Retelling Beauty & the Beast
Thursday, July 11, 2019
When I first saw Disney Studio's Beauty and the Beast, it was in the company of a five-year-old friend. The film was, of course, a visual delight: the animation was remarkable, the Broadway-musical-style show tunes were lively and witty, the Beast was sufficiently ugly and endearing, and Beauty, bless her, was a rare media heroine who actually reads books. As with many of the best stories for children, my young companion and I both enjoyed the film, even if we were laughing at different jokes. Nonetheless, I found myself disturbed by Disney's treatment of the fairy tale -- specifically, with the liberties taken in changing classic elements of the story. But where, I wondered, do we draw the line between the use and abuse of fairy tales when creating new versions for modern audiences? Fairy tales aren't museum pieces to be preserved under glass, after all -- they are living stories: retold, reshaped, subverted, fractured, turned inside-out and upside-down by storytellers through the centuries. So why did the Disney film seem to me not so much a fresh rendition of the story as a sloppy muddling of it? A look at the history of the tale will give some context to my dismay.
While we generally think of fairy tales as anonymous stories handed down from the distant past, Beauty and the Beast, in fact, is a literary work penned by the French writer Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740. De Villeneuve was part of the "second wave" of French fairy tale writers (Madame D'Aulnoy, Charles Perrault, and other salon fairy tale writers comprising the "first wave" fifty years earlier). When she sat down to create Beauty and the Beast, she was influenced by those earlier salonnières, as well by Apuleius' "Cupid and Psyche" (The Golden Ass) and the many "animal bride and bridegroom" stories to be found in the folk tradition. Like Madame D'Aulnoy and other salonnières before her, Madame de Villeneuve used the metaphorical language of fantasy to address issues of concern to the women of her day. Chief among these was a critique of a marriage system in which women could claim few legal rights. They had no right to chose their own husbands, no right to refuse the marriage bed, no right to control their own property, and no right to divorce. Girls of her class were often wed at 14 or 15, given (sometimes virtually sold) to men who were decades older; and unsatisfactory wives could be locked up in mental institutions or banished to a convent. Many of the fairy tale salonnières were sharply critical of such practices, and promoted ideals of love, fidelity, and civilité between the sexes. Their tales reflected the realities they lived with, and their dreams of a better way of life. Their animal-bridegroom stories, in particularly, embodied the real-life fears of women who could be promised to total strangers in marriage, and who did not know if they'd find a prince or a beast in their marriage bed.
(To read more about the salonnières and their fairy tales, go here.)
De Villeneuve's Beauty and the Beast, over one hundred pages long and published for adult readers, is somewhat different than the short version of the tale we know today. As the story begins, Beauty's destiny lies in the hands of her father, who gives her over to the Beast (to save his own life) and thus seals her fate. The Beast is a truly fierce figure, not a gentle soul disguised by fur -- a creature lost to the human world that had once been his by birthright. The emphasis of this tale is on the transformation of the Beast, who must find his way back to the human sphere. He is a genuine monster, eventually reclaimed by civilité, magic, and love -- but it is only after that transformation that Beauty can love him in return. In metaphorical terms, he is the brutal man she's compelled to wed, now repentant and changing his ways.
Sixteen years later Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, a French woman working as a governess in England, shortened and rewrote Villeneuve's story, publishing her version in a magazine for well-bred young ladies. She tailored her version for her audience, toning down its sensual imagery and implicit critique of forced marriages. She also pared away much unnecessary fat -- the twisting subplots beloved by Madame de Villeneuve -- to end up with a tale that was less adult and subversive, but also more direct and memorable. In the Leprince de Beaumont version, and subsequent retellings, the story becomes an openly didactic one, with the moral emphasis on Beauty's behaviour. In this version of the tale, it is she who must change. She must learn to see beyond appearance and love the man buried in the Beast, for only this will break the curse and restore the Beast to humanity.
