Hollywoodʹs flirtation with 1001 Nights

The Aladdin controversy

Currently a worldwide blockbuster, the latest Aladdin movie hoped to do a better job of the story than the 1992 animated Disney film, which features a number of racist stereotypes when viewed through todayʹs lens. Is this likely in view of the Aladdin storyʹs dubious origins? Stefan Weidner provides some background

Free interpretation of the Aladdin story is something of a tradition: according to present understanding, the original source of the tale is not Arabic at all, but French. It dates back to 1712 and appears in the ninth volume of "Les mille et une nuit", the first translation of The Thousand and One Nights into French by Antoine Galland.

The tale of Aladdin is one of the texts in The Thousand and One Nights for which no Arabic-language original exists. According to an entry in Gallandʹs diary from 1709, he was told the story of Aladdin in Paris by a Maronite Christian from Aleppo. The current, published version of the story is also the length of a short novel. This poses the question as to how much fleshing out of the story was done by Galland himself.

Some literary scholars are convinced that a number of European fairy tale motifs have crept into the storyʹs Arabian heart. In any case, it is clear that the story was a hybrid of sorts, a literary bastard, as early as its first appearance in Paris in 1712. It is therefore pointless to judge its later adaptations, translations and dramatisations for their fidelity to the original, its location or environment, let alone the message of any of its authors.

In turn, however, this proves that Disney Studios have dealt with the tale of Aladdin in precisely the same way as it has always been dealt with. If ever a story were free, unbound by copyright, open to plagiarisms of any kind, this is it. There is practically no medium or genre into which Aladdin has not been shoehorned in the past three hundred years.

Between plagiarism, parody and free adaptation

The nineteenth century, believe it or not, produced thirteen Aladdin operas: seven German, two French, two English, one Italian and one Danish. The animated 1992 Disney film and now the live-action version are just the latest updates to this hybrid tale, where it is no longer possible to distinguish between plagiarism, parody and free adaptation. How are we to judge such a story, if not by its – undeniable – (massive) success?

We have always known that the Oriental fairy tales were marketable light fiction and this is why Galland, the true creator of The Thousand and One Nights, went on collecting more oral Arabian tales when the manuscripts – which he had brought with him from his travels in the Orient (including an Arab text of the same name) – ran out. The learned Arabs of the Middle Ages looked down on these and other folk tales, just as the intelligentsia look down on the Disney film today.

Nevertheless, the influential Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) recently issued a warning against the film, explaining that the story is deeply rooted in racism, orientalism and Islamophobia.

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