I have yet to check Youtube for old silent movie adaptations of “Beauty and the Beast”; I’m sure there are some. It being a French fairy tale, I’d be surprised if the great French filmmakers like Georges Méliès hadn’t tried their hand at it in the early days of the cinema. In fact, the French seem to rule B&B adaptations. There is a brand-new one in the theatres in Europe right now, a French/German one, which looks delicious. I so wish I could see it; but in all likelihood, it won’t be available around here, definitely not in a language I understand. (Why aren’t all those beautiful European live-action fairy tale films dubbed into English and broadcast over here? It’s a crying shame, not to mention a piece of arrogance in ignoring those amazing works of art in favour of, well, Disney. Over here, fairy tale films are cartoons or completely changed retellings [CoughMaleficentCough]. Hmph.) Anyway, according to the trailer and film clips, the Beast in this movie looks exactly like the one from the 1946 adaptation by Jean Cocteau, which could probably be considered the definitive B&B film. I watched the latter the other day (yes, in French, fortunately it’s subtitled in English), and was amazed to find that the 1991 Disney movie, which I’ll study for my paper, has taken quite a bit of inspiration from it, notably the character of a rejected suitor of Belle’s who then goes after the Beast in order to kill him. Avenant in the Cocteau film isn’t an obnoxious jerk like Gaston in the Disney movie, but seeing as the written tales have no rejected suitor or attempted killing of the Beast at all, it’s pretty clear where Disney got that idea.
The Disney movie isn’t the only adaptation which was inspired by Cocteau. Another instance is Alex Flinn’s 2007 novel Beastly, which was made into a movie by the same name in 2011. No, the Beast in the movie (a high school student by the name of Kyle, played by Alex Pettyfer) bears no resemblance to Jean Marais’ Beast in the Cocteau film, but Flinn said somewhere (and I can’t find where right now – it must have been someplace on her website) that the way she describes him in the book is from the 1946 movie, which is pretty much a Chewbacca with fangs. In the Beastly movie, they’ve gone right out the other side, and taken off all his hair. As “prince” (most popular guy in high school), he’s got a head of golden curls, as “beast”, he’s bald and covered in massive metallic tattoos and scars. For the most part, it makes him look badass rather than ugly, but as they set up his character at the beginning of the story to be very appearance-conscious and proud of his good looks while cruelly sneering at anyone else, this works. Beastly also bears a resemblance to the Disney movie, in that both those films portray the Beast’s beastliness as a punishment inflicted on him for his ugly temper and pride. None of the older stories have this aspect to it; in de Beaumont, which is the source text for the Cocteau film, no reason for his enchantment is given, while in de Villeneuve’s story he is the innocent victim of a sexual predator (a cougar of a fairy who wants to marry him for his position and youthful bod). In Disney’s and Flinn’s stories, the real ugliness is on the inside, and the outer form the Beast takes is only an expression of what is inside. The change that Belle (Lindy, in Beastly) brings about is as much of a change of the inner Beast as of the outer one.
With Beastly, I’m glad I watched the movie before I read the book. The movie is good, I really like it; but, as is so often the case, the book is better. Also, the book has a plot twist in the end which is left out of the movie; if I had read the book first, I would have looked at one particular character very differently throughout the film, expecting them to do what they did in the book, and then been disappointed that they don’t. As is, I was able to fully enjoy both the movie and the book – in fact, I liked the book so much I looked up other books by Alex Flinn. I thoroughly enjoyed Cloaked (a fairy tale mash-up with a shoemaker, a frog prince, a witch etc, all of it set in today’s Miami Beach), and I’m trying to get a hold of A Kiss in Time, which is a “Sleeping Beauty” adaptation.
Just to mention briefly, I can’t talk about B&B adaptations without mentioning the Grande Dame of fairy tale retellings, Angela Carter. In her 1979 book The Bloody Tower she has two short stories, “The Courtship of Mr Lyon” and “The Tiger’s Bride”, the former a fairly straight-forward retelling of the B&B story, the latter, not so much (it has a quite unexpected ending). They’re both beautifully written, of course. As is a newly-released picture book version of B&B by H. Chuku Lee, illustrated by Pat Cummings (who happens to be Lee’s wife), which puts the whole story into an African setting. That book is so gorgeous, I want a copy to keep, even though I don’t have young kids around to read it to right now.
And then just as I was typing this I got in my inbox an advertisement for an upcoming novel by an indie writer which makes the girl the beast, and the guy the one who has to take his mother’s place in the castle to save her life from the beast… Is there no end to “Beauty and the Beast” adaptations? No, I don’t think there is.