Widely regarded as one of Disney’s best films, Beauty and the Beast is based on a French fairy tale about a beautiful woman who falls in love with a beast. Fortunately, it was written in the goode olde dayes before the internet, so the message of “it’s what’s inside that counts” resonates more strongly than “if you’re a furry, it’s kind of okay”. In any case, it’s a classic and timeless tale that most people can relate to in one way or another.
There are technically two source texts for this story. The original, La Belle et la Bête, was published in 1740 by Madame de Villeneuve, and was then shamefully ripped off by Madame Leprince de Beaumont in 1757, who pretty much swiped the entire story apart from the brain-out-of-the-window ending (more on that later). Although Leprince de Beaumont’s is the more well-known version, Villeneuve’s is much more interesting and not all that different, so I’m going to be looking at the bona fide original in this post.
Much to my surprise, this is one of those rare (only?) occasions where the Disney version appears to be a few shades darker, and the original is much more “family-friendly”…but not necessarily in a good way, if you catch my drift. So, without further ado, let’s look at both versions side by side.
The Main Characters
In Disney’s version, the Beast used to be a selfish and whiny prince who one night refused shelter to a helpless old woman. Said woman was actually an enchantress, and as punishment for his cruelty, she turned him into a beast. If he did not learn to love someone, and have his love returned, he would remain a beast forever. To spice things up a bit, the enchantress gave him until the age of 21 to achieve this.
In Villeneuve’s novel, the prince wasn’t selfish or whiny, and his only crime was refusing to marry his governess. Unfortunately, said governess was an evil fairy as well as an ugly old bitch, so she responded by turning him into a grotesque beast.
This would have been his doom, but a good fairy intervened and lessened the blow by promising he would turn back into a human if he could find someone to love him in this form. She was nice enough to spare him the deadline as well.
This is one of the main differences between the two stories, as Villeneuve’s Beast is a victim of injustice, whereas Disney’s Beast has been (severely) punished for wrongdoing and has to learn how to redeem himself. The Beast in the novel is much more sympathetic throughout, apart from when it comes to his rose garden, but Disney’s Beast starts out as the same selfish and whiny prince he was before. Way to teach us about inner beauty, Disney.
So what about the leading lady? Belle’s character is actually pretty much the same in both versions, but her circumstances are somewhat different.Disney’s Belle is the only child of an eccentric inventor, and lives in a provincial town in France where people frequently burst into song and perfectly choreographed dance moves. Although she is the most beautiful girl in the village, she is completely unaware of this, and is seen as a bit of an oddball for being interested in books and adventures rather than being a housewife.
Villeneuve’s Belle is the youngest daughter of a successful merchant, and lives in relative luxury in the city. She has a whopping five older sisters and six brothers, and true to fairy tale form, all the other sisters are less attractive and obsessed with money and status. Belle is happy just reading books, going to the theatre and playing the harpsichord, as well as throwing down everything to help her father at the drop of a hat.
Unlike the film version, Belle is the only one without a sweetheart, and at the beginning of the story she is not hounded for her affections.
To drive home the point about inner beauty, Disney introduces Gaston, the handsomest bastard in the village. He is arrogant, selfish and violent, and has designs on Belle simply because he wants the most beautiful woman on his arm, and will stop at nothing to achieve this aim.
The novel’s antagonist is never seen, and is only discussed retrospectively by the other characters, but it’s the evil fairy that transformed the prince into a beast. She is known as the Mother of Time because she is one of the oldest fairies in the fairy kingdom, and although she started off as a good governess to the prince, she became jealous and bitter of others. She tried to seduce the king of a neighbouring kingdom, but when this didn’t go to plan, resulting in a shark jump of Olympic proportions, she decided to come home and try for a royal toyboy instead.
In essence, the novel’s antagonist has already done her damage, but in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, we see Gaston evolve from a comedic nuisance to a sinister irritation, and then finally into a terrifying villain.
By having the Beast in a much more desperate situation, and an antagonist who is a real and present threat, the Disney version has already established a darker tone.
