Disney’s first feature turns eighty (well, sort of) while its novelization turns thirty.
The Walt Disney Company is no stranger to derivative works. Adaptations, spin-offs, and merchandising has been a part of the Disney profit strategy since the there was any profit to strategize around. This extends past their Mickey mania to their animated features, even their first: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
The original Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs film premiered on December 21, 1937, then came out in wide release on February 4, 1938 when distributor RKO Radio Pictures realized what a hit they had on their hands. The film went on to become the highest-grossing sound film of its time (soon surpassed, but nonetheless impressive) and a critical darling loved by audiences and Disney fanatic Sergei Eisenstein alike. Shirley Temple gave Walt Disney a regular Oscar and seven tiny Oscars, though the one-word dispositions of these tiny Oscars was never publicly disclosed. The film was a complete sensation.
Its popularity led, years later, to its re-release. Disney needed money during WWII and its first major studio overhaul (the move to Burbank where Walt Disney Studios exists today) was financed by the profits from Snow White. Of course you’d return to your golden goose when times were tight and a war was afoot. In 1944, Snow White filled theaters once more, leading to a new cyclical tradition of re-release that ingratiated Disney’s hits into our cultural consciousness and our ticket dollars into the Disney coffers across generations. Snow White alone saw the big screen again in 1952, 1958, 1967, 1975, 1983, 1987 and 1993. The year we’re focusing on today is 1987. Exactly thirty years ago today, Snow White celebrated its 50th anniversary re-release (even though the film came out in either December or January depending on your criteria), which makes today a contender for Snow White’s 80th anniversary.
However, the way I first experienced Snow White did originate on this day, thirty years ago. Celebrating the film’s golden anniversary, Disney commissioned Suzanne Weyn to write a novelization of the film. Weyn, who has since gone on to adapt numerous films into books, had to this point only written two Transformers books: Return to Cybertron and The Revenge of the Decepticons. Even with this robotic background, she does the source material justice and provided my family with a book I’d request endlessly for bedtime stories. The book version was able to hold my attention to the characters far easier than the film, whose animation is so colorful and kinetic that any self-respecting toddler wouldn’t be caught dead sitting still or listening.
Grumpy became a fan favorite. My parents’ delivery of lines like “She’s a female, an’ all females is poison. They’re fulla wicked wiles,” helped me understand what a jaded dick Grumpy was and punched home the tragic humor of his blustery misogyny. This novelization, emblazoned with the “50th Anniversary” label, was my first introduction to loving scripts, embracing a film for its words, and growing dependent on subtitles to catch every syllable. It was here the dwarfs shone, the depths of their metaphorically one-note personalities plumbed without the artifice of song.
Yet it wasn’t the first time Disney had done something like this to one of its movies, nor even the first time they’d done something like this to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The original authorized edition of the film came out in 1938. A folio picture book by Whitman Publishing, this contained prints taken from the movie alongside descriptions of the scenes. A weekly newspaper comic about the dwarfs and princess ran from 1937-38, which Dell Publishing turned into a comic book about the same time as the film was re-released into theaters in 1944 to generate funds for the studio during its war effort years. This comic was re-released again and again, just like the film, until its final publication in 1995 by none other than Marvel.
Snow White, like many of Disney’s early efforts, takes great pains to be a timeless tale. That works out in many media, allowing the story to continue its lucrative relevancy no matter where technology or politics take us. Its fairy tale core speaks as loudly now as ever and its animated beauty remains evocative and revolutionary. But in my heart, nothing is more special than the novelization, released in tandem with an anniversary that isn’t really an anniversary, that let me settle down with a movie I loved and the people I loved. Through it, I learned early that films aren’t just the moving images, but the entirety of how you experience the story. Snow White will always be Snow White, whether it’s a comic, a novel, a video game, or another inevitable re-release.