Even if you are old enough to remember the ‘50s, there’s a good chance you’ve forgotten about some of these Disney films. And there’s a fairly good chance you haven’t read the books the films were based on! But hey, maybe you’ve got a photographic memory for Disney films and a penchant for reading every book before every movie. Care to test your knowledge? Let’s see how many of these films or books you’re familiar with.
1. The Shaggy Dog
The Shaggy Dog is a movie about a teen boy who accidentally gets turned into his neighbor’s big, shaggy dog. The 1959 film was partly inspired by the book The Hound of Florence by Felix Salten which was first published in German in 1923 before being translated into English in 1930. Although both the book and the film have the teen boy protagonist transforming into a dog, the tales are quite different. The film takes place in the U.S. during the 1950s while the book takes place in early eighteenth-century Austria and Italy. The book, in the original German translation, actually takes a much darker turn at the story’s end when the protagonist is killed in dog-form at the end of the story. Easy to see why Disney decided to change that plot point.
2. Darby O’Gill and the Little People
The Irish tales behind this Disney film are the Darby O’Gill stories of Herminie Templeton Kavanagh: Darby O’Gill and the Good People (published in 1903) and Ashes of Old Wishes and Other Darby O’Gill Tales (published in 1926). The film is only “suggested by” these collected stories. So, the film isn’t a true-to-the-books retelling but it captures the spirit of the tales.
3. The Sign of Zorro
Bet you didn’t know The Sign of Zorro was a book first! Zorro was created by writer Johnston McCulley and his first adventure, The Curse of Capistrano, was published in 1919. The novel was originally supposed to be a stand-alone, but the popularity of the 1920 film adaptation The Mark of Zorro convinced McCulley to write five serialized stories and fifty-seven short stories starring the masked vigilante. Since that first film in 1920, Zorro has appeared in over forty films and ten TV series. This Disney film is actually a compilation of episodes from the popular Zorro TV series of the 1950s.
4. Swiss Family Robinson
Anyone who’s been to Disney World and climbed through the Swiss Family Treehouse probably has at least heard of the Swiss Family Robinson film, even if they haven’t seen it. The treehouse is based on the film, and the film is based on the German book The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss which was first published in 1812. Though the film made a few changes, the plot is generally the same—a Swiss family becomes shipwrecked in the East Indies and manages to survive several adventures on an island before being rescued.
5. The Moon-Spinners
You might remember Hayley Mills from her Parent Trap or Pollyanna days, but did you know she starred in a more grown-up suspense movie set in Greece? In this little-known Disney film, she plays the role of a young English woman who unravels the mystery of a jewel thief hiding on the island of Crete. The film is based on the book, The Moon-Spinners by Mary Stewart which was published in 1962. If you like Hayley Mills but haven’t seen this one yet, it’s definitely worth a watch.
6. Those Calloways
This 1964 film is based on the 1950 children’s novel Swiftwater written by Paul Annixter. The story follows the challenges of the animal-loving Calloway family as they try to establish a sanctuary for the migrating Canadian geese in their rural Vermont community. However, many members of the community would prefer to hunt the geese. The film stars a variety of animals: a dog named Sounder, a black bear cub named Keg, a pet crow named Scissorbill, and, of course, the flocks of geese themselves.
7. That Darn Cat
Disney has actually made two film adaptations of the 1963 book Undercover Cat by Gordon Gordon and Mildred Gordon (credited as The Gordons). The first is the 1965 film That Darn Cat starring Hayley Mills opposite Dean Jones. The second film adaptation came out in 1997, also under the title That Darn Cat, though this film stars Christina Ricci and Doug E. Doug. It’s a funny animal mystery where a cat holds the only clue to a bank robbery. Together with a teen girl and a rookie FBI agent, the strange trio try to unravel the mystery and bring the criminals to justice.
8. Blackbeard’s Ghost
This fantastical comedy is based on the book Blackbeard’s Ghost by Ben Stahl which tells the story of Blackbeard who is cursed to wander in limbo until he performs a good deed. The film stars Peter Ustinov as the ghost, Blackbeard, with Dean Jones starring opposite him as the new track coach. The unlikely pair team up to break Blackbeard’s curse by getting him to use his ghostly powers to turn the underdog college track team into winners.
9. Bedknobs and Broomsticks
Here’s a Disney film you might recall. Though it wasn’t as popular as the film Mary Poppins, the musical Bedknobs and Broomsticks featured similar combinations of live-action and animation. The film is based on the book Bedknobs and Broomsticks by Mary Norton. It tells the tale of an eccentric young English spinster who becomes an apprentice witch and the unwitting foster parent of three children during the German invasion of England.
10. Snowball Express
This screwball comedy is based on the book Chateau Bon Vivant by Frankie and Johnny O’Rear. The book claims to be “The hilarious true misadventures of two vastly unequipped innkeepers who run a ski lodge in winter—a tourist trap in summer—in Old Quebec.” The film stars Dean Jones and Nancy Olson as Johnny and Sue Baxter who come to realize that the inn Johnny inherited is more money pit than cash cow.