The same can be said for how Belle and her father first come across the Beast, so let’s now look at how the story plays out.
In Disney’s version, Belle’s father Maurice manages to perfect a wood-chopping invention (no sniggering in the back) and heads off to the next town, hoping to win first prize in the fair. On the way, he gets lost in the woods and comes across the Beast’s castle.
In the novel, Belle’s father is only ever referred to as “the merchant”, “the good man” or “the old man”, and with spectacularly bad timing he loses all his wealth and possessions in a house fire, and then loses all his wares in a shipwreck. As a result, his family has to decamp to a provincial French town and live in a cottage, at which point all the friends and lovers desert them for their sudden lack of cash. After two years of living as peasants, the merchant hears that one shipment has survived and so goes off to collect it, promising his children presents on his return. Belle has to be cajoled into wanting anything, and settles with just a rose. In a surprise to absolutely no one, by the time the father arrives at the city his wares have all but been sold off by his creditors, and although he does try to make a go of things as a merchant again, six months later he is still no better off.
Since this is magical 18th Century France, asking for an investment from the dragons would yield even worse results than normal, so Belle’s father has no way of getting help or more money and dejectedly heads for home. By this point, it’s the middle of winter. Like Maurice, he ends up lost in the woods and comes across the Beast’s castle, which was clearly designed under the influence of alcohol.
In the film, Maurice is not only chased by wolves and comes across the castle at night, but finds it dark, spooky and sinister. In the novel, the merchant finds the castle in the middle of the day, completely untouched by snow, and surrounded by flowers and orange trees. What’s more, after falling asleep in front of the fire – twice – he is served by persons unknown with food, drink and delicious desserts, and even spends the night there. This is in contrast to Maurice, who barely has a slurp of tea in front of the fire before the Beast barges in roaring like a diva.
Both fathers set out full of optimism, but it’s Villeneuve’s character who has a roller coaster ride, going from hope to despair and then to back to hope again, as he believes the castle is enchanted (no shit, Sherlock), and that some kind fairy created it for him and his family to live in. In the morning when he sets off to tell them, he remembers that Belle asked him for a rose, and starts to pick some from the garden.
In the Disney film, the Beast throws a hissy fit because Maurice has dared enter the castle in the first place, and throws him in the dungeon. The Beast in the book has a tantrum because the merchant took some of his roses. He is so insulted by this, after having served him food and drink, that he says he will actually kill him. Fair play, especially if he only left the coconut-flavoured ones.
Seriously though, we have one Beast who imprisons trespassers, and another who rewards rudeness with murder. Maybe people were more easily offended in the 18th Century, but I think Disney’s Beast is slightly more understandable here, despite being a more unpleasant character from the outset. Fortunately, Belle comes to the rescue in both stories, but not at all in the same way.
Disney’s Belle is greeted by her father’s horse, Philippe, pulling an empty cart. Like all Disney animals, Philippe is psychic and realises Belle wants him to take her to Maurice, so they go off to the castle to rescue him. Belle finds him cold and sick in the dungeon, and it’s here that she encounters the Beast.
By contrast, Villeneuve’s story sees Belle’s father pleading the Beast for his life, saying he has six daughters to take care of. At the mention of some hot medieval booty, the Beast relents and says that if the merchant returns in one month with one of his daughters, he will spare his life. However, the Beast is at pains to stress that his daughter must come of her own accord, and be fully aware that she is expected to stay at the castle forever, so she cannot be forced into this. Alternatively, the father must return in a month to stay at the castle in her place. If he does neither, the Beast will come and kill him.
The father returns home and tells his children what happened. Belle is blamed by her bitchy sisters because of the rose, and so she agrees to be the one to stay with the Beast. Her brothers, in typical macho fairy tale fashion, offer to kill the Beast, but the father says he is a man of his word and cannot break a promise. Sending his sixteen year-old daughter to live with a ferocious monster is totally okay though.