With this shift, we see the story altered from one of proto-feminist critique and rebellion to a moral lesson aimed at young girls. Subsequent versions followed suit, rewritten for younger and younger readers as fairy tales moved from adult salons (where they fell out of fashion) into children's nurseries. By the 19th century, the Beast's monstrous shape is only a kind of costume that he wears; he poses no genuine domestic danger or sexual threat to Beauty, despite keeping her isolated and imprisoned. Even this has been changed in some versions for children: Beauty is free to leave the Beast's castle but kindly chooses to stay, thus honoring her father's rash promise.
Early in the 19th century, the proliferation of printing presses caused the de Beaumont version of Beauty and the Beast to be widely disseminated in inexpensive chapbook and pamphlet editions, often printed without an author credit to either de Beaumont or de Villeneuve. This is the way that literary tales sometimes slipped sidewise into the folk tradition: oral storytellers took up the best of the fairy stories they found reprinted in chapbooks and pamphets and passed them on as though they, too, were anonymous and ancient.
In her 1989 study Beauty and the Beast (Chicago University Press), Betsy Hearne points out that 19th century retellings brought new elements to Beauty's story. In sumptuously illustrated editions of the period, she is shaped into a more conventional Victorian heroine (passive, dutiful, charitable), and the idea of fate (a metaphysical obsession at that time) is introduced. In the de Villeneuve's story, Beauty goes to the Beast in her father's stead because both law and custom require blind filial obedience; in de Beaumont's version, she gives herself to the Beast as a matter of family honor; but in many Victorian retellings (including the version attributed to Charles Lamb, 1843) her submission to the Beast is an acceptance of the predestined fate that lies before her.
In the 20th century the story was subtly altered again. In 1909, the French playwright Fernand Nozier wrote and produced a popular adult version of Beauty and the Beast with a fashionable Oriental flavor. Nozier's play is humorous, yet beneath its light surface is a distinctly sexual subtext, exploring the tension between the mind's ideals and the body's desires. In this version, all three sisters find themselves powerfully attracted to the Beast. When Beauty's kiss turns him into a prince she complains: "You should have warned me! Here I was smitten by an exceptional being, and all of a sudden my fiancé becomes an ordinary, distinguished young man!"
It is a problem that plagues most dramatic representations of the tale: the Beast portrayed so compelling that his princely guise is a disappointment. This happens even in Jean Cocteau's superb film of the story (1946), which nonetheless remains the best dramatic presentation of the tale created to date. Beautifully shot in black-and-white, Cocteau and his co-director, René Clément, blend their Beauty & the Beast's magical motifs with vivid elements of dometic realism. Cocteau strove for what he called "the supernatural within realism," mixing shots of the Beast's enchanted castle with chickens pecking on the ground and other glimpses of ordinary life, skillfully grounding his fairy story within the natural world we know. The film was made in France after World War II -- a time when post-war blackouts and equipment shortages were daily problems, and when the idea of filming a fairy tale struck many as shockingly trivial. But Cocteau avoids triviality through a deep understanding of his source material, and an almost fanatical attention to the details of lighting and design. In Beauty and the Beast: Diary of a Film, he wrote that he aimed for "the clean, sculptured line of poetry instead of the usual diffuse lighting and use of gauze for magical effect." The resulting film has stood the test of time, and become a classic of the art.
Although Cocteau's fairy tale film can be watched by children, the subtext is adult, and powerfully so. Beauty's nightly refusal of the Beast, and the slow awakening of her attraction and sexuality, are contrasted with the Beast's struggles to contain his own animal nature. He comes to her door covered with the blood of the hunt, and with anguish she sends him away. This echoes the Scandinavian animal-bridegroom tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon, in which a young woman is sold by her father to a big white bear -- but in the Scandinavian folktale the sexuality is more explicit. The animal bridegroom comes to his young wife's bed every night, under cover of dark. Beneath her hands, she feels the shape of a smooth young man, not a huge white bear -- but she is forbidden to light a lamp or catch a glimpse of his face.
In the myth of Cupid and Psyche, Psyche weds a hideous flying serpent -- who is really Cupid, under a spell. By night, a man makes love to her -- but she, too, is forbidden to look. She breaks this taboo, and is punished by losing her now-beloved husband. A series of arduous tasks must be completed to win him back.
