The Original Unhappy Endings of 3 Famous Fairy Tales

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Fairy tales often have their fair share of macabre scenes and plot points (Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother being cut alive from the body of a wolf, for instance, if the pair survive at all ...), but when stories are adapted for stage and screen, often some of their darkest elements have to be omitted for the sake of the audience. Things don’t always end happily ever after, however—as these original endings to three of the most familiar of folk tales prove.


Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of a beautiful mermaid princess who longs to be a human was first published in 1837. The version best known to most people, however, will doubtless be the 1989 Disney adaptation, which won two Oscars and was nominated for a third in 1990. Anderson’s story, however, is considerably darker than that.

The character of the Sea Witch appears in both versions, but the Disney version—which named the character Ursula—sensibly opted to water down some of the darker elements of her involvement. As she explains in Andersen’s original version, after the (originally unnamed) Little Mermaid comes to her asking to be transformed into a human:

“'I know what you want,' said the sea witch. 'It is very stupid of you, but you shall have your way, and it will bring you to sorrow, my pretty princess. You want to get rid of your fish’s tail, and to have two supports instead of it, like human beings on earth, so that the young prince may fall in love with you, and that you may have an immortal soul … I will prepare a draught for you, with which you must swim to land tomorrow before sunrise, and sit down on the shore and drink it. Your tail will then disappear, and shrink up into what mankind calls legs, and you will feel great pain, as if a sword were passing through you. But all who see you will say that you are the prettiest little human being they ever saw. You will still have the same floating gracefulness of movement, and no dancer will ever tread so lightly—but at every step you take, it will feel as if you were treading upon sharp knives ... If you will bear all this, I will help you.'”

Ultimately, in the original story, the mermaid agrees to a deal with the witch that sees her live on land in perpetual agony. Not only that, but she goes on to give up her voice by having her tongue cut out. And as if that weren’t sacrifice enough, should the prince end up falling for anyone else but her, the mermaid will die on the morning after their wedding and turn into nothing more than “foam on the crest of the waves.”

Unfortunately for the little mermaid, in the end of Andersen’s story, the prince does fall for someone else—but her sisters have hatched a plan to rescue her. Trading their hair to the sea witch, they arrive just as the mermaid is about to die and tell her that the witch has given them a knife in return, with which to kill the prince and save herself:

“Before the sun rises you must plunge it into the heart of the prince; when the warm blood falls upon your feet they will grow together again, and form into a fish’s tail, and you will be once more a mermaid … Haste, then; he or you must die before sunrise.”

The mermaid can’t bring herself to kill the prince she loves so much and dies. But rather than turn into nothing but sea foam, she becomes a “daughter of the air,” and joins a group of beings who, like mermaids, lack souls, but unlike mermaids can gain souls and enter Heaven. If that sounds like a happy ending, however, there’s one final caveat.

She will, she is told, eventually ascend into Heaven—on the condition that children the world over are well behaved:

“'After 300 years, thus shall we float into the kingdom of heaven,” said [one of the daughters of the wind]. 'And we may even get there sooner,' whispered one of her companions. 'Unseen, we can enter the houses of men where there are children, and for every day on which we find a good child … we can count one year less of our 300 years. But when we see a naughty or a wicked child, we shed tears of sorrow, and for every tear a day is added to our time of trial.'”


As if the scene in Disney’s 1940 adaption of Pinocchio in which the delinquent Lampwick is transformed into a donkey weren’t horrifying enough, the original story—The Adventures of Pinocchio (1881-83), by Italian novelist Carlo Collodi—includes some even more gruesome details.

For one, when Pinocchio first runs away from home, he bumps into a local policeman who quickly decides that Geppetto has been abusing him, and has the old woodcarver thrown in jail. When Pinocchio returns home, the talking cricket who has lived in Geppetto’s house for decades begins to teach him the errors of his ways—but unlike in the animated version, the literary Pinocchio soon tires of the cricket’s sermonizing and kills him with a mallet. Most unnerving of all, however, was the story’s original ending.

In the film, Honest John and Gideon—the cunning fox and his mute sidekick cat—successfully trick Pinocchio into joining Stromboli’s puppet show in the film, and later convince him to take a vacation to “Pleasure Island.” But in the book, one of their ploys involves dressing as bandits and trying to murder him, first by stabbing him in the back and then by hanging him from an oak tree:

"They tied Pinocchio’s hands behind his shoulders and slipped the noose around his neck. Throwing the rope over the high limb of a giant oak tree, they pulled till the poor marionette hung far up in space. Satisfied with their work, they sat on the grass waiting for Pinocchio to give his last gasp. But after three hours the marionette’s eyes were still open, his mouth still shut and his legs kicked harder than ever. "Tired of waiting, the assassins called to him mockingly: 'Goodbye till tomorrow. When we return in the morning, we hope you’ll be polite enough to let us find you dead and gone and with your mouth wide open.' With these words they went."

When Collodi’s book was first serialized in a Rome newspaper in 1881, the story finished there, at chapter 15, with Pinocchio still hanging from the tree:

“'Oh, Father, dear Father! If you were only here!' These were his last words. He closed his eyes, opened his mouth, stretched out his legs, and hung there, as if he were dead."

Understandably, that ending proved a little too bleak (and the series as a whole a little too popular with readers) for Collodi’s editor to leave it there. Two weeks later, the newspaper published a notice, explaining that “Signor C. Collodi’s friend Pinocchio is still alive … Therefore, our readers are warned: soon we will start with the second part of The Adventures of Pinocchio.” Collodi picked up the story where it had finished, had the Blue Fairy come rescue Pinocchio, and the more familiar, happier ending was added.


Versions of the Cinderella story have been told for hundreds of years, with one version—the Chinese folk tale Ye Xian—dating back as far as the 9th century. But the version best known to western audiences is probably that based on Cendrillon, a story written by the French author and scholar Charles Perrault in 1697. Perrault’s version includes much of what we would recognize of the story today—with the notable exception of the ending.

When the handsome prince arrives at Cinderella’s home to see if the glass slipper fits her or her sisters’ feet, her stepsisters are determined that it should fit them,  with it long being interpreted that they cut off parts of their own foot.

Not wanting to be outdone, when the Brothers Grimm published the story as Aschenputtel in 1857, they not only had the remaining stepsister cut her toes off to fit the slipper, but had the stepsister who cuts her heel off do so on the advice of her mother, who explains, “Cut a piece off your heel. When you are queen you will no longer have to go on foot.”

But it’s in the final wedding scene when Achenputtel/Cinderella finally marries her prince that the macabre Grimm version truly comes into its own. The stepmother and stepsisters arrive at the wedding, hoping obsequiously to share some of Cinderella’s newfound wealth and influence—but two pigeons who had befriended Cinderella and helped her throughout the story have other ideas:

"When the bridal couple walked into the church, the older sister walked on their right side and the younger on their left side, and the pigeons pecked out one eye from each of them. Afterwards, as they came out of the church, the older one was on the left side, and the younger one on the right side, and then the pigeons pecked out the other eye from each of them. And thus, for their wickedness and falsehood, they were punished with blindness as long as they lived."