Beauty and the Beast: A Fairytale with a Twist

Nina Molnar

Using Leprince de Beaumont’s 1756 text as a starting point, this essay looks at two 20th century interpretations of ‘Beauty and the Beast’: Jean Cocteau’s surrealist 1946 take, and the Walt Disney animated classic of 1991. Examining psychological notions of othering and repressed desires in the Beast’s characterization, she also delves into a feminist reading of the character of Belle.


The four little words ‘Once Upon a Time’ have grown to be representative not only of a genre but the myth, nostalgia and sentiment that we come to associate with fairytales. The nature of such tales has witnessed a tremendous shift throughout centuries, moving the emphasis away from dark and often disturbing inclinations of morale, towards associations of Prince Charming and a happy ever after. The latter mentioned arguably leads back to the work of Walt Disneywhose cinematic adaptations have reinvented the aesthetics and appeal of ancient tales, often leading its audience to receive the Disney version as an idealized world, in which good always wins over evil. Beauty and the Beast (1991) marks one of many Disney adaptations and its heroine Belle can be regarded as “Princess Royalty”. However, today’s generation of millennials may not be aware that in contrast to the rather light-hearted, musical Disney version, stands Jean Cocteau’s ground-breaking adaptation, ‘a fantasy film with lots of influences from surrealism’, originally titled La Belle et la Bête (1946). 

Of course, every adaptation begins with the written word: the original work or source material. Many regard author Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve as the original author of the first written version (after it has long been passed on orally). However, the governess Mme Leprince de Beaumont ‘adapted de Villeneuve’s tale into a much shorter version’ in 1756, as part of the Magasin des enfants, ou dialogues entre une sage Gouvernante et plusieurs des Eleves. [],[] 

Because of recent developments in adaptation theory, this essay will not conduct a direct comparison to the original or evaluate the truthfulness behind the adaptation, but rather explore the relationship between Cocteau’s and Disney’s versions in regards to Beaumont’s work. 

This approach stems from the argument that contemporary adaptation theory dismisses the validity behind comparing two different media (e.g. the book and the film). Such a belief may be seen as oppositional to the possibly outdated approach of the fidelity argument, which aims to test the truthfulness of an adaptation and the ‘degrees of proximity to the original’. However, as critic Salman Rushdie has rightly observed: ‘Everyone accepts that stories and films are different things, and that the source material must be modified, even radically modified, to be effective in the new medium’. 

Following this point, it is furthermore important to highlight that both media entail different characteristics and features that make an analysis based on the fidelity argument virtually impossible. The usual format of a feature film, for instance, will never be able to compress the depth and detail that an unlimitedly long book can entail. Furthermore, the reader’s ability to interpret a book and imagine its characters is taken away by the director’s own visual account of the original. This possibly unveils the root for the common misconception that the original text is always better than the adapted film, but many cases have arguably proven that ‘cinematic adaptations are better than their prose source material’. 

Nonetheless, this essay will investigate the different ways in which both Cocteau and Disney have preserved characteristics of “the original”, while also adding their personal stamp. Furthermore, it will explore the way in which facets of sexuality become central in driving the narrative and characterizing the protagonists, which also links with the notion of “Othering”. 

Cocteau’s deeply personal adaptation begins with an unusual opening scene that imitates a classroom situation in which Cocteau himself writes a message addressed to the audience on a blackboard. It states that: ‘Children believe what we tell them […]. I ask of you a little of this childlike simplicity and […] let me speak four truly magic words […] “once upon a time”’. The association of a lesson that this scene may evoke, is further strengthened by its overall message: to perceive the upcoming film with a child-like open mind and heart. Firstly, this directly implies that the film, despite being inspired by a fairy tale, is directed at an older, grown-up audience. This gains further importance when considering the context of Cocteau’s masterpiece. The shooting of the film started only a short while after World War II had ended, which marks a reason the film’s budget was kept relatively low. Nevertheless, the budget was used effectively, as exemplified by actor Jean Marais embodying three different characters.