An American television film of Beauty & the Beast, made in the 1970s and starring George C. Scott as the Beast, notably failed to make any improvement on Cocteau. Robin McKinley was so enraged by this production that she sat down and wrote her first novel, Beauty, in response to it. Like Cocteau, McKinley understood the importance of grounding magic in realism, and uses clear, spare prose to echo the language of stories in the folk tradition. McKinley lengthens the tale into novel form without cluttering it with spurious detail. She takes a few liberties with the original material (Beauty's sisters, for instance, are sympathetic), yet she stays faithful to the spirit of the original. Her heroine is a gawky, horse-mad, intelligent young woman whose name is a gently ironic one. Beauty's time in the Beast's castle is particularly well-rendered, and her raptures over the Beast's library (containing works from the future by Browning and Kipling) was surely the inspiration behind the book-loving Belle of the Disney film.
McKinley was still a young writer when she wrote Beauty, her first published work. Twenty years and several books later, she found herself attracted to Beauty and the Beast once again and wrote Rose Daughter, an alternate retelling of the fairy tale. Reading the two novels together is a fascinating study of the maturation of the author's vision and style, and both books are highly recommended.
Angela Carter is another writer who was compelled to explore Beauty and the Beast. Carter understood how to work with the adult themes in fairy tales better than any other modern author, and her early death from lung cancer has been a blow to the field of fantasy literature. In addition to editing folklore collections, Carter wrote a series of sensual, darkly magical stories based on fairy tales, collected in The Bloody Chamber and (posthumously) in Burning Your Boats. Elements of Beauty and the Beast and other animal bridegroom motifs are vividly rendered in two of Carter's best stories: the poignant "Courtship of Mr. Lyon," and the sensuous "Tiger's Bride." In the latter, a profligate father loses his lovely daughter in a game of cards, and delivers her up to a wealthy masked man who imprisons her in a crumbling mansion. This is a subversive treatment of the theme, smooth as black velvet and sharp as a thorn. In both stories, Carter is careful to sustain the Beast's charisma to the very end.
"Rusina, Not Quite in Love," an enchanting novella by the Italian writer Gioia Timpanelli, published in Sometimes the Soul, transplants Beauty and the Beast to Sicily. An impoverished painter marries a rich, hideously ugly man in order to pay off her father's debts. . .and finds the princely soul hidden by the beastly exterior. Tanith Lee's story "Beauty" (published in her adult fairy tale collection Red As Blood) takes Beauty and the Beast beyond fairy tale forests and into the far future. Lee retains the magical rose, the wayward father, the two sisters, and the monstrous suitor who must not be refused. But the Beast in this case is an alien being, and the climax of the story is a clever one -- the transformation centered on the heroine and her ideas about herself and her life. Lee then returned to the theme in her chilling dark tale "Beast" (Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears), mingling Beauty and the Beast with elements of Bluebeard and Mr. Fox.
Other good versions of the story for adult readers include "Beast" by Francesca Lia Block (The Rose and the Beast), a contemporary meditation on the nature of wildness, and Wendy Wheeler's "Skin So Green and Fine" (Silver Birch, Blood Moon), the story of an innocent baker's daughter married to a mysterious man and taken to live on an isolated sugar plantation.
Jane Yolen has worked with fairy tale themes for many years in the roles of fiction writer, academic, and editor of folklore collections. Her slant-wise take on Beauty's story is "Beauty and the Beast: An Anniversary" (The Faery Flag), a poem from Beauty's point of view reflecting on her long years with the Beast and their solitary, childless lives. (You can read it online here.)
I also recommend Beast by Donna Jo Napoli, a rich, unusual, beautifully crafted novel for Young Adult readers. Inspired by the Persian fairy tale tradition, Napoli's hero is an Islamic prince transformed by a curse into a lion. Fleeing his father's lands, he makes his way to an abandoned chateau in France -- where a merchant, a rose, and a courageous young woman bring the story to its proper conclusion.
There are countless ways one can draw on old fairy tales to inspire modern works of art and fiction, as the works discussed above clearly demonstrate, and these ways are limited only by the imaginations of the artists themselves. No single version of Beauty and the Beast can be considered "correct" or "definitive" -- for although the story by de Villeneuve and de Beaumont did not begin as an oral folk tale, it has its roots in that tradition. And it is the nature of folk tales to be fashioned anew for each new generation.
