Whether you prefer Disney’s 1991 animated adaptation of Beauty and the Beast or the 2017 live-action version starring Emma Watson, there’s no denying the fairy tale has earned its lofty spot in the children’s story zeitgeist.
Despite its popularity, most people remain unaware that the original tale was written and published by the French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740. During the following decades and centuries, the famous fable underwent a series of rewrites by varying authors.
So much so, in fact, that the original story might be hard to recognize! This is how the story has evolved since its original publication…
Children and adults alike are likely familiar with the modern adaptations of the tale as old as time: Beauty and the Beast. Whether you prefer the 1991 Disney animated version or the 2017 live-action one, it’s a story that everyone can learn from and enjoy.
While the Disney film has undoubtedly earned its rightful place as a children’s fantasy staple in popular culture, many diehard fans don’t even realize that this beloved tale was actually written more than two centuries ago in France.
The first known version of the fairy tale was penned by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740. And, for what it’s worth, the original version was far different from the tale that people are familiar with today…
First, the Beast was called “bête,” which is a French word for “beast” that implies unintelligence. There was also an array of varying subplots present in the novel that don’t see the light of day in the Disney adaptations.
Though Belle’s humble, pure-hearted nature is seen in all versions of the fairy tale, her family has changed over the years. In Villeneuve’s version, Belle was the youngest of six children, with three brothers and two sisters. Her sisters were both incredibly mean and spoiled, and they treated her like a servant more than a sibling.
In the original story, Belle’s father was a widowed and wealthy merchant who lost his fortune when most of his ships were destroyed in a violent storm at sea. One of them ended up returning, and he set out to regain his fortune. Before he left, he asked each of his children what gift they would like upon his return. Belle simply asked for a rose, since they didn’t grow near their home. Sounds a bit familiar, right?
In the original story, Belle’s father was on his way back home when he became caught in a storm and was forced to seek shelter nearby. He ended up wandering right into a mysterious palace, where he was provided with food and shelter by an unseen host—the Beast.
Leaving the following morning, Belle’s father spotted a beautiful rose garden in the palace’s yard. Remembering that Belle had asked him to return with one of the flowers, he picked one.
The Beast, of course, took this as an insult, especially since he’d so generously let the merchant stay in his palace the night before. This is where the familiar Disney tale diverged from the original a bit. In order to not be held prisoner for his crime, Belle’s father had to provide the Beast with one of his daughters to live with him in the palace forever. As you may know, this debt inevitably fell to Belle…
This storyline was reminiscent of the then-common French practice of arranged marriages for young girls.
Another change? In Villeneuve’s version, the role of Gaston was actually played by Belle’s two elder sisters. Envious of Belle’s growing relationship with the Beast, they attempted to sabotage her by stopping her from returning to him after she leaves the palace, even though she made a promise to him.
Wanting to appease her sisters, Belle agreed to stay longer. When she checked in on the Beast, though, she discovered that he’d fainted near the rose garden, heartbroken. That’s when she decided to return and proclaim her love for him.
After Villeneuve passed away in 1756, French author Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont rewrote the story. This version saw much of the backstory omitted. Instead, Belle was the daughter of a king and a good fairy. The Beast, on the other hand, was a prince who’d been cursed by an evil witch after he rejected her advances.
In Beaumont’s version, Belle’s magical mother was ostracized by the fairy community for her love affair with a human, and Belle was forced to marry the Beast as punishment.
Lastly, an alternate version of the story saw a wicked fairy trying to marry Belle’s widowed father, (the king); the fairy also wanted to murder Belle. In order to protect her, Belle was forced to pretend to be the daughter of a merchant. Phew! Who’d have thought this tale would’ve involved so much drama?
Who could’ve guessed that this classic fairy tale went through so many revisions over the years? No matter what, it’s still entertaining through and through!
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