The Abstract

So I just sent in the final, completed, combined project to my university’s digital collection. And as promised, here’s the abstract:

Once Upon a Movie Screen: Four Favourite Fairy Tales and Their Disney Film Adaptations


“Cinderella”, “Sleeping Beauty”, “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Frog Prince” belong to the list of perennially favourite fairy tales, important parts of the canon of Western folklore. The reason for their popularity is the underlying story of each tale, which is empowering for its audience. Viewers and readers are able to experience the plot of a story through identification with the protagonist. These fairy tale plots are inherently empowering through their base story of the transformation from a spell-bound or oppressed existence to radiant happiness, a transformation that is either experienced or effected by the young woman who is the protagonist of the story. Fairy tales are re-told in myriad ways and often change significantly in detail during this process; however, each of the versions retains the key plot elements while adapting to the time and place of its telling. The example of these four fairy tales shows that the Baroque and Romantic fairy tale collectors – Charles Perrault, Mme de Villeneuve, Mme de Beaumont and the Brothers Grimm – adapt their versions to their culture as much as the Disney company does with their films. The Disney variants of the fairy tales take their place alongside the older written versions as a form of modern American folklore, disseminating the tales to today’s audiences.

And there you have it – two-and-a half years of grad school, condensed into one paragraph. It’s been a good ride.

I’ll let you know when the paper is posted publicly in the uni library for reading.


It’s Not Right for a Woman To Read, or, A Makeover for Belle

If you’ve been following this blog for the last six months or so, you may have noticed that I underwent somewhat of a shift in my attitudes. I started out my research into fairy tales and Disney movies with a decided prejudice against the latter, pretty much convinced that the Disney adaptations of the fairy tales I’m studying (especially the old ones) are a dumbing down, a flattening and trivialization of the stories. But then, when I looked at the Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty movies side-by-side with the Perrault and Grimms versions, and did all those readings about popular culture, about folklore, about folk culture, I started to change my mind. Disney got exonerated; I came to the conclusion that the Disney movies are just as valid a variant of the fairy tales as those of seventeenth-century French Baroque courtiers or nineteenth-century German Romantic philologists, and I rejected the naysayers and snobs who still continue to scorn Disney (CoughZipesCough).

Okay, so far so good. I’m going to keep writing on that track with the second half of my paper; I have yet to see anything about Beauty and the Beast and, to a limited extent, The Princess and the Frog, which would contradict this thesis. So, I think to myself, Disney is fine and dandy after all, and I need to just shelf my anti-Disney snobbery. But then – oh my goodness. I was researching Disney marketing, and I ran across – this: The Disney Princesses. Yes, I had heard about the Disney Princess line before, might even have briefly clicked on that website before. I also just read Peggy Orenstein’s very pithy Cinderella Ate My Daughter, which is all about little girls and the Princess culture. So I was aware of the phenomenon. But I had never really looked at it before, hadn’t paid attention.

Now, this may sound melodramatic, and it most likely is, but taking a close look at that website, I actually felt faintly nauseated. No, I don’t think it was the piece of toast I just ate. It was the sight of the utter pap they’re serving up to little girls on that web page. They’ve taken the heroines of the Disney movies, put them through a food mill, added artificial colouring, flavouring, and lots of high-fructose corn syrup, and extruded them back out into cookie-cutter-indentical pieces of sticky sweet blandness. Here I had just come to the conclusion that Disney did create some strong female role models little girls could aspire to, had just spent days musing over what a great heroine Belle is, and then this.

I mean, here, take a look at their “Belle” page. It starts right with her looks. In fact, most of the girls on the Princess page are indistinguishable from each other – change the colour of their skin, eyes, hair and gown, and you can’t tell one from the other. Disney has taken their own characters, and changed them from the way they were in their movies to a completely uniform look. The only one who mercifully escaped that process was Brave‘s Merida, and that only because an online petition against changing her looks garnered over 200,000 signatures (I think one of them may have been mine) and Disney bowed to the pressure. Too bad they couldn’t have done the same for Belle, but I guess she’s old news, so nobody cares that much.

Well, now Belle sports a Farah Fawcett hairdo; her hair has also grown about a foot since she hooked up with the Beast, and her dress is identical to most of the other girls’, except yellow. But that’s not the worst of it. What really, really gets my goat is the “activities” that are associated with her. If you remember the movie, what’s the first thing you learn about Belle? That she likes books. How does the Beast win her heart? By giving her a library. And what can you do on the website? You can play a game where she teaches the Beast to dance. You can play “Belle Dress Up”. Or you can read an article on “Fashion Tips From Belle”. The last one is the one that really has me fuming. Because, you see, the whole point of the character of Belle in the movie is that she doesn’t give a rip about looks; she wants books and adventure. You see the Beast having a bath and getting dressed, but unlike Cinderella, where the first view the reader gets of her is preening in her garret, and the movie spends quite a lot of time watching her get dressed and fussing over clothing, the only time Belle is seen even thinking about clothes is when her lady’s maid, the big enchanted wardrobe, tries to get her to put on a nice dress to go dine with the Beast – and Belle flat-out refuses. Gaston, the movie’s bad guy, is the one who’s concerned with looks, Belle is drawn as purposely opposite. Looks, and clothing, do not matter to her. Yes, of course she does eventually don the pretty dresses from the wardrobe, but you never see her doing so; her looks are unconscious. Belle does not think about clothes. But now that she’s a ‘Disney Princess’, apparently her brains have leaked out her ears and she’s become a fashionista. What a role model for little girls to aspire to. “Fashion Tips From Belle”, my foot! How about “Reader’s Advisory From Belle”? How about “Help Belle Choose Her Favourite Books” by way of a game, or “Help Belle to Organize Her Library”?

