We seem to be in the middle of a resurgence of interest in the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, with references and variations in film, television, and even music. This is part of a larger revival of fairy tales in pop culture over the last few years, the results of which have for the most part been ghastly. But because of this revival, and also because of my Disney marathon, the story of Beauty and the Beast has been on my mind for a few months. It’s a story that’s been adapted many times, but in the history of film only two versions really stand out: the 1946 French film directed by Jean Cocteau (henceforth abbreviated to “Cocteau”), and the 1991 Disney animated film (henceforth “Disney”). Both are around ninety minutes in length, so they make for a natural double feature. Put together, they illustrate how radically different two adaptations of the same source material can be.
Let’s start with what they have in common, though — because there’s not much, but what there is is important. In both versions, Belle sacrifices herself by taking her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner. Then, to her surprise, the Beast treats her as a guest. At the end of the film the Beast is transformed back into a prince and the two live happily ever after. Both versions also include a rival for Belle’s affections who intends to kill the Beast at the end, enchanted objects that seem to be alive, a magic mirror, and a rose. But there are crucial differences in how those four things are portrayed in each film. In fact, these movies are so different that even the things they seem to have in common look different on closer inspection.
For what it’s worth, Cocteau took fewer liberties with the fairy tale in its most famous version, written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. According to Beaumont and Cocteau, Belle has two sisters, and her father is a merchant who has fallen on hard times. Disney lent significance to the rose that is entirely missing from both Beaumont and Cocteau. It is simply a gift from Belle’s father to her, taken unwittingly from the Beast’s garden. Because the Beast values his roses above all his other possessions, he sentences the thief to death, but offers that one of his daughters may pay the penalty in his place. Belle chooses to do so, but instead of killing her, the Beast makes her the lady of the house, giving her fine clothes and jewelry and mostly leaving her alone, only appearing every night to propose marriage — which she refuses, although his kindness gradually causes her to grow fond of him. Over time, Belle misses her father so much that she finally begs the Beast to let her see him. He permits her to leave for a week, but says that if she doesn’t return in that time, he will die of grief. Belle’s sisters, overcome with jealousy when they see how well she’s been treated while they remain in poverty, scheme to force her to stay longer than a week. Belle consents for a short time, but she can’t let the Beast die. She returns, finding him lying beside a pond, near death.
The climax of the Cocteau version revolves around a major departure from the Beaumont story; namely, the introduction of a suitor for Belle. This character, named Avenant, goes out looking for the Beast in order to slay him and set Belle free. Instead, Avenant is killed by one of the Beast’s living statues and turns into a beast himself, while the Beast is turned back into a human who looks suspiciously like Avenant and was in fact played by the same actor. In both Beaumont and Disney, Belle’s love for the Beast is what restores him to life, nothing more. Cocteau pays lip service to this idea, but the visual juxtaposition is impossible to ignore. Avenant unwillingly took the place of the Beast just as Belle had sacrificed herself for her father. Disney, of course, changed Avenant to Gaston, made him unambiguously the villain of the story, and simply dispatched him at the end.
There is a lot to appreciate about the Cocteau film. It has a charming opening, with credits written out on a chalkboard, followed by intertitles composed by Cocteau that request a childlike suspension of disbelief for what is about to transpire. The movie displays a delightful comic spirit in its treatment of Belle’s pompous, lazy sisters and the sleepy servants they berate. The film’s visual impact has not lessened over the decades. The use of slo-mo, reverse motion photography, and extraordinarily simple effects like human arms protruding from the walls and holding candelabra — this movie is surreal, dreamlike, and totally captivating. It’s these qualities that make it such a fascinating counterweight to Disney. Belle enters what looks an awful lot like a haunted house, and the creepiest thing, in the Cocteau film, is that she glides through it like she’s a ghost herself. No cute talking objects to lighten the mood. In Cocteau, the statues stare at Belle, following her with their eyes, but do nothing more. The Beast is her only companion.
Still, I have to admit that I haven’t totally come around to the Cocteau version. The Disney film is something I grew up loving, so I don’t expect I’ll ever rate them equally, but the Cocteau film just doesn’t move me very much. Ironically, I feel like the movie is at its best before it gets to the relationship between its titular characters. The message in the Disney version — we should look beyond people’s appearances to find their true character — is plain as day, but whatever Cocteau really wanted to say, it feels muddled to me. There’s a little bit about the dangers of greed, and Belle is rewarded for working hard and helping others. When it comes to the Beast, though, he claims that he was punished because his parents didn’t believe in magic spirits. I find that to be an exceptionally weak explanation for the event that kicked off the whole story. It is also one way that Disney is more faithful to Beaumont: in those versions, it was the prince’s own fault he got turned into a Beast. Lastly, there’s Belle’s ambivalence about the prince looking like Avenant’s twin. When they literally fly off to his palace, she looks happy but definitely not overjoyed. It’s an interesting way to end the film, to be sure, but it affects me on an intellectual rather than an emotional level. All that aside, Cocteau made an absorbing and completely worthwhile film. But for a double feature, I would definitely want to conclude with the Disney version.