Monday, March 20, 2017

That Problem With Disney's 'Beauty and the Beast'(s) and Why It's NOT There in the Original* Fairy Tale

All images in this post by Mercer Mayer, retold by Marianna Meyer (based on the Villeneuve version of BatB)
Note: There is a LOT going on in these illustrations, which are from one of our favorite picture books for Beauty & the Beast, especially regarding symbolism. Look beyond the foreground and main character portrayal to the background and details.
Longtime readers will be aware of this but in case you aren't, our Fairy Tale News Hound is one of the few fairy tale folk around for whom 'Beauty and the Beast' is not a favorite fairy tale. Most people look at us slightly stunned and repeat "Why?" a few times, so we thought we'd attempt to explain it.

Mostly this is a matter of taste but with the 2017 live action Disney movie freshly unspooled into theaters, we thought it was a good time to try, and why, though we enjoyed the 1991 Disney movie, we couldn't bring herself to outright 'love' it, either. The reasons for each are very different.
Note: Yes, we have read many versions of 'Beauty and the Beast' novels, including Robin McKinley's versions (plural), but none have really had much personal impact, as wonderfully written as they were. We should also note that at least two fairy tale friends and bloggers, whom we greatly respect and like, adore 'Beauty and the Beast' as their favorite fairy tale and, as a result, are much better authorities on the details than we are. This post is to share our point of view and the reasons why - not to persuade you to agree with our opinion. As we repeatedly state, we understand much of this point of view is due to taste only. That said, Cocteau's film is one of our all time favorites and we've enjoyed various stage and film explorations/ adaptations of the tale in a way, we never could the actual tale/s.

First: let's briefly discuss the original* fairy tale by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, which was abridged, rewritten, and published by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. (Villeneuve's is essentially, the version reproduced, condensed and popularized in the Andrew Lang Blue Fairy Book as well). This fairy tale is... long. Really long. And it's full of what feels like extraneous, self-indulgent, utterly un-fairy tale like reams of unimportant detail. (Fairy tales, as a rule, tend to be succinct, spare, which is one of the reasons we love them so.. but that's another topic.) Both the Beaumont and Lang abridged versions are lengthy and the story takes a long time to happen.
The other main reason it's never stuck (to us) with great affection is that neither the Beast, nor Beauty, go through many real changes as people (only form/ externally). They are essentially the same people from beginning to end. (Other people will argue with this but although we see them going through a situation, we don't see the essential people changing in any notable way, and that includes at the end. And yes, we understand that others read this differently.) Villeneuve's tale, novella really, adds layers and layers of motives from outside the couple - various fairies, including the one that curses the prince in the first place, Beauty's sisters, the fairy kingdom, which it turns out Beauty belongs to in the end... it feels quite complicated, yet the main characters don't really change or develop as people - at least not until the end when it's clear Beauty, at least, has had a shift in perspective, even if she's not really changing who she is.
Villeneuve's Beauty dreams of the prince in his human form and becomes convinced he's being held captive in the castle somewhere so is on a mission to find him, but never does. (This we have to wonder at - is she just slow on the uptake here? Or is she just not willing to acknowledge the truth yet?) The transformation at the end makes for a very different surprise and reveal for Beauty, from what is now the familiar morph-to-man, and meshes the two aspects of the prince together - human and Beast, showing her she now has both. It's certainly easier to swallow than seeing the furball you've come to truly love, change form completely, so you lose what you should have gained.
For those who need a refresher, here a summary of the elements Villeneuve includes that Beaumont doesn't:
Villeneuve's original tale includes several elements that Beaumont's omits. Chiefly, the back-story of both Beauty and the Beast is given. The Beast was a prince who lost his father at a young age, and whose mother had to wage war to defend his kingdom. The queen left him in care of an evil fairy, who tried to seduce him when he became an adult; when he refused, she transformed him into a beast. Beauty's story reveals that she is not really a merchant's daughter but the offspring of a king and a good fairy. The wicked fairy had tried to murder Beauty so she could marry her father the king, and Beauty was put in the place of the merchant's dead daughter to protect her. She also gave the castle elaborate magic, which obscured the more vital pieces of it. Beaumont greatly pared down the cast of characters and simplified the tale to an almost archetypal simplicity. (Wikipedia)