Oh, at least you can read about Belle’s story on her page; some of the other princesses only have an audio option. I’m sure that’s a big concession to Belle’s ruling passion. And we wouldn’t want to think that Disney makes no effort to support learning in little girls. After all, they have to be able to read, or how else will they be able to understand the product descriptions on the merchandise page? There’s gold-coloured slippers, a tiara, a light-up wand (wand? Uh, it was the enchantress cast the spell… But, whatever.), a iPhone 5 case… What, you’re looking for a book? Or even a bookmark? Or a nice, warm cloak to wear when you play outside with your horse or have a snowball fight with your friend? I’m sorry, Disney Princesses don’t need those. They’re too busy hanging out in their walk-in closets, trying on dresses. Which they can freely exchange with each other – all Disney Princesses are the same size and shape.

Looking at that Disney Princess website, you might almost think they’re sharing Gaston’s opinion: “It’s not right for a woman to read! Soon she gets ideas, and thinking…” I’m sure he’d fully approve of what Belle gets to do on her page. People’s looks are something he understands.


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!

Coming Off the Pedestal

I’ve done a lot of reading in the last ten months. A lot. And in the course of that reading, I found myself going through an interesting process. I learned things. I found theories and scholars I had never heard about before, but they made heaps of sense (very exciting!). I eagerly lapped up what they had to say. I put them up on a pedestal. I read more stuff. And more. And one day, I found myself disagreeing with a Great Scholar. Just on one small thing; I shrugged it off. I read more, and learned more. And thought more. And I disagreed again, this time more strongly. And repeatedly. As I kept learning, my ideas changed. Not only did the pile of books on my desk grow, my thinking did, as well. And now here I am, nearing the end of my studies, and I have – opinions. Okay, I know anyone reading this who knows me personally is laughing now – I’m not exactly known for my scarcity of opinions and shyness in expressing them, in a general way. But now I have opinions on a particular subject, which came from actually studying it. I do, in a small way, have something to say about folkloristics. Perhaps I’d even go so far as to call myself an embryonic folklorist – or maybe just, like some, a fairy tale fan. And as such, I disagree with some of the Greats in the field, on a few things.

Okay, with one Great in particular (I’m sure you already know where this is going): Jack Zipes. I first started reading him back in September, on my prof’s recommendation (and very grateful I am for that recommendation, too). I was thrilled, I loved what he had to say. And really, he is great. The amount of insight I got from his writings is quite staggering. I was wishing I could go study under him, but quite apart from the fact that he was working at the University of Minnesota, which is a long ways from here, he’s retired now. Too bad. I kept getting more of his books out of the library, and then bought my own copies for keeps; they’re that good. But as I kept reading, amid all the wonderful stuff I was learning I ran across points where I didn’t like what he was saying. The first thing was his disparaging opinion of Harry Potter. I was ready to make excuses for him – he’d been pushed into expressing an opinion, he wrote about the series when it was only half finished, etc. But then I delved deeper into the study of fairy tale film adaptations, and got a hold of one of his latest books, The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy Tale Films (2010). And as I kept reading, some of what he was saying kept rubbing me the wrong way. I found myself getting annoyed with his dismissive tone, his hypercritical and condescending attitude to particular popular culture products. And finally, here I was, just this afternoon, reading the chapter on Beauty and the Beast and Frog Prince adaptations, and I was loudly disagreeing with half the chapter (“That’s baloney!” “Gimme a break!” – yes, I know I’m weird, but my family is used to it) – that’s when I wasn’t rolling my eyes at what he was saying. That’s right, the guru has come off his pedestal.

Don’t get me wrong – I still have enormous respect for Dr. Zipes, and probably 95% of his writings are excellent. But there are certain topics where I just find myself at odds with his opinions, and they are just that, opinions. Specifically, it’s dealing with popular culture where my ideas clash with his. Now, as I mentioned before, I’m not a big Disney fan. I’m not sure if any real fairy tale buff can be. But Zipes, it’s like you mention the name Disney, and the shutters come down. “What good can come from Disney Studios?” Nothing, apparently. By definition. He goes into enormous raptures about the Cocteau Beauty and the Beast, which I personally find so-so (okay, I’m hampered by my lack of French; I can only follow the story with the subtitles, but still, I don’t quite know what the fuss is about), but the Disney version, which I love, is in Zipes’ opinion pretty much despicable. The feminist themes in it are a sham, the whole thing is same-old-same-old Disney flatness, the music is trite, etc etc. In fact, reading what Zipes says about it, I can’t help but get the feeling that as soon as he sees the name “Disney” on a screen, he doesn’t even bother paying attention to what he is watching, because his mind is already made up. Some of the comments he makes about the movie are plain old wrong. For example, he says that the Beast rescues Belle and then dies in her arms, which is baloney – the Beast’s battle with Gaston is for his own sake, Belle is neither threatened nor anywhere close by at that moment. Dismissing a text for something that’s not even in it is, I’m afraid to say, just shoddy scholarship.

