Beauty and the Book

I had a gift card for the local bookstore that I’d been saving for something special. And I went shopping today and spent it: The Beauty and the Beast, the full novel-length version by Mme de Villeneuve (in the 1858 translation by J. R. Planché), with amazing and fancy illustrations (some of them pop-ups) by MinaLima. It only just came out a couple of weeks ago. Now I finally have my own copy of the Villeneuve version!

 

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Adapting B&B: Robin McKinley

amo vitam

IMG_20170327_100330655That’s what I get for not perusing my blog reader on a daily basis: I missed the post on SurLaLune’s Fairy Tale Blog about the sale on Robin McKinley’s “Beauty and the Beast” novels. Ah well. I do already own a copy of Beauty. But I’d like to have Rose Daughter as well, and yes, I’d like them as ebooks as well as hardcopies, so I can stick them on my Kobo and cart around with me, just in case I get overtaken by an urge to re-read them.

I only just discovered Robin McKinley last summer. I can’t believe I hadn’t found her long before now; by rights I should have read her back in the 80s when I was burning my way through every fairy tale book my high school library had to offer, or in the 90s, newly arrived in Canada, when I was discovering the…

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Beauty and the Beast: the Movie

Every self-respecting blogger who ever uses “fairy tales” as a tag has to have a post about the new “Beauty and the Beast” movie, don’t they? Uh, actually, no. There is no law in fairy land about liking or even watching Disney movies. You’re free to despise and/or shun them as much as you like, and I might even agree with you on many of your reasons.

However, with this movie – well, I did something I’ve never done before: I watched it twice in as many days. That’s right – that’s how much I loved it. I’d been looking forward to this movie ever since they first announced it, and the excitement was building with every fresh piece of news about the casting, with every new image and trailer. I don’t think I’ve ever been as keen on seeing a film as I have this one (which, admittedly, isn’t saying much, as I grew up more or less movie-and-TV-less; up until age 20 or so, I could literally count on one hand the number of films I’d seen in a theatre. But I’ve kind of been making up for it since).

And, I’m happy to say, the movie didn’t disappoint. One of the things about writing a review for this is that I don’t have to tread carefully to avoid giving spoilers – Disney filmed a giant spoiler for this twenty-six years ago; if you’ve seen the cartoon, you’ll know the movie. It is a live-action remake of the 1991 cartoon, and it is just that – a remake. The dialogue, the songs, even much of the setting, are identical to the older film. (This is in contrast to the 2015 live-action Cinderella, which, while referring to the 1950 cartoon in many ways, was a whole new movie in its own right.)

But it’s not entirely identical. With the dialogue, for example, while much of the cartoon’s spoken lines are present in the new movie, there are whole new sections or additions, and more than once iconic lines have been given to different characters or are moved to different scenes.

Others are left out altogether, and the effect is emblematic of some of the differences between the films. For example, one piece of dialogue, or rather scene, that is missing is one of my favourites from the cartoon: the Beast is leaning on the balcony railing, watching Belle with her horse. “I’ve never felt like this about anyone,” he says. “I want to do something for her. But what?” “Well,” replies Cogsworth the Clock, “there’s the usual: flowers, chocolates, promises you don’t intend to keep…” (We love quoting that around our house when it comes to making suggestions for presents on a special occasion.)

As funny as that line is, it wouldn’t fit the new version of the Beast – or of Belle, for that matter. Interestingly enough, in the new movie it’s Belle who watches the Beast from the window of the castle, as he walks in the snowy courtyard with Philippe, her horse (and, if you watch carefully, the Beast is gesticulating, obviously having a quite intense discussion with the horse). The Beast is not as much of an ineptly bumbling boy who just has a bad temper and needs to be parented and coached on relationships by his faithful household retainers. Yes, there is a little of that still, but for the most part this is a much more grown-up version of the Beast – a man who has a dark side to his character that he needs to overcome.

