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'Beauty And The Beast' Follows A Tradition Of Animal-Human Love Stories


Disney's new live action version of "Beauty And The Beast" opened this weekend. NPR's Lynn Neary wanted to know just how far back that story really goes.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: "Beauty And The Beast" has surfaced in many forms over the years. In a 1980s TV show, The Beast lived not in a castle, but in an elaborate underground lair beneath New York City. His beauty was a lawyer.


RON PERLMAN: (As Vincent) I knew then, as I know now, she would change my life forever.

NEARY: That's the way the story usually goes. The beauty is the beast's salvation - not so in the classic 1930s film "King Kong" where beauty had the opposite effect.


ROBERT ARMSTRONG: (As Carl Denham) Oh, no. It wasn't the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.

NEARY: But for all our fascination with the story, is it really, as the song says, a tale as old as time?

MARIA TATAR: It is, for sure.

NEARY: Maria Tatar should know. She studies and teaches folklore at Harvard. Tatar says there are folk tales about animal grooms...

TATAR: They're bears and dogs and snakes and condors...

NEARY: ...And animal brides.

TATAR: ...Monkeys, toads, cranes, swans.

NEARY: And pretty much anywhere you go in the world, says Tatar, you will find a story about animals and humans falling in love or at least entering an arrangement with the hope that love will come later.

TATAR: You have Asian stories. You have Chinese tales. The Scandinavian countries love the swan maiden story. I found some terrific South American stories about a parrot prince and a fish.

NEARY: Tatar has edited a new collection of these stories called, appropriately, "Beauty And The Beast." She says brides in beastly forms usually have to complete impossible tasks to get to a happy ending. The animal grooms, on the other hand, are saved from a bestial existence by a beautiful young maiden.

TATAR: Basically, she learns through her relationship with him to value character rather than appearances, though in some cases she just gets fed up. And she may throw him against the wall or burn his skin or, you know, do something terrible.

NEARY: In Disney's version of the story, the beauty does not do anything so cruel, but in the beginning, the lovely Belle makes no attempt to conceal her disdain for the beast.


DAN STEVENS: (As Beast) I told you to join me for dinner.

EMMA WATSON: (As Belle) And I told you no. I'd starve before I ever ate with you.

STEVENS: (As Beast) Well, be my guest. Go ahead and starve.

NEARY: The Disney story follows the classic arc, says Tatar, wherein the beauty eventually finds something to love despite the beast's terrifying exterior.

TATAR: One reason that we relate to this story, we love it so much, we embrace it as our cultural story is that it tells us about the other - about the other who can seem beastly and terrible. And it proposes that we make a move in the direction of empathy and understanding, rather than revulsion and horror and fear.


WATSON: (As Belle) Please - please don't leave. (Sobbing) I love you.

NEARY: But even Tatar doesn't really know why we use animals to tell these romantic tales.

TATAR: That is the enigma of the question, the puzzle, the mystery that I haven't quite figured out.

NEARY: Then again, what's to figure? It is a love story, after all. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.