Honouring the Heroine: La Belle

Yes, I know, my posting schedule this year was very spotty. Nah, let’s be honest here, it was practically non-existent. I need to focus more, currently there are a number of half-finished article in the waiting queue. But then, I rather do good than fast work.

Anyway, one thing I certainly have no intention to skip is fairy tale month, though I am slowly running out of fairy tales with great adaptations. But there is a lot to say about Beauty and the Beast. And it will be easier to discuss the adaptations I picked if I first give an overview over the most relevant sources which have shaped our idea of this particular version of the story.

So, let’s start with Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve. Villeneuve was a noble women and young widow who had lost most of her family fortune and thus started publishing stories to support herself. In her story La Jeune Américaine et les Contes marins a young woman travelling to her wedding to Santo Domingo is told three stories. One of those stories is La Belle et la Bête, which was later republished in an abridged version by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. This is the version which was later translated and became worldwide known.

Now the Villeneuve version is kind of an odd hybrid. There are two kind of fairy tales out there:  “Volksmärchen” (Folk tales) and “Kunstmärchen” (free translated artisan tales). Volksmärchen are stories which have been told for centuries until someone – usually a linguist or historian – got the idea to collect them and write them down. The collectors did sometimes edit them, but the main goal of those collections was usually to trace a story back to their origin as far as possible and to beware them for the future. Kunstmärchen on the other hand have a known author (most famously Hans Christian Andersen) who decided to write in the same style.

Villeneuve’s story is somewhat neither nor because she was heavily inspired by oral lore and known fairy tales as well as Greek mythology, but the final story is pretty much her own version. She also didn’t really keep to the brief fairy tale style. Like, at all. There is a whole convoluted backstory about how the prince became the Beast and about La Belles true parentage which add nothing to the narrative. Beaumont removes all this extra information and streamlines the story a lot – for example six sons and six daughters become three sons and three daughters – but she also adds a few elements, like the Beast gifting Beauty the library (yes, Disney had inspiration for this one), the magic mirror and a gruesome punishment for the jealous sisters.

To be honest: While Villeneuve’s version overly convoluted and full of unfortunate implications, I like Beaumont’s take even less because it is kind of mean-spirited. It is quite common in fairy tales that the virtue of a protagonist is emphasised by comparing her or him to the careless actions of his or her siblings, but Beaumont seems to take delight in rebuking the two sisters at every opportunity.

And then there is the version by Jean Cocteau from 1946. It is a landmark of movie making due to its surrealistic style, which influenced a lot of creators. If my blog were about the best adaptations of the story, I would discuss it in greater detail due to its importance for French cinema, but, well, I am writing about great characters and Cocteau’s version of Belle is kind of bland. How bland? Let’s put it this way: When I was looking for pictures for this article, I had a really, really hard time to find a close-up of her in which she wasn’t either fixated on the Beast or looking demure to the ground.

It is nevertheless important to mention this particular adaption because of its considerable influence.  This version introduced the concept of a rival for Belle’s attention, someone who is good looking and cruel to mirror the beast which is supposed to be cruel looking but gentle. Though this inclusion doesn’t come quite out of nowhere, there is something along the line in Villeneuve’s version.  Though in this case it is more a love triangle between two people: Belle keeps dreaming of a beautiful prince who tries to convince her to marry the Beast, only to discover later that said prince is the Beast. Which might explain why in Cocteau’s version the Beast’s true form looks like Belle’s cruel suitor.

My own experience with the fairy tale is a little bit odd. For starters, there are way, way less adaptations of Beauty and the Beast out there than of other popular fairy tales. Sure, it sometimes turns up in fairy tale based serials and TV shows, but otherwise it has been kind of neglected. I guess this is partly because the French are kind of reluctant in attempting to outdo Cocteau while German film studios are automatically more interested in German lore.

As a result the version I knew the best during my childhood was neither a movie nor a book, it was a radio play. When I was a child, I didn’t have my own TV or god forbid a computer. But I had a cassette recorder in order to listen to some kind of story during bed time. Not audio books, mind you, proper plays, usually based on well-known children books and fairy tales.

The adaptation I grew up with was therefore the one by Europa (a still pretty successful publisher of those tapes), called Tausendschönchen. And let me tell you: They really did their very best to remove unfortunate implications from the story. In this version, the merchant doesn’t steal the rose. Instead the Beast rescues his life when he is attacked by robbers, and then cares for him until he is recovered from his injuries. When the merchant is recovered he asks the Beast how he can express his thankfulness, promising him whatever he wants, but the Beast initially claims that there is nothing he can give. The merchant insists and finally the Beast says that if he really wants to do something for him, he should send Tausendschönchen to him, since, even though he talked about all of his daughters, he had only asked for Tausendschönchen in his fever dreams. The Beast further explains that he can’t stand the loneliness any longer, and if neither Tausendschönchen nor either of her sisters are ready to stay with him, the merchant should come instead.

