Beauty, the Beast, and Adaptation | Part I

Beauty and the Beast promotional image

I want to start off this post by noting two things. One is that, if you haven’t yet seen the new Beauty and the Best with Emma Watson and the rest of its stupendous cast, there are spoilers to be had here. So if you haven’t seen it then go see it you godawful philistine. Then come back and read this post.

The second thing that I want to make clear is that, regardless of what I may say here, I had a really fantastic time watching the live-action Beauty and the Beast. The special effects were gorgeous, Luke Evans killed it as Gaston, Emma Watson did a lovely job as another classic brainy brunette, it was grand seeing more people of color in fairy-tale France, and the film was generally just fabulous. Even the things where I was kinda meh—like how, as much as I love Ewan McGregor, he just doesn’t quite meet the impossibly lofty bar set by Jerry Orbach—weren’t things that really took away from my enjoyment of the movie overall.

On the other hand, some things, such as doubling down on Lefou’s queer coding, I did not approve of in the least (regardless of how events played out by the end of the film).

The things I point out here are primarily an intellectual exercise in structure and narrative, where I look at the differences between the original animated feature and this new interpretation and how the various additions have affected the story. As  result, this post gets a brand new tag: “not a movie review”.

So, if you’d like to carry on, there’s more to be had here directly below the cut.

One of the things that has always impressed me about Disney animated features, especially the ones from the Nineties, are that they are lean, mean, storytelling machines. There is not an ounce of fat on those beasts. They’re like if the Cohen Brothers made fairy tale flicks (ostensibly) for kids—there’s no such thing as a superfluous detail, a one-off character, or a Chekhov’s gun that is unfired by the end of the film. Everything is important and everything is necessary. This is most likely due, if I had to guess, to the fact that if you’re going to have a huge team of people hand-drawing your fucking movie frame by frame for actual months and maybe years, you better be absolutely goddamn sure that every single moment needs to be there.

The live action adaptation has ventured away from this violin string-taut method of structuring somewhat, and it seems worthwhile to look at the individual elements to see whether the cost in momentum and time has paid the expected dividends.

Belle’s Mother and the Enchantress’s Book

Part of the reason for the changes, I think, is that this film is targeted towards the audience that grew up with the classic animated feature. The film has guessed that the audience, being older and wiser now, has some questions regarding the original. For instance, now that that generation is old enough to know where babies come from (and have made a few of their own), they are likely wondering where in God’s name Belle’s mother is during all this.

I felt like the film’s attempts to wrangle with the question had its good points and its not-so-good points.

The good was that it added a lovely new dimension to Maurice, Belle’s father, which Kevin Kline took full advantage of. He was still eccentric, still warm and fatherly, but there was a soft undercurrent of melancholy there.

The not-so-good is that the film diverts wildly from the main thrust of the story to answer the question. There was no chance for Maurice to ever have a sit-down with Belle and explain what happened. When he was available to do so, the pain was clearly still too profound. Then, later, when the explanation is desired, the film is forced to introduce a new magical artifact provided to the Beast by the Enchantress: a book that allows for travel anywhere in the world.

The other artifacts are of vital and recurring importance to the story. The rose is a ticking time bomb, an implacable countdown toward eternal damnation. They even emphasize this in the film by having the Beast’s castle, in almost Poe-esque fashion, shudder and decay every time another petal falls. The magic mirror permits Belle to see that Maurice is being dragged away to an asylum and then, later, provides Gaston with his first glimpse of the Beast. This in turn sparks “The Mob Song” (one of my favorite Disney songs of all time) and leads to the inevitable final confrontation between Gaston and the Beast.

The book that permits magical travel from one place to another? It is completely forgotten by the time Belle has to leave to save Maurice from being hauled away to the asylum, primarily so the Beast can agonize appropriately in song as he watches her ride away.

As a result, this one came out as a wash. Points awarded for the humanizing factor of dealing with the sadness of losing a parent, points deducted for requiring a brand new magical artifact that serves no other purpose than to explain Belle’s mother’s fate.

The Beast’s Father

The Beast’s father was introduced as a background presence in the live-action adaptation for what appears to be a couple of reasons. One is to have a dark counterpoint to Maurice, providing a) a mirror to Belle’s upbringing and b) leverage for the Beast to begin second-guessing himself when Lumiere points out that nobody can help who their father is. Again, this is there in order to round out the character a bit more, as adult audiences are more inclined to want in their fiction. This is a nice touch—it makes it that much easier for the Beast to see himself in Belle and vice versa, and it provides a subtle way to get the Beast moving in the right direction.

The second reason the Beast’s father is included appears to be as a method to, in some small way, absolve the Beast of his shallowness and cruelty. To assert that it was nurture, not nature, that made the Beast into a baggadouche.

I take issue with this for the same reason that I take issue with J.K. Rowling’s assertion that Voldemort is the way he is because, having been conceived under the effects of a love potion, he is incapable of love (you’ll have to dig a bit for the precise mention of it, but it’s there).

Characters, as a general rule, are brought alive by the decisions they make. I recently read a book, Buddha’s Brain, that asserts that the self, what we consider ourselves as a person, is literally a decision-making mechanism. Every time you make a decision, your brain constructs an image of who you are based on past experiences, desires, dislikes, and choices, and then says, “What would this person do?”

This may not be the case for everyone, but it is less compelling to me if a character has that fundamental agency taken from them. To me, Voldemort is incapable of love because he does not understand it and because he sees it as a weakness. He could understand it if he tried, but his mind is made up by the time we meet him. He chose the path he took, and it led inevitably to his own destruction. But for him to act the way he does because he is fundamentally incapable of experiencing or understanding love makes him less powerful as a villain; he no longer has the choice to turn back, which is what makes him truly monstrous.

Similarly, the Beast’s transformation from shallow knob to decent human being is so much less profound if he didn’t choose to be a shallow knob from the get-go and was instead crafted into a shallow knob by his father. To choose to be one way and then to choose to be better is always (for me) a stronger narrative arc than to be forced to be one way and then to choose to be better.

So I had literally no idea that this post was gonna go this long, so I’m gonna save my other two points for next week’s post. If you haven’t seen both the original Beauty and the Beast as well as the new live-action adaptation and you consequently have no idea what I’ve been talking about, then hey! You now have a whole week to watch them both!

And as always, let me know what your thoughts are in the comments. I literally just put down what pops into my head when I write this kind of stuff, and it’s always awesome to hear what pops into other people’s heads as they read it. So for the love of God, Montresor, tell me what’s happening in your brainpan!

One thought on “Beauty, the Beast, and Adaptation | Part I

  1. I’m actually going with my mom to see Beauty and the Beast tomorrow, so I’m super stoked to have read this. Yes, it may contains spoilers, but to be fair, I have the animated story memorized and there’s no way Disney fundamentally changes the story in a way that you could actually spoil too much.

    Anyway, I’m going to keep an eye out for these things. I do agree with your assessment of Voldemort. I think Rowling wants him to be tragic, but I don’t want to humanize a genocidal maniac.


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