And yet, Disney's film of Beauty and the Beast still disturbs me. Perhaps because it has not been billed as a new story inspired by the old fairy tale; rather, it has been presented to us as if it were the old fairy tale, and such is the power of the Disney name that audiences around the world now perceive this as truth.
But it is not the old tale. Too many fundamentals have been changed for the film to make that claim -- and changed in glib or simplistic ways that lessen the story's classic themes. The father has been changed into a harmless buffoon, his role in Beauty's imprisonment diminished to an accident of circumstance. Beauty's request for a rose, and her father's thoughtless way of procuring one, have been deleted altogether, along with Beauty's jealous, interfering sisters. There is no family conflict here. An arrogant suitor, Gaston, has been added and presented as the villain of the piece.
In short, the heroes and villains of the story are clear-cut, unambiguous -- Belle and her father are always Good, Gaston and his minions are Bad. In the old fairy tale, Beauty makes mistakes: she goes home, she falls under her sisters' sway and forgets the Beast...coming close to causing his death and losing her own humanity. In the Disney film, we have a perfect heroine who never grows, never undergoes a maturation of her own to echo the Beast's metamorphosis. The requisite happy ending is achieved, but the price for it has not been paid -- except by the dull-witted characters unfortunate enough to be wearing the black hats.
I am reminded of Jane Yolen's words in yesterday's post lamenting the fate of Cinderella, another heroine white-washed by Disney. The Cinderella of the folk tradition is clever, feisty, active girl -- while in the Disney film, as Jane points out, she's a "helpless, hapless, pitiable, useless heroine who has to be saved time and time again by talking mice and birds because she is 'off in a world of dreams'. It is a Cinderella who is not recognized by her prince until she is magically back in her ball gown, beribboned and bejeweled. Poor Cinderella. Poor us."
Likewise, with Disney's Beauty and the Beast we take one step forward with the creation of a literate and courageous heroine, but two steps backwards as the heart of the tale is lost in the musical razzle-dazzle.
But hey, the film is entertaining and fun. My young friend and I enjoyed it thoroughly. So should we care about what's been lost in the process? In my opinion, you bet we should. It does no service to lie to children, to present the world as simpler than it is. Villains rarely appear with convenient black hats, good people are rarely perfect. Beauty has gone to Hollywood now. Poor Beauty. Poor Beast. Poor us.
I'm not suggesting we boycott Disney's films -- many people love them, especially children. But let's give our young people the old fairy tales too, the hearty fare that they need to build good mythic bones after the artificially-sweetened fast food of Disney. The rich store of world folklore and fairy tales is every child's heritage, and every adult's too. Each time I hear fairy tales dismissed as silly, saccharine, sexist stories -- generally by those who have Disney and Disney-influenced versions of the tales in mind -- I want to cry with frustration.
But, instead, I take a deep breath and say, "Okay, let me tell you a story...."
Art: The Beauty & the Beast illustrations above are by Kinuko Y. Craft, Adrienne Segur, Walter Crane, H.J. Ford, Warwick Goble, Margaret Tarrant, an unknown artist from an 1897 edition, Charles Robinson, Edmund Dulac, Scott Gustafson, Angela Barrett, Pavel Tartarnikov, Jan Brett, Gabriel Pacheco, Eleanor Vere Boyle, and Mercer Mayer. Each image is identified in the picture captions. (Hold your cursor over the pictures to see them.) Photographs: Film stills from Beauty & the Beast directed by Jean Cocteau & René Clément, starring Jean Marais and Josette Day (1946), and from Beauty and the Beast directed by Fiedler Cook, starring George C. Scott & Trish Van Devere (1976). All rights to the art and text in this post reserved by the artists and author.
Related reading: In yesterday's post, "Retelling Cinderella," Jane Yolen looks at Disney's treatment of that tale, and you'll find a discussion of Disney's retelling of Snow White in my essay "The Poisoned Apple." I also recommend Virginia Borges' essay "One Million Little Mermaids."