In all the discussion about the new Beauty and the Beast film (Is the CGI amazing or weird? How did Dan Steven turn into the Beast? How long would it take you to adjust to the idea of sharing your home with sentient kitchenware? ), the slightly puzzling history of the original tale itself can be obscured. The first version of the tale as we know it was actually a novel-length melodrama, written by the French author Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in the 1700s — a version that came complete with hugely complicated plot twists and turns, a cast of dozens, and some ideas about life that likely strike modern readers as quite odd. The version that inspired the Disney version and all other retellings is actually a later version of the tale written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, who shortened and altered the Villeneuve text, excising much of the drama and adding some moral agendas.
The original Villeneuve story is vaguely bonkers and it's hard to find an English translation, but it's got many aspects people will recognize: a beauty imprisoned by a beast who adores her, all because her father made a mistake. However, the similarities are often outnumbered by the differences, which reflect both how much society has changed in the intervening centuries and how...well, how bizarre the original was. Talking teapots and charming musical numbers ain't got nothing on murder, seduction and being unable to take a hint.
Beauty Has Cruel, Spoiled Siblings — But She's The One Who Gets Her Father In Trouble
One of the most remarkable departures Disney took from the original tales was to trim Beauty's family down to herself and her father (yes, her name was actually "Beauty" in this version of the story — "Belle" is French for "beauty"). Villeneuve depicted the family as a motherless brood of several rather idiotic siblings, as well as a father who works as a merchant and has lost his fortune. Beauty's original family included sword-happy brothers (who, in a Gaston-esque sort of role, wanted to go off and fight the Beast) and the prototypical evil stepsisters, who loathe Beauty for no apparent reason.
Their main distinction, however, was their greed: when the merchant sets off on the journey that ends up with him being taken by the Beast, he's actually trying to recover some of his lost wealth, and asks each of his children what they want for a present. The other siblings ask for suitably ridiculous jewels and other frivolities, but Beauty just wants a rose. Which, of course, is what gets her father into trouble, because he plucks it from the Beast's garden, sending him into a rage.
So while our current version of the tale focuses on lessons about bravery, self-confidence, and not judging others, the original seems to push a few stranger moral lessons — like, remember to ask for material goods from wealthy parents, because wanting a cheap, ephemeral gift will just get your father (and eventually, you) imprisoned.
Beauty Herself Can't Really Take A Hint
Disney's Belle is a beloved role model to many because of her intellectualism and love of books. However, in Villeneuve's version, Beauty may well be very kind and nice — but she's also frankly not that bright.
In Villeneuve's telling, Beauty dreams every night of a prince who pleads with her to marry the Beast — but she doesn't realize that the prince is actually the Beast himself, even though this dream happens for weeks on end. Beauty falls in love with the dream-prince, even though she's also warned in her dreams by a fairy-witch that she shouldn't believe everything she sees.
Though Beauty's behavior seems quite dense compared to Belle, at the time of the original story, intellect was simply not a prized quality among women. Wisely, Disney decided that curiosity and a deep love of books are far more appealing than someone who can't get a message (even if it is being supernaturally drilled into her head).
The Beast Did Even Less To Deserve His Fate
Hearing a bit about Villeneuve's vision of the Beast's backstory may help you get an impression of just how labyrinthine the plot of the original story actually is. The Disney version of how the Beast gets his curse (rejects an old lady who wants to come out of a storm, which honestly seems reasonable enough) pales in comparison to what Villeneuve made her version of Beast go through — from parental abandonment to attempted seduction and utter rejection.
In Villeneuve's version, the Beast is fatherless, and his mother left him alone in the care of a witch while she went off to go defend their kingdom. Unfortunately for everybody, the witch decided to try and seduce the Beast once he was of age, and got so annoyed when he refused that she transformed him into some kind of weird animal. (Notably, Villeneuve never fully describes what the actual Beastly form is, which led many illustrators to let their imaginations run wild and make him look like a boar or a toad.)
Transformations, in Villeneuve's tale, were pretty par for the course; she also enters into an elaborate description of fairies transforming into serpents to gain power to fight off other fairies, which understandably got cut from later version.
All things considered, Villeneuve's Beast could probably use a lot of counseling, particularly because when all is apparently "resolved" at the end, his mother then turns up and makes a stink because Beauty is just a merchant's daughter and he's a prince. The problem, however, is solved because Beauty isn't actually her father's daughter; she's the offspring of some random royal and the same witch who tried to seduce her now-husband. Everybody is supposed to be pleased with this — hurrah, no one has to marry outside their class! — but it probably doesn't strike modern readers as a triumph.
The Final Transformation Happens In Bed
Even in 19th century renderings of the story that stuck closer to Villeneuve's original tale than Disney ever did, there's a crucial change: what exactly the Beasts is asking for. In some versions, the the Beast attempts to ask for Beauty's hand in marriage every night (and is rejected, which must have been hard for his ego). In the original story, though, the question is: "May I sleep with you tonight?"
What Villeneuve meant was likely partially, but not entirely, erotic; sharing beds was more common in the 18th century. It also places the final transformation of the Beast in slightly more context. In the Villeneuve story, after accepting the Beast's proposal and becoming his fiancee, she finally lets him into her bed (though it's not implied that they do anything sexual while in there), dreams her regular prince-dream, and then wakes up to discover said prince in the place of the Beast lying beside her.
A Later Version Of The Story Made It A Morality Tale About Choosing Bad Husbands
The LePrince de Beaumont story excised a lot of the parts that Villeneuve had invented, including the bed question, the seducing witch and the angry mother-in-law, and kept it fairly simple. But LePrince de Beaumont also altered the tale to be one with a much more clear-cut moral lesson ( as opposed to a rather insane melodrama full of serpents). In her version, the stepsisters are actually violently malevolent towards Beauty and try to get her killed by the Beast because of (guess what) their choice in husbands:
"They were both of them very unhappy. The eldest had married a gentleman, extremely handsome indeed, but so fond of his own person, that he was full of nothing but his own dear self, and neglected his wife. The second had married a man of wit, but he only made use of it to plague and torment everybody, and his wife most of all."
Yep. Meanwhile, Beauty's entire reward is based around the fact that she picks a husband who treats her nicely, even if he looks a bit awful at the story's start. A beautiful fairy — who apparently was presiding over the whole story, but doing absolutely nothing to help — decides to make a speech at the end to further hammer home the point:
""Beauty," said this lady, "come and receive the reward of your judicious choice; you have preferred virtue before either wit or beauty, and deserve to find a person in whom all these qualifications are united.""
The sisters are turned into statues outside Beauty's castle to "behold her happiness," and won't be turned back into humans until they "own their own faults," because they're too awful to live. The awful husbands, however, weren't turned into anything. How deeply unfair to everybody. And how lucky we are to have these versions — and these morals — left firmly in the past.