Beaumont's version is much simpler (including the very telling change of transforming Beauty from royal personnage to down-on-his-luck merchant's daughter, that is, a working class girl) but it's very didactic (read, preachy). It's also still long, and in removing the fairies and the spite, jealousy and politics of Faery, and the dream prince mystery, a large part of the conflict in the tale disappears too - which then makes it feel rather aimless for much of the time, especially among the lavish descriptions of the castle and gardens, which Beauty spends many months wandering. Even the jealous sisters seem tame. Beauty is so perfect it's no wonder her sisters are irritated by her, though wishing she'd be eaten by the Beast is extreme. Told at length, even that conflict is tedious though. 
If the tales are blended and summarized, however, the tale has a lot going for it. (Which is, perhaps, why various stage and film explorations that nod to both have more appeal to us.)
When Beauty, who is both a good person and a brave and selfless one (as opposed to her sisters), takes the place of her father, it's by her choice and strong will, actively stepping in to complete a contract her foolish father got himself into by stealing. Surprising the Beast with her resoluteness and honesty to follow through on the contract, (which, yes, seems extreme - to take the father's life for a rose, though royalty at the time were known to mete out more for less) she is never treated as a captive. Instead she is welcomed as the proper mistress of the house, with all privileges and luxuries she could imagine. She spends her time trying to unravel a mystery and learn the ins and outs of the castle and grounds. The Beast never forces himself on her company except for a cordial dinner, at which he asks her, as becomes a ritual, to marry him. At first frightened by this, but then understanding the choice remains hers, the dinners become a way for them to get to know each other. For the time this was written, a woman having choices in any sort of matter like this was almost unheard of. There is a lot of quite overt feminism in this tale to begin with. Women were, essentially property - first of their father, and then of their husbands and both Villeneuve and Beaumont challenge that.
In this way Beauty and the Beast feels like a fairy tale - the change comes from the characters and their reaction/ adaptation to the situation. Like many fairy tales, the choice of action (and consequences) are made by the protagonist, even when she's a woman. The tale is just, for our personal taste, is not an interesting journey - perhaps also because most of the magic has happened before the protagonist appears and she's just adjusting to a new situation in which magical things 'are', like visiting Fairyland. Nothing is really 'different'. There's no threat, and she's the same upstanding person and so is the Beast. The end gets interesting, of course, with the magic mirror and ring, as well as the realization Beauty has, that the Beast's life is in her hands - she has the power of death or life over him and very nearly makes a tragic mistake. This, we feel, is the part that most resembles a canonical fairy tale, with the wonder element occurring and the protagonist then making their choices/reacting as a result and having to deal with the consequences. The final transformation of Beast to prince, is meant to be a good thing - showing all is finally back as it should be, after things almost changing for the worst.
We won't go into the rest of the plot but you get the idea - for about 80% of the text it's a plodding story with not too many interesting story arcs until the end (for our News Hound's taste any way). It's a slow growing friendship and, eventually, love - though erotic aspect of that love is something we just can't read into any version, just the sort of "I'll die for you" friendship, which is wonderful and rare, but still not one you put a ring on (usually), in which two people adapt to each other over time - a lot of time. Lovely but just not our style.
The Beast, in both original versions is, in many ways, a true Beast in form - something that frightens Beauty at first, though he never sets out to alarm her. If anything he goes out of his way to NOT frighten her and to be the gentleman-prince he is on the inside. And this key difference changes the entire emphasis of the story. Beauty doesn't have to accept or learn to love "a beast". He is never a danger to her. She has to accept that he looks like a beast, but she has to also recognize he is , in essence, a good man that she can truly come to love.
Which removes the entire notion of anything to do with Stockholm syndrome and doesn't even have shades of #whyIstayed (the second of which is more of the problem we have with the Disney versions). We can get on board with this, even if we yawn every now and then in the telling of it.**
Which brings us to the 1991 Disney movie. There's nothing slow about this retelling. Although it's filled with problematic issues (such as why on earth the Beast would imprison Maurice) the pace of the story is good, the tension works and there's a well-earned happy(ish) ending. The one problem we always had, however, is that the Beast is a bully and a tantrum-throwing man/beast-child. He's been under this curse - initially for bad behavior - and is just as bad as he ever was - after almost 10 years he hasn't improved. Belle runs for her life, literally, when discovered in the West Wing looking at the rose and yet... she comes to have feelings for him? She's portrayed as smart, brave and not apt to conform to conventions, yet, knowing there's a countdown (nothing like romance on the clock) she... what...? Decides she likes - no, loves - him now because he's no longer baring his fangs at her and looking like he's going to eat her? No matter what has 'changed', this is completely deserving of the hashtag #whyIstayed. (It should also be noted that when people fall in love, they tend to act like they believe the other person wants them too. It's only once the initial romance-high has worn off and things are familiar that those initial temper issues, are shown in their true form. Have they really changed. Sadly, the answer in the ninetieth+ percentile, is 'no'.) It's actually more backward than either Villeneuve or Beaumont's versions.
We understand how people believe Belle makes her own choices throughout the movie, because it does seem that way, but knowing even a smidge of how this scenario would play out in real life it also looks like a very bad situation. (Someone who throws things, is controlling, verbally abusive and threatens your life isn't someone you're smart to hang around with - at least, not unless it's proven they need medication, they get medication and there's a lot of work in self-retraining - even then most would say that's a no-go zone until the 'new healthier self' is well established!) 
It's the one reason we could never 'love' this movie, though we really wanted to. We were always uncomfortable that such a seemingly smart, independent and capable young woman would put herself in such a situation.
Abby Olsece, on seeing the new 2017 version, summarized this concern and maintains that the problem remains in the remake as well. She doesn't reference the original tales of Villeneuve and Beaumont, but is looking at the Disney movies on their own merit:
So, yes, this 2017 edition of Beauty and the Beast brings a little more compassion and an extra dose of feminism, along with its gorgeous visuals and great songs. But it would take a monster overhaul to fix what’s always been the central problem of this story — a smart, independent woman sticking with a partner who’s prone to unpredictable bouts of violence because she believes he can change. That uncomfortable aspect still sits front and center of the 2017 Beauty and the Beast, and it’s a problem that added musical numbers won’t solve. It’s true that redemptive romance makes for a great fairy tale. But it’s important to remember, especially when talking about a movie that’s been influential for generations of little girls, that the reality of a situation like this one is often very different. So yes, this new version of Beauty and the Beast is fun, exciting to watch, and beautiful to look at, every bit as enjoyable as its animated predecessor. But it’s also still every bit as problematic, even with new-and-improved trappings. (from 'Beauty and the Beast' Remains Enchanted — and Problematic by Abby Olcese)

So now that we've seen the movie, what's the consensus in the Fairy Tale News Room? It does seem Disney has gone to a bit of effort to address this failing of the 1991 movie, but it's definitely still there. Some key differences make the transition to friend-love and respect understandable now, but... we'll have to discuss our overall impressions in a separate post, as this one is quite long enough!
... and, if you'll remember, were transformed to become aware-stone statues by the fairy, to forever exist in the Prince & Beauty's garden, so they would always have to look on Beauty's happiness. Ouch.

* Please don't get stuck on this idea of 'original' and that we are using it incorrectly. Beauty & the Beast has ancient origins that should be acknowledged, even earlier than Cupid & Psyche, but this is the first time the Beauty and the Beast tale was recorded 'in this shape' and Villeneuve should be credited with influential authorship for the fairy tale loved and known to this day.
** Slight aside on Cocteau & Gans' French filmsCocteau's version (1946) dealt with all this wonderfully well, with the only disappointment being that the prince at the end is just not Beauty truly wanted and she, like the audience is left unsatisfied. It's Cocteau's updating of the fairy tale and his own statement on society and appearances, done very purposefully. It was a retelling with something different to say. Christophe Gans' 2014 film (that only became available for US folk to purchase and watch very recently, and with no advertising at all) pays homage to Cocteau's filmmaking but also references Villeneuve and Beaumont's versions in a number of ways. Belle is even more sneaky and headstrong in Gans' version, and Gans takes us in and out of the Beast's new and different backstory, told through Belle's dreams and mirror visions, developing a hauntingly beautiful and mythic origin story for the Beast. The journey for them both is equal in terms of trust and acceptance and that's made clear because there is no violence toward Belle at the start - just her fear since she believes the worst of someone who, in outer form, is a beast. By the time Belle wishes to go home, it's clear she's changed and has no intention of abandoning the Beast. He believes her, but also knows the risk, and allows it, because he truly loves her.

3 comments:

  1. I agree it's a difficult story - the romance of taming the beast is in reality not real romance.

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  2. this was a very interesting post for me... "beauty and the beast" has always been my favorite fairy tale, even though i agree, it's not like a traditional fairy tale in many ways. and i saw that even as a child...but still, i loved the story from earliest days. thankfully, not the disney version, as i was a child long before they got their claws into it. it speaks to me, i think, about two things that are important to my own soul and character: not judging by appearances, and being kind, even when it isn't easiest. also, perhaps, that love doesn't always look or feel like the shiny picture of romance we see all around...(although, of course, she got that in the ending.) but as a woman married to someone with borderline personality disorder, i can see clearly all the other things pointed out above. and as a feminist, the "patient griselda" aspect raises no end of hackles. perhaps "beauty and the beast" in all its variants is more of a wish-fulfillment story than a didactic or cautionary tale. perhaps we like it---those of us who do---because it's a depiction of how we wish things were...

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  3. I've partly had to come to terms with the fact that my attachment to Disney's movie is influenced by the fact that I was only 4 when it came out and couldn't pick up on these things at the time...at first I was very defensive about it but now I acknowledge that it is disturbing. I think the idea of the Beast's inner nature being reflected in his outer nature, introduced (I believe) in the Mayer and Mayer children's book, is an interesting one-but now that it's the only interpretation people know, and made immortal via Disney, is partly why it's so problematic, because it's become the new standard in how almost anyone else retells the tale. Now Stockholm Syndrome is permanently linked with "Beauty and the Beast" which is unfortunate.

    The one thing I think the Disney movie does have going for it is that the Beast doesn't merely stop being abusive, but makes a significant sacrifice for Belle. He fights the wolves to protect her, although one big sweeping romantic gesture is probably not a sign that someone has stopped being abusive. But when he lets Belle go to be with her father, thinking that she probably won't return and he'll remain a Beast forever-I think that shows as much as a movie can that he has truly changed. Of course the problem is, the viewer knows the significance of that act, but Belle doesn't-and in just about any other circumstance "you're no longer my prisoner" does not equal "I now love you selflessly".

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