Magic in a Bottle: Aladdin and the One Thousand and One Nights

MAY / JUNE 2017: BY RACHEL SEXTON

Stories all come from somewhere. Our beloved fairytales originated in the oral storytelling tradition that thrived for centuries before the written word. Though the Grimm brothers have gained the most notoriety and familiarity for writing these tales down, hundreds of years earlier, various authors collected together stories from the Asian and Arabic world into One Thousand and One Nights. Also called Arabian Nights, this extensive work is full of well-known tales such as Aladdin. The film versions of Aladdin show how One Thousand and One Nights contains examples of classic fairytale themes.

The first known writing of One Thousand and One Nights is in Arabic from the 8th century. Throughout later centuries, the number of tales grew. Antoine Galland translated them into French in 1704 and added a few of the most famous stories, including Aladdin. Originally, Aladdin had his adventures in a Chinese setting, albeit one with heavy Middle Eastern influences. He is young and impoverished but has luck on his side. A sorcerer tricks Aladdin into retrieving a magic lamp from a booby-trapped cave then double-crosses him. However, the lamp is home to a powerful Genie who grants Aladdin wishes, which leads to his defeat of the sorcerer. He also falls in love and marries a beautiful princess.

Everyone knows the 1992 Disney animated version of Aladdin due to its commercial and critical success. It retains the basic outline of the original plot but receives the Disney sparkle. Robin Williams provides plenty of humor as the voice of the Genie, and the musical spectacle include songs like the love duet A Whole New World and the Genie’s anthem Friend Like Me. This narrative molds to fit the tropes of the family-friendly studio well, with adorable sidekicks in Abu the monkey, a flying carpet, and a talking parrot for the villain Jafar. (The parrot’s name is Iago in a shout-out to Shakespeare.) This version fits into the realm of the fairytale, with the use of royalty and the limiting of Aladdin’s wishes to three, a common number in these types of stories.

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In 2000, an ABC miniseries version of Arabian Nights featured the story of Scheherezade telling her new husband, King Sharayar, tales that end with cliffhangers so he won’t kill her in the morning like all his other wives. One of these is Aladdin. This rendering stays authentic to the original Chinese setting, with Jason Scott Lee as Aladdin. Other small details from the written story appear, such as a ring genie, a lamp genie, and the fact that Aladdin’s mother is still alive.

Of course, Aladdin is only one story from One Thousand and One Nights. Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (the tale where the phrase “open sesame” originates) and The Seven Voyages of Sinbad will be familiar to most people but there are also plenty of others. Some include actual historical figures like caliph Harun al-Rashid. Others have had separate film adaptations over the years; the Arabian Nights miniseries included a few of them. But they all convey the power of the spoken word and how it can entertain.

Cinematic versions of Aladdin are a visual representation of how the entire work of One Thousand and One Nights adheres to typical themes found in fairytale stories. They provide an exotic culture compared to the European fairytales and have a longer history. Aladdin ‘s appeal endures. The ABC drama Once Upon a Time included the characters from the Disney version in the plot, and the Disney studio itself is producing live-action films based on their animated classics. Aladdin is on the way. Looks like the Genie will make it out of that lamp again.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Sexton is from Ohio. She loves her parents and her dog Lily. She has to have acting, film, reading, and dance in her life. Her hobby is editing fan videos.

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