March 17, 2017, is the current release date scheduled for Disney’s live-action version of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, arriving over a quarter century after the well-known animated version of the story. When the cartoon feature arrived in theaters in 1991, Disney Studios was in the midst of a renaissance that had been inaugurated with 1989’s The Little Mermaid, and to this day, perhaps no Disney film better captures the spirit of those early-’90s movies than Beauty and the Beast. Despite its troubled production history, the final product was immediately hailed as a classic, becoming the first animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.
The self-giving nature of true love becomes manifest in both Belle and the Beast—each demonstrates a willingness to surrender everything, including life itself, for the other.Today, the movie is rather polarizing. To Disney aficionados, it would likely be tantamount to heresy to speak ill of it. The heroine, Belle, has now joined the pantheon of hand-drawn leading ladies to become one of the most iconic Disney Princesses. In some senses for this very reason, there is also some backlash against Beauty and the Beast. Many critical voices have called into question the very ideal of the Disney princess, attacking the movie for being lopsided in its approach to beauty and for glorifying a woman who falls into what may be an abusive relationship. Beauty and the Beast is also part of a trend researchers have noticed in which female characters speak a much smaller proportion of dialogue relative to their male counterparts (only 29% in this case). Those who appreciate classic fairy tales in their oral and written form often resent their “Disneyfication,” tidying up source material that is often much earthier in its original forms.
Having just taught a course on fairy tales and read plenty of this source material, my gut reaction may be to join the hipsterish and scholastic naysayers in undermining the adulation of all things Disney. I certainly have reservation about many of their animated films, nor is Beauty and the Beast wholly exempt. Yet those who make blanket condemnations of the movie may, I think, be allowing a little too much baby in with their bathwater. Indeed, notwithstanding some of the mechanics of marketing and promotion, Beauty and the Beast is fascinating as a fairy tale that self-consciously meditates on the role fairy tales play in the development of character. Simply put, the film creates a setting in which its characters’ best virtues are derived from their very exposure to fairy tales.
“Tale as Old as Time”
Before proceeding, however, it is worth asking what exactly we even mean when we speak of “fairy tales.” The question is not as straightforward as it might appear. Scholars often use the German term märchen to refer to fairy tales, dividing them, roughly speaking, into two sub-categories: the volksmärchen and the kunstmärchen. The volksmärchen represent older, traditionally oral folk tales passed down within communities. These tales are ancient, possibly dating back thousands of years and open to myriad permutations; though continental Europe became interested in recording and adapting them in the seventeenth century, with a significantly explosion of popularity in the nineteenth century. But even those “recording” volksmärchen—such as the Italian Giambattista Basile, the French Charles Perrault, and later the German Brothers Grimm—felt free to adjust the structure or content of the tales to fit their preferences and their audiences. The explosion in popularity of such texts during the 1800s in Europe eventually paved the way for the ascendancy of the kunstmärchen. These were more elaborate and more intentionally literary fairy tales, associated with writers like E. T. A. Hoffmann, Hans Christian Andersen, George MacDonald, and countless others. Kunstmärchen were often longer and more intricate, invested with deep symbolism and more attentive to character nuance.
As scholar Maria Tatar has pointed out, “Virtually every culture knows the story of Beauty and Beast and the differences the two figures must resolve in order to be joined in wedlock” (58); countless variations of the tale exist. The classic version most familiar to Western audiences derives from a story written in the eighteenth century by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, and despite plenty of alterations to details, the Disney movie follows the tale’s overall arc fairly closely. In Beaumont’s account, Beauty (“Belle” in French) is not the only child of an inventor but the youngest child of a widowed merchant. Significantly, however, Beaumont is careful to note that Beauty’s two older sisters “made fun of their younger sister for spending most of her time reading good books” (61). This observation, thrown in almost as a casual aside, provides some source material basis for the Disney depiction of Belle: she is a reader, possibly of fairy tales (Beaumont’s “good books”?), and her literacy leads her to be scorned by the superficial values of the community around her.
Unsurprisingly, the film heavily endorses Belle’s reading habits. They will not only be contrasted with the ignorant and boorish behavior of the citizens of her native town; they will provide for her an educational matrix that will allow her to recognize beauty beyond a superficial level. Beauty and the Beast refers to two particular books that Belle has read, a version of “Jack and the Beanstalk” and an unnamed text, her favorite, characterized by “far-off places, daring sword fights, magic spells, a prince in disguise.” The filmmakers may have been unfamiliar with fairy tale categories, but Belle’s tastes clearly skew toward the literary kunstmärchen tradition. The volksmärchen represent the collective oral wisdom of the community in narrative form; however, in Belle’s “provincial life,” there is very little wisdom to be gained. Her growth is marked by her reading. The fact that her preferred text occurs in “far-off places” likewise marks it as kunstmärchen, since volksmärchen tend to be located within the geographical constraints familiar to the folk (such tales only appear exotic to us because we are far removed from those folk in place and time). We know that she is already prepared for the possibility of “magic spell” and that that appearances can be deceiving (such as the “prince in disguise”).
