One of the best-known fairy tales, “Beauty and the Beast” has been reproduced hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times in various media: oral narratives, written form, in plays, musicals, films, photographs, visual art, full-length novels, poems, and, of course, picturebooks.
I though I’d take the opportunity to revisit a few picturebook versions of “Beauty and the Beast” and look at what makes or breaks these retellings. Some cling to the text as revised by Madame de Beaumont, which gave the tale its widespread popularity in eighteenth-century France, while others tell the story with a new voice. There are, unsurprisingly, hundreds of picturebooks that I do not (and in come cases, cannot) mention here, but I hope to pique your interest and critical mind with the few here below.
“Beauty and the Beast” retold and illustrated by Jan Brett is, as those familiar with her works will expect, a visual feast. Her text softens the contrast between Beauty and her sisters, who are in this version kind and affectionate but caught up in the world they know. This Beauty, in choosing to stay with, and later return to, the Beast, appears to find a world that fits her in a way the social gaiety of her former life had not. The Beast here is a wild boar who walks on his hind legs and dresses elegantly; the castle servants are animals, also attired in courtly apparel.
Beauties to watch for: Beauty and the prince have just the hint of a double chin each – both are physically appealing in a way that feels real – no photoshop here! Brett’s illustrations are detailed and charming. Watch for the peacock! Pay attention also to the embroidered tapestries in the background of many scenes, which reveal people as they truly are.
Beastliness: One word in the text rang hollow for me: Beauty implores the dying Beast to live “so that we may be man and wife, for I love you so.” It is anachronistic for Beauty to say “man,” since the Beast is still a Beast at this point, but what troubles me is the implied androcentrism of “man and wife”, rather than husband and wife. However, this is the only sour note in what is a very lovely and visually rewarding retelling.
“Beauty and the Beast” translated from Marie LePrince de Beaumont by Richard Howard and illustrated by Hilary Knight is meant for older readers, with much more text, which runs from page to page without regard for paragraph breaks and seems much less aimed for new readers. The illustrations contrast the bumbling, fat merchant with the demonic-looking Beast (goat-monkey’s face with horns, red eyes, and fangs, attired in spiky black armour and cloaks which suggest wings, both feathered and hairy-bodied, although the feathers may be clothing; it is difficult to tell). The illustrative style is darker and lone-based, almost gothic and certainly impractical (clothing-wise) yet compelling. Beauty has Snow White’s colouring, which is almost too dramatic in contrast to everyone else, (nearly White Witch-like at times) and Audrey Hepburn’s eyes.
Beauties: The full-spread illustration depicting Beauty’s visit home and reunion with her father and sisters really does make me laugh out loud. The father is so inept, beaming like a proud butler at his returned daughter, who graciously rises from a couch and stretches out her free hand (the other is held by her father) to her appalled-darling-simply-appalled sisters. Meanwhile, in the background a stout housekeeper unpacks Beauty’s trunk and in the foreground a large, collared, wild-looking cat opens its mouth wide from where it deigns to repose upon Beauty’s couch at the sisters and their husbands, who are the most wonderful part of this marvelously-arranged scene. One sisters’ husband, who takes up almost half a page he is so in the foreground, is quite portly and fashionably dressed (which shows off his rounded rear); he affects a cane and has his hand by his face near his tousled hair; he clearly thinks quite a lot of himself. The other sister’s husband in the background center of the same page pays no attention at all to the return of his sister-in-law. He is much too busy admiring his handsome face in the mirror, carefully-trimmed beard and mustache and curled just-so hair.
Beastliness: I don’t admire how alternately meekly coy and pathetic Beauty appears (her mouth is open in an expression of dismay in three separate illustrations; in several of the others she appears just a little too saccharinely “good”), nor do I like the formidably dominant, possessive look with which the prince regards Beauty at the end. The intricacy and drama of the illustrations, however, are enjoyable, as is the afterword by Jean Cocteau, director of the original Beauty and the Beast film, despite the inaccuracy of his assertion that “Beauty and the Beast” is originally an English tale.
The Mayers’ version (retelling by Marianna, illustrations by Mercer) is imaginative in both words and pictures. The words give more detail and dialogue and thus more background – we learn that Beauty is the most like her mother, who had loved the countryside, for instance. Her two sisters are made obnoxious in contrast to dutiful Beauty and her brothers, who are hard-working and affectionate, and to their father, who is an empathetic character in this text. The illustrations use abundant colour, lushly layered detail, and unusual foregrounding (of characters’ faces, often) to create a deep and romantic world. The Beast here is an odd mixture of feline and human, and the developing companionship between him and Beauty is given attention, both the negative sides (early on he is angered at having to answer her question with a description of his hunting for food – “I am an animal after all, my lady!”) and the positive (conversation). Beauty’s refusal to marry the Beast is couched in terms of romantic love, rather than as a refusal without reason given, which in my opinion makes her words all the harsher, but does set up the final proposal. This version, also unusually, keeps the dreams of the early French tale, in which Beauty at night is courted by a dream prince and counseled by an old woman to ignore appearances.
