Beauty and the Beast was released in China mid March and after watching the wonderful retelling of the classic tale I decided I should read the original story. Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve is a French author best known for her original story La Belle et la Bête. (Presumably it was written to help prepare young women for arranged marriages, but that puts a whole different level of spin on things.)
The story, most famously adapted to film by Disney in 1991, and now again in 2017, follows a similar plot, though is altered in many significant ways.
The story's main character is introduced only as Beauty, the name she is called through the entire book. She has five sisters and six brothers, and while we don't really hear about her mother, we know her father is a successful merchant and the family is wealthy.
One day, everything goes wrong and the family, who is no longer wealthy, is forced to move to the countryside. When the father gets lost on an unsuccessful business trip he finds himself at the enchanted castle. He picks a rose for Beauty, but is caught in the act by the Beast who tells him he must die unless he brings him one of his daughters.
The Merchant returns to the castle in a month with Beauty who has accepted to take her father's punishment in his stead.
When the Beauty and the Beast get their first after dinner conversation together Beast promptly asks Beauty to marry him and she naturally declines. After drifting off to sleep, Beauty dreams of a handsome prince, the Unknown, who she immediately falls in love with. The next day she finds paintings of the Unknown around the castle.
Beauty's every wish is attended for, yet she continues to decline the daily marriage proposal. Eventually she is allowed to return home for two months to see her family. When she returns she finds Beast starved nearly to death and resolves to accept his marriage proposal when he next asks.
The morning after accepting the proposal Beauty awakes in her chambers to find the Unknown asleep on a nearby couch.
Now, at this point the audience has been given a few hints that the Beast and the Unknown are the same person, but there's no indication Beauty has made this connection. In fact, we're told that her love for the Unknown in her dreams is the reason she is unwilling to accept Beasts proposal.
However, she does not seem at all surprised by the intrusion of her dream lover into real life. She tries to wake him unsuccessfully at which point she gives up and we read:
"How delighted was she to find herself betrothed to him who alone had caused her to hesitate,"
Apparently this transformation is really more of a side note to than anything else.
Note: this is halfway through the book. Indeed, the climactic point of the film which leaves romantics in tears is glossed over midway through the novel. Typical French work. :P
Two new characters are introduced. The Queen and The Fairy. (There's two characters named The Fairy in this book.) The Queen is less than thrilled to discover her soon-to-be-daughter-in-law is merely the daughter of a merchant. Instead of clearing things up right away, The (good) Fairy waits a little bit before telling everyone that Beauty is actually a princess and also The Fairy's niece.
Again, no one seems surprised by this.
Next Unknown (the Prince) provides a lengthy monologue where he explains the history from his viewpoint. It takes up the next 15% of the novella and during that we find out several interesting things.
- Beast is cursed because The (bad/ugly) Fairy made advances on him and he refused to marry her.
- The curse had a very long and specific list of requirements to fulfill in order to be undone.
- The (good) Fairy came up with the plan to catch the Merchant stealing a rose and ask for a daughter in return.
- The (good) Fairy made Beast/Unknown/Prince invisible so he could watch Beauty as she strolled about the castle. #thatsnotcreepy
If Beauty is surprised by any of this, we are not told.
Lastly, a King shows up and The (good) Fairy has a monologue which fills the last quarter of the book and contains the political climate of the Fairy Kingdom and several unnecessary story elements.
Beauty is actually the daughter of The (good) Fairy's sister and the King. The (good) Fairy's sister gets in trouble for this relationship and is imprison in the Fairy Land jail. When Beauty's life is threatened as a baby, [by The (bad/ugly) Fairy, no less,] The (good) Fairy steps in to rescue her. The (good) Fairy encounters a sick baby who has just died and swaps Beauty in her place.
[Side note: the ill baby dies the instant The (good) Fairy touches it. I'm not a conspiracist, but I'm seriously doubting how "good" this "good" fairy really is.]
Oh, somewhere here Beauty was cursed by The (bad/ugly) Fairy to marry a beast... (ಠ_ಠ)
This is the type of contrived plot point which the modern reader could live without. It reeks of Season 6 development that pulls inconsequential events from earlier seasons and makes the audience stop suspending disbelief and start questioning motives.
The (good) Fairy sticks around just long enough to prophesy to the Merchant that his "daughter' Beauty will one day save his life before going off to do fairy things for 15 years... or something.
In a classic Gilbert and Sullivan style ending, everyone is reunited at the end of the book, even The (good) Fairy's sister shows up to be reunited with the King and Beauty's (adopted) family arrives for a month long wedding celebration.
Sadly, the characters in this story are flat. The Prince is portrayed as a good, upright man with no faults. He is cursed due to someone else's selfish ambitions being thwarted. In fact, part of the curse involves him seeming simple minded so it's unclear if he could even be "taught" by Beauty as he is in later variations.
In the Disney retelling Beast is a flawed creature. He made a poor decision and is suffering the consequences. The audience is invited to watch him go from an angry, uncouth… er… beast, to a refined, well-mannered gentleman.
Similarly, in the book Beauty falls in love with the Unknown (the Prince) during her first night in the castle. The dream-world courtship is a foregone conclusion right from the start. What's more, she so intuitively makes the connection between the two characters after the transformation it's a real wonder why it doesn't happen more quickly.
In the film version the audience is treated to a musical montage where Beauty moves from her initial repulsion of Beast to realizing he has a tender heart under his fearsome facade.
While the book contains an assortment of monkeys, parrots, and other animals who either are or are acting under the influence of genii's provided by The (good) Fairy, there is no mention of talking furniture.
Additionally, there's no wilting rose, which is arguably the most iconic symbol to come out of this fairy tale.
The timeline of events seems to vary between tellings. In this version it seems that many years might have passed following the curse and prior to Beauty's arrival. It takes many months, maybe even longer before Beauty is allowed to return home, at which time she is gone for two months.
In the most recent film adaptation it's implied that the curse was perhaps only a couple years old. To see families reunited at the end of the film is heart-warming, but shortening the amount of time for the curse only serves to trivialize the main characters.
For the most emotional impact I would argue that Beast needs to be cursed for a sufficient length of time. Following the curse, I would imagine it takes several months to work through the various stages of grief. Following that, the former Prince would not quickly forget how to daintily eat soup or lose his manners. Only after years of being in Beast form, finally giving up hope, does the beacon of possibility return.
As an audience I want Beast to be at the low point and I need to be able to see it. In the book, I'm told he gave up hope, but I don't see it in his actions. His character is unbelievable.
While I like the overall plot, the telling of the story is sub par at best. The flowery language is would typically be wonderful for fairy tales is a muddled mess and the lack of distinguishing character names makes certain passages difficult to read. My favorite of such passages comes at the end of run on sentence describing the (bad/ugly) Fairy's antics.
"…because she said she reminded her of a daughter she had had by her husband, and who perished along with him."
Unfortunately, I am inclined to give La Belle et la Bête a big thumbs down. Published in 1740 it really is a "tale as old as time," but I find later renditions both easier to read and more cathartically fulfilling.