I was recently in a conversation with someone and, while I was discussing my latest watched movie (Beauty and the Beast starring Emma Watson), he admitted that he had never seen it. Any version of it.
As I was telling him about the absolutely awesomeness involved in this roughly 300 year old fairy tale, I realized there was a lot about it that makes it special.
Let’s start with talking about fairy tales. Whether you’re reading the Grimm brothers or Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villenueve (the original author of Beauty and the Beast in 1740), the point of a fairy tale is to do two things: entertain an audience and teach some kind of lesson. What lesson depends on the story.
In the original Beauty and the Beast, that lesson really revolved around Beauty’s virtuous qualities as a model to other young women about how to act. She was the most beautiful of her sisters (yes, she had 2 sisters), and her father was a poor merchant. Beauty was kind, with a warm heart for anyone in need. She was selfless, when her sisters were selfish. This is why she stays with the Beast. This is why she ultimately sees past his looks to the person he is underneath.
And while that is certainly admirable, other qualities of Beauty are frowned upon in today’s society. She definitely fit the 18th century model of a woman: quiet, submissive, meek.
So why didn’t this story disappear, as so many others do when society changes?
Because it adapted.
Here’s what’s truly fascinating about fairy tales: every successive generation puts their own twist on the stories. It all depends on who is writing the story and what that generation values or fears. Even the Grimm brothers changed their fairy tales as their purpose changed. Originally, they were merely collecting old German folk tales, but when they realized children were fascinated by them, they rewrote many of them to make them less disturbing.
With the advent of television and film, those changes have been happening ever faster. A simple IMDB search reveals 52 titles for Beauty and the Beast–not counting names of episodes of shows. Some of these are silent films from 1912-1913, some are TV series, and some are feature films.
I will not pretend that I’ve seen all or even most of them. What I can say is that in some of them, it’s very obvious what changes they decided to make.
Personally, I think Beauty and the Beast‘s real rebirth began in 1987 with the very cheesy TV series of the same name. It updated and urbanized the story, making the Beast a lion-like man named Vincent who lives in the tunnels below New York City and Belle is Catherine, an assistant DA. After rescuing Catherine one night, she becomes drawn to Vincent and his underground society. (In many respects, this show is the precursor to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They’re oddly similar, in my opinion.)
But the point is that this show brought the story back to the forefront in a way that people could relate to. It talked about the violence of big cities, the pain of being “different” when society values uniformity, the knowledge you can find in books. (Interestingly, Vincent is the avid reader in this show.)
Of course, the revolution for this story belongs firmly in the hands of Disney. Their 1991 masterpiece made it nothing short of mainstream. With inanimate objects suddenly coming to life and catchy songs, it became a household name and ushered in the Golden Age of Disney in the 90s. (I don’t know if you know this or not, but Disney as a company was struggling badly before the success of The Little Mermaid in the late 80s. Beauty and the Beast proved it wasn’t a fluke, that Disney was actually on to something again.)
The success of the Disney movie brought with it at least one sequel, dozens of knock-offs, a Broadway show, video games, action figures and dolls, and the 2017 remake.
Now, this is where it really gets fascinating, since both the 1991 and the 2017 movies are both created by the Disney company. (It’s a bit like the same author rewriting a story after 26 years.)
Having been born in 1991, let me just say that it doesn’t feel like it was all that long ago. It certainly doesn’t seem like it should belong to a different generation.
But it does.
Belle always felt like the most unique princess to me. She was a reader, she was different, she had heart. She was able to see someone’s worth beyond their physical appearance. Everyone sort of treated her badly but she never let it bother her too much. But there were also elements I didn’t quite care for. She made little to no effort to save herself and she was a bit whiny without doing anything about it. As for the movie itself, I had problems with how quickly the plot moved and how stupid they made Maurice, to show how easily he could be taken advantage of.
The 2017 remake is, without question, of my generation. In only 26 years, you can easily see the changes, what society now values.
Belle has more agency in her own life. She is more clearly ostracized because she’s breaking gender norms–inventing a washing machine so she doesn’t have to do the work herself, being ok with the idea of being a spinster rather than marrying Gaston, being an educated woman when few others are. This obviousness showed the value Belle and Maurice placed on education and on being yourself. These are things are society has placed a large emphasis on right now–particularly on being yourself.
On the flip side, it also clearly shows our fears as a society. The Beast goes from being a handsome prince who had it all to a marred nobody that everyone except his staff forgot existed. Gaston is egotistical, intolerant, and yet so much more charming than any other character. He can literally convince the villagers to commit murder in 10 seconds with a few well-placed words. Personally, this Gaston is leaps and bounds darker than the originally Disney villain.
And this goes to show our fears: in an age of social media, we fear losing our beauty and being forgotten. But we also need to be cautious of the people who say pretty things but do ugly deeds.
But there are also elements completely new in this version that show how the story is evolving. There is the inclusion of gay characters, for one (even though those moments are incredibly small and inconsequential to the story as a whole). Still, I don’t think there’s ever been a mass marketed version of this story with gay characters.
The other change is the evolution of Le Fou. His introduction to the Beauty and the Beast canon comes with the 1991 film. (Gaston also didn’t exist before that, though some versions do give the Beast a rival for Belle’s affection.) Le Fou, in French, translates to “the fool,” a role he has always played. Subsequent stories usually have someone fill his role as well, the comic relief and sidekick to the villain. But in this version, he becomes less of a fool than he ever has previously. He is friends with Gaston because they share a past. But as he starts to see Gaston’s true nature, he starts to question who is actually the monster–Gaston or the Beast.
It is this transformation that moves me the most, out of everything else. Of course I’m delighted that Belle is more of a feminist. Of course I adore that the story has found a way to answer questions we were left with in the 1991 film (like where’s Belle’s mother?). But seeing Le Fou think critically and change is the moment it all comes full circle. This character, who was making fun of Belle for being well-educated in the beginning, is now becoming educated himself.
The power of a story, what gives it enduring qualities, is how well it relates to its audience. While it’s still entertaining, a lot of us would have a hard time seeing the original tale as much more than a charming but outdated story. I’ve seen a number of people giving that same opinion to the 1991 film.
This story endures because of its core. At its roots, it is a story of at least one person (traditionally the Beast, now Belle as well) who does not fit in to society. They are “other,” they are a pariah. It is the story of acceptance, even acceptance by one single person. It is a story of compassion for someone who may not look like you do.
This is why this story lasts. Because no matter how many hundreds of years pass, there will always be misfits. There will always be people who are different. And there will always be a need for compassion.