Moreover, in regards to Cocteau’s aforementioned proclamation, the film may also illustrate both a form of escapism ‘with [a] fantastic and enchanting’ storyline, while also highlighting an indirect reference that beneath the surface of the fairy tale adaptation lays a hidden message of acceptance, perhaps a first link to a potential homosexual subtext. On the other hand stand both Beaumont’s written account – with the ‘purpose of creating a didactic tale designed to instill prevailing morale and ethical values in children’ – and Disney’s predominantly happy ever after adaptation, which are evidently directed at children. Moreover, Cocteau’s opening scene is the only one to illustrate the merging between the written word and the visual medium of film, allowing the audience to perceive a combined total, rather than two separate accounts. 

The aforementioned subtext of homosexuality within La Belle et la Bete, highlighting the multi-layered meanings and ambiguity of the tale, can be particularly traced in the character of the Beast. Cocteau depicts him, despite being royally dressed and with distinctly good manners, as a deeply disturbed soul. Throughout the film, he carries a convulsing sadness illustrating a ‘Beast who is lonely like a man and misunderstood like an animal’. The notion of self-doubt is already traceable in Beaumont’s text, which offers the readership a character that thinks of himself as a ‘poor, silly, stupid creature’, yet this is taken to a different level by Cocteau, who increases the original doubt to self-hatred. This ambiguous interior battle is visually exemplified when the Beast, ‘literally smoking with passion’, stares at his lit hands in horror about giving in on his true, bestial desires and confessing to himself that he is a predator.

Furthermore, other critics have argued that the ‘film reflects its makers critique of heterosexual contact as horrific and repulsive’. This reading finds proof in one of the most memorable scenes of Cocteau’s adaptation, in which Belle – just before she meets the Beast – hovers in slow motion, seemingly frightened as she passes along the corridors of the castle with the curtains blowing in the wind. The scene underlines the film’s overall mystical, gothic and truly scary connotations, perhaps illustrative of a women’s fear to engage in a heterosexual relationship. 

This potential reading is further supported through the character of Avenant (Jean Marais), who was originally added to the narrative by Cocteau, and doesn’t appear in De Beaumont’s source material. He is a gambler, drinker and overall unsympathetic character that sexually assaults Belle, but nevertheless transforms into the Prince in the end despite their history. The absurdity of the situation may be Cocteau’s way of illustrating negative connotations with male heterosexual desires, which similarly can be seen in the character of Gaston in the Disney adaptation. Here, the viewer also encounters a chauvinist, arrogant “hyper male” who practically forces himself onto Beauty, not accepting that she requires more than good looks in a partner. 

(Creative Commons: )

As exemplified above, Gaston’s appearance has evidently been inspired by Cocteau’s invention of the Avenant character and furthermore, in both films Avenant and Gaston die just before the unexpected transformation of the Beast. Their obvious good looks and macho appearance stand in contrast to the rough exterior of the Beast and his gentle soul, highlighting the tale’s overall morale to not judge a book by its cover. By declining Avenant’s and Gaston’s marriage proposal, the genuineness and likeability of Beauty/Belle’s character is stressed but nevertheless it gives rise to question the girl’s own sexual behavioral status. In Beaumont’s version, we must realise the ‘fact that Beauty is already in bonds’ and ‘lives in a master/slave relationship with her father […] for he is the ultimate male authority’. 

Critics have further argued that Beauty’s bond with her father can be read in terms of Freud’s theory about the oedipal complex, which ‘refers to a period in most children’s lives when they feel […] a special bond of affection with the opposite-sex parent’ which ‘only becomes a problem when someone gets frozen at this development stage and does not outgrow it’. This becomes particularly apparent when Beaumont’s father character loses all his fortune. She writes: “Nay, several gentlemen would have married her [.] but she told them she could not think of leaving her poor father in his misfortunes, but was determined to […] comfort and attend him.” 

Moreover, Beauty’s undeniable dedication is exemplified when ‘her willingness to be dominated and to serve’ leads to the ‘masochistic behavior’ of potentially ending her life by sacrificing herself to the ‘ugly monster’.[],[] However, once Beauty has left her parental home, she might finally be able to come to terms with her own sexuality, ‘hence, the Beast [may be] the sexual side of Beauty’s character which she must learn to accept in order to become a fully functioning person’ and to be finally freed from the obedience to her father. 