This education allows Belle at once to see through the shallow advances of her suitor Gaston in a way no one else in the village can. Even her loving father Maurice initially falls prey to the pragmatic mindset of townspeople, considering Gaston as a possible match. He is an inventor (hardly a merchant, as in Beaumont’s account) and seems to hope that his contraptions will win him and his daughter wealth and social standing. But his off-kilter ideas and core of selfless love ultimately alienate him from the generic community, which in the end regards him only as “crazy old Maurice.”
“Song as Old as Rhyme”
The tensions between the fairy-tale-educated heroine and the shallow denizens of her home town are immediately set out in the opening song, “Belle.” Here, as she discusses her reading, she is labelled “strange,” “peculiar,” and “different from the rest of us.” As one citizen comments, “behind that fair façade / I’m afraid she’s rather odd, / Very different from the rest of us.” The tone of the movie is thus set to juxtapose the bookish Belle against those around her, who value “fair façades” and conventional success (jobs for the men, marriage for the women) of “provincial life.” But our sympathies are naturally drawn toward the aspiring Belle, leading us to call into questions the town’s definitions of “odd.”
This becomes further evident in the movie’s second major musical number, “Gaston.” Whereas “Belle” rather jovially contrasted the eponymous Beauty with the village she inhabits, “Gaston”—though comical—begins to demonstrate the darker side to this mind-set. This song, initiated by Gaston’s lackey LeFou (whose name means “the fool”), is designed to extol the very life Belle rejects. It is a paean to an existence spent glorifying raw physicality and animal appetite. LeFou claims that vain and brutish Gaston (who proudly accepts Belle’s description as “positively primeval”) is idolized by the town, which congregates to help sing the song.
Significantly, LeFou begins by telling him, “Everyone’s awed and inspired by you.” This line may, ironically, subvert the song that follows: since “awed” is a homophone of “odd,” the listener (more skeptical of LeFou’s worldview) could interpret it as instead saying, “Everyone’s odd and inspired by you.” It is part of the film’s project to redefine “oddness,” so that we see the town’s vision of normality as inherently skewed. “Everyone” has become malignantly “odd,” inspired by the spirit of Gaston, a troubling dynamic that will become increasingly apparent as the film progresses.
Of course, the movie’s theme is set out most explicitly in “Beauty and the Beast,” one of AFI’s top 100 movie songs and widely regarded as a classic. The song is sung by Mrs. Potts, the kindly cook/teapot whose tender hospitality makes her care for the Beast and Belle, but whose age and distance from the situation allow her to observe their growing love more objectively than they can. “Beauty and the Beast” avoids the saccharine quality of many similar numbers not only due to its lyricality but also its self-awareness: like the movie’s heroine (but more explicitly), Mrs. Potts is able to recognize the value of fairy tales in providing a matrix for the characters to understand their own lives.
The opening lines—sung as the love between Belle and her reluctant host is growing—identify them as belonging to a “[t]ale as old as time / True as it can be.” The timelessness of a fairy tale education and its reliability for interpreting the protagonists’ lives are reiterated throughout the lyrics: it is a “tune as old as song” and a “song as old as rhyme.” The fact that she singles out the “Beauty and the Beast” tale as ageless could subtly tie in to the reading we know Belle has done, her favorite story that includes “magic spells” and “a prince in disguise.” And the cross-cultural relevance of this theme is heavily emphasized when Mrs. Potts sings that it is
Ever just the same,
Ever a surprise,
Ever as before,
Ever just as sure
As the sun will rise.
The reiteration that fairy tales are guides as reliable as the observed natural world is repeated near the end, when the song claims their applicability to be “[c]ertain as the sun / Rising in the east.” And unlike earlier songs involving the townsfolk, who will soon abandon all civility for barbarism, viewers have every reason to take the kindly Mrs. Potts at face value as a trustworthy expositor of the movie’s key premise, even in the absurd event that we somehow didn’t know what was going to happen…which we do, precisely because the beauty and the beast motif is so universal.
“Beauty and the Beast”
Thus, both the film and its title song are functioning, in a way, as meta-märchen, as fairy tales that are aware of their own nature as fairy tales (something the kunstmärchen often do). But this returns us to one of the central quandaries addressed earlier: should we be comfortable with the message of the “Beauty and the Beast” fairy tale in the first place? The key, I think, lies in understanding the movie on its own terms; if we do so, its message could not be timelier.
Underlying the “tale as old as time” is a theme that, philosophically, might be even older: superficial appearances can be deceptive. Such a current runs through almost every culture, whether Eastern religions, with their emphasis on the world itself as a veil of maya or Western Platonism, following after The Republic’s “Allegory of the Cave.” It is evident time and again in the Bible, which asserts in Proverbs 31:30 that “[c]harm is deceitful, and beauty is vain.” Jesus often castigates “religious” people for their external shows of hypocritical righteousness, while Paul asserts that “we see in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Fairy tales, however, are not philosophical treatises; they work by starkly externalizing the themes they explore. Thus, a prince is transformed from a handsome human to a hideous beast. This is the test and the trial that our heroine (whose own readings have taught her not to judge by appearances) must undergo. She has, after all, been tempted to understand life in the same simplistic manner as the town, to marry (with her father’s blessing) the attractive Gaston—who maintains, “Here in town, it’s only she / Who’s as beautiful as me.”
