To become grown up is ‘a terribly hard thing to do. It is much easier to skip it and go from one childhood to another.’ So wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, so clearly believe the producers at Disney, who for the past decade or so have commissioned a series of live action remakes of the fairytale cartoons of childhood. Into the Woods (2014), Cinderella (2015), Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016) and Beauty and the Beast (2017) have all barged their way back onto the big screen, complete with spell-binding budgets, jazzed up scores and A-list casts. You might think that the idea is nothing more than a shortcut through creativity, from a studio that has fallen into a lazy cookie-cut formula. But the remakes have proved hugely popular – Beauty and the Beast, for instance, is the tenth highest grossing film of all time. Far from running out of ideas, Disney is astutely capitalising on our desire to relive the fantasies of childhood.
But is feeding our fetishisation of a child’s world a sufficient justification for serving up stories that are deeply unsuited to a modern adult audience? Well, for one thing, Disney has made some effort to update the stories for contemporary consumption. After all, fairytales which have origins twisting back hundreds of years, which only began to be systematically written down in the early nineteenth century, and which have always been targeted at the fairly uncritical market of pre-teens, were always going to need some adjustment to meet the requirements of a twenty-first-century British audience made up of as many adults as children. And if the evidence of the box office is anything to go by, Disney has done a pretty good job.
But I’m not sure the takings tell the whole story. Once upon a time, fairytales were a little more reflective of the societies for which they were created – their fantastical elements provided a mirror on the wall to the contemporary contexts. But while the recent revisions have proved undeniably popular, I’m not convinced that the fairytale is the right story for our time. Does fairyland work in a twenty-first century world?
Well, Beauty and the Beast, the most recent addition to this nascent tradition, offers a useful way into the question. It is the obvious choice for a fairytale that will satisfy a modern audience: the character of Belle is a book-worm rather than an airheaded princess – and casting the Oxford educated Emma Watson, who has become as famous for her feminist activism as her acting, cleverly reinforces this idea – while the doctrine of inner over outer beauty fits snugly into an era concerned with disentangling attractiveness from power. But these comfortable narratives can only take us so far. In the film’s first scene, Belle’s book-worminess deems her ‘peculiar’ in the eyes of the village; one person goes so far as to ‘wonder if she’s feeling well?’ In an attempt to reconcile a twenty-first-century expectation with an eighteenth-century setting, Belle becomes exactly what she really is – out of place, born before her time, a strange prophet from a feminist future that cannot bear to see its own historical inequalities played back to it on the big screen.
And the idea that Disney is understandably so anxious to underpin the story with – that inner beauty is worth more than outward appearances – is rather undermined by the facial capture of the Beast. He needs to be an embodiment of ugliness, but in fact, he is far from unattractive, and looks more like a rather handsome dog or good looking bloke who doesn’t believe in razors than the grotesque monster of children’s nightmares. Director Bill Condon might have wanted his audiences to leave the cinema with the charming belief that humanity is capable of loving something despite its physical flaws, but he certainly doesn’t seem to believe it himself.
More than that, the snuggly inner-beauty interpretation that this version places so much emphasis upon has limits. Of course, to an extent the Beast’s duality of self – the handsome prince and the hairy monster – does work as a metaphor for someone who’s beautiful on the outside and ugly on the inside, but only up until the final scene. As is quite brilliantly pointed out at the end of a truly modern fairytale, Shrek, if the moral of the story is that physical attractiveness is subsidiary to goodness, why is the Beast changed back into his handsome self? Despite the characters’ protestations to the contrary, this plot point surely leaves the viewer with the sense that ‘Beauty’ deserves or requires beauty in her lover, even more so than goodness.
And as the inner-beauty interpretation crumbles around the edges, it reveals a far more troubling allegory. In the most authoritative written version of the story, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s late eighteenth-century novel La Belle et la Bête, Belle lives in the Beast’s castle for months, waited on by invisible servants and dressed in an endless supply of expensive clothes. It does not take much imagination to work out what kind of arrangement would involve a young woman kept in a life luxury by an older man in eighteenth-century France, and so, suddenly, the scenes in the middle of the film where Belle lives in the Beast’s castle become a little less romantic, and the illustrations of the tale that you find in some children’s books, in which a monster sits opposite a young girl in a virginally white dress, begin to make a lot of allegorical sense. Most traces of a less consensual kind of relationship have been submerged in sugar-syrup sweetness, but it is impossible for Condon to completely untangle their relationship from the dynamics of power.
The first time indications that Belle is falling in love with the Beast come immediately after he has gifted her his enormous library, and she has pointed out that he has begun to crack jokes. The implication, then, is that their love is based on the male figure bestowing wealth and knowledge on the female, while she adds a lighthearted humour to his serious concerns – progressive, right? There is also one pretty horrible moment when Belle chucks a snowball at the Beast (because, obviously, girls just want to have fun) and he responds by flinging one back about the size of her head, which knocks her flat on her back. The camera cuts away before you really have time to digest what you have just seen – an aggressive physical demonstration of the frighteningly unequal power balance between the two lovers – and you are simply left with a haunting shot of the Beast chuckling to himself. The story is, after all, the classic example of Stockholm syndrome, which is the phenomenon in which a captive develops powerful emotional ties to their captor. It may sound obvious, but a syndrome is not something healthy or desirable: in one of the most famous real life cases, Patty Hearst’s defence lawyers described their client as brainwashed. And yet, Disney has no problem celebrating the diseased love of captor and captive as long as the captor is a prince and the prison is a castle.
To continue to unpick the allegorical resonances of the story means unearthing another really unpleasant idea. In La Belle et la Bête, the Beast asks Belle to marry him every night of her imprisonment, only to be continually refused. Right at the end, however, she finally declares her love for him, and he is transformed back into a handsome prince. It appears to be a great victory for love, but to me it seems more like her defences have finally worn down, and she has succumbed to his persistence and her own warped Stockholm feelings towards him. His transformation represents the terrible fickleness of the world’s judgement when it comes to men’s treatment of women. Sure, he is a Beast when she has strength to publically refuse his affections, but as soon as she gives in to him, he becomes a paragon and a prince, regardless of the means he has used to get the girl.
So no, I do not think Walt Disney Studios has any business glamourising the horrible undertones of old stories to fulfill the childish desires of a contemporary audience. As much as I don’t think we have any business walking into cinemas and paying money to watch it do so.