On the other hand, there also appear to be ambiguous feminist readings of the character. Some argue that Beaumont’s tale could already be perceived as “proto-feminist”, due to the fact that Beauty is the ‘pivotal point and the instrument of change’ within the plot. The character’s agency and perseverance is particularly tested when, both in Beaumont’s and Cocteau’s version, the Beast proposes to her on a reoccurring daily basis and she consistently declines, thereby emphasizing her own will power. However, it is specifically the Disney version that many regard as the most developed account in terms of feminism, based on the fact that Beauty’s love for books and her desire to stand out from the provincial multitude depicts her as an intelligent and thoughtful individual. Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that she dreams of ‘pursuing her primary objective of finding “Prince Charming”’, which could lead to ‘false expectations of womanhood’ on the side of the young Disney viewership. 

Furthermore, Disney’s illustration of the relationship between Beauty and the Beast differs from Beaumont’s and Cocteau’s versions. Possibly adapted to a contemporary viewership, the audience of the Disney film is enabled to witness a rather romantic transition, particularly stressed through the gradual transformation of the Beast. Whereas both Beaumont and Cocteau create a bestial character purely based on the looks, but never in regards to his manners, Disney’s Beast increasingly becomes more civilized for why his love for Beauty is steadily growing, which in turn enhances the character’s likeability and stresses the happy ever after. 

This notion of a satisfying ending and an enjoyable, light-hearted “viewing experience” is further heightened through the dialogue and specifically Disney’s musical incorporations. Known to be a fixed feature of the animated blockbuster productions, the soundtrack is a driving force behind the narrative and adds to the sentimental value that Disney so often successfully evokes. Moreover, in stark contrast to Beaumont and Cocteau, Disney makes use of humor, particularly embodied by the objectified humans and the constant disagreement between “Lumiere” and “Cogsworth”, whose active involvement undeniably drives the narrative. This significance that is placed on the talking objects may be Disney’s original addition, however the fundamental idea has been adapted from Cocteau, whose surreal illustrations of an enchanted castle with spooky, living candle holders and statues with moving eyes were groundbreaking in terms of inventive cinematography of the time. 

In addition, it must be pointed out that Beaumont’s tale is relatively short in relation to the multi-facetted and ever-evolving narrative and the various events that take place in the tale. Notably Cocteau’s focuses on the surreal and fantastical visuals, rather than the dialogue. This is further stressed by the actors’ eccentric gestures and dramatic mimics, which evoke associations of stage acting rather than film, perhaps a challenging component for today’s audience. Whilst Cocteau’s soundtrack definitely adds to the mystical and thrilling elements of the tale, it might nevertheless be less appealing for a contemporary viewer, whose associations with the tale are most likely to be based on Disney’s adaptation, characterised by original songs such as “Tale As Old As Time”. 

Moreover, while Beaumont’s tale unfolds quickly, Cocteau’s adaptation often moves relatively slow in comparison, something which is illustrated by the scene in which the father first encounters the Beast. This moment is important when considering the variations of adaptive practices; in De Beaumont’s story, Beauty asks her father for a rose as a small present, and this ‘fateful request’ ultimately causes the Beast’s anger and results in the demand for one of the merchant’s daughters. 

Therefore, Beauty feels obligated to sacrifice her life as it was her who asked for the flower. Cocteau on the other hand, goes a step further by letting the father enter the castle, drink and sleep there, and finally he picks a rose which triggers the Beast’s appearance. In both cases, the father is left with the choice of dying himself or sending one of his daughters to fill his place. This turn of event differs significantly from Disney’s use of the symbolic rose, which is instead associated with the fairy’s magic spell on the prince, and ‘serves as a plot function’ – ‘a kind of “ticking clock” that adds urgency’ to the Beast’s necessity of finding true love before his approaching twenty-first birthday. 

