Friday, April 7, 2017

The Beauty in the Beast

Part 2 of a series.  Part 1 is here and the latter four parts are here, here, here, and here.

My claim in the previous post might be summarized as follows.  There is an impression running about and shouting (like a chicken with its head cut off) that fairy tales are supposed to be dark.  This is only partially true: fairy tales certainly contain frightening things.  But the fairy tale genre is stylistically ill-equipped to raise and answer psychological, cultural, or moral questions; consequently, a lot of the “darkness” that we see in adaptations of fairy tales is in fact a moral dinginess imposed by our expansion of their narratives.  And in expanding, we have a choice: we can emphasize what is creepy, or what is wholesome (not to sound too Richard Weaver about it).  A “dark” fairy tale movie reflects who we are as a culture as much as (or perhaps more than) it reflects the original fairy tale.

One of my favorite fairy tales, “Beauty and the Beast,” is a case in point.  Had I seen the Disney version at a young age, I am less sure it would have been my favorite; having no source beyond a cassette recording by “Children’s Radio Theater,” I fell in love.  But college came: innocence was lost: I saw Beauty and the Beast, and enjoyed it, without having it displace the original in my heart.

But Jean Cocteau’s version, which I saw about the same time, was different.  I thought then and still think now (subject always to the revision of another viewing) that Cocteau came rather closer to capturing the spirit of the story as it then was known.  As much as Linda Wolverton and co. at Disney borrowed from Cocteau (and observers have noticed all sorts of things, from a Gaston-like rival to an enchanted candlestick), they left out something important: the characters of Belle and the Beast.  These are not very fully fleshed out in the source (again, see my previosu post); but Cocteau’s film seems to develop what is already there, while the Disney team took another direction entirely.  As a result, Cocteau’s film for grownup audiences turns out, counterintuitively, to be less “creepy” than Disney’s, though no less frightening.

For frightening and creepy are not the same thing at all,
 as Meg Murry almost said.

My previous post noted that some viewers were reacting to the buzz around Disney’s new B&B by asserting that the story “glorified Stockholm Syndrome.”   More specifically, some denizens of the Book of Face expressed (perhaps merely rhetorical) concern that B&B implanted on the minds of impressionable young girls the notion that men who held them and/or their aged relatives captive and shouted and threw stuff about were no worse than a bit rough around the edges.  It was unclear, in the critical comments that I encountered, whether this criticism was leveled at the Disney movies specifically, or at all things bearing the title “Beauty and the Beast.”  Given our general state of cultural ignorance, I rather fear the latter.  But the accusation, if it was general, was not merited: there are large differences between the “original” fairy tale, the Cocteau film (1946), and Disney’s 1991 adaptation.  I would argue that these differences make all the difference between a story which “glorifies Stockholm Syndrome” and one which is more subtle and less potentially misleading.

If you have the time for it, I would request that you do a little homework.  Here is a summary of the original fairytale; here is a summary of the film by Cocteau; and here is a summary of the Disney film.

Note that I am cherry-picking based on what I have seen …
there are many versions of the story, from many cultures—
Norse, American Indian, etc.—and the “beastly” character
is sometimes female, as in the “loathly lady” tradition.

If you completed your reading and returned, congratulations!  If you skipped or skimmed your assignment, like ninety-eight percent of my former students, I’ll pull a teacher and powerpoint the relevant differences between Disney et al.

Villeneuve/Beaumont (1740/56)
Cocteau (1946)
Disney (1991)
Entrapment of father by Beast
At first treated royally, the father plucks a rose and is accused of ingratitude/theft, and threatened with death.
At first treated royally, the father plucks a rose and is accused of ingratitude/theft, and threatened with death.
The father is imprisoned by the Beast for being lost.
Deal between father and Beast
The Beast relents when the merchant promises to either come back himself or send one of his children.
The Beast suggests that one of the merchant’s daughters can take his place.
Deal?  You think this Beast makes deals?
How the Beast initially receives Beauty
See left; the Beast explains that she has as much power to command as he.
Um … does the word “hostility” convey anything?
What life in the castle is like
Pleasant from the get-go; the Beast proposes nightly, and Beauty’s reaction is always: “Nice guy, but nope.”
Beauty is uncomfortable with the Beast’s proposals of marriage, but grows to enjoy his company.
Initial hostility and incivility on the part of the Beast is gradually overcome, and mutual regard established.
Why the Beast’s spell, anyway?
“… an evil fairy … tried to seduce [the prince] … when he refused, she transformed him into a beast.”
“… because his parents did not believe in spirits, in revenge the spirits turned him into the Beast.”
“An enchantress … offers an enchanted rose to a young prince in exchange for shelter … but he refuses. For his arrogance, the enchantress transforms him into a beast …”

In brief: The French Bête is a gentleman, and the American “Beast” is not.

Now, admittedly, the French Beast uses threats and chicanery to entice Beauty to his castle (offering to kill dear old dad is a questionable move by anyone’s standards).  Nevertheless, his kindness to Beauty once she appears suggests that, even with her father, his bark was worse than his bite ever would have been.  He is, from the first, a far cry from the grouchy—let’s be honest, a downright terrifying recluse of the Disney movie.

