The Great Honesty of Karel Kachyňa's 1976 Version of The Little Mermaid That You've Never Heard Of
This little-known Little Mermaid adaptation combines striking visuals and a memorable score to faithfully re-tell Hans Christian Andersen’s original story.
“Wine,” says a man wearing gold eyeshadow, a floor-length periwinkle robe and sporting wild hair adorned with bits of indiscernible debris, “is the only good thing to come from humans.” He is standing among similarly dressed people within a landscape of only sand and boulders. The setting is dark, almost hazy with a dusty blue overtone.
Is this a scene from a post-apocalyptic film? Or a film featuring extraterrestrial beings on a rocky planet?
No! This is The Little Mermaid.
The Little Mermaid, as most Americans know it, is a story about a young mermaid who falls in love with a human prince, trading her beautiful voice for human legs and eventually wooing her soulmate. You can’t hear the name Ariel without immediately envisioning tomato-red hair, a delicate fishtail, and a purple clamshell bra. Perhaps most notably, many people think of The Little Mermaid as an uplifting narrative of love prevailing against all odds.
The original story is by renowned writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805 - 1875) who was admired for his poetry, novels, travelogues and fairy tales. Many of his stories are well-known today, including The Princess and the Pea (1835), Thumbelina (1835), and, of course, The Little Mermaid (1836). But despite these stories’ popularity, the Disney-fied retellings don’t always include the complexities of Andersen’s originals.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid isn’t really The Little Mermaid at all. At least, it dropped many of the compromising drawbacks of mer-life that made Hans Christian Andersen’s 1836 so extraordinary.
Ariel didn’t leave trails of bloody footprints as she roamed land — unlike her counterpart in Andersen’s tale, who felt the pain of a thousand knives underfoot with every step. Not once was the Disney Princess faced with the decision of murdering the sleeping prince in his wedding bed in exchange for not dying herself. Nor did she dissolve into sea-foam after watching the love of her life marry some other teenage girl.
Part of what makes Malá Morská Víla so great is its faithfulness to the original tale. It follows Andersen’s story to a tee, but director Karel Kachyňa (1924 - 2004) still found ways to keep it surprising, especially visually. Given that the film was produced in the 70s, Kachyňa couldn't really rely on special effects to wow an audience. But that didn’t prove to be a concern.
“I like drawing-room stories set in an atmosphere of feelings, where the leading role is played by image, music, and often by what cannot even be expressed,” Kachyňa once explained, “that which is a part of our lives but is not concrete and cannot even be described.”
From an early age, Kachyňa had a penchant for the visual arts, and his acute creativity is apparent in his films. Because of the director’s artistic consciousness, Malá Morská Víla does not rely on dialogue to convey the nuances of the story. The underwater realm truly feels worlds apart from the humans’ domain. The mermaids, with their elaborately sculptured hair and dramatic makeup, are clearly distinct from their earth-treading counterparts. But it’s not just these overt and obvious details that separate the worlds. The film moves between color palettes and lighting compositions, from the dark and cold tones of the ocean’s depths to the greens and reds of the sunny kingdom on shore.
A huge contributor to the ”atmosphere of feelings” that Kachyňa sought to create was composer Zdeněk Liška (1922 - 1983). Liška was one of the most sought after Czech tunesmiths in the 50s and 60s, and composed music for 500 films over the course of his life. Despite having a formal education in symphonic music, he began exploring electronica early on. It’s the electronic score of Malá Morská Víla that elevates the ethereal nature of the film, using synthesizer with echoing reverb to mimic the eeriness of underwater din.
As the film goes on, more of Andersen’s story is revealed — the mermaids rise to the water’s surface in celebration of the princess’ fifteenth birthday. What’s different, however, is the Sea King (the gold-eyeshadowed man mentioned in the beginning) sinks a ship — the prince’s ship, to be specific — as a gift to the little mermaid, with all residents of the underwater world gathered to watch in excited anticipation. (To be fair, the prince is not entirely guiltless, as he ordered his crew to sail straight for the rocks when he heard the little mermaid singing.)
This wasn’t a part of Andersen’s original story, but it aligns with Slavic folklore.
Slavic folklore is rich with enchanting, mischievous, and treacherous spirits. Water-dwelling spirits are called rusalki (singularly, a rusalka), who live in lakes and rivers. In some areas, they’re called vile (as in Malá Morská Víla). The specific characteristics of rusalki and vile vary depending on region.
Take, for example, this illustration — titled Rusalka — by renowned Russian artist, Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin (1876 - 1942). With long, straggly hair cloaking her fully naked body, this nymph has climbed out of her watery homestead to perch in a tree, waiting to bewitch any unfortunate man who finds her.
But in other regions, rusalki more closely resemble what we know as mermaids: young and beautiful with voices that can enchant and seduce men. That’s not to say these kinds of rusalki are as fun and flirty as our Ariel — they lure men in not for love, but to kill them.
In Malá Morská Víla, it’s almost an hour into the film when the little mermaid makes her debut on land. The prince finds her washed up on a sandy beach, complete with human legs and new strawberry-blonde hair.
What follows is the veracious love story that Disney failed to deliver.
When Ariel was on land, it was easy to understand why she enjoyed the human world. Everything was new, interesting, and exciting. She enthusiastically embraced all the mundanities that comprise our everyday. Tobacco pipes? Neat. Pillows? Amazing. Forks? Confusing, but delightful.
But in Malá Morská Víla, the little mermaid is clearly only there for the prince. It seems the human world offers little to impress her; instead of swooning over silverware and baguettes, she spends her time getting her father to compensate the prince for the economic devastation caused by the shipwreck on her birthday. If that’s not good, honest love, who can say what is?
If you’ve been looking for an adaptation of The Little Mermaid that captures the intricacies of Anderson’s original tale, draws on the mermaid characteristics of traditional folklore, and shares a love story that feels genuine and heartbreaking, this is the film for you. The beauty in this film is in its truths, and that’s exactly what Kachyňa strived for:
“Apprehensions, hopes, dreams, someone’s touch... I would always like to have these things in my films. I think they are an essential part of the truth of life. And this truth is what film is mainly about. A film will never be a work of art unless it mirrors that truth, however subtly it may strive in other ways to express the most sublime thought.”
You’ve seen Disney’s The Little Mermaid and have appreciated it’s rose-tinted retelling. And now perhaps you’ve also watched Malá Morská Víla, which is decidedly darker but remains faithful to Andersen’s original story. So what’s next?
Try Rusalochka, which was released the same year as Malá Morská Víla but feels worlds apart. It is easily identifiable as an adaptation of The Little Mermaid, but director Vladimir Bychkov (1929 - 2004) took some creative liberties to make the story feel new and surprising — the film includes a resurrection, a little mermaid who is able to speak throughout the entire film, plenty of fun dance scenes, and a prince who fits right in with the shaggy-haired heartthrobs of the 70s.
Note* All images are in the public domain.