Beauty and The Beast: Tales “As Old As Time.”

Disney’s film versions of Beauty and the Beast touts that their tale is “as old as time.” It’s true that there were folktales based on this story dating back to 425 C. However, a more modern version was published in 1740 by the French writer, Madame De Villeneuve. However, a shortened version of the Tale was published in 1756 by another French author,  Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.  According to Pook Press, “Beaumont’s version is the one which readers are most familiar with today.” Though each version was somewhat different from the others, they all emphasized moralistic themes reflecting the popular values of their respective times However, a shortened version of the Tale was published in 1756 by another French author,  Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.  According to Pook Press, “Beaumont’s version is the one which readers are most familiar with today.” Though each version was somewhat different from the others, they all emphasized moralistic themes reflecting the popular values of their respective times (http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/beauty.html).

Original Beauty & Beast by Pook Press

 I took my wife and children to the movies to see the very popular animated Disney version in 1991. Even though our daughters are now adults, my wife and I decided to see the newest Disney screen adaptation last weekend. I had read that it already earned about a billion dollars worldwide and was now the highest-grossing movie of 2017. Disney promotions revealed that the new movie still offered a great deal of animation but also featured several notable actors portraying humans, like Emma Watson,  (who was Hermione in the Harry Potter series), Luke Owens, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, and Emma Thompson. It had also retained reworked versions of the memorable original Alan Menken score and added three new songs by Tim Rice. I was informed that a multitude of movie-goers enjoyed it very much, but that others had found some flaws in it. After watching the production,  I concurred with both sets of reviews. I enjoyed the acting, cinematography, costumes, sets, and the music. However, several of the plot details left me extremely puzzled. I felt that they were added by the writers to make the updated version seem more timely and politically correct. However, I took it into account that these types of changes were also made by Beaumont to update the Villeneuve version and make it more acceptable to the French public. If you have not seen the movie, you may not want to read beyond here, because I discuss plot comparisons between the books and the new film.

In the Villeneuve version, Beauty was a princess who lived in a royal palace. To reflect the Eighteenth-Century French citizen’s unfavorable view of the royalty and the abusive privileges of the aristocratic class, Beaumont changed the character of the princess to the youngest daughter of a merchant who had lost his wealth in bad business deals. He had also lost his wife due to an illness. Such hardships likely made him more appealing to the average French reader, who was likely suffering economically under the aristocracy. The Heroine, known then in the Beaumont’s book as Belle. He addressed the social preferences of the day by writing her as a peasant girl who was dedicated to serving her father, the community, and educating herself through reading great literature. Beaumont added ungrateful and cruel sisters, like those who were seen in other popular folktales, such as Cinderella. The sisters did not help their father much and were vain and greedy. They were also resentful of Belle because their father favored her over them. Several bachelors offered to marry Belle even though they knew she was poor. However, she refused them all to stay home and helped support her father.  In summary, Belle totally reflected the traits that the average Eighteenth-Century French citizen valued.

In hopes of improving their economic status, the father continued to work hard at his craft and was planning a long trip to sell his wares. He offered to bring back presents for each of his daughters. Though the older daughters asked for expensive clothes and jewelry, but Belle only requested that he bring her a single rose-since rose were scarce in their area. The father wandered far off his intended path and got chased by wolves directly to the old palace occupied by the Beast. Though it appeared to be abandoned., it seemed to be possessed by some magical charms. A sumptuous meal, some fresh clothes, and a newly made bed “appeared.” These amenities were enjoyed by the lost father until he decided to gather a beautiful rose from the palace’s garden to bring back to Belle. The rose is important in all versions of the story. For Belle, it symbolized love and purity.  The father’s act of picking a forbidden rose without the permission of the proprietor brought the Beast out of hiding and into a rage. Roses were important to the Beast and needed to be protected. Years ago, an enchantress had changed him from a prince to a beast because of his vain and selfish actions. This act of vengeance also demonstrated that the French public was angry at the arrogance of the aristocracy and wished to see them punished. As in the movies, the Beast could not change back into a normal man until a beautiful woman, naturally, a virgin offered him unconditional love without having knowledge about his condition. The spell determined that, when the last petal of the Enchanted Rose fell, the Beast would die. In the movie, the Beast threatened to imprison the father “forever” for picking an ordinary garden rose. This punishment made no sense since it would not help the Beast to get any freer from the spell.

In the more sensible folktale, the Beast negotiated with the father and allowed him to return home and send one of his daughters to be imprisoned in his place. After all, this period of history was known as the Age of Reason, and the French valued negotiations and intellectual thinking. Once the father returned home and explained his situation, Belle was the only sister who agreed to honor her father’s word and return to the palace to live with or to possibly be eaten by the Beast. Due to her disposition, she had faith that she had a better chance of escaping the clutches of the Beast than did her father. The sisters were delighted that they got rid of Belle. In all versions of the Tale, rather than eating her, the Beast got used to living with Belle. He realized that she might be the One to help him unravel the spell on him. Subsequently, he gave her every luxury in the palace, from rich food to fine clothes, to an unlimited supply of fine books. He turned out to be an intellectual equal to her. Though he was once highly educated, she had to re-teach him proper social manners. Belle also got used to the Beast and liked living in the castle. After some time, the Beast proposed to marry Belle; however, she could not agree to his proposal because she missed her father. Since the Beast could not bear to see Belle suffer, he allowed her to return home for a brief visit, which she over-extended. There were different reasons given for that in the book and movie.

