Jill Rudy was surprised when she heard her 2-year-old niece utter the phrase, “Once upon a time.”

This moment made her realize that fairy tales seep into people’s lives at an early age, even as they are learning how to talk and communicate with others.

And although the phrase “Once upon a time” implies a sense of distance, said Rudy, who is an associate professor of English at Brigham Young University, people continue to be drawn into the world of fairy tales — whether it’s reading a classic rendition, telling their own versions or watching a film adaptation.

The fairy tale genre is shaped by constant variation and adaptability. With a live-action version of "Beauty and the Beast" arriving in theaters March 17, Rudy and two other professors reflect on the appeal of fairy tales and how Disney has transformed this classic 18th-century tale.

Fairy tale appeal

Whether it’s being helpful to those in need, keeping promises or in the case of “Beauty and the Beast,” not judging a book by its cover, fairy tales include values and messages that children and adults alike can relate to, said Claudia Schwabe, an assistant professor of German at Utah State University, in an interview with the Deseret News.

“Fairy tales in general can serve as a moral compass for today’s society,” Schwabe said. “We can learn from fairy tales because basically they just deal with very profound cultural issues and contradictions, and in terms of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ (that is) monstrosity versus compassion.”

These meaningful life lessons that weave their way into fairy tales are often universal and timeless, said Kade Parry, a professor of literature and writing at Snow College. He said that many of the lessons shared in these classic tales have just as much relevance in modern times.

These stories are as entertaining as they are instructive, according to all three professors. Fairy tales attract people with fantasy worlds and fictional characters, and in turn, often cause people to reflect on how their own lives relate to those worlds.

“Fairy tales are stories about human life struggles, and they offer solutions of how to deal with them,” Schwabe said. “They also give us a world of justice. I think we’re drawn to fairy tales because of this alternate world where justice prevails.”

History of the tale

Disney’s upcoming adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast” reveals that the classic tale continues to appeal to a wide audience, according to all three professors. Although the first literary tale titled “Beauty and the Beast” was written in 1740 by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, the tale has been influenced by many stories, such as “Cupid and Psyche,” which dates back to the second century.

"Many would argue that this tale, or at least some version of this tale, is several thousand years old,” Parry said. “There’s no definitive or authentic version. Different countries and cultures, in dramatically different time periods, would tell similar stories that would share some of these traits found in ‘Beauty and the Beast.’”

In 1756, French author Jeanne-Marie Leprince Beaumont published an abridged version of the 1740 tale, creating the story most are familiar with today.

Beaumont’s version follows a merchant who has three sons and three daughters. When he loses all of his wealth at sea, he goes on a quest to reclaim his fortune, promising his children gifts upon his return. To his youngest daughter, Belle, he promises to bring her a single rose.

Along his journey, the merchant ends up seeking shelter at an enchanted castle. As he prepares to leave the next morning, he picks a rose from the garden to give to Belle. A Beast immediately approaches him and threatens to take away his life for abusing his hospitality and stealing one of his most valuable possessions. The Beast decides to spare the merchant’s life upon the condition that one of his daughters will return to stay with him at the castle.

Belle moves to the castle, where she lives a luxurious life and comes to view the Beast as kind. Every night the Beast asks her to marry him, a request she repeatedly denies as she is unable to see beyond his appearance.

It isn’t until Belle visits her father that she realizes she really cares for the Beast. When she returns to the castle, she is horrified to find the Beast dying of heartbreak and discovers that she does love him. The touch of her tears transforms the Beast into a beautiful prince. He tells her that a fairy put a curse on him years ago that could only be broken by true love.

Beaumont’s tale had a more instructive purpose, Rudy said. It emphasized Belle’s character, using her as a role model and example for its female readers of how to behave.

Schwabe noted the significance of both “Beauty and the Beast” authors being women, especially when most fairy tale writers of the time were male.

“The story can also be read as a sort of conciliation to the marriage bed … coded in a way for women to talk to each other about their husbands,” she said.

Rudy added that arranged marriages were still the norm at the time “Beauty and the Beast” was written, and that the tale could be viewed as providing counsel and encouragement to women.

Written story vs. adaptations

Beaumont’s “Beauty and the Beast” is the tale on which the Disney film from 1991 is based. While more than 200 years separate the written story from the Disney film, the two share many similarities. However, as the tale is retold and adapted, changes in storyline are inevitable and tend to reflect societal changes, Parry said.

One big difference is that in Beaumont's tale, Belle’s goodness serves as a stark contrast to her two older sisters who are riddled with envy, Schwabe said. At one point in the written story, Belle’s sisters, who are jealous of her luxurious life at the beast’s castle, attempt to try on her elegant clothing, only to have the dresses transform into rags upon their touch.

With the “evil sister” plot device playing a significant role in many fairy tales, Schwabe said it is interesting that Disney removed this element from its adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast.” She added that in an effort to create a stronger villainous role, Disney created Gaston — a love interest and character that is not present in Beaumont’s tale.

According to Parry, adaptations often create new ways of reinforcing old ideas, and while some might critique fundamental plot changes, such modifications can be beneficial.

“The question to ask is, ‘Why would they make that change?’ or, in the case of Disney’s adaptation, ‘Why would they add Gaston’s character — who didn’t appear in earlier versions of the fairy tale?’” Parry said. “I would argue that if the motivations for making these changes help to recreate the classic morals or themes of the story’s deeper roots, then it can prove to be very valuable for contemporary audiences.”

“Gaston thinks he’s the best-looking man, and that’s exactly what the story is all about — appearance is not everything,” Schwabe said. “Disney captures that part pretty well, and it’s a story that still resonates nowadays.”

She added that Beaumont’s tale focuses on Belle, and, despite being kindhearted, her initial inability to see beyond appearances.

“What’s more impressive (in Beaumont’s tale) is Beauty’s transformation,” Schwabe said. “In the Disney version the emphasis is more on the Beast’s transformation.”

In Disney’s adaptation, Belle is immediately portrayed as someone who sees beyond appearances when she refuses to return Gaston’s romantic feelings.

“Disney portrays Beauty as a very uniquely modern heroine,” Schwabe said. “She doesn’t simply fall into Gaston’s arms even though he’s totally wealthy and good-looking. She’s curious, she’s feisty and she’s a very intellectual young woman.”

Rudy added that Disney’s depiction of Belle with a book in the opening scene could be viewed as a “move toward stronger, more involved princess characters.”

And with Emma Watson portraying Belle in Disney’s upcoming adaptation, Rudy speculated that this casting might further transform Belle’s character.

“There’s this ability we have to attach to actors, but also to the characters they portray,” she said, as Watson is known for her role in the eight Harry Potter movies as the almost too-smart Hermoine Granger. “Part of the intrigue is to see not only Emma Watson, but Hermione, through Emma Watson, becoming Belle. It makes an interesting layering.”

Noting all of the excitement surrounding the upcoming film, Rudy said it is “fascinating” that the familiar story continues to be told in different ways.

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“It’s 'a tale as old as time,'” she said. “That song and that line capture the part of what we appreciate — that it has always been around. We love stories like this, and there’s something important and comforting in having versions of this story we can retell.”

And why are these stories so loved? According to Schwabe, it all comes down to a sense of triumph.

“Fairy tales let us find our happy ever after,” she said. “They give us hope, they inspire us, they allow us to dream, and they give us a chance to basically say ‘Yes, I can be successful, and I will be brave, and I’m going to pull that sword from the stone.’ And in the end we’re the heroes of our own life stories.”

Email: lottiejohnson@deseretnews.com

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