When it comes to our favourite Disney movies, it really is a case of Tale As Old as Time. Before Walt Disney dreamed up Belle, Pocahontas and a whole host of other fairytale heroines, there was a real-life backstory that provided that initial spark of imagination. And here they are…

Beauty and the Beast

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Currently making waves in the box office as a live-action remake starring Emma Watson, an unlikely love story did actually take place between a pretty woman and her follically challenged love interest. The original Disney imagining of the story – released in 1991 – is based on the 1740 fairytale La Belle et la Bete, by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve.

The French author got his inspiration from the fascinating real-life story of Petrus Gonsalvus and his bride-to-be Catherine. Petrus suffered from hypertrichosis – a condition in which an abnormal amount of hair grows all over the body. Despite this, he still found a place among France’s royal family. Sadly he was treated as nothing but a spectacle to gawp at. All was looking bleak, until he met Catherine, a court servant.

Although Catherine only got a glimpse of her intended on her wedding day, rather than being horrified, she was instantly enamoured. The newly-weds went on to live happily ever after and become celebrities across Europe. They also added to their family with four sons – two who inherited the condition  – and three daughters – who also had it. Amazing!


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The Disney version of Pocahontas, a Native American princess, is a lot more rose tinted that the IRL version. In it Pocahontas falls head over heels for British colonist John Smith, despite the simmering tension between her tribe and the colonists. Fast forward to a textbook story ending where Pocahontas saves John from a certain death at the hands of her father. This courageous act brings the two opposing sides together. So far, so Disney.

A quick look back through history shows that this is far from the whole story. Yes Pocahontas – birth name Matoaka – did have some sort of bond John Smith. But when he returned to England for medical treatment she was held hostage. She was married to John Rolfe as a condition of her release, converted to Christianity and renamed ‘Rebecca’. Years later she was taken to London and exhibited as an example of a “civilized” Native America. Before she could return to her homeland she tragically died from unknown causes. No amount of catchy tunes can or colourful graphics can distract us from this sad ending!

Hunchback of Notre Dame

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In the Disney edit, deformed bell ringer Quasimodo must take on a spiteful government minister in order to help his friend, a gypsy dancer. He offers her sanctuary in the church where he works. While the tale – based on a Victor Hugo novel of the same name – was thought to be entirely fictional in 2010 academics uncovered evidence of a 19th Century “humpbacked” British sculptor working at the cathedral. Henry Sibson writes in his memoirs, while working as a carver at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris:

“I applied at the Government studios, where they were executing the large figures and here I met with a M.Trajan. A most worthy, fatherly and amiable man as ever existed.

“He was the carver under the Government sculptor whose name I forget as I had no intercourse with him.

“All that I know is that he was humpbacked and he did not like to mix with carvers.”


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