When they arrive at the castle there is a fanfare and firework display of sorts, and they are permitted to dine and rest at the castle for the night before saying their goodbyes in the morning. What’s more, the Beast gives the merchant two chests, which he is allowed to fill with as many riches and jewels as he pleases. He also tells Belle that she is now a queen of the castle, and can go wherever and do whatever she pleases.
Disney’s Belle also agrees to stay with the Beast forever, but she does so on the spur of the moment in exchange for her father’s freedom. In this version, her father actually protests with some conviction, but it falls on deaf ears. As soon as Belle makes this deal with the Beast, he chucks her father into a carriage and sends him home, without giving them the chance to say goodbye to each other.
So, although both Belles are doomed to live at the castle until the end of their days, Villeneuve’s Belle was given more choice in the matter, and is greeted and treated like a lady of the manor rather than a prisoner. This brings us to a comparison of the relationship between Belle and the Beast.
The Beauty and the Beast
Disney’s Beast starts out as a grumpy old git, warning that Belle is only allowed to eat meals if she eats with him, and that she is forbidden from the west wing of the castle. Belle therefore spends most of this act tiptoeing around hoping to avoid him – even the servants try to keep the noise down for her sake – and when they encounter one another, there is usually a (one-sided) shouting match, mostly due to the Beast’s short temper.
By contrast, Villeneuve’s Beast is very polite and courteous towards Belle, and only appears at a certain time of the evening. After conversing with her about what she did during the day, and whether she is happy and comfortable, he asks Belle if he can sleep with her.
Did I mention this was written in the 18th Century? In this context, it means he just wants to share a bed with her, not necessarily earn his namesake. And in all fairness, when Belle screams, he tells her not to be afraid and to answer him honestly. Shockingly, she turns him down, but it doesn’t stop him from asking her every single day.
In short, Villeneuve’s Beast is more frank with what he wants from Belle, but has less contact with her generally. Disney’s Beast leaves Belle in the dark as to why he wants her around, and their relationship is allowed to develop more organically.
The turning point in the film is when Belle runs away after another shouting match with the Beast and is attacked by wolves. After he saves her life, and she thanks him and treats his wounds, they become more tolerant of one another and manage to cultivate a close friendship.
Congratulations! You have achieved the rank of: Badass
Villeneuve’s Belle sees her feelings for the Beast develop more indirectly, and it’s mostly to do with this chap:
Every night, Villeneuve’s Belle dreams about a handsome prince who apparently lives in the castle. He is very charming and devoted, spouting poems that even a Hallmark card would shy away from, and seems overly concerned at her happiness and making sure that her every wish is fulfilled (apart from obviously going home to her family). Belle falls in love with this dream prince, so much so that when she finds his portrait in one of the palace galleries, she blushes and can’t look at it properly. As well as the handsome prince, a Lady also appears in her dreams, telling her she will be happy if she looks past mere appearances and so on. This is also echoed by the prince, who often asks her what she thinks of the Beast.
Since Belle is rather dense and hasn’t made the connection, she thinks the prince is a different person entirely, and feels guilty for loving him as she is grateful to the Beast for his hospitality and kindness, and thinks it is almost like a betrayal. Eventually, her feelings for the Beast grow, but without her realising it. Arguably, she falls in love by proxy.
This is in contrast to the Disney film, where Belle is very much aware of how she is starting to feel about him as the film progresses. Soon after the wolf attack, the Beast surprises Belle with the library, and presents it to her as a gift. The fact that she allows herself to be lead around blind by an enormous lion, bear and ox hybrid speaks volumes about the level of trust, and they clearly enjoy each other’s company enough to throw snowballs at one another and go dancing in the ballroom in front of a singing teapot.
Villeneuve’s Belle begins slightly afraid of the Beast, but she then begins to pity him and this soon develops into something else. Her main reservation is the fact that he is a monstrous creature. Interestingly, Disney Belle’s main issue is that the Beast is short-tempered, grumpy and heartless – aside from the first time she sees him, it’s his attitude rather than his appearance that seems to bother her, hence her warming to him more quickly than Villeneuve’s Belle when he becomes friendlier as a person.
