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!
That’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 great writers of English children’s literature. But it wasn’t until last year, when I was going through “Sleeping Beauty” adaptations and finally actually read McKinley’s Spindle’s End (as opposed to having it sit in my library book stack and returning it un-read after renewing it twice), that I got into her writing.
One of the things I find interesting and, as a hopeful adapter of fairy tales, encouraging, is that she wrote two versions of “Beauty and the Beast”. She just wasn’t done with the topic. The adaptations aren’t that different – to be honest, I have a hard time keeping them straight in my mind, as I read them within a few months of each other (they were written nineteen years apart). They’re both set in a traditional quasi-medieval fantasy world (cobblestone fantasy); they’re both based on de Beaumont’s version of the tale, except that instead of being bitchy the two sisters are actually kind people and have a good relationship with Beauty (that’s one of the things I love about McKinley – good family relationships); and Beauty is a good, kind, thoroughly relatable character.
There are differences between the books, of course – not least of which is the ending, but I’m not going to spoilerise. Rose Daughter, which is the newer book, has more complexity, is less of a straight-up retelling. But that’s not to say that Beauty is un-complex (simplistic?). It was McKinley’s first book, and I believe it almost immediately catapulted her to fame. Justifiably so. The lyricism of her language alone warrants her popularity. Her fairy tale retellings are a bit different than the high fantasy stories (The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown) that cemented her standing – they’re slower, quieter, more gentle. No heroic sword fights, kick-butt princesses (or peasants-turning-princess, for that matter), or evil sorcerers – just a girl who has a knack for growing roses or a healing touch. But that’s what I love about them. I’m not a big sword-and-sorcery fan – battle scenes bore me – but the fantasy worlds that McKinley creates, which are all about the characters, draw me in, invite me to linger.
I’ll leave it at that. If you haven’t read Robin McKinley, do – you won’t regret it. For myself, I still haven’t read all of her books, so I have more to look forward to. The bliss of having discovered an author you love, and finding they have a long bibliography…
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 pale blue and silver gilt walls, looks just like the Amalienburg in Munich:
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…