Disney’s Victorians: Adaptation and Literary History in a Corporate Media Age

Is literature from the past still relevant today? Should Americans care about British literature? How should we organize and make sense of that literature? Why do adaptations of older, familiar texts remain so appealing? Are entertainment and instruction mutually exclusive? How do contemporary media and historical structures shape our modern notions of gender and sexuality? How are global media corporations analogous to national empires?

Disney’s Victorians addresses those questions by examining Disney’s adaptations of Victorian-era texts. When asked about the symbolism in his cartoons, Walt Disney famously replied, “we just make movies and wait for the professors to tell us what they mean.” Yet despite such protestations, Disney was well aware of the cultural reception not only of his own films but also of texts he adapted. Reports from the Walt Disney Company Archives reveal that writers deeply researched potential films, checking contemporary reviews, examining adaptation histories, and even summarizing scholarly and biographical works. Disney’s films are often dismissed as simplistic or derided for displacing the texts on which they are based. But I argue both that literary studies has influenced the production and reception of popular media and that, conversely, understanding how a corporation approaches literary texts reframes questions important to scholars of literary history and adaptation. By combining research in the Walt Disney Company Archives with interpretations of Disney’s films, the histories of texts on which they are based, and the contexts in which both the films and their precursors were produced, I demonstrate Disney’s entanglement with the cultural history of works it adapts. 

Although the Walt Disney Company often features in scholarship about cultural and media studies, and even studies of modernism, it may seem counterintuitive to connect a twentieth-century American film company to British literature published between 1837 and 1901. But Disney has adapted a surprising number of British Victorian texts — including Oliver TwistThe Jungle BooksAlice in Wonderland, and Treasure Island— as well as other Victorian-era European works like Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio and the tales of Hans Christian Andersen. And Disney’s rise was made possible by cultural and legal concepts, not to mention technologies, that emerged during the Victorian period. Changing economic and legal structures created the concept of “corporate personhood,” and a generation of artist-entrepreneurs took advantage of new printing technologies and (later in the century) photography and moving pictures. Those artist-entrepreneurs found audiences at venues like the Great Exhibition of 1851, and their efforts to protect their works led to the 1886 Berne Convention, which established international copyright. By 1901, the year Queen Victoria died and Walt Disney as born, a popular mass culture linked England to America. For better or worse, today The Walt Disney Company is inseparable from several major Victorian works. Disney’s Victorians helps us to historicize, theorize, and contextualize that connection.