... even if it is riddled with inaccuracies. (The stegosaurus and triceratops lived almost 100 million years apart!)

But in this trivial pursuit, we’re specifically looking for the oldest written work that Disney translated for film. We’re also only counting full-length theatrical releases and segments within them. Segments of both Fantasia films are eligible, but the Silly Symphony shorts are not, nor are the many Disney television shows and direct-to-TV movies. (Sorry, Bambi II.)

The obvious starting place were Disney’s classic fairy tale films. The folk tale of Cinderella’s was first published as “Cendrillon” in 1697 by French author Charles Perrault; Sleeping Beauty was also penned by Perrault in the same collection (“La Belle au bois Dormant”), though that was a rework of a similar tale published in 1634 called “Sun, Moon and Talia,” which in turn was inspired by oral legends tracing back to the 1300s. Snow White was allegedly based on actual events that took place in the 1500s, though the Brothers Grimm only committed it to text in 1812.

Beyond the 17th century, there are works in the Disney canon that date back before the invention of the printing press, making Mulan and Aladdin major contenders for the honor. Though Aladdin is commonly associated with One Thousand and One Nights, or Alf Layla Wa Layla in Arabic, the story is not present in the original collection of folk tales written in the Islamic Golden Age (circa 800 AD). Rather, the folk tale was added on by in the 18th century edition by Frenchman Antoine Galland.

mulan i’ll make a man out of you song Walt Disney Pictures

Mulan, on the other hand, has direct roots to a poem entitled “The Ballad of Mulan.” Composed around the 5th or 6th century (though the oldest surviving version is dated to roughly the 11th and 12th centuries), the lyrical text paints a similar picture to the film, albeit with a totally different historical context.

Aladdin and Mulan are two major Disney films (each with live-action adaptations in the works — the new signifier for historical importance) so they could easily overshadow another ancient and obvious contender: Hercules.

The first recorded appearance by Hercules — who started out as Heracles, the Greek original that morphed in Roman retellings — was his ghost appearing in Homer’s Odyssey in late 8th century BCE. Many scholars theorize that Homer’s works were transcribed directly from the poet around the same time period.

Hercules disney urn Walt Disney Pictures

Even so, that was a passing reference and according to scholar Walter Bukert the myth of Hercules, as we know it today from the Twelve Labors story, was written down for the first time around 640 BCE by Peisander. In “Heracleia,” the ancient poet was the one who cemented the number of labors to twelve and gave Heracles the iconic lion skin cape and club look, instead of the armor previously associated with the demigod. While Peisander’s interpretation was so popular that statues were erected in his honor, the original text has been lost. Luckily we have a Disney movie starring Danny Devito.

Sidebar here: we can’t help but recall the prologue of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, in which the continent of Atlantis sinks into the ocean. The events of the movie aren’t adapted form anything in particular, and the thrust of the action takes place in 1914, but the myth of Atlantis can be traced back to a similar BCE moment. The fictional city was first mentioned in Plato’s Republic, written in 360 BCE (and quoted in the movie’s opening), in which the scholar claims to directly quote Athenian statesman and poet Solon, who visited Egypt between 590 and 580 BCE. Either way, references to Atlantis were first written after both Heracles. Close, but we’re being strict here.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Aesop tale of “The Tortoise and the Hare” was adapted for a Silly Symphony short series. While Aesop himself was believed to have been alive sometime between 620 and 564 BCE, the fables were first collected and written down by Demetrius of Phalerum in the 4th century BCE.

Really, only one other Disney adaptation comes close to besting Hercules, and makes the race just a little tougher to call. Fantasia 2000, the less problematic but still as full of music and magic follow-up to the 1940 film, sets a rendition of “Pomp and Circumstance” to Donald Duck acting out the events of Noah’s Ark. What came first: the tale of Hercules or Noah’s Ark?

More ground rules: both of these stories are based on events which may have happened in some historical capacity (old Christian texts reference Heracles as real person who achieved cult-like status after his death), but for this inquiry, we’re not looking at the specifics of when the events themselves happened. And while both stories are part of long oral traditions, we’re looking for when someone wisely chiseled them into stone tablets for the first time.

Historians suggests that the events of the Old Testament can be pinpointed to dates starting from the Book of Amos around 750 BCE. Though the events in the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, which compose the Jewish text of the Torah; they’re also referred to as the Pentateuch) may have taken place prior, theory goes that they were written down starting sometime after 600 BCE during the period of Babylonian captivity from 605 BCE to 539 BCE and completed anywhere from 400 BCE to 350 BCE.

While older theories suggested this happened centuries earlier, the majority of modern scholars narrow the completion of the Torah to this time period. Which means Peisander’s adaptation of the 12 labors comes in just before these foundational religious texts.

It’s very close — much closer than anticipated! — but the Son of Zeus (voiced by The O.C. dad Tate Donovan in the movie) pulls through just slightly as the oldest written work that Disney has adapted. That is, until Disney adapts the Epic of Gilgamesh.

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