My second-favorite fairy tale is Beauty and the Beast. An old fairy tale, it has more versions than can be counted. The traditional versions follow a similar thread: a merchant loses his fortune when all his ships go missing and he is forced to move to the country. Upon hearing that one ship has been found, he goes back to the city, but first asks his daughters if there is anything they would like him to bring back. The other daughters ask for frivolous and expensive things, but Beauty only asks for a rose (or flower seeds). When he gets to the city, he discovers the ship was taken by pirates. Still poor, the merchant heads home with nothing, gets lost, and ends up on the Beast’s property.
The Beast (unseen) lets him eat and sleep there unmolested but becomes enraged when the merchant takes one of his roses. The merchant explains about Beauty’s simple request and the Beast agrees to let him go if Beauty comes instead. The merchant goes home, tells the story, but doesn’t want Beauty to go. She insists, sometimes with the encouragement of her sisters. What happens once she’s in the castle varies widely, but he asks her to marry him every night, she always says no, and eventually the Beast falls in love with her. When he finds out she wants to see her family again (sometimes because her father is sick), he lets her go but sets a time limit and tells her that he will die if she does not return before then.
Once at home, Beauty delays, or is tricked by her sisters (who are jealous of the riches the Beast has given her) into staying past the time limit. Then she realizes that she has been gone too long (from a vision in a mirror, a dying rose, or something else), panics, and returns. The Beast is near death when she finds him, but she cries and says he must live because she loves him and will marry him. He then transforms into a prince, tells her he was cursed by a dark fairy, and they live happily ever after.
I couldn’t tell you which version I read first, but my favorite is Robin McKinley’s version, Beauty (she also revisited the tale decades later with Rose Daughter). Of the versions I’ve read, it also seems the closest to the Disney version, with a more liberated and intelligent heroine, though it was written first.
As far as the Disney movie goes, the detail that bothered me the most is that the entire thing takes place in a handful of days (the little mermaid at least gave an excuse for this, though it annoyed me there too). On the other hand, I liked that she was a bookworm and had a horse. The whole Gaston issue was new too, but that added tension and fit well enough. Magical or cursed servants exist in other versions prior to Disney, including McKinley’s.
I was also a big fan of the original television series, Beauty and the Beast, starring Linda Hamilton, which was a much more modern version (at the time) and also involved fighting crime. More recently, there was the modern-day retelling, Beastly. I haven’t read the book, but did enjoy the movie. It bothered me that the “Beast” didn’t seem very ugly to me, and just had what looked like a lot of odd tattoos, but I did like the modern detail of her complaining about her imprisonment on Facebook.
A long time ago I read another version that I wish I could find. It was also modern-day-ish, but the Beast had been disfigured by either a disease or an accident. I don’t think she ends up with him at the end, but she does convince him that he should see a doctor and try to get some of his injuries fixed so he can look and feel normal again. It was a very different story than usual and I regret I can’t remember enough details to find and re-read it.
The theme of Beauty and the Beast is one of the most ubiquitous story themes, particularly in romances or stories with romantic elements. There is something very compelling about a story wherein someone learns to look past appearances. Interestingly, this theme is rarely gender-reversed. I’m not sure if that says something about men, or just our faith in women. Women do seem much better to me, in general, about looking past physical attributes, both in regards to romance and otherwise (though maybe not during high school).
My current work-in-progress is loosely based on the beauty and the beast theme as well, though my beast was never human and isn’t going to turn into one. At least not permanently.
Disclaimer: Although I work for Disney, I just work on computers, and have nothing to do with the movies, marketing, or anything like that. My thoughts have nothing to do with the company, nor have they been encouraged or paid for by the company.