I’m not entirely sure why Disney made the changes—perhaps to up the ante in terms of obstacles to love? or to make Belle’s initial rejections of the Beast seem less shallow?  Whatever the rationale, these changes simultaneously call her character and intelligence into question when we witness her acceptance of the (now ex?) monster.  We are supposed to move, in the course of a three minute song, from believing that the Beast is “mean … coarse … and unrefined” (not to mention mentally unstable and abusive), to judging him a pretty decent bloke who just needs some better hair-styling advice.  This is farcical if you don’t take it seriously, and bad role-modeling if you do.  But such is the power of music that we accept it unblinkingly, at least until the credits role and the lights come up again.

Perhaps the goal for Disney was less to strengthen Belle’s character than to provide a stronger story arc for the Beast.  And certainly, going from handsome but arrogant numbskull to violent captor to genteel and ultimately altruistic fur-ball is a trajectory.  But there are so many other possible trajectories that could have been forged from the motherload.  For example:

B&B, Continent-Man-Gains-Virtue Edition: The Beast is initially focused simply on finding a girl to break the spell; as his respect for Beauty as a person develops, he realizes this is unfair to her, and lets her go home, knowing it will doom him to permanent enchantment.

B&B, Old Style Therapy Edition: The Beast has initially given up hope that his spell can ever be broken; eventually Beauty helps him regain his self-respect and hope.

B&B, Modern Therapy Edition: The Beast is initially focused simply on finding a girl to break the spell; as his friendship with Beauty develops, he comes to accept his ugliness.  (Yeah, that’s a little too Shrek for me, but still …)

B&B, Ann-of-Green-Gables Edition: The Beast is initially looking just for companionship, because he’s totally cool with being ugly; his interactions with Beauty lead him to realize that love would be even more awesome, and that he would really like to earn her love as well as her friendship.

That’s four possibilities, just off the top of my head …

I know what you’re thinking.  Naw.
There’s no way I’ve ever worked on
my own adaptation of this story.

… possibilities which Disney ignored—in favor of … what, exactly?  A stronger Belle?  OK, let’s try developing her character too then.  In the original story, her main obstacle to accepting the Beast’s marriage proposals is seemingly the Beast’s appearance.  That’s a little shallow, maybe.  So what about …

B&B, Righteous Woman Edition: Beauty initially goes to the Beast’s castle terrified of the Beast and his evil deal with her father.  She eventually gets up enough courage to call out the Beast on his selfishness; he lets her go home, she eventually returns of her own free will, and they start from scratch.  (This obviously pairs well with B&B, Continent-Man-Gains-Virtue Edition.)

B&B, Old Style Therapy Edition: Beauty initially goes to the Beast’s castle thinking that, unlike her sisters, she was going to stay single for dear old dad’s sake; taking dad’s place with the Beast is merely an extension of the sacrifice.  Over time in the castle, she comes to realize that her apparent self-abnegation is actually a form of selfishness: she has been avoiding romantic love out of fear that [her heart will break OR it will look selfish of her OR need to be needed by dad OR …].

B&B, Modern Therapy Edition: Beauty initially goes to the Beast’s castle thinking that she’s looking for the perfect man to love; her time with the Beast leads her to realize that romantic love is overplayed anyway, and they can just be platonic friends while she pursues her REAL dream as a sustainable forestry entrepreneur.

B&B, We’re Only Human Edition: Beauty initially goes to the Beast’s castle resenting her father and the Beast for making the deal.  She comes to understand the pressures under which the Beast cut the deal, when she makes a similar deal herself (I’ll go home for three days—oops, yeah, sorry, that was three weeks, jk, right?), and realizes her hypocrisy.  (May or may not pair with various Beast stories.)

BONUS:  B&B, Canon Lawyer Edition (Catholic audiences only): Beauty initially turns down the Beast’s proposal of marriage because, while she’d love to help him out, she’s concerned that maybe marriage with him might violate a norm or two.  Fr. Jacques-Phillippe assures her that (1) the Beast is a rational animal, and thus technically human; and (2) the Beast’s backstory indicates that they have a pretty good chance of procreating ten kids, none of whom look even vaguely lionesque.  A lovely wedding ensues, with the Beast scattering gold coins everywhere like Alan Rickman, and the villagers remarking that, since he’s rich and she’s handsome, it’s nbd, but what an atrocious lack of lace! Selena would stare when she heard of it …

Are these all great movies in the making?  Perhaps not.  But they are different stories—different takes on the fairy tale; different enough to suggest, I think, that there was no need for Disney to skirt so close to the edge as it did with its unoriginal moral conundrum of a beautiful girl who falls in love with a bad, bad man.

The series will resume some time during Easter Week.


  1. In the 2014 Franco-German version of Beauty and the Beast, a nobleman becomes a beast for killing his wife by accident. She was a nymph whose regular form was a deer; and he, ignorant of this, shot her with an arrow.

    1. Now that's interesting. I'm curious as to how the Beast's solution with Beauty is redemptive, in that case? Is it that *spoiler alert because I read the summary* HE gets to be an animal that gets shot too? So there's sort of a parallel punishment? Is there also something psychological going on? (I guess you're speculating too, but I'm curious as to your speculations.)