So … I’m kind of a tremendous nerd about Beauty and the Beast. (Surprise!) But although I have vehement personal notions about the tale, I’ve done lots of research, and might have something to offer other mildly interested or incurable BatB nerds out there.
First off—if you’re interested in originals, the first Beauty and the Beast story as we know it was over 300 pages long and written in 1740 by Madame Villanueve, arguably—and interestingly—as a tale of empowerment meant for young aristocratic French girls, who often had little or no say in who they married; the idea being that the transformative power of deliberate, intentional love can transform even the most distasteful creature into a person worth being with. A sort of quasi-feminist idea—difficult, maybe, for modern audiences, but lends the story an intriguing depth. Of course, that depth is stripped nearly down to its bare bones in the condensed, hamfistedly didactic retelling by Madame Le Prince du Beaumont, whose version is often mixed with Villanueve’s in later versions. A good place to start for both of these and other folktale versions is here at Sur La Lune.
As for more or less recent versions, there are four I love enough to own. First, naturally, is Robin McKinley’s flawless BEAUTY which likely sowed the seeds for Disney’s animated film. (She rewrote the story much later as ROSE DAUGHTER, but I liked this one far less—dark, confusing, and in desperate need of editing—three pages describing how every inch of Beauty’s room is covered in roses? Really?) My other three favorites are all illustrated and somewhat shorter, starting with Marianna and Mercer Mayer’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, with hints of Jean Cocteau’s visionary1946 film (cat-Beast!) and some of the most gorgeous illustrations the story has ever received (those of you who only know Mayer for Little Critter, think again!) Next comes Max Eilenberg’s delightful retelling with Angela Barret’s poignantly delicate illustrations (probably my favorite Beast, even with the rabbit ears). Last (but by no means least!) comes Nancy Willard’s longish but not quite novel-length story, a vividly rich, achingly poetic prose sparsely interspersed with Barry Moser’s haunting woodcuts, unexpectedly set in Victorian New England.
As for more recent versions … friends, it’s a swamp—at least for me. There are probably hundreds, and it’s so long since I’ve been able to survive the first few pages of any one that I confess I’ve more or less given up on these. (Which kind of means I’ve had to resort to writing my own. One in submission, two in progress, multiple poems, and three comics. I know. I have problems.) So if any brave and fortunate soul has recommendations to impart, note below! No, really, please. I’m begging you … end my agony … (*gasp*)
P.S. – Also noteworthy is the true and somewhat tragic story of Petrus Gonsalvus. Though there is little evidence to support claims that his life and marriage actually inspired Villaneuve’s original story, the parallels are intriguing nonetheless.
So for those of you who skipped to the bottom hoping for some helpful bullet-points, happy birthday:
For originals, inspirations, and background stories:
For my favorite retellings: