Monday, January 26, 2015

On the Relevancy of Beauty and the Beast

I've been wondering for the last few years why there hasn't been a good version of Beauty and the Beast coming out. There is so much about this story that has so much relevance toward everything that we've been enjoying in movies and fiction lately, so I don't know why the story hasn't been more in the front lines. Until now, that is. Now we learn that Emma Watson will be playing Belle in Disney's new live action version. I'm guessing it will be (like Cinderella seems to be) very close to the animated version. I'll be eager to see how it turns out.

But all this brings me back to why Beauty and the Beast is such a modern story. Maybe it's because Disney did such a good job of reimagining it back in 1991. If you've read anything of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve's 1740 version (click here to read a few thoughts I had on it) of the story, it reads very much like a mid-eighteenth century novel in the concepts of politics, marriage, and women. But Disney's movie pulled out a fairy tale skeleton and painted it over with modern interests: adventure, imagination, individuality, and a fresh start. 

Belle's father is an inventor instead of a merchant: that removes all the political implications that came with him being a merchant at that particular point in history and simply makes him a unique man trying to follow his dream despite the entire town making fun of his efforts. Belle isn't a quiet girl who obeys her father's wishes and tries to make due with her family's loss of money; she's an intelligent young woman who wants to have a place in life to live out all her potential, complete with all the adventure of a life lived fully. 

Then we come to the Beast. Belle doesn't have dreams of a prince who needs her help, and the Beast doesn't ask her every day to marry him. So the themes are less about marriage and social status and more about looking past the exterior and about finding redemption. In Belle, the Beast finds the chance to start a new life--but he can only start that new life if she can ignore his (literally) cursed facade. This theme of wanting to begin again is very relevant, as is Belle's sacrifice, her choice to stay at the castle to save her father (Bella, Harry Potter, and Katniss and every other character that's been popular lately all make sacrifices to save the people they care about).

And then there is the more obvious inclusion of fantasy. Unlike other fairy tales, Beauty and the Beast takes place in a real world with fantastic elements. It's France in the not too distant past, just with an enchantress and a spell. Just one enchantress and one spell mean that there is enough of reality to let the fantasy be all the more powerful and believable. And need I even mention that the Beast is very like a werewolf?

While Belle is a character we can associate ourselves with and look up to, it's the Beast that carries the plot in Disney's version; it's the Beast who, like us, wants the chance to be accepted and forgiven, to have the past set aside in favor of a brighter future.

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