So, to recap, in this version the merchant already knows that the Beast is friendly and well-meaning but lonely, Tausendschönchen goes to him because she is thankful for him rescuing her father’s life and there is no talk of marriage whatsoever. As a result, her stay in the castle isn’t that creepy. Well, it is still creepy, since the description of the shadow-like servants is very atmospheric, but the Beast doesn’t seem to be particularly threatening.

The end of the story is pretty much the same as in the fairy tale: Tausendschönchen wants to visit her family and then comes back late because her jealous sisters convince her to stay longer. After a nightmare about the Beast suffering, she hastens back to the castle and finds it dying out of loneliness. Or due to a broken heart, take your pick. Anyway, she confesses her love, he transforms and they live happily ever after.

I liked this story, but I never really had the desire to seek out the original. I kind of assumed that it couldn’t be that different. Oh, how wrong I was. In reality, this might be the most flexible fairy tale I know. Other stories change certain elements, but the core of the story stays the same. Even the Cinderella story, which has been retold again and again around the world, keeps true to its very basic elements. It is always about a magical opportunity for someone trapped in abusive circumstances. Beauty and the Beast on the other hand seems to change the very core of what the tale is actually about with various retellings.

Part of it might be due to changes in society itself. We are nowadays way more conscious of the fact that forcing a woman to live with anyone, be it in an arranged marriage or some sort of hostage situation, is not an acceptable start for any kind of relationship. But I don’t think that this is the main reason for those changes considering that some of the newer adaptations manage to add even more unfortunate implications on top of the whole potential Stockholm syndrome issue.  In addition, this shift in themes happened with the story from the very beginning. Villeneuve’s version seems to be intended as a reassurance for young woman that marrying an older but wealthy man isn’t the worst fate possible. Beaumont’s take is an outright morality tale which warns young woman that they shouldn’t be too prideful and egocentric. Cocteau keeps the morality aspect largely intact, but his focus is more on exploring the dreamlike quality of the story. Later adaptions add a social critical angle, others go all psychological. Often the attention shifts from Belle to the Beast. And the message changes too. For example the story I listened to as a child was miles away from telling me something about arranged marriage. My take-away from it was to always honour my promises.

But how much the message of this particular fairy tale can change depending on the teller that is something I intend to discuss in more detail in the upcoming articles. I spend the whole year going through the texts, various translations and adaptations. I eventually narrowed it down on one TV movie, TV show and one animated movie. Feel free to guess (though one should be obvious), but feel also free to make your own suggestions. After all, I might have overlooked a worthy take, and I might be able to squeeze it in before the end of December.

Otherwise I wish you all a stress free Advent. Try to enjoy the fun aspects of Christmas and don’t get sucked up too much in whatever you don’t like about it. Remember, life is too short to allow anyone or anything to ruin what should be joyous occasion.






7 thoughts on “Honouring the Heroine: La Belle

    • Well, due to the importance of Germany in literature and linguistic studies, a lot of related words originate in Germany and are difficult (if at all) translatable. The Grimm Brothers themselves are revered linguists, the fairy tale collection was more for the broader masses.

      • Na dann viel Glück!

        May I give you a tip? Don’t worry about the articles too much. I have seen foreign speakers being all hung up about them but to be honest, getting the article wrong isn’t a mistake a native German would hold against you. We are very aware how difficult it is to get them right especially since there are a few words for which we ourselves tend to mix them up. Nobody will make a big deal out of this and picking the wrong article rarely changes the meaning of a sentences. Honestly, the only way to learn those is to constantly read and hear the language.

  1. I’ll admit I have yet to see Cocteau’s film, but now you’ve given me a reason to – I’ll probably try to watch it during this weekend. As for the source work, I like both Beaumont’s and Villeneuve’s versions – probably my favorite is Villeneuve’s without the complicated backstory. There’s an English translation like that.

    The thing about the moral is funny. Nowadays everyone would automatically say “true beauty is found inside” because of the Disney movie, but when you read the story and knows the history behind it, you realize it isn’t quite like that. I’m intrigued by this audioplay. It’s a pity I don’t speak German (not yet, at least) or I would be trying to find it right now, lol.

    As for adaptations you might want to check out… well, I can only recall the episode of “Faerie Tale Theatre” (such a good series) and this European movie – Hugarian, I think, but don’t hole me to that – where the Beast was a birdlike creature. I didn’t find that Belle very interesting, but I might have overlooked something. I saw it on Yotube, it’s rather easy to find.

    • If you are speaking about the Fairy Tale Theatre I am thinking off (you know, the one with Klaus Kinski): That version is actually a cheaper take on the Cocteau version, even the costumes are identical. If you know the Cocteau take, it is a little bit cringy to watch (though Kinski is a better beast imho).

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