Disney Belle’s relationship with the Beast changes as the perception of the castle changes, and this leads to another difference between the two stories.
Life in the Castle
Villeneuve’s castle is much more ornate and beautiful, and has a very positive sheen applied to it. However, there are no visible servants. Disney’s castle is ornate but shrouded in darkness, and it is populated with servants who look like this:
Cogsworth, Lumiere and Mrs. Potts were all transformed into job-specific appliances by the enchantress. This may sound a bit silly to some people, but it at least makes sense in this universe. In the book, instead of enchanted candlesticks and clocks, we have:
No, I’m not making this up, and no, my French isn’t that rusty. Belle makes friends with monkey butlers and pages, and they use parrots to translate for her.
Despite such zaniness, Villeneuve’s Belle seems to get bored of her elaborate surroundings, as she is left to explore the castle and entertain herself all day, alone, and simply waits for the Beast to appear in the evening. Conversely, Disney’s Belle finds the castle to be a place of dark and mysterious wonder (apart from the singing candlesticks and crockery), and her curiosity is particularly peaked by the Beast’s solemn and gloomy quarters in the west wing.
As her relationship with the Beast develops, we see the brighter and more beautiful places in the castle, such as the library, the dining room, the gardens and then finally the golden ballroom. There is no such change for Villeneuve’s Belle, except that the rooms seem to feel emptier as each day goes by as she longs for the Beast’s presence.
Other differing plot points are the rose and the mirror. In the Disney film, the rose serves as a countdown for the Beast, and as each petal is shed, the suspense increases as we know his time is running out. The magical mirror is also used to show the Beast or Belle anything that is going on anywhere. The less you think about this, the better.
In the novel, it’s the rose that brings Belle and the Beast together, and the equivalent of the mirror is a room with four windows on each wall that Belle can use to see theatre plays, operas, and other things going on in the world outside.
Both Belles are permitted to leave the castle at one point, but only one Beast allows her to leave unconditionally. Surprisingly, it’s Disney’s Beast that’s more relenting here.
Back to Reality
By this point in the film, Belle and the Beast clearly have feelings for each other. However, Belle’s father acts as a completely unintentional cock-blocker. Belle wishes to see him, and so the Beast allows her to use the mirror, whereby she sees that he is dying. Realising he has set out in the snow to try to save her, she must go to save him, and the Beast allows her to leave, fully expecting her to never come back. It would have been nice of him to accompany her, and you know, help her take her dying father home, but never mind. He gives her the mirror as a memento, and she leaves him (unknowingly) in a pit of despair.
In the novel, Belle is simply pining for her family, rather than being spurred on by any particular news, and asks the Beast if she can return home to see them. The Beast becomes an utter emo, wailing that she can go, but she must come back in two months, otherwise he will just die. She promises she will return when asked, and sets off to see her family.
Both Beasts are complete drama queens when Belle leaves, but Disney’s Beast has more reason to be, as Belle doesn’t know that his time is almost up and that he is likely doomed to remain in this shape forever without her. Villeneuve’s Beast has no such time constriction, and Belle has even promised she will come back, so why he is so needy and depressed is anyone’s guess.
On returning home, Disney’s Belle gets the worst deal by far.
Although Belle manages to save her father and bring him home, her jilted admirer Gaston threatens to have Maurice thrown into an asylum unless she agrees to marry him. When that doesn’t go to plan, he raises an angry mob and convinces them to storm the castle and kill the Beast.
The worst thing to greet Villeneuve’s Belle is the unconvincing display of affection from her jealous sisters, and one haunting dream where the Beast is lying dead in a cave because she didn’t come back in time. Everything else is just roses (see what I did there?). However, her dream upsets her, and she decides she must go back to the castle. Unfortunately, the pleas of her family delay her by one day.
