ONCE UPON A TIME YET AGAIN
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
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
THE BEAST CAN HAVE AN IMPLIED CARNALITY, AN AURA OF SEXUAL MENACE … OR A COMIC UNSUITABILITY
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