Tolkien is believed to have a strong opinion for Disney which is mainly critical – to the point where he didn’t let Disney remake his world. But is it as simple as we may think?
I recognize [Walt Disney’s] 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 to me is disgusting. Some have given me nausea…
—Letter to Miss J.L. Curry, of 15 July 1964]]
By looking at this letter one might conclude he did express a disdain for Disney, while making an attempt to acknowledge Disney’s talents. However, we will see that it seems Tolkien’s disdain is mainly for certain film adaptations and more of a general disagreement over their respective paths as creators as opposed to a mere lack of respect and acknowledgment of Disney’s work.
While Snow White – a film he had mentioned- was not an adaptation, it was inspired by mythology. And also, much of what he said will have something to do with a particular element of his tendencies including that of overstatement, as on element of acting.
It is commonly believed that this disdain for Disney stemmed from The Hobbit and Snow White being released the same year in 1937, both featuring dwarves. Meanwhile, Tolkien and his friend CS Lewis watched Snow White and didn’t like the dwarves shown there.
While Tolkien’s disdain for the dwarves were briefly mentioned, it was Lewis, not Tolkien, writing the letter expressing the bulk of the disdain being expressed in general for Snow White’s Dwarves.
“Dwarfs ought to be ugly of course, but not in that way. And the dwarfs’ jazz party was pretty bad. I suppose it never occurred to the poor boob that you could give them any other kind of music. But all the terrifying bits were good, and the animals really most moving: and the use of shadows (of dwarfs and vultures) was real genius. What might not have come of it if this man had been educated–or even brought up in a decent society?”CS Lewis
However it’s not to dismiss any concern Tolkien might’ve had. It has been said that Tolkien did mention, however, in other letters to Lewis his disdain, and also “On Fairy Stories” that he didn’t want to make children’s stories childish, though it was unknown whether he was referring to Walt Disney or any other work or if it was merely assumed.
It can be concluded, however, that he wrote works such as The Hobbit taking great pains to make it a children’s book without it being childish. But it was published a couple of months before Disney’s Snow White – and could presumably be coincidental.
Why did Tolkien reject Disney’s request?
Tolkien’s statement of Disney’s corruption came much later in 1964. A year later, Tolkien wrote a letter to Jane Dixon affirming that neither he nor his publishers intend to let Disney make a film of his books. A reference to this letter was shown in Scull’s and Hammond’s JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide.
It can be implied that Tolkien’s refusal to make children’s books childish was motivated by what he saw from Disney but it is also overstated as it could be about any other film as well. Meanwhile, Tolkien’s publishers have asked Disney to make a film of his works, to which they eventually rejected as well since they figured his works would be too long and financially difficult to make as films.
It is true that in recent times fairy-stories have usually been written or “adapted” for children. But so may music be, or verse, or novels, or history, or scientific manuals. It is a dangerous process, even when it is necessary. … So would a beautiful table, a good picture, or a useful machine (such as a microscope), be defaced or broken, if it were left long unregarded in a schoolroom. Fairy-stories banished in this way, cut off from a full adult art, would in the end be ruined; indeed in so far as they have been so banished, they have been ruined.JRR Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”
But if Disney were part of the problem of fairy tales being infantilized, it’s quite possible that they would still be far from the only ones.
Also, Tolkien was known for his hyperbole as an element of acting. He also had a habit of understatement which is common among his neighbors, which is shown in “On Fairy Stories” when he claims that he has not studied them well while he has studied a wide range of sources that are mostly modern. But we will focus on the former (overstatement) today.
Disney is a well known thing that he had criticized, but it was far from the only one:
“I can’t stand George MacDonald’s books at any price at all;” “as a child I couldn’t stand Hans Christian Andersen and I can’t now;” “I conceived a loathing for [Peter Wimsey] (and his creatrix) not surpassed by any other character in literature known to me.” These are empathic reactions – but can they be taken at face value?
CS Lewis once remarked that “Tolkien’s lively mind sometimes leads him (with perfectly innocent intentions) to overstate things.” Christopher Tolkien noted that his father had a tendency toward the “rhetorical superlative.” John Garth has identified it as a habit of “mischievous hyperbole.”Tolkien’s Modern Reading, Ch 12
…with the most famous exhibition being his criticisms of CS Lewis’ “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” shown in writings about his life, such as Carpenter’s and Zaleski’s writings and perceptions of Tolkien. However, Tolkien had showed appreciation of the Narnia books, calling them “deservedly very popular.”
His habit of overstatement was in some ways part of his personality, shown by his interactions with: his secretary Joy Hill, about a jacket design, Owen Barfield, about his first meeting with Tolkien, and George Sayer’s observations of Tolkien interacting with the Lewis brothers.
Thus, criticisms such as that of Disney, – as well as the other aforementioned authors – George Macdonald, Hans Christian Andersen, Dorothy L. Sayers, and the like – should be read with this habit and awareness in mind.
The bottom line
Tolkien did criticize Disney, but it seemed to come from their differing paths with the sensitive subject being animations and film adaptations. Thus we would only really know that at the time he didn’t think that Disney would adapt his work well; we arguably wouldn’t really know his true opinions of Disney as a whole.
While he did criticize Snow White, that was the only thing we know of out of Disney’s many works – and it is unknown the extent and overall tone he had shown with the criticisms – whether it be hyperbole or understatement or just one man’s opinion, as his letters concerning the matter were not published immediately after they were written.