The film sees the angry mob attack the castle, but they are seen off by the furniture. Gaston manages to find the Beast, who pretty much allows him to kill him, as he is convinced he is now doomed to remain a beast forever. He only fights back once he sees Belle has arrived, and manages to dispose of Gaston, who as a parting shot stabs him in the ribs before falling screaming into a chasm.
I think by this point you can probably see how one works as a book and the other works as a film. In any case, in both versions Belle returns to the castle to find the Beast worse for wear.
Disney’s Beast, having been brutally stabbed and shot with an arrow, has an excuse for being close to death. Villeneuve’s Beast, however, is close to death merely because Belle was late back by one day, and he was convinced she would never return. Essentially both Beasts allow themselves to die for fear of never seeing Belle again, but Villeneuve’s Beast takes this to a ridiculously literal level.
Disney Belle cries over the Beast’s body and tries to reassure him that she’s back, but when he appears to expire, she tells him she loves him. At this point, he is transformed back into his true self: a prince who looks like a deer in headlights.
Obviously, a stab wound and an arrow are nowhere near as bad as death by desertion, so Villeneuve’s Beast needs more attention before he can transform back into his true self. Belle tries pouring water over him to revive him, and enlists the help of the monkey butlers as she can’t carry enough of it at once. Eventually, the Beast wakes up, relieved that she has returned, and Belle confesses that she wasn’t aware of her feelings for him until she feared him dead.
At this point, the Beast asks her again if he can come and sleep with her. This time, Belle has thought about this, and during a previous conversation with her father, she realised that the Beast would make a good husband as he is kind and wants to make her happy. So, she says yes, and this causes fireworks to fly above the castle, and some of the lights spell out VIVE BELLE AND HER HUSBAND. Remember that at this point, the Beast is still very much a beast and has not become a prince yet.
They retire to the bedroom, and the Beast reassures Belle that he won’t break the bed. At this point in the book you are gruesomely transfixed (unless you are a furry), until the Beast suddenly lies down and starts snoring. Belle is also pretty relieved, and then falls asleep herself, dreaming about the prince and the Lady, who are both gushing with praise at her decision and telling her everything will be wonderful. It’s only in the morning, when she wakes up, that the Beast has finally transformed back into the prince from her dreams. However, that’s by no means the end of the novel.
The film shows all of the servants changing back into human form too, and we have a joyous ending where presumably Belle and the prince are getting married, or at least throwing a bitching party, after which they all transform into a stained glass window.
The novel does end like this eventually, but there’s a truckload more exposition to come, so hold on to your hats boys and girls and grab a cup of strong coffee (preferably with some booze in it).
When Belle wakes up, her handsome prince is next to her, but sleeping soundly. She tries everything to wake him up – kissing him, talking to him, and even singing and playing a damn instrument, but to no avail. She is about to give up when she looks out the window and sees two women approaching, both of whom are of noble birth. This turns out to be the queen, who is the prince’s mother, and a good fairy – the same Lady that Belle saw in her dreams, and the one who dampened down the curse on the Beast at the beginning.
At first the queen is ecstatic that Belle has broken the spell, but then changes her tune entirely when she discovers that Belle is not of noble birth, and will not allow the prince to marry her. Yes, the Beast has an overbearing mother, as well as being introverted and emo.
At this point the prince has woken up, and begs the fairy to change him back into a beast if he is unable to have Belle in his human form. The fairy intervenes, and assures them that Belle is indeed of noble birth and all is well. Before she will explain why, however, she says she must summon the king of a neighbouring kingdom, who is the queen’s brother and the Beast’s uncle.
Once he has arrived, and everyone is gathered around a la a Poirot revelation, the fairy babbles on for about twenty-five pages and divulges a plot twist worthy of M. Night Shyalaman, or at least an episode of Eastenders.
To cut a long story short, it turns out that Belle is, quite literally, a fairy princess.
