The story of Beauty and the Beast is a traditional fairy tale, first told by Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740. Written in French, the story takes place in the France and holds many traditional French customs within. Villeneuve’s version of the story was not well-known and only with the abridgement of her work by Madame Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1756 did the fairy tale become popularized. Beaumont shortened the story to a readable and more comprehendible length, making it easier for readers and thus it is often her who gets credit for the tale.
Beaumont’s story tells of a wealthy merchant with three daughters, of whom the youngest is named Belle, French for "beauty." The merchant loses all of his wealth and although the two older daughters are bitter about becoming poor, Belle remains pure of heart and compassionate. On a stormy night, the merchant is coming home through the woods and takes shelter in an old castle where he is fed and warmed. As he leaves, he takes a rose for Belle whereupon the Beast appears and demands that the merchant stay his prisoner forever. The merchant pleads with him and eventually both make the deal that the merchant may leave, promising to bring his youngest daughter to live with the Beast. Belle agrees to live with the Beast and after some time, falls homesick and asks to visit her father and sisters. The Beast allows her to leave for exactly one week but Belle’s sisters plead her to stay one more day and Belle agrees, thinking they have had a change of heart. Thinking Belle is never going to return, the Beast falls dying of a broken heart where Belle finds him, kissing him with the passion of true love. This breaks the curse and the Beast is transformed into a handsome prince.
The French story focuses on family responsibilities and the cultural charge of women to follow their fathers and stay loyal to their family before love or marriage. It is aimed at an audience of young adults, telling the tale of finding a lost husband and untangling the intricacies of love, family, compassion, and service.
In 1991, Disney produced an animated film by the same name, adapting the story to be made for an audience of American children rather than French young adults. The film is considered one of the best animated films of all time and won two Academy Awards. The film uses many of the same elements as Beaumont’s story, but changes the tale with the addition of a villain in the form of Gaston, a local hero, talking household objects who had also been affected by the curse, and Belle having only her father for company. It includes several musical numbers which help to tell the story without changing the outcome.
Although the film tells the same story, the focus changes from a French girl’s responsibility to family to a French girl who yearns to be independent and opinionated, characteristics which are valued in American culture more than in 18th century France. The film also shows Belle to be a strong-minded character who is outspoken and unconcerned about appearances or social status, something almost unthinkable in French society where social status plays a significant role and the responsibility of a women lays in finding a suitable husband, not in seeking independence and being rebellious.
Both Beaumont’s story and Disney’s adaptation tell the same tale and use similar main characters in the same setting of provincial France. But where in one the moral is one of social responsibility that luckily also turns into true love, in the other it is the independence of young girl that finds her true love, not being complacent to the rules of society or being limited by family responsibilities.