J.R.R. Tolkien Expressed a “Heartfelt Loathing” for Walt Disney and Refused to Let Disney Studios Adapt His Work

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

I’ve just start­ed read­ing J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hob­bit to my 6‑year-old daugh­ter. While much of the nuance and the ref­er­ences to Tolkien­ian deep time are lost on her, she eas­i­ly grasps the dis­tinc­tive charms of the char­ac­ters, the nature of their jour­ney, and the per­ils, won­ders, and Elven friends they have met along the way so far. She is famil­iar with fairy tale dwarfs and myth­ic wiz­ards, though not with the typol­o­gy of insu­lar, mid­dle-class, adven­ture-averse coun­try gen­try, thus Hob­bits them­selves took a bit of explain­ing.

While read­ing and dis­cussing the book with her, I’ve won­dered to myself about a pos­si­ble his­tor­i­cal rela­tion­ship between Tolkien’s fairy tale fig­ures and those of the Walt Dis­ney com­pa­ny which appeared around the same time. The troupe of dwarves in The Hob­bit might pos­si­bly share a com­mon ances­tor with Snow White’s dwarfs—in the Ger­man fairy tale the Broth­ers Grimm first pub­lished in 1812. But here is where any sim­i­lar­i­ty between Tolkien and Dis­ney begins and ends.

In fact, Tolkien most­ly hat­ed Disney’s cre­ations, and he made these feel­ings very clear. Snow White debuted only months after The Hob­bit’s pub­li­ca­tion in 1937. As it hap­pened, Tolkien went to see the film with lit­er­ary friend and some­time rival C.S. Lewis. Nei­ther liked it very much. In a 1939 let­ter, Lewis grant­ed that “the ter­ri­fy­ing bits were good, and the ani­mals real­ly most mov­ing.” But he also called Dis­ney a “poor boob” and lament­ed “What might not have come of it if this man had been educated—or even brought up in a decent soci­ety?”

Tolkien, notes Atlas Obscu­ra, “found Snow White love­ly, but oth­er­wise wasn’t pleased with the dwarves. To both Tolkien and Lewis, it seemed, Disney’s dwarves were a gross over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of a con­cept they held as precious”—the con­cept, that is, of fairy sto­ries. Some might brush away their opin­ions as two Oxford dons gaz­ing down their noses at Amer­i­can mass enter­tain­ment. As Tolkien schol­ar Trish Lam­bert puts it, “I think it grat­ed on them that he [Dis­ney] was com­mer­cial­iz­ing some­thing that they con­sid­ered almost sacro­sanct.”

“Indeed,” writes Steven D. Grey­danus at the Nation­al Catholic Reg­is­ter, “it would be impos­si­ble to imag­ine” these two authors “being any­thing but appalled by Disney’s sil­ly dwarfs, with their slap­stick humor, nurs­ery-moniker names, and singsong musi­cal num­bers.” One might counter that Tolkien’s dwarves (as he insists on plu­ral­iz­ing the word), also have fun­ny names (derived, how­ev­er, from Old Norse) and also break into song. But he takes pains to sep­a­rate his dwarves from the com­mon run of children’s sto­ry dwarfs.

Tolkien would lat­er express his rev­er­ence for fairy tales in a schol­ar­ly 1947 essay titled “On Fairy Sto­ries,” in which he attempts to define the genre, pars­ing its dif­fer­ences from oth­er types of mar­velous fic­tion, and writ­ing with awe, “the realm of fairy sto­ry is wide and deep and high.” These are sto­ries to be tak­en seri­ous­ly, not dumb­ed-down and infan­tilized as he believed they had been. “The asso­ci­a­tion of chil­dren and fairy-sto­ries,” he writes, “is an acci­dent of our domes­tic his­to­ry.”

Tolkien wrote The Hob­bit for young peo­ple, but he did not write it as a “children’s book.” Noth­ing in the book pan­ders, not the lan­guage, nor the com­plex char­ac­ter­i­za­tion, nor the grown-up themes. Disney’s works, on the oth­er hand, rep­re­sent­ed to Tolkien a cheap­en­ing of ancient cul­tur­al arti­facts, and he seemed to think that Disney’s approach to films for chil­dren was espe­cial­ly con­de­scend­ing and cyn­i­cal.