11. Escape to Witch Mountain
Though you may not have seen the original film Escape to Witch Mountain, chances are you’ve seen at least one of the many films that came after it. The original novel Escape to Witch Mountain by Alexander Key has spawned an entire movie franchise, with several Disney film adaptations and expansions. After the 1975 Escape to Witch Mountain came the 1978 sequel Return from Witch Mountain. The films were so successful that in 1982 a television series, Beyond Witch Mountain, was developed based on the 1975 film.
Later, in 1995, Disney remade Escape to Witch Mountain for ABC’s The Wonderful World of Disney. The second live-action remake, Race to Witch Mountain, was released in theaters in 2009. The one similarity across all the films is the twin alien siblings; a boy and a girl, who have telepathic powers. Most of the plotlines have the twins trying to escape their captors and return to their own people.
12. The Apple Dumpling Gang
Don Knotts and Tim Conway star as bumbling wannabe bandits in this comedic western film. The movie is based on the book The Apple Dumpling Gang by Jack M. Bickham and follows the story of a bachelor who becomes the unwitting guardian of three orphans who stumble upon a huge gold nugget. While everyone in town is after the kids’ claim, the kids join forces with these two bumbling outlaws to stage a robbery to get their gold back. The film adaptation of the book was so successful (no doubt thanks to the comedic talents of Don Knotts and Tim Conway) that it spawned a sequel: The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again.
13. Treasure of Matecumbe
This treasure-hunting adventure film was adapted from the book A Journey to Matecumbe by Robert Lewis Taylor. Set in the post-Civil War era, a young boy and his four friends use a secret map in a dangerous search for pirate gold.
This is yet another film about hunting for pirate treasure, only this time the pirate’s stash of Spanish doubloons is believed to be in the stately English manor of Candleshoe. A young orphan girl named Casey and a conman plot to dupe Candleshoe’s widowed owner into believing Casey is the widow’s long-lost granddaughter so Casey can search the manor. However, Casey soon discovers there may be an even greater treasure at Candleshoe. Though the events of the film don’t take place at Christmas, the story is based on the book Christmas at Candleshoe by Michael Innes.
15. Unidentified Flying Oddball
This one is a bit of a stretch, but the strange and fantastical sci-fi comedy adventure Unidentified Flying Oddball is actually a reimagining of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Of course, astronauts and spaceships weren’t exactly part of Mark Twain’s original tale. (And if we’re being honest, Mark Twain’s original novel is far superior to this wacky Disney film.)
No, this isn’t a nature documentary but it does feature a lot of African animals. The film chronicles the adventures of two American teenagers and an African boy who decide to raise an orphaned cheetah cub while on a safari in Africa. The film is only loosely based on Alan Caillou’s novel, The Cheetahs. Fun fact: the name Alan Caillou is a pen name. The author’s real name was Alan Samuel Lyle-Smythe.
17. White Fang
If you haven’t seen Disney’s adaptation of Jack London’s novel White Fang, chances are you may have seen one of the many film or television adaptations from other studios. Disney’s adaptation follows young Jack as he tries to fulfill his father’s dying wish to strike gold in the treacherous Yukon Valley and discovers a kindred spirit in a wolf-dog named White Fang. The book, however, is told from the point of view of White Fang throughout his life as different humans—some good, some bad—try to tame him.
In a story that is very similar to Swiss Family Robinson, this film follows a young Norwegian boy named Haakon who joins a ship’s crew as a cabin boy only to find himself shipwrecked alone on a jungle island while his shipmates are kidnapped by a gang of pirates. The film is based on the book Haakon Haakonsen: En Norsk Robinson (which translates to Haakon Haakonsen: A Norwegian Robinson) by O.V. Falck-Ytter. The hero, Haakon, is meant to be a Norwegian Robinson Crusoe, rather than a member of the Swiss Family Robinson, yet all of these tales feature heroes shipwrecked on an island where they must survive on their own.
19. Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken
Though the film itself does not give credit to the original source material in either the credits or on IMDb (likely because it fictionalizes much of the real story), the film was inspired by the real-life of Sonora Carver. She wrote her own memoir entitled A Girl and Five Brave Horses chronicling her life as a horse diving girl, both before and after she became blind due to a horse diving accident. The film portrays an inspiring story, but the real story is even better. As the real Sonora said in this New York Times article “the only thing true in [the film] was that I rode diving horses, I went blind, and I continued to ride for another 11 years.” So if you want the real tale, definitely read the book.
So how about it? How many of these films had you seen before? Do any of these titles surprise you? Tell us in the comments!
Want more books based on Disney movies? Check out our blog post of 22 Disney Movies You Didn’t Know Were Based on Books.
Megan Barlog loves great stories, be they books, movies, TV shows, or anything in between. She has studied both creative writing and screenwriting and worked for both a library and a major NYC publisher. When she’s not writing a novel or screenplay, she’s probably out for a run or binge-watching something on Netflix.
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