I think I’ve had a page like this on every website I’ve had since my early teens (which is possibly more websites than you’d think, and certainly more than I really remember), so it was only a matter of time.
I love retellings of Beauty and the Beast. I guess on one level I know that I’m just reading (and writing) the same story over and over again, but there’s more to it than that. Putting a new spin on a fairytale is a really unique challenge: you have to find something fresh in the story, something that’s all you, while keeping all the elements that people will expect. Of course, I love reading original stories too, but I get just as much – and often more – enjoyment out of seeing someone reinterpret an old one.
Especially when it’s this old one.
Here’s my collection of novelisations. I’ll add some information and my own thoughts below. If you’re a Beauty and the Beast or fairytale fan too, I’d love to hear your thoughts about these or any others you’ve read! (If you’re not a BatB or fairytale fan, you will probably find this post unbearably geeky. Sorry-not-sorry!)
I might amend this post as I read new books and re-read old ones! Also, if you like Beauty and the Beast retellings, I’d love for you to check out Faustina, the one I’m working on at the moment.
Beauty by Robin McKinley
This is the first Beauty and the Beast novelisation I ever read. I vividly remember seeing it in a bookshop when I was 12 or 13 and in the first passionate throes of my BatB fandom. It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone would have written a whole novel about it (how little I knew!) and I went into full “shut up and take my money” mode. This copy is much-read and well-loved – if it doesn’t look it, it’s because for several years it was my precioussss.
Beauty is probably the “purest” retelling I’ve read, by which I mean that it very much maintains the feel of the Beaumont version of the fairytale, without adding or changing many aspects. The only exception I can think of is that Beauty’s sisters are nice, which is a change I really like – I feel like it would detract from the drama if Beauty’s sojourn in the castle could be seen as just a nice holiday from having to do everyone’s chores. As the title suggests, it’s really the story of Beauty, of which the Beast is only a part. Each scene in Beauty’s life is really richly drawn and it’s easy to get completely absorbed in the writing and become very attached to Beauty and her family. It’s told from Beauty’s point of view so the Beast remains a little distant and mysterious, perhaps more than you’d expect from the hero of a romance novel, but I think that’s part of his charm in this case. You’re left guessing about him alongside Beauty.
Robin McKinley wrote a second version of Beauty and the Beast called Rose Daughter. Unfortunately, I seem to have parted ways with my copy. As I recall (prompted, it has to be said, by Wikipedia), that made more of the rose from the original. Beauty has a special talent for gardening, and her revival of the Beast’s dying roses is linked to her saving and falling in love with him. I guess I’ll have to re-read it and update this post when I get a chance.
Belle by Cameron Dokey
One thing that turns up repeatedly in BatB retellings, despite not being in the original, is the idea of “Beauty” having a special skill that she can use to help break the curse. I like this idea a lot, partly because it takes some of the pressure off of “true love” to cure everything, which is an element of BatB that I’ve become pretty uncomfortable with. It can also give the character a bit more substance and add some depth to the curse, depending on how it’s used, and it’s something for the characters to focus on besides angst and marriage proposals.
In Belle, Belle’s skill is woodcarving. There’s a special branch, from the “Heartwood Tree” that, if carved properly, will reveal the face of one’s true love. This artefact replaces the rose in the role of “something for Beauty’s father to steal”. It’s a really sweet idea (and has a great and very fairytale backstory that I won’t spoil) and a nice twist. Other than that, Belle stays almost as close to the original as Beauty does, and also makes the sisters sympathetic. I wonder if that’s almost unavoidable, if the writer wants to keep the sisters at all, because otherwise the first third of the book would read like Cinderella. (That’s a particular problem if you’re also planning to do a Cinderella adaptation, which a swift Google shows me Dokey has.)
Overall, it’s a good read, with interesting ideas, good character development of Belle and some sweet scenes between the leads. If I have a complaint, it’s that I’d like to have had the romance drawn out a little more, so that there was more of it to enjoy, but I’d still recommend giving it a try!
The Fire Rose by Mercedes Lackey
I’m going to come right out and say it: this is my favourite. I wouldn’t necessarily say it was the best (I might give that to Heart’s Blood, below) but I re-read it more than any of the others and it delights me every time.
It’s set in San Francisco in 1905. I don’t know much about US History so I couldn’t tell you how accurate it is, but the setting feels very well-drawn. The Beast is Jason, a rail-baron-slash-wizard who is better at rail baroning than wizarding and has got himself stuck as a half-wolf, half-man. Beauty is Rose, whose superpower special Beauty skill is reading – specifically, reading in various other languages, so that she can help Jason decipher some of the spellbooks that he thinks might help him out of his predicament. They start off by using a speaking tube but eventually meet face to hairy face and there’s angst and conflict and it’s great. The system of magic in this universe is interesting – I think this is part of a series set in the same universe, but I’ve never got round to reading the others – and is the focus of a good secondary plot.