In book and film versions, when she returned to the palace, she found the Beast had “died” of a broken heart, and because the last petal of the Enchanted Rose had fallen. When Belle saw him in such a state, she cried, proclaimed her love for the Beast, and kissed him. Her actions broke the spell and restored him to being a human and a prince again. As was standard in old fairy tales, the two married and lived happily ever after. The Enchantress was not as favorable toward Belle’s wicked sisters, transforming them into permanent statues standing in front of the palace. She only allowed them to keep the power to see the joy that Belle would experience as the Queen. The folktale emphasized universal preferences for simplicity, self-sacrifice, and hard work, and scorned the European trend of that era, of women who sought to rise to a nobler status through marrying into a higher social class. Presumably, it was okay for the Beast the become a prince again because he had been punished for his transgressions and learned the lessons of the spell.  For the Eighteenth-Century French, it was also okay for Belle to become a princess and queen, because she had been a dedicated and self-sacrificing servant to her father and to the Beast.

The new Disney film, Beauty and the Beast, retained several of the essentials of the Beaumont folktale (discussed above) but made some changes that the producers thought would appeal to 2017 viewers. Although some of them are charming and entertaining, others seemed superfluous. Both Disney films occupied the palace with animated magical characters on steroids who ran the castle, These included, but were not limited to: a talking a talking teapot and cup; a candelabra, a dancing wardrobe closet; and a musical keyboard. Magic was seen every moment after Beauty (Emma Watson) walked into the palace. Doors opened by themselves, the candelabra continually re-lit itself, and a mirror that the Beast had given Beauty showed her what was going on at home. Disney replaced the wicked sisters with the wicked character, Gaston, and a revenge-hungry crowd. Gaston had been a rejected suitor of Beauty, who had refused to marry him due to his lack of intellectual abilities and his vanity. As you might remember in the song, mostly everyone in the town wanted to be like Gaston. Belle saw through her magic mirror, while she was at the castle, that Gaston was trying to claim that her father was insane for insisting that Beauty was being held in an enchanted palace by a Beast. Gaston wanted the father to be imprisoned in a mental institution for making these false claims.  Earlier, he tried to kill Beauty’s father earlier because he did agree to their marriage. Gaston stirred up the townspeople and got most of the people to agree to try to storm the castle, free Belle, and capture or kill the Beast.To be politically sensitive, the Disney writers conveniently placed some black citizens in the town that looked concerned about what Gaston was proposing.  It did not seem logical to me that he would ask the crowd to kill a Beast that he had first claimed did not exist. The public felt threatened because Gaston convinced them that the Beast was a dangerous outsider. Could Disney have also been commenting on powerful leaders who change their stories anytime it is convenient to meet their own self-serving motives? Gaston was believed by the town’s people and they rushed to the palace to try to destroy it and kill the Beast. However, the animated objects valiantly fought them off and made them give up their efforts. In the showdown scene, Gaston tried to fight the Beast, but the Beast had been too disheartened by Belle’s failure to return home to resist. Gaston easily shot and “killed” the Beast.  If you have seen other Disney movies, you might know that being killed or dying is not necessarily the end of an important character! However, we may assume that Gaston was really killed when he fell from a collapsing bridge unless he is brought back in a sequel. The Beast was revived by Beauty after his death in the movie in much the same way as he was in the folktales. In the film, reversing of the spell also extended to all the inanimate talking objects in the palace. They were once people and they reverted back to their former lives. These restored people had once been very familiar with the townspeople, and for some reason, they invited them to celebrate the wedding between Beauty and the prince in the palace. That idea seems illogical since these were the same townspeople who had tried to destroy the palace and kill the Beast. The addition of an evil character, like Gaston, to the ancient folktale, appears to have been made to reflect a major fear of our time current – that influential and powerful people could persuade the public to engage in irrational and dangerous acts.

 Folktale summary from (http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/beauty.html).

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Dr. Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education from Temple University (1973), a Master’s Degree of Arts in English Literature from Virginia Commonwealth University (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech (1988). He is married and has three adult daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. He is the founder and chief editor of this literary blog and is an editor for the International Correctional Education Journal. He is the Co-Editor of the 2016 book of poetry, Mystic Verses, by Shambhushivananda. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and Facilities Planning Committee Coordinator for the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. He teaches literature classes at the OSHER, Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Richmond; is the organizer and coordinator of The First Fridays Classic Book Club; and is co-organizer, along with Rebecca Elizabeth Jones, of the VCU Working Titles Book Club. Contact Murray at ellisonms2@vcu.edu, or leave a note at the bottom of the post.

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