I recently watched the Disney cartoon version of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast along with a five–year–old friend of mine. The movie is a visual delight — the animation is remarkable, the Broadway–musical–style show tunes are witty, the Beast is sufficiently ugly and endearing, and Beauty, bless her, is a rare media heroine who actually reads books. As with many of the best stories for children, my young friend and I both enjoyed it, even if we were laughing at different jokes. Nonetheless, I found myself disturbed by the film — by the broad liberties the Disney Studio took in changing classic elements of the tale. This leads to the question of where precisely should one draw the line between use and abuse of fairy tales in creating art for modern audiences. It is a question that particularly concerns those of us in the field of mythic arts, working daily with the fairy tales, myths, and legends of many cultures.
Beauty and the Beast provides us with an interesting example to consider, because while we generally think of it as an anonymous story handed down from the distant past, in fact, the tale is a literary one, created by the French writer Madame Gabrielle–Suzanne de Villeneuve in 1740.
De Villeneuve was part of the "second wave" of French fairy tale writers (Madame D'Aulnoy, Charles Perrault, and other salon fairy tale writers comprising the "first wave" fifty years earlier). When she sat down to create Beauty and the Beast (a novella–length tale first published in La jeune ameriquaine, et les contes marins), she was influenced by the work of "first wave" writers, by the story of "Cupid and Psyche" in Apuleius' Golden Ass, and by the various Animal Bridegroom legends of folklore. The story she came up with was uniquely her own, however, and addressed issues of concern to women of her day. Chief among these was a critique of a marriage system in which women had few legal rights — no right to chose their own husband, no right to refuse the marriage bed, no right to control their own property, and no right of divorce. Often the brides were fourteen or fifteen years old, given to men who were decades older. Unsatisfactory wives risked being locked up in mental institutions or distant convents. Women fairy tale writers of the 17th & 18th centuries were often sharply critical of such practices, promoting the ideas of love, fidelity, and civilité between the sexes. Their tales reflected the realities they lived with, and their dreams of a better way of life. Their Animal Bridegroom stories, in particularly, embodied the real–life fears of women who could be promised to total strangers in marriage, and who did not know if they'd find a beast or a lover in their marriage bed.
De Villeneuve's Beauty and the Beast, over one hundred pages long and published for adult readers, is somewhat different than the shorter version we know today. As the story begins, Beauty's destiny lies in the hands of her father, who gives her over to the Beast (to save his own life) and thus seals her fate. The Beast is a truly fierce figure, not a gentle soul disguised by fur — a creature lost to the human world that had once been his by birthright. The emphasis of this tale is on the transformation of the Beast, who must find his way back to the human sphere. He is a genuine monster, eventually reclaimed by civilité, magic, and love — and it is only then that Beauty can truly love him. In this story, the final transformation does not occur until after Beauty weds her Beast, waking up in her marriage bed to find a human Prince beside her.
Sixteen years later Mme Leprince de Beaumont, a French woman working as a governess in England, shortened Villeneuve's story and published this new version in a magazine for well–bred young ladies. She tailored her version for her audience, toning down its sensual imagery and implicit critique of forced marriages. She also pared away much unnecessary fat — the twisting subplots beloved by Villeneuve — to end up with a tale that was less adult and subversive, but also more direct and memorable. In the Leprince de Beaumont version (and subsequent retellings) the story becomes a more didactic one. The emphasis shifts from the Beast's need for transformation to the need of the heroine to change — she must learn to see beyond appearance and recognize the good man in the Beast. With this shift, we see the story altered from one of critique and rebellion to one of moral edification, aimed at younger and younger readers, as fairy tales slowly moved from adult salons to children's nurseries. By the 19th century, the Beast's monstrous shape is only a kind of costume that he wears — he poses no genuine danger or sexual threat to Beauty in these children's stories.
Early in the 19th century, the proliferation of printing presses caused the de Beaumont version of Beauty and the Beast to be widely disseminated in chapbook and pamphlet editions, often with credit attached to neither de Beaumont nor de Villeneuve. Betsy Hearne, in her fascinating study of the tale (Beauty and the Beast, published by the Chicago University Press in 1989), points out that in this period the story took on certain 19th–century trappings absent from previous retellings. In the 1843 poetic version attributed to Charles Lamb, as well as in the sumptuously illustrated Victorian editions that followed, the idea of fate (a metaphysical obsession of the period) is introduced. Beauty's actions, such as going to the Beast's castle in her father's stead, are not simply attributed to either blind obedience (de Villeneuve) or honor (de Beaumont), but to the heroine's acceptance of the predestined fate that lies before her.
In the 20th century the story was subtly altered again. In 1909, the French playwright Fernand Nozier wrote and produced an adult version of Beauty and the Beast with a fashionable Oriental flavor. Nozier's rendition is humorous, yet beneath its light surface the play explores a distinctly sexual subtext, and the duality of body and spirit. In this version, all three sisters find themselves powerfully attracted to the Beast. When Beauty's kiss turns him into a man, she complains: "You should have warned me! Here I was smitten by an exceptional being, and all of a sudden my fiancé becomes an ordinary, distinguished young man!"
This is a problem that has plagued most dramatic representations of the tale. The Beast is such a compelling character that it is frequently disappointing when he is turned back into a prince. The problem is particularly notable in Jean Cocteau's otherwise superb 1946 film Beauty and the Beast, which remains the best dramatic presentation of the tale ever created. Filmed in black–and–white with an astonishing amount of craft, care and love, Cocteau created a masterpiece of mythic art, blending magical motifs with strong elements of realism to bring the tale to vivid life. He strove for what he called "the supernatural within realism," mixing shots of the Beast's enchanted castle with chickens pecking on the ground and other glimpses of ordinary life, skillfully "grounding" his fairy story within the natural world. Cocteau made the film in France after World War II — a time when post–war blackouts and equipment shortages were daily problems, and when the idea of filming a fairy tale struck many as shockingly trivial. But Cocteau (unlike so many filmmakers today working with fantasy themes) avoids triviality through a deep understanding of his source material, as well as through an intense personal vision and an almost fanatical attention to the details of lighting and design. He aimed, he said, "for the clean, sculptured line of poetry instead of the usual diffuse lighting and use of gauze for magical effect." The resulting film has stood the test of time, and become a classic of the art.
Although it is a film that can be watched by children, the subtext is adult, and powerfully so. Beauty's nightly refusal of the Beast and the slow awakening of both her attraction and her sexuality are contrasted with the Beast's struggles to contain his own animal nature. He comes to her door covered with the blood of the hunt, and with anguish she sends him away. This echoes the Scandinavian animal bridegroom tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon, in which a young woman is sold by her father to a big white bear — but in the Scandinavian folktale the sexuality is more explicit. The animal bridegroom comes to his young wife's bed every night, under cover of dark. Beneath her hands, she feels the shape of a smooth young man, not a huge white bear — but she is forbidden to light a lamp or catch a glimpse of his face. In the myth of Cupid and Psyche, Psyche weds a hideous flying serpent — who is really Cupid, under a spell. By night, a man makes love to her — but she, too, is forbidden to look. She breaks this taboo, and is punished by losing her now–beloved husband. A series of arduous tasks must be completed to win him back. In Beauty and the Beast there is no equivalent taboo or insistence on obedience. Beauty's task is the opposite: to look where others would not, and to perceive the man within the Beast. The Beast's own task is patience, and the reclaiming of the human within himself.