“Beauty and the Beast” – from a Fairytale to Modern Interpretations
The plot of a fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” is very integrated into human culture; it has different and sometimes almost unrecognizable forms and reiterations. The Greco-Roman myth of a traditional fairytale “The Cupid and Psyche”, is aimed at children and young girls, while a more radical and unconventional interpretation of the tale is King Kong and Silence of the Lambs; these are just a few of the forms the story of “Beauty and the Beast” adopted through the ages. According to the theory, suggested by Richard Dawkins and developed by Jack Zipes and Susan Blackmore, the fairy tale plot can be considered a “meme” that is a story that travels through cultures and time. It changes, adapts and reflects on the period, but remains the same in its core. The researcher Dearbhla McGrath summed this theory up in the following way.
Fairy tales, when regarded as memes, can be seen to exploit their cultural environment as they evolve and change over time depending on the mores of the society, in which they are produced. Therefore, the concept of the meme could be a key to understanding the constant replication of fairy tales over the past centuries and the secret to their success.
“Beauty and the Beast” is an effective illustration of this idea, as throughout the history of fiction it took different forms in various cultures and periods. Each embodiment of the story had its changes and peculiarities due to the cultural background, target audience, author of the adaptation and the message he or she was trying to conceive in the minds of readers or viewers.
In this research, three versions of the story will be compared and analyzed. The first version of the fairy tale, aimed at children audience, was written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont; while the Disney animated musical Beauty and the Beast, written by Linda Woolverton is often called the “definitive” version of the story; a recent film Penelope (2006) took many liberties in the retelling of the story. When analyzing all three versions of the story, it is important to define their most important plot points, tropes and characters to find out how they changed through time and how they reflected the changes and processes in the society.
Three Versions of the Same Story
First, the plot now referred to as “Beauty and the Beast” was mentioned in early and almost unrecognizable form of an ancient Greco-Roman myth of Cupid and Psyche. The first published version officially bearing the title “Beauty and the Beast” was a salon tale written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740. De Villeneuve’s story was aimed at highborn young girls, so it propagated virtues of the higher society and the importance of equal marriage with representatives of their class (Bisbee).
The fairy-tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont was written 16 years later and designed for a wholly different audience. It was the first iteration of the fairytale for children and young girls, aimed at the middle-class bourgeoisie. The core elements and tropes presented in the story should be outlined. The main characters are: Little Beauty – a young virtuous girl; the Beast – a prince cursed to look like a monster, until he finds his true love; a caring father and spoiled villainous sisters; a fairy who takes away the curse and provides a moral message. Economic factors play an important role throughout the story. From the start, it is stated that the father is a merchant, who is forced to sell all of his belongings and move to a village due to commercial failure. The economic factor is constantly mentioned in the story as the target audience of the story has been middle-class bourgeois children.
“Beauty and the Beast” in de Beaumont’s interpretation is a typical didactic fairytale, aimed at female audience. Its further variations will focus on other angles of the story without gender restraints, even if this shift will harm the depiction of some characters and diminish its educational value.
The Disney animated version directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise and written by Leslie Caveny was made in 1991. The film is a close adaptation of de Beaumont’s fairy tale, with most of the story kept intact, including magical elements, such as transformation of the prince into a Beast, and magical items such as mirror and the rose. Some comic relief characters, such as living household items, were added to the plot. The economic motives, so heavily presented in the fairy tale, are now absent. The father is now not a merchant, but a struggling inventor, and a social outcast, who is treated as the town’s madman.