On the other hand, I found myself slightly amused to find that Zipes is very much in favour of films that came out of the old Eastern bloc countries. Now, I do agree that the Czech and DEFA (East German) films are pretty fabulous. But perhaps it’s not a coincidence that a scholar whose work is based on the ideas of the Frankfurt School (a form of Marxist scholarship) likes movies from communist countries? And dislikes anything that is commercially successful such as Harry Potter and the Disney empire?

About the only movies I find myself agreeing with Zipes on, other than the Czech/German ones, are the Shrek series. Well, he can appreciate their subversiveness and humour, because DreamWorks isn’t Disney. The subversiveness of Disney’s Enchanted, on the other hand, doesn’t count…

So those are some of the thoughts that ran through my mind this afternoon as I was loudly arguing with Dr. Zipes in an empty room. He’s come off the pedestal I stuck him on (entirely unasked for on his part, I might add). The learning curve of finding a guru, and then un-finding him again, has been interesting. It’s an empowering thing to be able to look at what even the greatest scholars say with a critical eye, to find in yourself the temerity to disagree with authority.

Adapting Beasts and Beauties

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.

And One More Thing…

…about Sleeping Beauty, even though it won’t make it into my paper any more (well, maybe it’ll make it into the edited version, in a little side comment). In the name of research, I had to go watch the Maleficent movie on the weekend. I wasn’t really that interested at first, as from what I had heard of the movie it sounded really dark – I was thinking Snow White and the Huntsman kind of dark, which I hate. Plus, I had got the impression that it was a prequel to the Disney cartoon, telling the story of “How Maleficent Turned Evil” (like Oz the Great and Powerful is a prequel [I hate that word] to The Wizard of Oz).

However, both those impressions were wrong. I’m not going to throw around spoilers, as the movie is still too fresh and many of you won’t have seen it yet. But I’ll just say this: it’s not a prequel to the Disney movie, but a retelling – it turns the whole story on its head and tells it differently. You can tell that already from the trailer (so that’s not a spoiler): Maleficent actually meets Aurora while she is growing up, while in the cartoon, Maleficent spends all of the princess’ growing years searching for the girl so she can put her under her spell; not only do they not meet until Aurora’s sixteenth birthday, Maleficent has no clue where she is. Well, not so in this movie. And that, as Forrest Gump says, is all I’m going to say about that.

The graphics are astounding, of course, and the actors are pretty cool, too. Pay attention to how Angelina Jolie’s prosthetic cheek bones are exactly echoed by the outline of her black hood; it must have cost them some shooting effort to get the camera angle just right so that’s noticeable as often as it is.

Doing a comparison study of this movie with the old one and speculating on why they told the story this way now would make a whole other paper. The old Disney movie is already a very loose adaptation of the written fairy tale – they made up characters and situations out of whole cloth. The character of Maleficent is an invention of Disney’s; in the written story, the evil fairy shows up, chucks her curse around (unplanned, just because she’s offended at not having been invited), and disappears, never to be heard from again. Disney makes her into this big, evil-villain antagonist who hunts the princess her whole life and has a personal vendetta against her. And then they needed someone to fight her, so enter Prince Philip (who is apparently named after the Duke of Edinburgh, the only prince Americans knew of at that time). The screen time of the Disney movie is almost entirely taken up with two characters who barely exist in the fairy tale. So Disney takes the bare-bones written fairy tale, and makes up a whole story around it; and now they’ve taken that story, dismantled it, and made up another story out of the pieces. Talk about an adaptation of an adaptation, hypertext becoming hypotext. And next time I’ll watch the old movie again, I’ll be seeing it through the lens of the new one; it’ll be hard to look at Maleficent and not think of her character as she is portrayed in the new film – so now the new movie is becoming a hypotext for the old one. Very head-spinning.

And speaking of spinning, I’m still sceptical about the way the movies show the spindle the princess pokes herself on, and this film is no exception. I’ve never actually closely examined a spinning wheel – do spindles on them really stick up straight in the air? I thought they were sideways, pointing at the spinner. And the princesses all carefully and deliberately stick their finger on the end of that sharp pointy thing. From the Grimms story, I’m pretty sure we’re not dealing with a spinning wheel, but a drop spindle, where it would be much easier to accidentally jab yourself in the hand, especially if you’ve never handled one of those things before. Ah well, if I ever write my own adaptation of the story, I might have to learn to spin so I can get it right.

So that, I think, is enough of snoozing princesses and ash girls for the time being. On to Beauty and the Beast.