Beauties: The illustration of the scene in which Beauty cradles the weakened Beast at her return is one of the most remarkable in this lovely book. The autumnal grass and dying brambles, coupled with the orange-red of Beauty’s cloak and gown, and the browns of her hair and the Beast’s fur, create a sense of fading away which is very moving. The page which follows is one of the few satisfactory post-transformation scenes in any picturebook of this tale (to my eyes). This prince is handsome in the same way Beauty is beautiful, and as they gaze at each other the reader may well notice that they look almost like twins. Even their clothes and hair are akin in a very sweet visual representation of how well-companioned they are in each other.
Beastliness: Nothing! Well, perhaps the awfulness of the sisters. Which doesn’t mar the story because the rest is so good and because actually they’re not as bad in this version as they are in the first two literary versions (upon which this one is based).
What Nancy Willard (words) and Barry Moser (pictures) do in their retelling is strikingly different from the above versions. Uniquely, so far as I know, Moser illustrated this version with black-and-white woodcuts which appear every four pages or so, establishing mood through line and perspective. The real draw of this book, however, is the story. Willard sets her retelling in early-1900s America (Beauty’s family lives in New York), and crafts a charming, elegant, and amusing narrative, full of vivid details that bring the era and the family alive. Text-dense pages suit this retelling better to be read aloud than handed to new readers, if old readers can bear to tear themselves away. The text is strongly reminiscent of Robin McKinley’s Beauty and Rose Daughter, with the emphasis on the mother, Beauty’s physical outdoor labour, the descriptions of the Beast’s castle, Beauty as rose gardener, star-watching with the Beast on the roof of the castle, clues in paintings of the Beast’s former form, and a beautiful apricot dress, among other details.
Beauties: Willard’s poetic prose and the occasional lyrics interjected into the narrative. Moser depicts the Beast’s face but once, and it is a human visage, every so slightly deformed by vast lumpy nose, pointy sticking-out ears, thick, repulsive beard creeping across his face, and recessed eyes. Old- and sinister-looking, this one glimpse of the Beast does not allow the reader to adjust to his appearance or the illustrator to take pity and soften his features.
Beastliness: A few of the woodcuts are too square for my taste; however, that is my own preference and in now way detracts from this wonderful, highly literary retelling.
Max Eilenberg also recasts the story magnificently, and, like Willard, devotes attention to Beauty’s family before they decamp to the country in poverty. Here the merchant, a proud father, is put centerstage in a prologue of sorts, and contains plentiful new details of deeds and situation that allow the reader to laugh at and feel empathy with the main characters. Again this is a text-heavy retelling, with illustration appearing in nearly all the ways possible: scattered in miniature among the words, in narrow strips above, beside, or below the words, in small frames, as one page text and one illustration, in framed montages, and, in a few glorious instances, full double-spreads. The landscapes seem to move and the words spin the sensation of what they describe breath-takingly well. The Beast is a fantastical, feline-like creature of slender, muscular limbs, deadly claws, impossibly long thick tail which seems at times a weapon and at other times, trails him like a burden too heavy to carry, almost lupine ears, and long brown fur.
Beauties: The double-spread in which the father, on horseback, comes upon the Beast’s castle. It is a perfect snow scene, and I am reminded of Pemberley. The slender strip of illustration depicting Beauty and her father’s last meal together at one end of an illuminated ballroom; at the far opposite side, outside in the dark, the Beast leans against the closed doors, one fist clenched over his heart, before he enters. The illustrations of Beauty’s time in the Beast’s castle. The double-spread of Beauty clinging to the Beast who lies dead in the snow by the riverbank. The fantastical – there is no more fitting word – illustrations and the enchanting words as a whole are a delight.
Beastliness: In the prologue, Gertrude is the eldest and Hermione the middle daughter, and they love jewels and clothes, respectively. However, ever after Hermione is referred to before Gertrude, which could reflect the power of their relative personalities, but is slightly puzzling. The first illustration of the prince is disappointing – he was so much more interesting as the Beast! The words on the following page, however, make up for it.
Who might prefer which?
Brett – young readers, especially those with no or little knowledge of the tale.
Howard and Knight – readers who like fanciful and slightly creepy illustrations.
Mayer – readers who like intricate scenes with deep colours; slightly more experienced readers and those with no or little knowledge of the tale.
Willard and Moser – older readers and those who appreciate subtle humour.
Eilenbery and Barrett – older readers, particularly those with a sense of the dramatic, and those who appreciate subtle humour.