Does the film present a double standard, though, since Belle actually is physically beautiful? Why shouldn’t the male characters have to reckon with their own preconceptions of beauty? It’s worth noting that there are some versions of the tale that do reverse the construction, as in the many medieval variants of the “loathly lady” story. Still, the most familiar manifestations of “Beauty and the Beast” certainly keep Belle beautiful. Interestingly, the Disney version, while following the pattern of its antecedents, seems alert to the potential hazards of such a reading. In Beaumont’s “Beauty and the Beast,” the prince appears to have been unjustly changed into a monster by a wicked fairy. However, Marie Tatar notes that “[i]n some versions the prince’s arrogance or failure to show charity to an old woman leads to his enchantment” (76), and these are the versions the Disney movie adopts.
The film, then, presents the lovers’ romance as an exercise in character growth. The Beast has been tested and failed; his journey is toward redemption and restoration. For brutishly judging by appearances, he stands condemned to prove he can learn to do otherwise by developing within himself a virtue and a love sufficiently beautiful to be attractive despite his monstrous features. Belle, meanwhile, must attempt to pass the test that the Beast himself has failed, to recognize in the Beast the qualities he is tasked with cultivating.
The moral of Beaumont’s tale is that virtue represents a better grounding for companionship than physical attractive or even intelligence. For both Beaumont and Disney, the virtue most necessary for love’s flourishing is self-sacrifice. In the movie, Belle first demonstrates this virtue by choosing to take her father’s place in the Beast’s castle. Later, in a moment of agony, she abandon’s her vow and attempts to leave. This brief forfeiture of her responsibility ultimately provides the Beast with the opportunity to show his own virtue, as he risks his life saving her from wolves. And it is this display of self-sacrifice that first helps Belle to see the beauty of the Beast’s virtue.
It would be a natural reaction on our part to sympathize with Belle in escaping the Beast’s castle. That is, after all, an understandable and realistic response, and we would do the same in her position. But to read a fairy tale expecting such realism is to miss the whole point. A märchen isn’t characterized by verisimilitude; to read it that way is to allow the story’s external appearance to blind us to its underlying virtues. Such a literal understanding of an enchanted world is exactly the kind of superficiality we see in Gaston and the other village folk.
And in the climax of the movie, all these strands come together, and we are faced with the dangers inherent in the appearance-based expediency of the town. “Inspired” by the increasingly bestial Gaston’s warnings of danger and an image of the Beast without any context, the villagers become vigilantes in sequences that resemble the memorable mob scene of James Whale’s Frankenstein. Gaston tells the townsfolk, “It’s time to follow me” and that they shouldn’t rest until the Beast is “good and dead.” They, in turn, do follow him, chanting, “We don’t like what we don’t understand, / In fact it scares us, / And this monster is mysterious at least.” The dangerous situation would almost seem a caricature; and yet pragmatic, populist demagogues who boast about their sexual prowess and gain power through violent, xenophobic rhetoric are hardly alien to our experience.
In the end, any pretext of “love” in the vainglorious Gaston has been stripped away, as the self-centeredness of his true narcissism is revealed. Conversely, the self-giving nature of true love becomes manifest in both Belle and the Beast—each demonstrates a willingness to surrender everything, including life itself, for the other. The Beast even attempts to save the vicious Gaston, who is ultimately done in by his own aggression. So when the final transformation occurs, light returns to the castle, the objectified servants become human again, and the Beast made into the handsome prince we knew him to be. In the “happily ever after” eschaton of fairyland, appearances and reality are at last reunified.
There is in great stories an inherent paradox: those that seek didactic instruction over entertainment and engagement fall flat on all counts. But when the storyteller begins with a resonant tale, an audience may be moved and even transformed. Most of us, young and old, read fairy tales first and foremost because they enchant us, yet those enchantments have, as Bruno Bettelheim has put it, their “uses.” In a series of posts entitled “Fairy Tale Pedagogy,” my friend Bethany Bear Hebbard has explored the ways in which kunstmärchen writers like George MacDonald can use beautiful narrative to instill lessons even in teachers.
Film critics were right in 1991 when they heaped accolades on Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, our current jaundiced aloofness notwithstanding. We can sit smugly in our sophisticated snark and mock the tales and the cartoons of our youth. But in looking at the rancor of our own society, so heavily invested in Gaston-style pragmatism, we run the risk of turning into yet more citizens with pitchforks, our imaginations good for nothing but producing fear. Better by far to drop by the bookshop with Belle and pick up another volume about “far-off places,” journeys that lead us toward the true beauty of virtue through self-sacrificial love. In our society, those qualities are “rather odd”; but then, so was our Lord when he told us stories about those same qualities.