Thoughts on Beauty and the Beast

Ever since the final theatrical trailer for Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast was released, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this fairy tale that I love so much.

In 1740 Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve published a novella length fairy tale, the first recorded story titled “Beauty and the Beast.” It is fair to say that Villeneuve was probably inspired by the Cupid and Psyche story “The Golden Ass,” which was written by Apuleius sometime between 158 and the 180s AD. Villeneuve’s novella is much longer than most traditional fairy tales, and drags on far too much for most people’s liking. In 1756 Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont published a shorter version of the story, which became much more popular than Villeneuve’s novella. Today, most people aren’t aware of Villeneuve’s story.

I wish that more people were aware of Villeneuve’s story; it’s my favorite of all the “Beauty and the Beast” stories I’ve come across. I grew up on Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and it still hold quite a lot of nostalgic value. But now that I’ve spent so much time looking at fairy tales critically, to pull out the bits I like to incorporate into my own fairy tale retellings, it is impossible for me to ignore the aspects of Disney’s retelling (and Beaumont’s, and Villeneuve’s original) that don’t sit right with me.

The biggest reason I prefer Villeneuve’s “Beauty and the Beast” over Disney’s or Beamont’s is the backstory given to show how the Beast was cursed to be a beast.

In Disney’s prologue we are told that Beast is a beast because he refused to give shelter to an enchantress disguised as an old hag. It seems like an okay scene on the surface (in my childhood I never found anything wrong with it), but when looking at it closer I have some questions.

  • Why is the Prince the one to open the door? Surely there is a servant to do that, just in case the person at the door is looking to harm the royal family.
  • And where are the King and Queen? Not around, from what I can tell; it seems logical that they would be making the decision about letting in a visitor, not the Prince.
  • I also wonder about the Enchantress’ motivation. She says she’s looking for shelter, but I don’t buy it. She has magic strong enough to disguise herself and put a curse on the Prince that not only affects him, but everyone else in the castle as well. But she doesn’t have enough power to build herself shelter? That doesn’t make sense; which leads me to believe she gets joy from cursing people who aren’t nice to her, in situations she forces upon them.
  • In the song “Be Our Guest” Lumière sings “Ten years we’ve been rusting,” which means that if the curse ends on Beast’s 21st birthday, it was put on him when he was 10 or 11. The Prince doesn’t look 10/11 in the animation of the prologue, so it’s hard to know exactly how old Disney intended him to be.

Disney tries to paint the Beast as a bad guy deserving of the curse put on him. But if he truly was 10 or 11 when the Enchantress knocked on the door late at night, can we really blame him for turning her away? Especially if his parents and all other guardian figures are gone or unwilling to open the door and take the responsibility away from a child. When looked at this way, the Beast is a victim.

In Villeneuve’s version the Beast being a victim is much more overt. When the Prince was young, his father died. A neighboring kingdom, with which the Prince’s kingdom had fought with for many years, planned to attack and take over the kingdom while it grieved the King’s death. The Queen, guessing that an attack was coming, led her army into battle. She left the Prince in care of a fairy she knew and trusted. This fairy became like a second mother to the Prince while the Queen spent years in battle defending the kingdom. The Prince grew up, and came of age. The fairy realized she has romantic and sexual feelings for the Prince. She made advances at him, but he was not interested in her the way she was interested in him. She was like a second mother to him, after all. The fairy got mad, and cursed the Prince; she turned him into a beast because he didn’t reciprocate her feelings. The Beast is a victim.

Disney’s live-action remake is coming out in March, and I don’t quite know how excited to be. Because, as stated above, I have a lot of nostalgic attachment to the Disney animated film. And, given what I’ve seen in trailers and the few things I’ve read online, it looks like changes have been made for the better. But I’ve been let down by Disney too many times to be flat out excited. I’ll have to wait to watch the movie to see how I feel.

My mind keep returning to the thought that the Beast is a victim. The Beast is a victim, and I think it would be useful for us to stop thinking about “Beauty and the Beast” being the story of love transforming bad people into good ones. Instead (at least to me) it’s the story of companionship and friendliness reminding a victim that people can care about him and not give him outrageous punishments for his “wrongdoings.”

There’s a lot more I could say about Beauty and the Beast, so I’ll have to return to the topic at some point. But this is enough for now.


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