What with the new adaptation of Beauty and the Beast hitting our screens earlier in the year it got us here in Cinders thinking about some of our favourite unconventional interpretations of the classic fairytale. Méabh McDonnell looks at the ways the tale as old as time can be interpreted.
A tiny ladybird edition of Beauty and the Beast was my favourite book as a child. The Disney animated movie also held a special place in my heart – still does in fact. Beauty and the Beast is a complex story. On the one hand it’s the magical tale about how love is all you need . It’s the concept that rings true with most people in love – it doesn’t matter what the person looks like – if you love them, you love them. That being said… on the other hand it’s a story where a young woman’s freedom is claimed by a vicious domineering beast who then proceeds to win her over by granting her ‘freedoms’ within what is a very well furnished prison. It’s hard to reconcile that with the happy story of love conquering all. Some people find that too much of a turn off – others might point out that fairytales were written in a time where they were meant to be more gothic than sweet. Regardless of which side of the fence you fall upon Beauty and the Beast’s enduring nature as a story is undeniable.
This is why I decided to compile some of my favourite interpretations of this classic story that I feel really capture the best Beauties and even better Beasts. Some are closer to the original tale than others but all have a special allure.
La Belle et la Bete by Jean Cocteau
Any true Beauty and the Beast fan needs to experience this early adaptation of the iconic fairytale. Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version of the tale is considered the best by many critics, with its gothic influences and beautiful cinematography. The story is closer to the original fairytale than the Disney adaptations. Beauty (literally Belle in this French adaptation) lives with her father – a merchant and her two sisters. As per the original story her father steals a rose for Beauty from the Beasts garden. For this a much more cat-like Beast imprisons him. Beauty selflessly agrees to take his place. Each night the Beast then asks her to marry him, knowing that she won’t break his curse until she says yes. This is a much more gothic take on Beauty and the Beast and a truly beautiful one. Every scene inside the castle is creepy and gorgeous. A particular highlight is the candelabras around the castle which are all held by human hands (moving human hands). This is no friendly enchanted castle with singing teacups and silverware – this is weird and very beautiful. If you enjoy your fairytales more Grimm than Disney, then this one is for you.
Valiant by Holly Black
Holly Black is probably the best name ever for an author of fairytales. Valiant is a beautiful urban fantasy retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in New York City. Val is a teenage runaway who ends up tangled in a dangerous bargain with a troll named Ravus who lives in an abandoned subway station. This is a gritty re-telling of the story if there ever was one. Val’s meeting with the Ravus is the result of her new found addiction to a Fae drug which leads her to being bound into his service. Val is a refreshing treatment of the ‘Beauty’ character that we have all come to know so well. She’s by no means helpless but does end up in Ravus service from a place of extreme vulnerability, what with her homelessness and addiction. We’re often told that she is very pretty but she also has hair shaved down to her skull. During her time in Ravus’ service she learns to wield a sword and fight. She is not your typical ‘Beauty’. And Ravus is not your typical Beast. He is gruff and angry but also shown to be extremely intelligent, working to help faeries blend into the human world. He also has an extreme sense of honour and duty. Val does indeed have to go to great lengths to save him and win his heart. There is no doubt that this ‘Beauty’ is well and truly the hero of the story. Valiant offers a different look at Beauty and the Beast, one without imprisoned towers and instead one with deadly bargains and dangerous drugs. With a host of memorable characters, Valiant, is Beauty and the Beast with edge and grime. It’s also incredibly beautiful. If you like Valiant be sure to check out Holly Black’s Tithe and The Darkest Part of the Forest for more dark fairy tales.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
How many times have you heard the story of the beautiful young woman sacrificed to a dragon?Probably too many – but Agnieska is not your typical beautiful young woman and her dragon is more of a wizard. Agnieska spent her whole life preparing for the day her beautiful best friend would be taken by The Dragon – a local wizard who takes a young village girl as his servant every ten years. However on the day their choosing Agnieska displays an unusual talent: unbeknownst to her, she’s a witch. The Dragon then begrudgingly takes her on as his apprentice. Neither likes the other, and both are continually frustrated with their combative methods for casting spells but all the same, they develop a unique partnership. They team up against the malevolent force that is ‘The Wood’ taking on another consistent fairytale trope – the deep dark wood.
Agnieska is a resourceful and compelling heroine, the thing she is most willing to fight to the death for is not the Dragon but her family and her friends. Truly the best thing about Uprooted is the fantastic friendship that exists between Agneiska and her best friend Kasia: the girl who was meant to be taken. She fights harder for Kasia than for anyone else in the story, and she never gives up on her. Kasia herself becomes something of a super hero and the two make a formidable team. The Dragon is a prickly character. He is old and powerful and is clearly lacking in social skills – but in a change to the traditional tale his exile is self imposed rather than due to a curse. Although apprenticing Agneiska makes him soften and bend some of his implacable rules. She peers behind the veneer of the angry, beastly wizard into the face of a hard-working, socially awkward perfectionist. It’s not a perfect retelling of Beauty and the Beast – but like Sunshine and Valiant – it offers a much more pro-active heroine and a wider ranging adventure. This is one for the girls who were more interested in the enchanted sorceress than Belle and wanted to see what she could do with some real magic.