But, at the same time, Belle isn’t just a sweet bookworm who is all goodness and light. The cartoon Belle is pure heroine – she has hardly any character arc, does not change from the beginning of the film to the end; the Beast is the one who does all the changing. In this film, Belle changes significantly. She starts the story as a farm girl (her own words), looking after her father, feeling a vague sense of dissatisfaction at her life in this “poor provincial town”; then she sacrifices herself for her father (literally pushing him out of the prison cell against his will), but makes several attempts to get away from the castle; she does not passively submit to her imprisonment. But then she learns that there might be more to the Beast and to the situation of the castle than she initially thought. As in the original story, her agency is what brings about the change in the Beast – but in herself, as well.

The relationship between her and the Beast grows slowly, as both of them discover they have more in common than they suspected. As in the cartoon, a major turning point is the Beast “giving her” his massive library – but here, he is not an illiterate boor who has never cracked the cover of one of his many volumes, but a nobleman with “an expensive education” who knows to quote Shakespeare, and leads her into his library to score a point (namely that there are so many better books to read than Belle’s favourite, Romeo and Juliet).

Belle grows up in this film. Here, she truly finds a partner who fulfils her wish “to have someone understand”. One particularly poignant scene is when the two talk about being the odd one out whose appearance in a room makes the laughter of the common people fall silent, and they begin to realise that in each other perhaps for the first time in their lives they have found a friend. The dance scene in the ballroom is as gorgeous as expected – but one additional piece of dialogue I particularly appreciated comes right afterwards: “Do you think you could be happy here?” asks the Beast (note: “could be“, not “are“), and her response: “Can anyone be happy if they aren’t free?” Beast, of course, being now a changed Beast, gets the message – it was the last tiny nudge he needed. (Take that, “Stockholm Syndrome” naysayers!) Belle goes from Hermione-in-a-dirndl to a woman who is a true equal to a changed prince, with all that implies.

But the greater depth and rounding of characters does not mean there is not plenty of laughter in the film. Here, much of the humour comes from the characters and visual humour. As in the cartoon, one exhilarating and utterly hilarious scene is the battle between the household objects and the villagers (look out for Chip the Teacup’s frisbee shooting of his stack of saucers, counting off his hits as he fires). The laugh-out-loud moments come thick and fast during much of the movie, all the way to the end.

There is much more to be said on this, but for now, just one more thing: the visuals are out-of-this-world mind-boggling. Utterly astonishing. The CG graphics are as real as they can possibly be; Lumiere, for one, is a genuine, live, walking and talking metal candelabra – how can he not be real? And the mise en scène is fantastic. The setting places the story firmly in 18th-century France: the prince (Beast) at the beginning is a ludicrously powdered and patched macaroni, and the interior of Belle’s castle bedroom, with its powder blue and silver gilt walls, looks just like the Amalienburg in Munich:

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Incidentally, there is one tiny little verbal Easter egg that you have to be a hardcore fairy tale nerd to appreciate: Belle’s village is called Villeneuve (Newtown), which just happens to be the name of the author of the first version of the “Beauty and the Beast” story. Cute, eh?

I’ll leave it there for now. As I said, this movie was worth the months of anticipation – if you haven’t seen it yet, do. I’ll come along; after all, I’ve only seen it twice in the four days it’s been out…

Life, the Universe, and Beauty and the Beast. A Tale As Old As Time…

A Reboot

Has it really been two-and-a-half years since I finished my degree? Looks like it has. If you want to see what I’ve been up to in that time, you can check it out over at www.amovitam.ca.

However, in honour of the new “Beauty and the Beast” movie that’s about to hit the theatres, I think it’s time to start up again here at quill and qwerty. So, with an updated tagline and renewed vigour, we once again burst onto the stage of the blogosphere… Or rather, we quietly putter onto it, mumbling to ourselves as we turn the pages of an old volume of fairy tales.

Huh, what? Yes, quite. Just put the tea over there, will you? Thanks.

Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête

I just watched Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête again, after I did a careful study of the Mme de Villeneuve and the Mme de Beaumont versions of the “Beauty and the Beast” story. And I’m afraid I have to admit to being a philistine. It’s sad but true: I prefer the Disney movie over Cocteau. Now, some of that might be sheer snarkiness – I’ve been told Cocteau is quality, and Disney is not; told to study Cocteau over Disney; so I go “Hmph!” and set out to find fault with Cocteau. See, I really love the Disney Beauty and the Beast – it’s probably the only Disney cartoon of which I can say that unabashedly (I also really like Enchanted, but that’s a cartoon/live-action mix and pretty much a parody, so not quite in the same category). So if my favourite is being put down in comparison with another, I’m inclined to be prejudiced against that other.

Okay, backing up a bit: saying I set out to find fault with Cocteau isn’t quite true. It’s more like I watched with a critical eye, not entirely ready to be charmed. And there’s no doubt about it: Cocteau’s movie is a masterpiece of film making. It’s very much an “art” film, very beautiful, ethereal, and deep. It was shot right after the end of the war, just after the Nazi occupation of France ended, and they were up against a lot of difficulties – even simple things like procuring enough materials for the set, which would have been unimaginable even for American film makers of the day, let alone today’s studios. That material and financial shortage was also responsible for the film’s being shot in black-and-white; they just couldn’t afford colour. Personally, I find that’s part of the difficulty I have with the movie – there are short bits of scenes where I don’t get what I’m seeing, the visuals don’t make sense. Black-and-white movies are, to me, dated classics; I find it hard to get into them, to really identify with the characters. The same goes, in this case, for the mise en scène, the setting. The male lead, Jean Marais, who plays the Beast, the Prince, and Beauty’s rejected suitor Avenant, is just too pretty for me, in that 40s style of extremely polished handsomeness, blond hair waves set just so, square jaw being oh-so-square (I also don’t admire Cary Grant the way I doubtlessly should, for the same reason). And Josette Day, who is fantastically beautiful, is just so, so – I don’t know, ethereal? Just a bit too much for me. However, that’s entirely my personal taste, not proper criticism. As is my dislike for the gothic – and this movie is nothing if not gothic. Beauty eerily drifts through long corridors with white curtains wafting at her; the Beast alternately smolders (literally – he’s got smoke rising from the ends of his fingers when he really gets the hots for Beauty), looks creepy with a blood-smeared mouth after a kill, and pathetic; disembodied arms hold up candelabra along yet more endless corridors; there are animated faces in the fireplace surround rolling their eyes at Beauty as she paces, waiting for the Beast to come. And all of that is set to the dissonance of a score which kind of sets your nerves on edge – well, at least it does for me. Add to that that the whole thing is just so slow. Both Beauty and the Beast just waft about, moving slowly, gracefully in her case, stiffly and awkwardly in his – he looks like a guy walking in plate armour; I’m not sure if that’s intentional, or the effect of being in very heavy makeup. And that’s the other thing about him – his looks. There isn’t really a whole lot you can do with a man playing a beast, you’re pretty much stuck with a mask or makeup. Well, to me, he looks like Chewbacca with fangs, which I don’t find all that attractive. I know there are many who would strenuously disagree with me; I’ve read more than one account of this movie by women who find Jean Marais’ Beast incredibly sexy (Marina Warner is one, in an article printed in my DVD insert booklet, and Alex Flinn, who wrote Beastly, is another).