He described Disney’s work on the whole as “vul­gar” and the man him­self, in a 1964 let­ter, as “sim­ply a cheat,” who is “hope­less­ly cor­rupt­ed” by prof­it-seek­ing (though he admits he is “not inno­cent of the prof­it-motive” him­self).

…I rec­og­nize his tal­ent, but it has always seemed to me hope­less­ly cor­rupt­ed. Though in most of the ‘pic­tures’ pro­ceed­ing from his stu­dios there are admirable or charm­ing pas­sages, the effect of all of them is to me dis­gust­ing. Some have giv­en me nau­sea…

This expli­ca­tion of Tolkien’s dis­like for Dis­ney goes beyond mere gos­sip to an impor­tant prac­ti­cal upshot: Tolkien would not allow any of his works to be giv­en the Walt Dis­ney treat­ment. While his pub­lish­er approached the stu­dios about a Lord of the Rings adap­ta­tion (they were turned down at the time), most schol­ars think this hap­pened with­out the author’s knowl­edge, which seems a safe assump­tion to say the least.

Tolkien’s long his­to­ry of express­ing neg­a­tive opin­ions about Dis­ney led to his lat­er for­bid­ding, “as long as it was pos­si­ble,” any of his works to be pro­duced “by the Dis­ney stu­dios (for all whose works I have a heart­felt loathing).” Astute read­ers of Tolkien know his seri­ous intent in even the most com­ic of his char­ac­ters and sit­u­a­tions. Or as Vin­tage News’ Mar­tin Cha­lakos­ki writes, “there is not a speck of Dis­ney in any of those pages.”

via Atlas Obscu­ra

Relat­ed Con­tent:

J.R.R. Tolkien, Using a Tape Recorder for the First Time, Reads from The Hob­bit for 30 Min­utes (1952)

Map of Mid­dle-Earth Anno­tat­ed by Tolkien Found in a Copy of Lord of the Rings

Sal­vador Dalí & Walt Disney’s Des­ti­no: See the Col­lab­o­ra­tive Film, Orig­i­nal Sto­ry­boards & Ink Draw­ings

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (10)
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  • Luka says:

    BS Load of crap…
    You, and Tolkin, obvi­ous­ly we’re too self obsessed to under­stand what Dis­ney is all about.

  • John says:

    It could­n’t have been any worse than the Rankin Bass ani­mat­ed movies. Of course those were made after Tolkien’s death.

  • Robert Fontenot says:

    Can’t agree more with Tolkien. I’ve hat­ed Dis­ney ever since I was old enough to read the orig­i­nal folk tales. Prob­a­bly before that. The ani­ma­tion is a lit­tle irri­tat­ing.

  • David says:

    Light­en up J.R.R.

  • Richard says:

    I total­ly agree with Tolkien in his assess­ment of Dis­ney and all his works. How­ev­er, I still recog­nise that Tolkien was a snob of epic pro­por­tions. Thank good­ness for snobs who care about their work!

  • Chris says:

    Total­ly agree. Just look what Dis­ney has done to ‘Pinoc­chio’ … which is so much more than a chil­dren’S book.

  • Patrick says:

    I strong­ly agree with Tolkien, at first I did­n’t care for Dis­neys work but after what they did to anoth­er fran­chise it dis­cussed me in many ways. Plus I hope Christo­pher’s youngest son will be the next keep­er of his grand­fa­ther’s work.

  • Chip Hazard says:

    You would not know lit­er­a­ture and beau­ty is about.

    It’s like eat­ing junk food, every­thing with fla­vor tastes like saw­dust after years of gorg­ing on it.

    You are mor­bid­ly obese in mind, if not also in body.

  • Chip says:

    The above reply was meant for Luka.

  • Flatus Maximus says:

    “Clas­sic” Dis­ney movie mod­el:

    Seize upon a fairy tale old enough so as to be Pub­lic Domain.

    Make a bonan­za with almost no cre­ative input what­so­ev­er, save some some catchy songs.

    Try to grab as much copy­right roy­al­ties from out­put, then mar­ket mate­r­i­al to the hilt so that the pub­lic asso­ciates Dis­ney mate­r­i­al with the actu­al cre­ators (Broth­ers Grimm, A.A. Milne, Rud­yard Kipling, et al.).


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