I feel I should mention that there are problems with this book. Probably the biggest is the villain. He gets a lot of “screen” time considering that his impact on the plot is minimal (Beauty and the Beast doesn’t really need a villain) and he spends it being unrelentingly evil for no particular reason, except perhaps to expose some of the seedier elements of the setting. I would never say that romance writers shouldn’t explore dark themes but some of these scenes are very jarring against the fluffy romance and, since they barely influence the story, they seem pretty gratuitous. I actually skip all of that character’s scenes when re-reading and the book almost makes perfect sense without them.
Having said all that, I think the hallmark of a good book is that you think about it long after you’ve finished reading it, and I’m always being reminded about this one. I can see some of the scenes in my imagination so vividly and I know I can rely on it to distract me from real life if I want it to. In a way, I guess it’s reassuring to me, as a developing writer, that a reader can find flaws in a book and still love it.
Mercedes Lackey is another twofer, having also written Beauty and the Werewolf. I own that too, but now that I come to write about it I realise I can’t remember much about it, so I guess that’s another one to re-read! I do love The Fairy Godmother, though, which is another story from the same series. The overall premise of the series is that there is a force called the “Tradition” that forces people into story patterns, e.g. a girl with a wicked stepmother into marrying a prince. It’s a clever idea but I suppose Beauty and the Werewolf just didn’t grab me like The Fire Rose did. I’ll definitely give it another chance soon, though.
Beastly by Alex Flinn
I would have been hysterical with excitement over this if it had come out a few years earlier. As it was, I approached it with suspicion – and was pleasantly surprised. Set in a modern US high school, this is the story of Kyle: a vain, popular teenager who gets turned into a Beast. (As opposed to just getting a lot of tattoos and scars like he does in the movie.) It does what it says on the tin, to be honest – it’s a sweet teen romance with characteristic BatB angst. I particularly like that Flinn really uses the differences thrown up by the modern setting, like having Kyle experiment with online dating. I also like that he roams the streets of New York at night – that alleviates some of the claustrophobia of having the characters trapped in one place.
One issue with this book: Kyle has a tutor, a geeky blind guy called Will. I probably didn’t think too much about that the first time I read it but, since I now have a boyfriend who is a geeky blind guy, I’m kind of attuned to the details of Will’s portrayal. On the whole, it’s pretty good – I mean, he’s basically there to teach Kyle something about inner beauty and on a fairly flimsy justification (Kyle’s dad is famous and doesn’t want people to find out what’s happened to his son, but the first thing Kyle does is to describe himself to Will who, in any case, has signed a non-disclosure agreement, which anyone could have done) – but he’s got a personality beyond “blind guy” and sets Kyle straight on some misconceptions. And any uncorrected misconceptions can perhaps be blamed on the fact that it’s told in Kyle’s voice. The problem is that (SPOILER AHEAD) Kyle makes a deal with the witch who cursed him that if he breaks the spell, Will will get his sight back. Obviously he does, and then there’s a page at the end where Will is all “Oh, hey, I can see.” Which is a bit… cheap, I think. Like, without it, Will would still have come out of the story much richer and with the warm fuzzy feeling of having helped a teenage Beast get a girlfriend. But it reads as though the author thought no one could possibly have a happy ending if they were still blind so she just tacked that on. (I’m not saying that’s what she actually thought, because of course I don’t know, but that’s how it reads to me.)
I didn’t mean to labour that point quite as much as I did but, as with my warning about The Fire Rose, I would have felt weird about leaving it out. To complete the criticism sandwich, though, I really like the fact that it’s written entirely in Kyle’s voice. It’s an unusual choice to write a romance solely from the hero’s perspective, especially with Beauty and the Beast, since the character starts out wildly unlikeable. Kyle’s evolution throughout the story is really well done, and I like that he still seems a little self-absorbed at the end. We’re in his thoughts, after all, and it would be unrealistic for him to change beyond recognition.
I’ve thought of another retelling from the Beast’s perspective, actually: Beast by Donna-Jo Napoli. Another one I seem to have mislaid somewhere along the way and should get hold of again.
Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier
As I said above, I think this is the best retelling of Beauty and the Beast I’ve ever read. It’s also probably the longest, and it’s worth every page. Heart’s Blood is the story of Caitrin, a Beauty whose special skill is scribing. Amazingly enough, that’s just what Anluan, a mysterious chieftain who lives at the top of a haunted tor, is in need of: someone to organise and transcribe notes made by an ancestor of his who practised dark magic and brought a terrible curse down on his fortress and the surrounding area. The part of the rose is played by heart’s blood, a rare and expensive plant that’s used to make a particular ink.
That setup is superficially similar to The Fire Rose, but this is a much deeper story. There’s a magic-related subplot in The Fire Rose but it’s definitely supplementary to the romance. In Heart’s Blood, the curse is much more complicated than usual, taking in numerous ghosts who are characters in themselves, a Norman invasion, local politics and lengthy flashbacks. The curse is the story, making the love story more incidental. That said, the romance is still both sweet and powerful and you absolutely root for them as a couple. There’s just a lot more to it than that.
Boy, this ended up loooooong. I’m going to post it now, because I spend far too long writing blog posts and then losing confidence in them, but I hope to come back and edit and add to it in the future. In the meantime, I’d love to know what you think of these retellings, or if there are any others I should check out!