Belle’s mother was the good fairy’s sister, who fell in love with the king while disguised as a shepherdess. When they had a child together, she was imprisoned by the evil fairy, the Mother of Time, for breaking fairyland rules. The Mother of Time then swore that Belle would end up marrying a beast as punishment for her lineage, but just in case that didn’t come to pass, and to stop her from getting in the way of some royal action with the king, she arranged for the infant Belle to be killed.
The good fairy rescued Belle (who is her niece), and switched her with the dying infant of the merchant, who then unknowingly raised her as his own. The king, meanwhile, thought his daughter had been killed by wild animals.
When the Mother of Time failed to seduce the king, she later tried it on with her pupil the prince, and then turned him into a beast when he refused to marry her. As outlined at the beginning, he would only turn back into a human if he found someone to love him as a beast, and oh look, Belle has been cursed to marry a beast!
At the end of the book, it transpires that the Mother of Time has been stripped of her fairy powers as punishment for causing all this upset, and Belle’s mother is let out of prison for helping a hitherto unmentioned fairy queen. We therefore have a family reunion where Belle is reunited with her real father and mother, and the Mother of Time can never bother anyone ever again. As for Belle’s original family, they are invited to live in the castle as nobles…and servants. A happy ending for all then!
As a closing observation, the prince’s mother and Belle’s father are brother and sister, so yeah, Belle and the Beast are actually first cousins.
See what I meant by “family-friendly”?
So to sum up, what are the main differences between these two versions?
Both Beauty and the Beast and La Belle et la Bête have the moral of inner beauty being more important than outer beauty, but Villeneuve’s story actually pushes harder on the issue of status. Belle is the only member of her family who is not bothered by their tumble off the social ladder, and is the one who ends up with a castle, riches and a wealthy husband. The prince doesn’t care about her lack of noble birth either, and when this prevents them from marrying, he offers to go back to being a beast so they can be together, so he is clearly just as adamant that class and social standing are irrelevant.
Another example of this is the king marrying a fairy, who as far as he was concerned was just a shepherdess. Villeneuve is basically making a statement about class and social standing, but kind of copping out by incidentally making Belle a princess to ensure a happy ending. While this was probably the only way to have the story taken seriously in this period in France (monkey butlers?), it does render the message a bit redundant.
Disney’s version is obviously about inner beauty too, however, in this version, the Beast has to earn his stripes as well, as he must learn to control his temper and become less of a selfish and grumpy git. He doesn’t just sit around being a nice Beast, like in the novel, so you could argue they are pushing twice as hard about the importance of inner beauty, because the Beast must become beautiful on the inside first. It is however a more straightforward story – man is cursed with being a beast, and one particular woman comes along who can save him, who could have been anybody.
In Villeneuve’s novel, the entire story is much more calculated and deliberate, with Belle and the Beast essentially destined for one another, both intentionally and unintentionally due to the good fairy and the Mother of Time.
The Disney film focuses on the more realistic interactions and behaviours of people in these kinds of situations. Every character is flawed to some extent, and so there is a real sense of danger and relief when the story reaches its conclusion and the characters end up redeeming themselves (or just dead). The original novel by Villeneuve leans more towards the fantastical and supernatural, and paints a rather too perfect picture of how individuals behave, apart from one or two stereotypes such as Belle’s sisters. However, the twist at the end gives the story a much larger scope.
As expected, Disney’s adaptation of Beauty and the Beast involved someone waving a photograph of the book in front of some of the writers, so it’s an adaptation in that they’ve filched a couple of the characters and made up their own story. The primary theme of inner beauty is still there, and some of the plot elements such as the rose and the prince’s portrait have worked their way in, but this is an altogether different tale with an entirely different mood and execution. However, on this occasion, rather than only aiming at the fairy princess crowd, they have opted for a much darker and realistic tale that has universal appeal.
Too bad about the monkey butlers though.
1) Beauty and the Beast, 1991. Film. Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. U.S.A. Walt Disney Pictures.
2) de Villeneuve, Madame. La Belle et la Bête. Folio/Gallimard, Spain 2010. ISBN 978-2-07-034959-3.