"Beauty and the Beast" was never really about beauty or ugliness. It has always been about admiration; the reaching out and obtaining of a kind of wealth that otherwise seemed beyond comprehension. Not surprisingly, of course, since ugliness cannot be rewarded in its own right -- or at least it couldn't be prior to the advent of reality TV -- the creature gifted with the keys to the treasury was almost always a character of seemingly mysterious appeal, the beautiful woman. The fact that what made for the physical or intellectual basis of that beauty could itself be transformed into its own kind of commodity & #8230; well, that was just another kind of deception.
There is no question but that it is impossible to do justice to the many transformations of Beauty and the Beast since its incarnation (though Windling did an exceptional job). There are simply too many variations on the theme (Davis, 2009). Today there is even a virtual game even if no one has yet to share with us whether or not there is "an app" to be either beautiful or beastly (not counting first-person shooter killing games).
This being said, it still seems appropriate to make a comparison of two particular representations of the classic story of pretty girl gets traded away because of her beauty for something of value. The versions that I am focusing on make a comparison of two modern film and media sensations that have literally catapulted the story to contemporary appeal. For it would be these two cinematic events that would bring the centuries old tale of morality and challenges into the age of poetic entertainment and digital manipulation -- to the point where we no longer enjoy the struggles of the past but see instead a complete reversal of conditions such that The Beauty becomes its own CGI Beast. Davis (2009) has similarly identified these two versions as being important in their independent ways.
Before reviewing the two selected modern film presentations, it seems worth summarizing some of what has occurred in earlier literary presentations. Windling (1995) has done an exceptional overview of the generations of this story from the earliest works of Madame Gabrielle -- Suzanne de Villeneuve in 1740 through the contemporary televised and film productions. What is particularly noteworthy is how the characters, and particularly the female lead, are utilized to convey a great sense of honesty about the issues being faced. De Villeneuve, for example, clearly wrote her works to confront the horrible and unjust conditions that women (and particularly young women) dealt with on a continuing basis. Young girls being given away; women being locked away. No money or property considerations and exploitive abuse and rape at the hands of unscrupulous men, most likely men of means. It is hardly a surprise that the aggressors in these depictions are presented as monsters, though later versions such as those by Disney will effectively airbrush away some of this ugliness in exchange for shallower presentations.
To be honest, this transformation from a story of abuse and neglect to a more palatable fairy tale did not have to wait for modern movie marvels. Less than 20 years after de Villeneuve's original, Leprince de Beaumont shortened the story by making it about the victim-woman's need to change to better understand what underlies the internal struggles of The Beast. It is not all his fault that he does such bad things, and she needs to be forgiving of this. Only later would sympathy trend move yet again to focus on the controlling influences of fate. It was a requirement of sorts for those gifted with such beauty to play out their roles of helping the less fortunate get beyond their personal limitations. In a way, this is very much how we now see the story. The Beast gets our sympathy but is also seen as a creature needing the help of a caring (and pretty) woman to make its change to being a better creature.
In a strange way, this evolution presaged what would come next, somewhat completing a circle back to the original issue of empowerment. As weak, silly, perhaps even shallow as some recent depictions of The Belle have become, she is still invested with some degree of independence. I'll discuss more about this later, but it is important to understand that it is part of what was happening at the time and may be what is in the works yet again with new technologies on the horizon. Elements of this can be seen in the efforts of the early leaders who took their own leap toward the future by capturing the core struggles of the story on film. The next section reviews the two key modern adaptations and compares and contrasts how they approached their subjects.
The first modern film production took shape under the direction of Jean Cocteau in 1946 in his La Belle et La Bete (Malcolm, 1999). This "docudrama" in artistic filmmaking broke the rules of production and direction to represent the story and its struggles in a way that put the viewer into the character's places. Only later, in 1991, when Disney (and more specifically Pixar) got into the act, would this transformation become more commoditized to the point that the profit prevails as the beast of burden.
"The movie screen is the true mirror reflecting the flesh and blood of my dreams," said Jean Cocteau in response to questions about his work and poetic license that he used in the making of La Belle et La Bete, a cinematic masterpiece that remains admired today for its own simplistic beauty and originality. His version used black and white cinematography and photography, almost literally melted together, to present a dreamlike "documentary" of the mysticism of the main characters as people living remarkably ordinary lives. The magic of the fantasy of this production was integrated into that ordinariness, just as was true with the early characters that lived their adventure in simple homes and gardens. Belle's father in the first renditions was a simple man who was forced to confront true economic hardships. He took advantage of a chance to eat and get the flower his beautiful daughter wanted from a welcoming garden. Only then would he be forced to make his promise to The Beast for his violation of that hospitality.
The creative movie team, which included such notables as Georges Auric and Henri Alekan, set about producing what some said was a naive film that, maybe too simply, let the movie do its job. Cocteau saw it differently as he let these unusual innovators do their own work to come up with a not-yet-seen pairing of filmmaking styles. Mythical motifs were mixed in their settings with such modern realism that, like other presentations of the concept before it, The Beast was not only loved and admired but was actually missed by the audience when it was revealed that all that was below his ugliness was a mere pretty-faced man. The audience felt and wanted more from the fact that the beast respected its challenge and admired the true beauty of its challengers. This version did take some liberties with the storyline and added characters as well as effectively brought the background to life -- something later seen as a motivation for Disney to animate simple household objects.
Cocteau was fantasy filmmaking come alive; it was the simplicity of adventure that did not need to hide the fact that the original story had some rather ugly realities that didn't need to be airbrushed away. There was nothing of deception in this struggle; the audience could literally see it all as reflections the horror and wonder come alive in magic mirrors and more:
Watch Beauty looking into a mirror and seeing her face replaced by that of the Beast, her almost trance-like walk through the Beast's melancholy hallways, or her pacing backwards and forwards as she impatiently awaits his nightly visit as a statue behind her follows her with its head, and you see a precisely imagined fantasy. It's all the better for not relying on astonishing special effects but on the private thoughts of the watcher. Would some Hollywood films today do us that honour?
Cocteau's efforts pulled from classical as well as avant-garde creative traditions. As Malcolm recognized, even those who saw what Cocteau did with this new stylishness often failed to credit his with merging the past with the future. He do so very well, however, which literally gave the world an authentic piece of filmmaking that would open many creative doors in the future.
Hollywood took up this challenge less than 50 years later when Disney turned to this timeless classic to unleash to the fortunes its CGI interests in making animated movies more lifelike. The story as we know it would never be the same again, and yet it would, of course, set incomprehensible records of entertainment achievement. As Windling (1995) put it, "Beauty…