The fairy tale of “Beauty and the Beast” lends itself gorgeously to adaptation: The set pieces are lavish and iconic (the enchanted castle! the rose!), the beats are familiar but always compelling, and the central love story can shade into redemptive joy or pitch darkness with minimal disruption either way.
Disney’s animated telling of the story is a classic, and with the studio’s new live-action adaptation dominating at the box office, it’s all set to further enshrine its legacy. But it’s far from the only thing you can do with a work as rich and as flexible as “Beauty and the Beast.” Here’s a collection of my favorite adaptations of the tale as old as time.
Beauty and Rose Daughter, by Robin McKinley
Robin McKinley sometimes says that all of her books are “Beauty and the Beast” stories on one level or another — most of them are about a person falling in love with someone who is in some way ugly or monstrous, and using love to bridge the gap between them. Beauty and Rose Daughter are the only two of her books to be explicit retellings of “Beauty and the Beast,” and they are two of her loveliest.
Beauty is McKinley’s first novel, published in 1978. It’s immensely warm and charming, with an appealingly clumsy, nerdy heroine and a magic castle so whimsical you’ll want to live there. It’s a gentle, open embrace of a book.
Rose Daughter came 20 years later, and it’s a little denser than Beauty. Its prose is polished to a glittering sheen — for my money, it has some of the most beautiful sentences in McKinley’s impressive oeuvre — and its heroine is more introverted and damaged than Beauty’s, its castle more sinister. (The Beast, interestingly, stays fairly constant from book to book.) Rose Daughter is spikier than Beauty, and many readers find it harder to fall in love with, but it has always been my favorite of the two.
What both books have in common is a whole-hearted belief in the power of romantic love as a redemptive force, and the nearly superhuman ability to keep that belief from becoming sentimental. That, and a profound love of horses and books and roses.
Beast, by Donna Jo Napoli
Donna Jo Napoli made a cottage industry out of dark fairy tale retellings long before Tim Burton got his hands on Alice in Wonderland, but Beast is one of her least gritty. (It’s no Rumpelstiltskin physically ripping himself in two in Spinners, is what I’m saying.) It’s structured as a prequel of sorts to “Beauty and the Beast,” with the Beast a Persian prince who runs afoul of a pari and as a punishment is transformed into a lion.
It’s relatively rare to try to tell “Beauty and the Beast” from the Beast’s point of view — Beauty, after all, is the more active character by far — which means Napoli’s version still feels fresh nearly 20 years after it came out. (Sorry, Beastly.) What’s most compelling about Beast is watching how the prince’s mind transforms with the rest of him when he becomes a lion, how the lion’s body shapes his thoughts, and how he struggles to maintain his strict religious discipline when his new body has other ideas.
The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter
While we’re talking dark fairy tales, we can’t forget Angela Carter. Her fairy tales are bloody and sexy and creepy, and most of them riff off of “Beauty and the Beast” on some level or another. Throughout her career, Carter used fairy tales as a way of talking about our fundamental animal nature — but she was not down with the idea that only men got to have the fun of turning into monsters. All of her women have fangs and claws.
Of all of the short stories in The Bloody Chamber, “The Tiger’s Bride” is the closest match to “Beauty and the Beast”; it grabs you by the throat from its opening line (“My father lost me to The Beast at cards”) and never quite lets go.
Beauty and the Beast: Classic Tales About Animal Brides and Grooms From Around the World, edited by Maria Tatar
You don’t need to reinvent the wheel to find a new fairy tale. Scholar Maria Tatar rounded up stories about animal brides and grooms from around the world in this new Penguin Classics collection, and while I am a certified fairy tale nerd, there was plenty in this book that was new to me.
There are old favorites like Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s version of “Beauty and the Beast” and the Brothers Grimm’s version of “The Frog Prince,” plus classical stories like “Cupid and Psyche.” But then there are stories that are utterly unfamiliar, like the one about the condor who kidnaps a beautiful young girl and marries her. The bride finds herself transforming into a bird, and when a parrot returns her to her mother’s house, she’s still a bird. Fairy tales are weird.