Sam and I have been posting on the theme of ‘Beauty and the Beast recently here and here (I am doing research on the tale and will be presenting a paper at the Damsels in Redress conference next month). I went to see the new Disney film on Wednesday.
Iona and Peter Opie, in their book The Classic Fairy Tales (Oxford: OUP, 1974), claim that ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is ‘The most symbolic of the fairy tales after Cinderella, and the most intellectually satisfying’ (p. 137). It has spawned so many variants that it could almost qualify as a genre in itself. It’s a subset of what folklorists consider a specific type, of Animal-Bridegroom stories (there are also related Animal-Bride tales). The ur-text is that of Madame de Villeneuve’s 1740 version (though a more general architext is Apuleius’ ‘Cupid and Psyche’ story, embedded in The Golden Ass). There are hundreds of variations, adaptations, and reworkings of the basic story alone, not to mention the way the theme of human and monstrous lovers lies behind the recently emerged genre of paranormal romance (most familiar through Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling Twilight (2005)). Betsy Hearne charts the progress of the tale in her excellent Beauty and the Beast: Visions and Revisions of an Old tale (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), though she wrote before the many recent adaptations of the tale as paranormal romance appeared.
Disney’s animated musical film version of the tale in 2009 was well-received and is much loved. It has now been remade as a live-action film, enhanced by CGI and other special effects. The first impression of the new film is how visually splendid it is, with its rococo interiors and Gothic scenes of the forest and the more gloomy parts of the Beast’s castle. The spectacular Busby Berkeley scene at the dinner table for the number ‘Be our guest’, with its animated and personalised troupe of household objects serving and performing for Belle is even more impressive in this live-action version.
It mostly adheres to the plot of the 2009 version; there are a few changes (not all for the best, thinks Dana Schwarz). However, the earlier film itself departs considerably from the original plot (more, in fact, than many adaptations of the tale). The bankruptcy of the merchant father is lost; the jealous and spiteful sisters are absent. The Prince’s back story here is that he was cursed for his selfishness and vanity until he learns to love and is loved. In other versions, it is not usually the Prince’s fault that he is transformed.
What is interesting about the longevity of the tale and the constant appeal described by the Opies and others are the way that key motifs and themes remain, disappear, or are transformed without affecting the tale. But some themes appear to be retained throughout. There is almost always a rose (I liked the way Belle’s dresses are decorated with roses). Magic mirrors appear in some form or other. The theme of uncovering false appearances seems to be a constant, as the line in the film ‘Beauty is found within’ reveals (and this is often related to the mirror motif). Most of all, from Villeneuve onwards, the Beauty figure is bookish (see Beth O’Brian’s article). From the beginning of the film, Bella is depicted as ‘ahead of her time’ and ‘different’; someone who wants ‘adventure’ and someone ‘to understand’. Her possible fate as an impoverished spinster forced to beg is suggested by Gaston when she refuses his proposal. But she will not passively accept the fate allotted to women of a dull marriage and a boorish husband (however masculine and muscular). And this utopian yearning to transcend the mundane (which marriage to the Beast eventually fulfils, of course) is inspired by and effected through her reading. This much is feminist, and the animated version surprised and pleased viewers with its feisty heroine who differed greatly from the Disney princess stereotype and satisfied the expectations of twentieth-century women, expressing some feminist principles that had, by then, become mainstream. Marina Warner saw it as ‘the cunning domestication of feminism itself’ (though I think this is slightly unfair; it has something to do with the acceptance of much feminism into everyday discourse so that a ready audience is in place for it, rather than the imposition of a tamed politics) (See Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers (London: Vintage, 1994), p. 313). There were certainly conscious feminist intentions in the original script, as the screenwriter Linda Wolverton recalls.
In this film, Belle and the Beast woo each other in a literary fashion, reading to each other (she is impressed by his huge library). In the earlier film, he has forgotten how to read and she teaches him, reading from Romeo and Juliet; here, he mocks her for Romeo and Juliet being his favourite play. But she finds him reading the story of Guinevere and Lancelot, or, as he puts it, the tales of Arthur and his knights; ‘It’s a romance’, she retorts. So her bookishness may be slightly ambiguous from a feminist perspective; it is specifically the feminised genre of romantic fiction that she is absorbed in (the genre, of course, to which the story itself may belong). In Villeneuve, we get the sense that her reading is more ‘serious’. She further enchants him by her reading of William Sharp’s ‘A Crystal Forest’, a poem about the winter landscape; he tells her she has made him see things in a new way (part of that unmasking of appearances). She reads, too, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the lines ‘Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, / And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind’ (Helena, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, i. 1). This is significantly apt, as the play is full of glimpses beyond the surface, magical transformations, the awakening of love, and, of course, its own ‘Beauty and the Beast’ moment of Titania loving the ass-headed Bottom.
In all the versions of this tale, some kind of reconciliation of opposites is suggested. One can see versions of masculinity and femininity being addressed; wildness and animality, humanity and civilisation come into play, often overlapping with the first pair. Here, a kind of brutish masculinity is under attack, particularly through the boorish (and un-bookish) Gaston. ‘He’s not a monster, Gaston—you are!’, cries Belle, as he stirs the villagers into beastly anger, with them bearing pitchforks and torches as they march on the castle as in films of Frankenstein (whose creature is another outsider who troubles the border between the monstrous and the human). ‘I am no Beast’, says the Beast, and spares Gaston’s life. But later Gaston—famed as a hunter—shoots him in the back like one would a wild animal. The film ends as ‘Winter turns to spring’ with a reconciliation of aristocratic castle and its rehumanised servants with the village, and the families of the servants have their memories restored (a touch not in the animated film). And then a glorious final dance, with Beauty’s dress decorated with roses.
But the whole plot is troubling from a feminist point of view, and different adaptations have tried out different strategies to resolve this. The Beauty is held captive until she submits to the Beast’s desire, however much mutuality develops between them. The theme of development is progressive (they sing ‘learning you were wrong’). Yet the timescale for this change seems unreasonably compressed, more so because of the live actors (one can accept less psychological realism perhaps with animated characters). The manner in which Belle is kept captive seems more coercive here than in many of the variations, with the servants adding to the pressure. And there’s a tiresome twenty-first-century pop psychology that seems to reduce the Beast’s aggression to a problem of ‘anger management’: the servants tell him ‘You should learn to control your temper’. The beastliness is related to masculinity and his faults are traced to a bad upbringing—the loss of his mother; the subsequent influence of a cruel father, as the servants tell Belle.
However, it is a hugely enjoyable film—visually sumptuous, as I have said. I had my doubts about Emma Watson’s singing voice, which appeared to be Autotuned, though it hasn’t stopped me from singing the theme song non-stop since. It is definitely worth seeing, even if just as an example of the many ways this infinitely protean tale can be reinvented.