In Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), the young female narrator stumbles upon a book of fairy tales and recoils at the story of Beauty and the Beast, musing:
There are men in the world.
And there are beasts.
What do you do if you marry a beast?
… Did that mean that all over the globe, in all innocence, women were marrying beasts?
The narrator’s literal reading hints at the most obvious interpretation of the fairy tale, which sees a comeback this month in Disney’s live action remake of the classic 1991 animated Oscar-winning film starring Harry Potter star Emma Watson.
Originally published in 1740 by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, the fairytale was subsequently rewritten and abridged by another French woman, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, 16 years later. On a crudely symbolic level, Beauty and the Beast tells the tale of a young woman taming her fear of masculinity – of the size and savagery of men, of the secrecy surrounding sexuality. For that to happen, she must detach herself from her father. Their mutual love, as she reaches adulthood, must evolve – her request that he pluck a rose for her, with all its implications of romance, must, we subtly understand, remain unrealised.
Beyond this psychoanalytical reading, Beauty and the Beast draws some of its success from transportable moral lessons: never judge anyone on their appearance; love someone for who they are inside (although when you’re Beauty, the Beast somehow isn’t required to make the same effort of imagination).
Good old-fashioned Disney
But those explanations do not exhaust the mystery of why the fairy tale continues to fascinate all over the globe. There are straightforward adaptations – from Jean Cocteau’s superlative surrealistic take in 1946 to the 2014 Christopher Gans film – but also countless rewritings, most notably Stephenie Meyer’s wildly successful Twilight series (from 2005). And this year, we are treated to a new version starring Emma Watson.
The trailers for Disney’s latest have drawn a colossal amount of views, and make for interesting further interpretions. If the 2017 Beauty and the Beast trailer strikes such a chord, it isn’t just because it exploits the power of the original tale. It’s also because of the other references it contains.
Those glimpses of the film show us a visual evocation of the much beloved 1991 Beauty and the Beast so striking as to be almost self-plagiarised. In some shots, the extremely stylised, beautifully coloured houses and castle recall the hand-painted, still backdrops to older Disney films like Snow White. There is, as far as we can tell, no attempt at the irony, self-consciousness and sarcasm that have plagued Disney and Pixar films in the past decade. Songs are back. This is real, good old-fashioned Disney again: designed for a grandparent’s perfect afternoon with their grandchildren.
But the trailers are also ideal bait for my generation, the so-called millennials, many of whom would cite the 1991 version as their favourite Disney film – and especially for a special brand of millennial: the bookworm feminist. Belle has always been an ideal projector screen for girl readers: she manages to be at once a book lover, an educator, passionately desired by handsome men, and a brave adventurer. Amazingly, she finds a man who loves reading too (in one trailer, the Beast says he has read almost every book in his gigantic library).
Belle is arguably one of Disney’s best role models for girls; it’s not saying much, but it’s better than nothing. And it’s clear that the 2017 version is taking that identification and aspirational potential of Belle to its pinnacle.
The choice of Watson for the lead is clever. We cannot see Watson without seeing Harry Potter’s best friend Hermione Granger – another cult bookworm warrior. And it’s not just a character we see. In recent years, Watson has graduated from Brown University, taken on the role of the UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, and founded a feminist book club. She is not just as an actor, but an activist, already worshipped by young women for her brains and her beauty. In 2016 she made headlines for hiding feminist books on the tube. Disney probably had to do little to make her character plausible.
In recent weeks, the advertising campaign has taken an interesting turn. First, there have been rumours that for the first time in Disney’s history, the film will feature hints of unrequited homoerotic attraction. These claims, however, were quickly toned down by the director.
Simultaneously, Watson found herself accused of lacking feminist spirit after posing for Vanity Fair in a relatively revealing top. These two publicity twists are titillating, but tame enough. They have injected some scandal into the advertising campaign, but in very homeopathic proportions, cannily offsetting the traditional feel of the trailer.
This upcoming version will probably be a very successful, earnest, beautiful film, which will, if not surprise, at least delight. But doubtlessly, as with all versions, we will leave slightly disappointed at the ultimate transformation of the Beast into a man like all others (Cocteau pushed the allusion to the point of getting the same actor, Jean Marais, to play both the Beast/Prince and Belle’s boorish suitor, Gaston).
There is something sobering, indeed a little boring, about the traditional ending of Beauty and the Beast. Why leave the magical beast for just a normal man? Let’s hope that in some way this new version reinvents that disenchantment a little.