Although deeply flawed and questionable in its moral messages, the Disney adaptation of Beauty and the Beast is the most popular and in many ways the most accessible adaptation of the classic fairy tale. It also opened the way for deeper and more independent female characters in Disney animation films. At the same time, it reduced the didactic effect of the story by replacing it by a more convenient and safe love story
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Among the latest adaptations, British fantasy-comedy Penelope, written by Leslie Caveny and directed by Mark Palansky stand out the most. Using some of the fairy tale’s tropes and characters, the film addresses the issues of self-identification in the modern world, where media has changed the notions of public and personal life. The film effectively mixes fairy tale, ironic British comedy and sharp satire, basing on a simple assumption that can be stated as follows. How could the story of Beauty and the Beast play out in modern society, where there is no such thing as privacy? As for the changes made in the classic story, they are numerous. The most important change is that the part of the Beast was given to a female character. As a result of a family curse, Penelope (Christina Ricci) was born looking like a pig, until her supposed marriage. Many elements of the story also remained intact, and the character of Penelope had much more common features with Belle from Disney’s cartoon, than with the beast in any of the iterations.
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Violence in the Story
“Beauty and the Beast” is among the least violent of the “meme fairytales.” It does not feature any gruesome acts of physical violence, but still the story is focused on a girl being a prisoner against her will. While not physically harmed, Little Beauty in de Beaumont version is still mistreated and this emotional harm has social roots. Researcher Mary Bisbee writes:
Although Beauty has the right to refuse the Beast’s proposals, she is still imprisoned in the castle, a victim of her father’s trespass and the Beast’s will. Beauty is defined in relation to men.
Throughout the story Beauty faces constant threat of death, not her own, but her father’s, and the Beast uses the possibility of their death to manipulate the girl.
In Disney adaptation, the violence is present in Beast’s behavior and the character of Gaston, who constantly boasts of his hunter trophies, and in the third act of the film actively tries to hunt and kill the Beast. As the film is full of musical performances, there is even the one specifically devoted to killing the Beast.
With the help of the song, Gaston intimidates the townsfolk to form an angry mob:
It’s a beast, he’s got fangs razor sharp ones.
Massive paws, killer claws for the feed.
Hear him roar, see him foam,
but we’re not coming home,
’till he’s dead, good and dead. Kill the beast.
The violence in Disney version has little didactic or ideological reasoning; it mostly serves to create action scenes, much needed for the supposed male audience. However, still the threat of death is present throughout the film.
Penelope provides the least violent scenario of the three. The film is a romantic comedy with no threats of physical harm to any of the characters, so this aspect is not shown in the film.
Role of Villains in the Story
The antagonist is an important element of any story; it serves to create a conflict and be a moral contrast to the protagonist. Unlike many traditional fairytales, which reduce its villain to an evil witch, the antagonists in different versions of “Beauty and the Beast” greatly differ and reflect the author’s message.
In De Beaumont’s story, the emphasis was made not on the relationships between the Beauty and the Beast, and not even on the father-daughter relationships, but on the conflict between Little Beauty and her two older sisters. The sisters are evil, greedy and envious; in contrast to them, Beauty is a kind, caring and modest girl (Garrett).
The sisters hurry to get married of convenience, and Beauty is more interested in taking care of her father than in an early marriage. The sisters conspire to hurt the Beauty, and at the end of the story, their evil is punished and Beauty’s self sacrifice and goodness are rewarded. Thus, the fairy tale has a very clear and distinct didactic message – the virtues such as goodness and modesty will be rewarded and vices like greed and envy will be punished.
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In the Disney version, the conflict between the Beauty and her sisters is totally missing, as there is no mentioning of these two characters. The one who takes the role of the antagonist is Gaston, a local handsome, who regularly proposes to Belle and is demonstratively rejected. This character is very prominent in the plot; he is used to criticize the machismo of patriarchal society and ignorance of middlebrow townsfolk. Gaston and his stooge Lefou form the conditional pairing of villains, who mirror the sisters from the original fairy tale. It is these characters that sabotage Belle’s relationship with the Beast and in the final act form the angry mob to storm the Beast’s castle. Gaston is a muscular man with a prominent chin and hairy chest, but at the same time he is arrogant, illiterate and ignorant. Gaston is a leftover of the patriarchal society depicted as a caricature (Craven).