Cocteau credits Mme de Beaumont as his hyptotext. And he certainly sticks quite closely to her version of the tale – two wickedly jealous sisters and all, full Cinderella-style. But one thing I’ve never seen anyone mention is that Cocteau was obviously also quite familiar with Mme de Villeneuve’s version. For example, the horse that’s in the movie is lifted right from the pages of de Villeneuve, but never appears in de Beaumont. In the film, the Beast puts Beauty’s father on a white horse by the name of Magnifique, which takes him straight home, and arrives again later to collect Beauty. In de Beaumont, he rides his own horse home; but in de Villeneuve, he is given a “magnificent horse” which takes him home and back to the castle, while his own horse has to find its own way. Now, as I mentioned before, I don’t know French, but I think there’s some resemblance between a magic horse named Magnifique and “un cheval magnifique” which happens to be magic, no? Another possible nod to de Villeneuve might be that Beauty’s sisters ask the father for a parrot and a monkey, which are exactly the kinds of pets Beauty gets in the Beast’s castle (de Beaumont leaves out the monkeys, though she does keep the parrots). Also, de Villeneuve makes a much bigger deal out of Beauty having lots of other suitors; I would be surprised if the character of Avenant wasn’t at least in part inspired by them. One more thing, and I didn’t come up with this idea myself, is that Cocteau also borrowed from another fairy tale writer, Mme d’Aulnoy: the disembodied hands serving Beauty in the Beast’s castle are taken straight from d’Aulnoy’s fairy tale “The White Cat” (La Chatte Blanche), which is a reverse “Beauty and the Beast” (a prince ends up in an enchanted castle and falls in love with a white cat, who turns out to be a princess). So, in other words, Cocteau didn’t just stick to Mme de Beaumont, he freely borrowed from other writers.

And then he made up some stuff himself (I think), and that’s where it gets quite surreal. What’s with that “Diana’s temple” thing? Briefly, the Beast explains to Beauty that he holds all he has by magic (because, you know, being a talking beast is totally un-magical), and that all his wealth lies in this little temple of Diana on the grounds of the castle, which he is not allowed to enter. He gives the key to Beauty. When she goes to visit her family, she tells her brother and his friend Avenant about this. They steal the key, and then go after the Beast to kill him and rob the treasure (the prototype of Gaston in the Disney version). They decide against using the key (so what was the point of the thing in the first place?!?) and just bust in through the glass roof, whereupon Avenant gets shot by the statue of Diana in this temple – right at the moment when the Beast is dying in Beauty’s arms a few hundred metres away. The arrow hits Avenant, and he turns into the Beast and dies – and the Beast, right then, transforms into the Prince (all played by the same actor, I’ll have you remember). Umm – I don’t get it… It’s not Beauty’s love that transforms him, but his rival being shot by Diana? And the rival is now the dead Beast? And what’s Diana doing in the story all of a sudden, anyway? I’m sorry, that’s just a little to surreal for me.

The other thing I have a hard time buying is rather a key point – I have difficulties believing the love story. Not, as I’ve mentioned, finding the Beast terribly attractive myself, I can’t see what Beauty sees in him, and Cocteau never develops their relationship. Where de Villeneuve and de Beaumont tell of Beauty’s increasing attraction to the Beast, and Disney shows it with library scenes and snowball fights, Cocteau – well, doesn’t. There doesn’t seem to be much that changes about either of them, that gives a reason for why Beauty should love the Beast now, when she found him repulsive before. There just isn’t enough to hold my interest in the story the way Cocteau tells it. But then, as I said, that’s mostly personal taste – being a philistine and all, not appreciating surrealist films telling gothic stories.

Maybe I’ll go watch my favourite Belle and Beast waltzing while Angela Lansbury sings “Tale As Old As Time” now. It won an academy award.

What’s in a Screenplay Writer?

After finding out about Linda Woolverton yesterday, I did a quick and cursory count of Disney’s screenplay writers and found, courtesy of their Wikipedia pages, that of the Disney fairy tale films (I didn’t look at their other movies, just those few), up until last year Linda Woolverton actually was the last female screenplay writer – well, the only one credited for the screenplay by herself. On Mulan, it was three men and two women; and on Brave, two men and two women, one of whom was also Disney’s first female director and is solely credited with the story; so I think that film can definitely be considered a “woman’s movie”, too. But then this last year there have been two big Disney fairy tale movies with a woman getting the sole credit for the screenplay: Frozen and Maleficent.