Furthermore, Disney’s Beauty chooses to take her father’s place, not out of obligation as seen in Cocteau’s and Beaumont’s versions, but out of concern because her father never came back home. Consequently, the differing symbolism of the rose highlights that Disney’s Beast is the least mean-spirited wherefore he reacts with shock when Beauty offers to stay in the castle instead. On the contrary, particularly Beaumont’s version appears quite extreme, due to the fact that the Beast is ‘so offended by the merchant’s taking [of] such a small thing as a rose’. 

While Cocteau adapted this part of the source material, he did however add the fact that the father enters the castle without permission, a much more reasonable explanation, which in turn was also adapted by Disney. Furthermore, in the Disney film, the father is physically thrown out after Beauty proposed to stay; straight into a magical carriage that (against his will) carries him away. 

This example goes to show the extent to which such seemingly small details can be adapted in different ways, but importantly it also illustrates how they can change the perception of characters and drive the overall narrative. Although, as exemplified, the different versions of Beauty and the Beast all vary at several moments within the narrative, and their interpretations evoke a vast number of ambiguous readings, they do however all have one overarching theme in common, which is the notion of “Othering”. 

It is a tale that reflects the ‘negotiation and anxiety about the Other’ by challenging the main characters’ oppressed existence within society. Beaumont’s tale, for instance, stresses how the father’s newfound poverty stands in conjunction with the family’s reputation, depicting the tragic reality that the loss of money leads the family to descend from the social ladder. Beaumont writes: ‘Everybody said […] we are very glad to see their pride humbled, let them go and give themselves quality airs in milking cows and minding their dairy’. 

In Cocteau’s interpretation, the focus lies on notions of self-hatred and doubt reflective of the Beast’s inner turmoil when struggling to accept his true identity and desires. In addition to this, his exterior bestial appearance further marks a major component depicting him as Other, which Cocteau cleverly insinuates through the use of mirrors and reflections. Such symbolism is often associated with the consciousness, vanity or even duality, which particularly underlines the Beasts gentle and bestial side and further contrasts the dichotomy between him and Beauty. 

However, as illustrated by the beneath photographs of Cocteau’s protagonists, the confrontation with the self through the facing of their reflections may serve as a moment of realization, and it further highlights the notion of Othering; the Beauty’s servant persona and the Beast’s deterrent looks position both on the margin of society. 

(Cocteau Estate, 1946)

On the other hand, Disney’s adaptation reveals how the seemingly feminist stance that book-loving Beauty embodies is mocked by the townsfolk and she is therefore depicted as an outsider. They sing: ‘Look that girl is so peculiar, I wonder if she’s feeling well. With a dreamy far-off look, and her nose stuck in a book, what a puzzle to the rest of us is Belle!’

However, in all three versions the moral of the tale insinuates that being humble, sincere and caring will eventually be rewarded. The history of fairy tales has proven that they are never fixed but fluid and ever changing. In regards to adaptation theory, both Cocteau and Disney have interpreted the source material to express different messages and appeal to opposing audiences, but have nevertheless proven that ‘[A]n adaptation is a derivation that is not a derivative – a work that is second without being secondary. It is its own palimpsestic thing’. 

Furthermore, it needs to be pointed out that ‘each work lays groundwork for many possible adaptations because art can play with elements of other art’, which in the case of Cocteau can be seen in the use of inter-textual references to the Dutch Golden Age, whilst fans of Disney’s film conspire that a number of paintings on the walls of Beast’s castle were inspired by famous artworks, including pieces by Vermeer, Rembrandt and Goya. 

The newest Walt Disney trailer marks the latest addition to the adaptation family of Beauty and the Beast, exemplifying that art will always inspire new art, and that fairy tale adaptations appear to be particularly appealing as they will most likely evoke a sense of nostalgia on the part of the audience. In the case of this recent release, the sentimental value coupled with an exceptional cast of Hollywood actors, not only illustrates a new version of the ancient tale, but with certainty, it embodies a guaranteed recipe for success. 


 Beauty and the Beast comparison of films (Obtained from Seminar handout. No author, date or page number available) 

2 Beauty And The Beast, 1st edn (35 E. Wacker Drive, Suite 400 Chicago, IL 60601: The Great Books Foundation, 2011) <> [accessed 17 May 2016].