The antagonist factor in Penelope is more complex, as there are no typical villains in the story. The main motive of the film is life in the information society. According to this direction, characters from the original story had to go through certain changes. The role of villains was given to a journalist Lemon (Peter Dinklage), who had personal gripes with Penelope and her family, and Penelope’s unsuccessful fiance Edward (Simon Woods). Both characters are rather well-developed, especially when compared to the one-dimensional evil sisters and caricature Gaston. Both characters go through their personal arc and are never reduced to being just evil. They do not function as typical antagonists, but rather serve to move the plot forward. In the end, both “villains” either redeem themselves or realize their mistakes. Thus, they are given the option the villains in earlier versions of the story rejected.
Didactic Aspects and Subtexts
Each version of the fairy tale has its unique message and its own share of subtexts. All three stories deal with gender issues; while the “original” De Beaumont version was written specifically for young girls, the latter versions left this narrow audience to address boys and girls, children and adults, sometimes even ignoring the gender theme.
As the original fairy tale was a product of a patriarchal society, the male characters in the story, the father, the Beast and Beauty’s brothers, are shown in a positive light. These characters can do no wrong, unlike some female characters. The idealistic description of the fatherly figure and the figure of the husband are characteristic to the period, during which this version of the fairy tale was written. There is an interpretation of the story, according to which it symbolizes the passing of a maturing girl from the father to her husband. As the Beauty leaves her homestead, she learns to let her father go and to start carrying for her future husband. Thus, the part of the Beauty is greatly diminished, as she serves just an object passed from on owner to another. There is a psychosexual analysis of the plot from the angle of the oedipal conflict. According to McGrath:
Sex must be experienced as something that is disgusting as long as these feelings are attached to a parent; when they are directed at an appropriate partner they are experienced as beautiful. In disenchanting the Beast, Beauty transfers her attachment from her father to her lover.
As the Beauty, a maturing young girl first faces her sexual desires, they take a monstrous form of the Beast; this symbolizes her fear of sexual contact. When the girl is emotionally and spiritually related to the Beast, he becomes a beautiful prince. The story teaches the girl to embrace sexual desires only when emotionally connected to the partner, and also it propagates a well thought out marriage as a core of the family oriented patriarchal society (Bisbee).
There are various interpretations of the subtexts of the fairytale from the psychosexual, gender-related and even economic point of view. The fairytale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont has a very distinct message and reflects its time, having been clearly written for children. As researcher Mary Bisbee stated: “Her (de Beaumont’s) statements are presented as universal truths to be embraced by the reader as a guiding moral, and her romance becomes a model for marriage based on companionship.”
The most substantial difference between the original fairytale and Disney adaptation is the shift of the story from the Beauty to the Beast. Belle is a more interesting character than Beauty in the original tale, as she is smart, well spoken educated and interested in books and traveling. She is much more active than her prototype and other Disney female characters, because she plays a part in the story, and is not a victim waiting to be saved. Moreover, she is the one who saves the Beast in many ways. Belle is a much stronger and more independent female character, which is an accomplishment of the writers. On the downside of this, Belle has no character arc; she ends the same as she started, and there are certain inconsistencies in her character. Being a very independent character in the beginning of the film, she then becomes a prisoner and a victim of violence without any substantial resistance. What is worse, she embraces her kidnapper and falls in love with him, despite many acts of psychological violence she goes through, as if becoming a victim of a Stockholm syndrome. So the changes in the character of Belle are mostly cosmetic; they affect only her appearance and some characteristics of the character. In her actions Belle remains passive and, as it turns out, becomes not more than a plot point in Beast’s story. Her character is often criticized, mostly by feminist researchers:
Disney’s Belle is therefore barely recognizable as a relative of the traditional fairy tale Beauty, but instantly recognizable as a feisty Disney heroine, her character and narrative having been dramatically modified to fit comfortably into the Disney oeuvre, and to comply with the conventions of consumer romance narratives. (Craven).
