It’s a fairy­tale that dates back cen­turies, yet film­mak­ers con­tinue to draw from its deep well of good ver­sus evil and the pos­si­bil­ity of trans­for­ma­tion, writes Philippa Hawker

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

Beauty and the Beast. A tale as old as time, a pop cul­ture peren­nial, a fairy­tale sta­ple, a fa­mil­iar his ’ n’ hers nar­ra­tive in which op­po­sites re­pel, at­tract and sub­tract, learn from each other, re­deem and trans­form. Right now, there’s a lot of it about, di­rectly or in­di­rectly. Disney’s new­est movie re­lease is a live-ac­tion Beauty and the Beast, a re­make of one of its most suc­cess­ful an­i­ma­tions. Kong: Skull Is­land re­vis­its one of cin­ema’s most fa­mous beasts, who died, ac­cord­ing to the clos­ing lines of the orig­i­nal King Kong, be­cause of his com­mit­ment to beauty. And Fifty Shades Of Grey (and its se­quel Fifty Shades Darker) can surely be seen as an­other take on the beauty-and-the­beast nar­ra­tive, the story of a young woman in thrall to a man who seems to be a mon­ster.

For Iona and Peter Opie, au­thor­i­ties on chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture, Beauty and the Beast is “the most sym­bolic of the fairy­tales af­ter Cin­derella, and the most in­tel­lec­tu­ally sat­is­fy­ing”, a “prime ex­am­ple of the world­wide beast-mar­riage story”. In these fairy­tales, beauty is not equated with van­ity or out­ward ap­pear­ance: good­ness is the pri­mary qual­ity of the young hero­ine known as Beauty or Belle. Her out­ward beauty is not an at­tribute for con­tem­pla­tion or in­spi­ra­tion, how­ever: it’s a com­mod­ity, some­thing to be bartered. A beauty-and-the-beast nar­ra­tive is gen­er­ally about a power im­bal­ance, the tale of a young woman used as a hostage, pawn or item of ex­change, a child who is sac­ri­ficed or of­fered up for her fam­ily’s sake, or who will­ingly puts her­self for­ward.

In a more de­vel­oped ver­sion, it’s a story of what hap­pens af­ter that ex­change has taken place: an ex­plo­ration of choice, ac­com­mo­da­tion or trans­for­ma­tion.

“Tales of an­i­mal bride­grooms,” says Ma­rina Warner, a nov­el­ist and critic with a spe­cial in­ter­est in myth and fairy­tale, “hold the dream that al­though the hero­ine’s fa­ther has given her into the keep­ing of a beast, he will change — into a ra­di­ant young man, a per­fect lover.”

In these in­stances, what does the hero­ine have to do and what does the beast need to achieve for this meta­mor­pho­sis to oc­cur? Usu­ally, there’s a process of ex­change. The morally ad­mirable hero­ine ac­quires a de­gree of agency, as well as a more glam­orous wardrobe. The rough edges of the beast are smoothed, and by the end he gen­er­ally as­sumes hu­man form. There are times, too, when the hero­ine has more say in the trans­ac­tion to be­gin with, or when the beast has more to of­fer to be­gin with. Maybe the beast, rather than the smooth young man, is what the beauty wants af­ter all. Nov­el­ist and short-story writer An­gela Carter, a devo­tee of fairy­tale and myth, is one of many au­thors who have reimag­ined the de­sires and drives at the cen­tre of these tales, and pre­sented them to us in a new con­text.

What kind of an­i­mal is the beast? The Opies re­fer to sev­eral ver­sions: wolf, bear, pig, croc­o­dile and snake, among oth­ers. The beast can have an im­plied carnality, an aura of sex­ual me­nace or — in the case of a story like The Frog Prince — a comic unsuitability.

Most his­to­ri­ans of folk­lore and fairy­tale agree that the ba­sis for many beauty-and-the­beast nar­ra­tives is a story by a French au­thor, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beau­mont, pub­lished in 1756. It is not the first, by any means, but the most in­flu­en­tial.

It’s a di­dac­tic story in which Beauty, or Belle, is a vir­tu­ous young woman with vain and self­cen­tred sib­lings. Her mer­chant fa­ther has fallen on hard times. In his quest to re­store his for­tunes, he wan­ders into a mag­i­cal do­main presided over by a mys­te­ri­ous, mon­strous crea­ture. A sin­gle rose, a sym­bol of en­dur­ing virtue as well as the fragility of life, be­comes an im­por­tant part of the tale, iden­ti­fied with both Beast and Beauty.

There are el­e­ments of de Beau­mont’s story in Disney’s new movie — star­ring Emma Wat­son and Down­ton Abbey’s Dan Stevens — that are closely re­lated to its source, the 1991 an­i­mated mu­si­cal con­sid­ered to be a con­tem­po­rary clas­sic. It was the first animation to be nom­i­nated for an Os­car for best pic­ture. (It won for best orig­i­nal score, and the ti­tle tune was picked as best orig­i­nal song.)

Disney’s orig­i­nal tale is in part about van­ity, al­though at the out­set it is the hand­some prince who is ob­sessed by ap­pear­ance. The film be­gins with a moral­ity tale told in voiceover, an ori­gins story for the Beast. He was a vain young prince; one snowy night he re­fused to give shel­ter to an old woman be­cause he was re­pelled by her ug­li­ness. She turned out to be an en­chantress who


Emma Wat­son as Belle and Dan Stevens as the Beast in the lat­est adap­ta­tion of the fairy­tale, right and be­low placed a curse on him, turn­ing him into an un­sightly beast. He would only be re­turned to his orig­i­nal form if he could fall in love and find some­one to love him in his bes­tial guise.

Once the scene is set, the movie kicks into ac­tion with our hero­ine, Belle, who is in many ways a non-tra­di­tional fairy­tale Beauty, with more self-con­fi­dence and self-suf­fi­ciency than the usual Belle. There are no over­bear­ing or un­pleas­ant sib­lings in her life. She lives with her fa­ther, who is not a mer­chant but a daffy in­ven­tor, el­derly yet oddly child­like.

Belle, like de Beau­mont’s Beauty, is a vo­ra­cious reader. She loves a fairy­tale nar­ra­tive and dreams of es­cape. She sings of her discontent with provin­cial life and her wish to have ad­ven­tures. You can al­most imag­ine her head­ing off to the big city to be an artist or an ac­tress. She is con­sid­ered an odd­ity by the lo­cals. She is not like the other girls in town — a cho­rus of iden­ti­cal blondes — who are all in love with Gas­ton, the hulk of a hunts­man whose van­ity is un­par­al­leled. The thor­oughly un­pleas­ant Gas­ton wants to marry Belle and can’t fathom her in­dif­fer­ence to him.

Belle makes her own de­ci­sions: when she goes to live with the Beast to ful­fil her fa­ther’s obli­ga­tion, it’s her call. The Beast is a shad­owy fig­ure at first, loom­ing large and threat­en­ing. He’s a mash-up of lion, bear and wolf, among other crea­tures, and his dis­tin­guish­ing fea­ture is that he’s eas­ily en­raged. His an­i­mal­ity is iden­ti­fied with anger.

His body changes, grad­u­ally, to more hu­man pro­por­tions, and he be­comes a more so­cia­ble crea­ture. He starts to wear clothes, to eat at the din­ner ta­ble and, fi­nally, to don a blue jacket and breeches and waltz.

Yet what gives the film much of its en­ergy is

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