The most uplifting interpretation of Beauty and the Beast that I ever saw was the movie made by Jean Cocteau in 1946, La Belle et la Bête. It made an unforgettable impression on me when I saw it, aged 19. Cocteau’s version was a highly moral fable, for it was about character and trust.

The Beast is ugly, but he has a gentle and loving nature, and Beauty, who at first resents him, nevertheless comes to appreciate him for his kindness and good character. When love turns Beast into a handsome young man, Beauty is somewhat disappointed. She had grown to love Beast for himself alone, ignoring his appearance.

This could be a vital message in an era when young girls are being made permanently anxious about how they look. But sadly, Beauty and the Beast is being re-interpreted in different, and distorted ways. The actress Emma Watson is altering the story in her forthcoming movie to make Belle more “actively feminist” – in her spare time, the heroine will now invent a washing machine (which is somewhat unfair on the male engineers who actually invented the washing machine).

Another current report, in the Times Educational Supplement, claims that the fable “promotes domestic violence” because the Beast may be seen as a brute who holds a young woman prisoner.

I find these interpretations shallow and superficial. Great minds – from Carl Jung to Bruno Bettelheim – have analysed the meaning of these old fables and legends and often seen in them lessons for life that can help children understand moral and psychological meaning.

Jung thought that Little Red Riding Hood was a helpful warning to young girls that there were bad men (the wolf) as well as good men (the forester) in the world. Bettelheim said that Cinderella – which goes back to ancient Chinese sources – was about the psychological quest to connect with “a true self”, as well as teaching children that humble friends (Buttons) can be better people than those who judge everything by materialistic measures.

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