The Beast takes the center stage of this variation of the story. He receives a rich background story and goes through major character changes throughout the film. The Beast has a true character arc. At the beginning of the film, he is violent, arrogant and hostile, but to the end, with the help of Belle, he learns to be generous, supportive and even commits self-sacrifice to protect his beloved. Thus, the story of Beauty and the Beast turns from a cautionary tale for youngsters into a classic coming of age story, where the main character goes through struggles and transformations to become more mature. The character of Belle in this story serves as a plot device to take Beast through this story of moral growth (Craven).
There is an opinion that the word “beauty” in the title represents not the character of Belle, but rather the general notion of “beauty”. The characters of the film, the Beast and Belle, must learn the true meaning of beauty. Researcher Alison Craven goes even further with this notion, assuming that:
External ugliness means nothing. In this outrageous turn around, it is Beast who is advertised to be the possessor of ‘beauty’ and Belle must learn its nature, and Beast (actually the student of Belle’s improving influence) is positioned as moral instructor; Belle’s fate is his. It is Belle – robbed of her traditional Beauty – who is being instructed in how to elicit beauty from beastliness. (Craven)
Penelope is the post-modern take on the “Beauty and the Beast” fairytale; while it has some of the main motives, characters and plot-points from the original, it mostly uses them in an unconventional way to tell an entirely new story. The message of the story is the importance of self-identification in the society made transparent by the media. It is mostly deprived of the traditional social and gender connotations, as characters in the film act not according to their social or gender roles, but according to their personal choices. The story of Penelope is not a struggle to get rid of the curse, but rather a reflection of her attempts to socialize in her disfigured state, and the reaction of the world to this unusual presence. The character of “beauty” is represented by Max Campion (James McAvoy), but just like Belle in the Disney film, his role is just to be a plot device in Penelope’s transformation, not so much the physical change, but as a character. The story of Penelope is also a story of a girl who tries to break out of the embraces of overprotection.
As Penelope is shown to the world with her own consent, the result is not a raging bloodthirsty mob, but the public interest, which takes fascinating forms, making Penelope a popular public figure. The resolution of the plot is a major improvement over previous versions of the story. Penelope breaks the curse not by getting married, but by admitting to herself that she would prefer to be “herself”. This single plot point raises Penelope above all other iterations of “Beauty and the Beast”. The story thus breaks free of its overdependence on the romantic motives, and once again gains a didactic function, teaching both children and adults to embrace their inner beauty and become independent in their decisions. The conclusion of the story is ambiguous. When Penelope’s appearance changes, she decides to vanish from the public eye, but still feels nostalgic about her life with a pig’s face. Whether it is caused by the lack of public attention or the fact that she lost a part of her personality, it is up to the viewers to decide.
A Fairytale Essence
All three versions of the fairytale provide a substantial view on how the perception of the stories’ characters and their main messages changed through time. These include propagating family virtues in the original fairy tale, clumsy feminist agenda in Disney version and a fully realized empowerment by means of self identification, mostly stripped of the sexual, social and gender related connotations in Penelope. Despite their faults, all versions of the fairy tale are effective as didactic fiction and simple entertainment for both children and adults. All three stories have a simple but effective plot, colorful main and minor characters, a magical element integral to the fairy tale genre and a clear message. However, all three versions have elements important for the story to become a true fairytale suitable for children: relatable characters who can serve as a role model, a plot centered on these characters overcoming impossible odds, a fantasy element (magical objects, fairies and fantastic transformations), a traditional happy ending and a simple moral – good is rewarded and evil is punished.
“Beauty and the Beast” is an example of one story transforming and adopting to social and historical changes. Each author who took the basic story of this fairytale and used it to propose his own ideas, and take advantage of the possibilities this plot provided. The conflict of the story and its characters present a background for a discourse on such diverse themes as father and daughter relationships, maturity and self-realization, family values, socio-economic position, basic relationships of genders, social outcasts and their adaptation, discovery of one’s sexuality, importance of personal choice and many others. The plot of “Beauty and the Beast” is a versatile construct, which can be manipulated and utilized by a skilled author to tell different stories and reflect on different problems. The diversity of these possibilities is evident in all three of the adaptations analyzed in this study.