Walter Crane, Illustration from Beauty and the Beast (detail)
I TEACH A CLASS on fairy tales to freshmen and sophomores at USC, and on the first day, as we sit in a circle, I ask them to introduce themselves and share their favorite tale. We hear a lot of Cinderellas, some Jack and the Beanstalks, and the occasional Peter Pan, which begins the discussion of what a fairy tale is, but more often than not, the most popular choice is Beauty and the Beast. These students are generally talking about the Disney version, as most of them haven’t actually read a fairy tale before.
On the one hand, the Disney film, which came out in 1991, hit this particular generation of college students nearly at birth, and it makes sense that Belle, Gaston, and the rugged, burdened Robby Benson-Beast shaped their views of film and love and storytelling. Many of them have watched it dozens of times. But the story’s appeal is deeper than that. Like all lasting fairy tales, and possibly even more than the others, Beauty and the Beast resonates with some harp string tucked deep in our DNA.
What is it about this tale and its various extraordinary retellings?
As a story, Beauty and the Beast defies two of the standard rules for fairy tales. One of the mainstays of the form is that the outside of a character usually matches the inside. If a gal is beautiful, she is pure and good inside. If a prince is handsome, one can count on his fine internal nature as well. If a stepsister is mean and awful, she generally is massively unattractive. (Consider a Chinese version of “Cinderella” where the evil stepsister’s name literally translates as “Pockface.”) This is a useful device, as fairy tales are brief and action-packed, and there’s little time for nuance or character development. Children respond well to a clear and demarcated fantasy world. But Beauty and the Beast is a rare exception; the beast is good, wants to be good, strives to show his goodness, but he is marred and hidden by his beastly appearance, and people run from the sight of him.
Of course, in film, audiences tend to grow attached to this exact beastliness. During the first screening of Jean Cocteau’s gorgeous classic, La Belle et La Bête, Marlene Dietrich famously clutched the director’s hand when actor Jean Marais, in a pair of balloony pants, materialized as the newly transformed handsome prince. “Where is my beautiful beast?” she called out. We grow attached to the beast because we love who he is. We love that he is a beast, that he is rough-edged, moody, troubled; kind, connected, and real. That Beauty sees him for who he is, and is rewarded for that, makes this tale a classic that allows the internal to take time to reveal itself, a truth we surely recognize from our regular lives and loves.
The other way that Beauty and the Beast flies in the face of the usual fairy tale conventions is that the two protagonists get to know each other. They spend time together. They, in a way, date. This is no longer love at first sight, or love at first kiss when sleeping and/or dead.
Fairy tales grow like wildflowers, authorless and widespread, with similar varieties blooming in different countries and continents. Beauty and the Beast is a tale impossible to track to its original seedling. We can find some roots in the Greek myths, in the tale of “Cupid and Psy...read more