3 Jasmeen Griffin, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST FAIRYTALES AS NARRATIVES OF OTHERING, 1st edn (Athabasca University, 2009), p.4

3 ibid. 

4 Linda Hutcheon, A Theory Of Adaptation (New York: Routledge, 2006), p.7

5 Salman Rushdie, "A Film Director Once Told Salman Rushdie That All Movies Made From Novels Are Rubbish (...) He Asks Is There Such A Thing As A Good Adaptation", The Guardian, 2009. Para.11

6 Rushdie, para. 22

7 Belle Et La Bete (Jean Cocteau, 1946).

8 Jerry Griswold, The Meanings of „Beauty and the Beast“ (Peterborough, Ont: Broadview Press, 2004), p.232

9 Jack Zipes, The Origins of the Fairy Tale in Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tale (University Press of Kentucky, 1994), pp.36-40 Jack 

9 Roger Ebert, "Beauty And The Beast Movie Review (1946) | Roger Ebert",, 1999 <> [accessed 18 May 2016].

10 Mme Leprince De Beaumont, np

11 Grisworld, p. 235

12ibid., p.235

13 Zipes, pp.36-40 

14 Griswolrd, p.55

15 De Beaumont, np.

16 Zipes, pp.36-40 

17 De Beaumont, np.

18 Griffin, p.5

19 ibid., p.7

20 Alexander Bruce, The role of the Princess in Disney’s Animated Films. Reactions of College Students. Studies in Popular Culture.Vol. 30, No. 1 (Fall 2007), p.2 

21 Grisworld, p.248

22 ibid. 

23 Ibid., p.249

24 Griffin, p.9-10

25 De Beaumont, np.

26 Beauty And The Beast (Walt Disney Feature Animation, 1991).

27 Hutcheon, p.9

28 "107 Facts About Beauty And The Beast! (Toonedup #59) @Channelfred", YouTube, 2016 <> [accessed 18 May 2016].


Beauty And The Beast (Walt Disney Feature Animation, 1991)

Beauty And The Beast, 1st edn (35 E. Wacker Drive, Suite 400 Chicago, IL 60601: The Great Books Foundation, 2011) <> [accessed 17 May 2016]

Belle Et La Bete (Jean Cocteau, 1946)

Bruce, Alexander, ‘The Role of the Princess in Walt Disney’s Animated Films: Reactions of College Students‘ (2007), Studies in Popular Culture, Vol. 30, No. 1

Ebert, Roger, "Beauty And The Beast Movie Review (1946) | Roger Ebert",, 1999 <> [accessed 18 May 2016]

Griswold, Jerome, The Meanings Of "Beauty And The Beast" (Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 2004)

Hutcheon, Linda, A Theory Of Adaptation (New York: Routledge, 2006)

Jasmeen Griffin, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST FAIRYTALES AS NARRATIVES OF OTHERING, 1st edn (Athabasca University, 2009) <> [accessed 17 May 2016]

Leprince de Beaumont, Jeanne-Marie, The Young Ladies Magazine (London: Printed for J. Nourse, at the Lamb, opposite Catherine-Street, in the Strand, 1760)

Malcolm, Derek, "Jean Cocteau: La Belle Et La Bête", the Guardian, 1999 <> [accessed 22 May 2016]

Marciniak, Malgorzata, THE APPEAL OF LITERATURE-TO-FILM ADAPT A TIONS, 1st edn <> [accessed 19 May 2016]

O´Brien, Geoffrey, "Beauty And The Beast: Dark Magic", The Criterion Collection, 2011 <> [accessed 22 May 2016]

Rushdie, Salman, "A Film Director Once Told Salman Rushdie That All Movies Made From Novels Are Rubbish (...) He Asks Is There Such A Thing As A Good Adaptation", The Guardian, 2009

Zipes, Jack, ‘The Origins of the Fairy Tale‘ in Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tale (University Press of Kentucky, 1994) 

"107 Facts About Beauty And The Beast! (Toonedup #59) @Channelfred", YouTube, 2016 <> [accessed 18 May 2016]



Nina Molnar


brightONLINE student literary journal

21 Jun 2017