Methinks I see a pattern: Beauty & the Beast, Brave, Frozen, Maleficent. Belle is the first Disney fairy tale heroine who does not pine for a prince (her dream is to find adventure). And the other three are movies about the relationships of women; princes, if they’re even around, are just sort of window dressing. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

There was one point made in the article about Linda Woolverton that caught my attention: Woolverton definitely had to navigate a male-dominated field. “In one scene,” the article says, “the screenplay had Belle pushing pins into a map of the world–places she wanted to visit–while waiting for her father to return. When Woolverton saw the segment on the storyboard, however, she found her heroine decorating a cake.” Apparently both world map and cake were ultimately dropped in favour of a scene of Belle reading, but don’t you think that’s interesting? Even in 1991, an animator thought it was more likely a girl would be baking than travelling the world.

When we pick apart movies for their elements, feminist or otherwise, we tend to look through our here-and-now lenses and forget how much things have changed. Beauty and the Beast has been picked on for not being feminist enough – but look what it was up against.

I think Woolverton and everyone else did a pretty awesome job on this movie, and I’m not the only one: it was nominated for an Academy Award in the “Best Picture” category. That’s up against every other movie out there that year, live-action and otherwise! If that’s not impressive, I don’t know what is. And I’d like to think that Woolverton’s screenplay had a whole lot to do with it.

The Things You Can Find

I’m digging into the Disney Beauty and the Beast right now. And looking it up online, I found an interesting bit of trivia: the screenplay writer was Linda Woolverton, which made her the first woman to write a Disney animated feature (which definitely shows in the movie, especially contrasted with previous Disney movies). Now, the interesting thing? She also wrote the screenplay for Maleficent.

I found an old article from the Los Angeles Times from January 1992, just after the release of Beauty and the Beast. (I remember standing around waiting to be seated in a restaurant right about that time, and seeing the poster for the movie. The person I was with jokingly suggested we go see it, which I had no interest in as I had never heard the story and wasn’t really into cinema movies – I could count on one hand the number of films I’d seen in the theatre at that point. Later I watched the B&B movie on VHS, and absolutely fell in love with it; and later still I discovered that going to the movies is one of my most favourite things to do, ever. Ancient history… and entirely beside the point.) Anyway, that article: it’s called “Ms. Beauty and the Beast: Writer of Disney Hit Explains Her ‘Woman of the ’90s'”. What had me crowing out loud in triumph was this line: “Woolverton, fearful of being influenced by the imagery of the Jean Cocteau film version, decided not to watch it.” See, I just finished copying a line from Zipes where he calls Disney’s accrediting the de Beaumont version of the story as hypotext for the movie “outrageous”, as, he claims, most of the plot and characters of the Disney film are ripped off lock, stock and barrel from Cocteau. Haha. Of course, the fact that the scriptwriter purposely hadn’t watched Cocteau doesn’t mean that others who were involved in the making of the film hadn’t done so – the article quotes Woolverton as saying “‘Beauty and the Beast’ was a group effort, one in which 500 people wore pencils down to their nubs” – so, sure, the influence of Cocteau is in there. But as for the plot and characters being “copied” from Cocteau, nope.

Anyway, it’s all very interesting about Linda Woolverton. Now I’m going to look up who the screenplay writers for the other newer Disney movies were; it’ll be interesting to do a quick comparison of the ones written by men with those written by women (I certainly hope that Woolverton wasn’t also the last female Disney screenplay writer). I know the old Disney movies were solidly staffed by men; I remember watching an old “making of” featurette for Snow White from 1938 which proudly showed all the animators and technical people and storytellers and so on, and then at the end of the process the ‘girls’ in the colouring department – all women had to do with the making of those quintessential princess movies was to neatly colour inside the lines on the celluloid. It absolutely stuck in my craw. And what was most eye-opening about it was the tone of the featurette’s narrator – he seemed to think that was perfectly normal, the natural order of things. No wonder the movies are what they are, with their paternalistic attitudes and featherwitted princesses who can only pine for a man – that’s the world they were created in, and the people they were created by. We’ve come a long ways today – hurrah for Linda Woolverton!