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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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…

Beauty and the Beast

“Beauty and the Beast” holds a special place in the lineup of fairy tales I’m studying right now: my first introduction to it was the Disney movie. All the others – “Cinderella”, “Sleeping Beauty”, and “The Frog Prince” – were childhood favourites of mine (well, maybe not favourites, exactly, except for SB, but I knew them well), but this one I only got to know after I came to Canada. The same goes for “Bluebeard”, so it must be that we just didn’t have any books of French fairy tales around when I was growing up. We had Grimms, Andersen, Arabian Nights, Hauff (another German Romantic, contemporary with the Grimms), a collection of Animal Tales, and probably a few others, but apparently no Frenchmen. Or, as it were, Frenchwomen.

“Beauty and the Beast” is a woman’s tale, and is one of the prime examples of the genuine “literary fairy tale”. The first version was written in 1740 by one Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, and it’s not your simple Grimms’ style five-page fairy tale. In the translation I’m reading, included in Jack Zipes’ Beauties, Beasts and Enchantment: Classic French Fairy Tales, it’s just under eighty pages long; I’ve heard it referred to as a “novel” and someplace it said it was 250 pages. Now, I don’t think Zipes abridged his translation, so maybe it was just smaller pages or larger print or something; but suffice to say, it’s a LONG story. The best-known version is a much shorter retelling by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont which came out in 1756 (the first English translation was done in 1757, according to the Wikipedia).

De Beaumont’s story is a lot like de Villeneuve’s, except that it only tells one half of the tale, the part that’s now known. Hmm, haven’t we heard that one before? Except that in the case of “La belle et la bête” the extended version is nowhere near as gruesome as in “Sleeping Beauty”. It’s just, kind of, boring, in the TMI sense. You see, the prince has a mother, and the mother has a brother, and there was a wicked babysitter who happened to be a fairy and a king who married a shepherdess, except she was a fairy too, and it’s all to do with what happened years ago when they were all really young, and… What’s it got to do with Beauty and the Beast? Not all that much, actually; or, more to the point, by the time it is told you really don’t care a whole lot because the real story, the one about the girl and the animal, is finished. I guess nobody told Mme de Villeneuve that you shouldn’t introduce people into the plot really late in the book; if they matter, they have to show up in the first few chapters. At least that’s what fiction writers are told today.

Anyway, quick recap of the story as we know it: there’s a merchant, and he’s got a passel of kids – even split, 50/50 between boys and girls (in Villeneuve it’s six each, in Beaumont three), whose mother seems to have gone to her eternal reward, she’s never mentioned. His business goes bad, and they become poor. The daughters are ticked off and don’t want to accept that fact, all but the youngest, who is, of course, the most beautiful and therefore called Beauty (d’uh). She’s also the nicest of the lot and the only one willing to do any work for the family. Now, daddy goes on a trip, hoping to recoup his business losses; the sisters ask for all kinds of fancy gifts, but all Beauty wants is a rose (yes, definite shades of the Grimms’ “Cinderella” here). On the way back from his unsuccessful business trip, he gets lost in the snowy woods, and ends up in an enchanted castle, where he is helped by invisible servants (Beast has his castle fully automated, apparently; rather ahead of his time there). The next morning, he picks a rose in the garden for Beauty, which brings down the Beast on him, breathing fire (well, okay, roaring) and threatening to kill him. On hearing that he has daughters, the Beast makes a deal that if one of the daughters comes along willingly to take the merchant’s place, his life will be spared. So, as we knew would happen, Beauty is the one who offers to come along; the bitchy sisters would never do such a thing. So, now Beauty is in the Beast’s castle, fully expecting to be eaten. But instead, she finds herself welcomed, and from there on lives in the lap of luxury, waited on by the invisible servants. There is no other human being there, so she hangs around the castle by herself except for every evening at dinnertime, when the Beast shows up and talks to her, always ending his visit by asking her to marry him. She refuses repeatedly. Then one day she asks to be allowed to visit her family again; the Beast reluctantly agrees and makes her promise to come back soon, else he’ll die. She goes, and lets herself be tricked or talked into staying a bit too long; but then she has a dream about the Beast dying, and she rushes back as quickly as she can. Sure enough, her dream was real; he’s lying about somewhere in the garden, expiring for lack of Beauty. When she sees him, she either cries or dumps water on him, and makes a passionate declaration of love (or at least the willingness to marry him), which perks him right up. Not only that, it de-beastifies and re-princefies him, with fireworks and fanfares. Hurrah, marriage, happily ever after!

Well, okay, that’s how it works in Beaumont. In Villeneuve, it’s pretty much the same up to the fireworks and fanfares, but then there’s a snag. You see, the prince’s mother shows up, in company of a fairy (whom Beauty has been talking to for a while in dreams, so she’s a known quantity). And Mama Queen is not at all in favour of her darling Prince marrying a commoner, no matter how many curses the girl has broken and how much the Prince swears he’d rather be a beast and married to Beauty than a pretty-boy without his girl. Well, mama’s a royal snob. But what do know – the fairy’s got some insider info up her fluttery sleeve, which she imparts to the reader in several indeterminable and convoluted backstories. It all turns out right, because, you see, Beauty actually isn’t the merchant’s daughter, she’s a princess! (Didn’t see that one coming, did you?) Not only that, she’s the queen’s own niece! And the fairy’s niece, too! [Blah blah blah – insert fast-forwarding noise – blah blah] And the prince was cursed by his guardian, who was an ugly old fairy and wanted to shack up with him, which he wasn’t into, but now we’ve got her sorted, and Beauty’s parents (the real ones, a fairy and a king) are back together, and her foster father and his offspring get to come live at the castle. So now everybody is happy (even though nobody is who we thought they were), and we can finally have the wedding and get on with the happily ever after.

Yeah. No surprise Mme de Beaumont chopped off that last half. So, incidentally, did Andrew Lang in the version he printed in The Blue Fairy Book in 1889. He says it’s after Mme de Villeneuve, which it is – he keeps quite a few of de Villeneuve’s details which aren’t in de Beaumont – but he ends it with the breaking of the curse and the wedding. All told, I think I like that version best. It’s got some charming details, for example, every night in the Beast’s castle Beauty dreams of this handsome prince whom she falls very much in love with, and who keeps telling her not to be deceived by appearances. Her feelings for this dream boy are one of the reasons she keeps turning down the Beast’s proposals, so when she finally agrees to marry Beast, that’s a major change of heart for her. Of course, dream boy is Beast himself in his human form, so the happily ever after at the end rings that much more true.

I just wish I knew French, so I could read these stories in the original. Apparently there are a few interesting tidbits, particularly in Villeneuve, that literally get lost in translation (see SurLaLune Fairy Tales and dettoldisney on the topic). Ah well, I have to make do with what I’ve got.