A Short History of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in Pop Culture


ABC recently announced an order for a new one-hour pilot based on Beauty and the Beast – about a week after The CW announced their own pilot for the same kind of show (though they claim theirs is a crime drama). Add to this the successful 3D re-release of the 1991 Disney animated film and it seems like it’s shaping up to be a great year for Belle and all her talking-furniture friends.

We’ve already revisited some other Beauty and the Beast-like girl-loves-ugly-boy couples – now let’s look at the many interpretations of the original French fairy tale that have surfaced throughout pop culture.

La Belle et la Bête

In the original story, Beauty is a 14-year-old girl and the youngest of three children. Her sisters are selfish and mean (fairy tale writers all must have had grudges against their older siblings), and her father is a merchant who steals a rose from the Beast’s garden. He is allowed to return to give Beauty the rose, but she decides to take his place as the Beast’s prisoner in his giant castle, and is waited on hand and foot by invisible servants. To be honest, we prefer the anthropomorphic household items found in the Disney version, but given France’s socioeconomic history, it makes sense that the wealthy would want their servants to be invisible.

La Belle et la Bête (1946)

Surprisingly, Beauty and the Beast didn’t make it to the movies until the mid-1940s, when French director Jean Cocteau adapted the tale to the silver screen. However, he took some liberties with the original text, introducing a new character named Avenant who conspires with her siblings to kill the beast and steal all his riches. At the end of the movie, Avenant is hit by a magic arrow and switches bodies with the Beast. We’re guessing that with all the amazing visual effects he employs, Cocteau didn’t have any money left to hire another actor for four minutes of screen time.

Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty & the Beast and Rose Daughter

First published in 1978, Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast was author Robin McKinley‘s first published work and is closely modeled on the original French fairy tale — though in this version, Beauty’s two sisters are actually kind of nice to her, and Beauty is originally known as Honour but prefers to be called “Beauty” when she finds out the meaning of her given name (which is a great message for young girls!).

The book was popular (so much so that many believe Belle’s bookishness in the 1991 film was inspired by Honour’s intellect), but that didn’t stop McKinley from going back to the well and writing another adaptation of the story in 1997. In Rose Daughter, Beauty has the choice between transforming the Beast into a handsome prince or keeping him in his current form, and she decides on the latter. Turns out McKinley was ahead of the curve there, as that exact same plot became the climax of Dreamworks’ Shrek 2 seven years later.

Beauty and the Beast (1987-1990)

More of a crime procedural than a love story, this television series follows a New York District Attorney named Catherine Chandler (Linda Hamilton) who is continually rescued from certain death by Vincent (Ron Perlman), a catlike man-beast who lives in the sewers with a community of social outcasts.

Despite its unusual premise, Beauty and the Beast ran for three seasons, achieved an odd cult success, and is reportedly the inspiration for the new CW pilot. Let’s just hope the network doesn’t try to convince original-series staffer George R.R. Martin to write for this show, too, because we’d really like him to focus on finishing his A Song of Ice and Fire books sometime in the next decade.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Of course by now we all know the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, which was the first animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, as well as one of the first to use computer generated graphics. But did you also know that the screenwriters based Belle’s personality on Jo from Little Women, as played by Katharine Hepburn?

This makes us want to see Hepburn as all the Disney heroines, just for kicks. Certainly she wouldn’t wait around for her prince to come and kiss her out of an enchanted sleep, or whatever it is that princesses did before the ’80s.

Beauty and the Beast on Broadway (1994-2007)

No doubt the movie is etched into everyone’s collective consciousness at this point, but the stage musical version that Disney produced several years after is pretty incredible even if you don’t know the source material. Particularly awe-inspiring is the Beast’s transformation at the end of the show, the execution of which is a closely guarded secret in the Broadway world.

The show ran in New York for almost 6,000 performances before it was replaced by The Little Mermaid ; Disney executives considered running both at once but thought that two “Princess” shows would divide audiences. Considering that The Little Mermaid‘s run only lasted a year and a half, we suspect they’re still kicking themselves over that decision.

Drew Barrymore, Vogue

In 2005, Barrymore was featured in a Vogue fashion pictorial shot by Annie Leibovitz, styled by Grace Coddington, and inspired by the original fairy tale. This image features a Christian Lacroix dress, a table decorated with all kinds of art and sumptuous fruit, and a ferocious lion in regency-period formal wear, which is all a girl wants in life, really.

Although Drew looks a little lifeless in some of these pictures, the level of detail in this photo spread is pretty breathtaking in and of itself. The rest of the images can be found here.

Penelope Cruz and Jeff Bridges, Disney Collection by Annie Leibovitz

Leibovitz went back to Beauty and the Beast in 2007, though this time for a series commissioned by Disney to advertise their theme parks. Penelope Cruz and Jeff Bridges take on the personae of Belle and the Prince as they are depicted in the movie’s final scene, and the caption reads, “Where a moment of beauty lasts forever.”

As weird as it is to see celebrities in Disney roles that have influenced the collective consciousness for years, the entire series is pretty imaginative. You can see the whole collection – plus some cool behind-the-scene shots – here.

Beastly (2011)

Based on a 2007 young adult novel by Alex Flinn, Beastly is another modern adaptation set in New York City, but in this one handsome but arrogant high schooler Kyle (Alex Pettyfer) gets magically ugly-fied by a goth classmate (inexplicably played by Mary Kate Olsen) and holes himself up in his fancy apartment with his blind tutor (even more inexplicably, Neil Patrick Harris) until he falls in love with a girl from his high school (Vanessa Hudgens).

Unfortunately, the film opened to pretty negative reviews, most likely because Kyle (who changes his name after he is transformed, because what kind of a name is Kyle for a beast?) looks less like a horrifying, unlovable monster than he does a Zombie Boy impersonator with a weird set of nose piercings.

Once Upon a Time (2012)

Most likely ABC ordered their new Beauty and the Beast pilot due to the popularity of their other fairy tale-themed show, Once Upon a Time , in which all your favorite storybook characters are trapped in the same tiny Maine town.

In fact, Once has its own version of the tale set to air next month on February 12th, starring Lost‘s Emile de Ravin as Belle. It’s a good thing Disney owns ABC, because the dress and hairstyle Emile’s wearing in this promo picture are clearly meant to evoke the 1991 animated film. Here’s hoping she gets an adorable teacup to hang out with, too!