06 July 2011

Beauty and the Beast: a new take from yours truly

Beauty and the Beast by Walter Crane (1874) 
It occured to me that I have not discussed anything about the novel I'm working on.  Considering that this blog is about what I write, I can't believe I've never mentioned it!

As you can see by the title of my post, I'm writing a fantasy novel called The Name and the Key that takes inspiration from Beauty and the Beast. Anyway, when you are reworking a sacred story that happens to be known by 99.9% of the world's population, there's pressure to be loyal to the original. But then there's the challenge of surpassing the reader's expectations by taking the familiar and adding an unfamiliar twist to it. And if you work hard enough, there's the remote possibility that you may even improve on the original.

It's not in my position to say that my story is the best version out there, or that it's better than the original. I would be elated if my novel earned the preface of "...ranked among the best" in front of the title. Notice the word "earn"...because any success will not be achieved without hard work.

One of the tasks I set before me was how to rewrite Beauty and the Beast in a way that would satisfy my readers. I studied many versions of the story in many different mediums, and there seemed to be a common thread of "complaints" about the fairytale. This is one of the most beloved stories, but even something so cherished can still be flawed. Here are the two that I'm trying to address in my own work:

1) BEAUTY, MEET BEAST!

The father recounts his horrible tale where he first encounters the Beast in his castle: Father stole a single rose for his daughter, Belle, because she asked for one as a gift. The Beast catches Father in the action and threatens him for "taking the thing I love most in this world." The Father lets it slip that he has beautiful daughters (for some unknown reason he felt this was important to say) and the Beast requires punishment to be doled out in three days' time. Either the Father returns to become the Beast's prisoner, or one of his daughters must assume the role. If no one comes, the Beast will find where the Father lives and take his vengeance there. After all this is said and done, Belle decides to go in her Father's place because it was her fault (um, no it wasn't) things turned out so badly; how dare she ask for a rose! Her decision to die in her Father's place is readily accepted. Father makes a single protest, "No, Belle, I'm old, my life is almost over anyway," and that's it. And Belle doesn't seem to object to her fate or show any fear of what will come. She just allows herself to take the punishment for Father's actions.

Although the original fairytale seeks to illustrate how Belle is beautiful through her actions--her humility, her sense of honor, her self-sacrifice--I never bought that she so willingly marched off to her death. I wouldn't doubt that she loved her father as much as a child could, and wished there was some way to help, but wouldn't there be some struggle in her mind over what to do? She's essentially committing suicide in a very painful fashion (it's a huge, ravenous Beast, so she's either going to be eaten alive or mauled to death). How does someone agree to sacrifice their life? Either they are noble in the most inhuman way possible, or they are in fact suicidal.

I want my version of Beauty and the Beast to be a work that the audience will find relatable. I especially want my Belle (Lily, in my novel) to have qualities that readers can find in themselves. And as much as I would like to believe that everyone is inhumanly noble and readily available to end their life for someone else's mistakes, odds are it's easier for people to relate to someone who is in such deep despair that they simply don't care about what happens to them anymore.

My thinking: sadness can be debilitating or motivating (and motivating is the far more interesting choice for fiction). If you wrap up that sorrow with even more complex, devastating emotions--like guilt, for instance--you're opening up a slew of opportunities for impulsive, reckless actions...such as going off to die at the hands of a ferocious monster.

2) THE STOCKHOLM SYNDROME THEORY

Cracked.com has a great article by Simon Bower and Megan B. (aka Fidget) called "Five Romantic Movie Gestures That Were Actually Dick Moves." Disney's Beauty and the Beast makes the list. Let me sum it up:

The romantic gesture: "Since you love to read so much, let me give you this gorgeous, beautiful library. And then you'll fall in love with me."

The dick move: "Actually, you're my prisoner, and it's not really a gift because it's something that's already mine (and still is)."

Really though, the authors say it best: "The Beast giving Belle a library seems like a wonderful gesture from a sweet guy until you consider the fact that the library was already there. It's just another room in his house. All he did was open a door and point. So really, it's no different than "giving" her a bathroom to use [...]"

Even though this is a particular scene from the film, the issue is relevant to the original fairytale, too. The crux of the problem--how can Belle fall in love with the Beast if she's just his prisoner? Free will and true love pretty much go hand-in-hand, and according to the story, the Beast needs true love to break the spell. But the story is an exercise in brainwashing and coercion...even though there's a lot of pretty, pretty things in the castle to distract you from reality. As Cracked's article points out, none of the presents the Beast gives to Belle are actual gifts, because everything (including Belle) belongs to the Beast anyway. Prisoners have no possessions of their own because they are in fact the possessions of another entity. What you see here, kids, is the person rendered the object. And as we all know, things may receive love, but cannot give it. With that logic, the spell can never possibly be broken.

I admit, I have been struggling with this problem as I write my novel, because every version pretty much has Belle falling in love with the Beast while she is captive. I've been working on it roughly for a year and until now, I hadn't come up with a reasonable solution to this issue. Here's what I've got so far: If we keep it simple, there are two things that Belle has in common with the Beast: she is a prisoner, and she wants her freedom. Instead of having one person hold power over the other (the tradition of the Beast as Belle's jailer), why can't they both be united by the same goals? Why can't they both try to help each other escape?

This sounds a little too much like the same fairy tale still, so let me keep going...

There should be something more evil and powerful at work here. The Beast should not be the only master of the castle. There has to be something so strong and frightening that Belle and the Beast somehow put aside their differences to help each other escape the wicked magic of the castle. It makes much more sense to me if the fairytale love that grows between them comes from mutual respect and reciprocity, free will, and equality...which they can find faith in each other as they work together. And yes, to get them together, I'm going to get dark, down, and dirty in this story.
Beauty and the Beast by Warwick Goble (1913) 

Once upon a time, a darker version (the first published version) of Beauty and the Beast actually existed. Written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740, the tale included a lot more sexuality, a lot more characters, and a lot more (if somewhat convoluted) storyline. I've looked and looked and have not been able to get my hands on an actual copy of the text because another published version by Jeanne- Marie Le Prince de Beaumont (1756) quickly surpassed Villeneuve's version in history, fame, and (some would say) quality. If you look for the original text of Beauty and the Beast you will pretty much get Beaumont's version, and even if some versions attribute the text to Villeneuve, it's not the full version, because the bizarre backstory of a fairy and a failed seduction is completely omitted (if you, dear readers, have found this to be otherwise PLEASE post the link to it). On top of that, every in film and television adaptation I've encountered is based on Beaumont's version, such as Jean Cocteau's wondrous film La Belle et La BĂȘte (1946) and of course, Walt Disney's own classic Beauty and the Beast (1991).

The time has come for Beauty and the Beast to return to its origins. Like all fairytales, the story has changed considerably over the hundreds of years it's been told and retold. I'm working to put some of that ancient, scary magic back into the tale, and in the process overcome some of its inherent character and plot issues. In the end, I hope to craft a story that makes the reader laugh, cry, tremble in fear, and fall in love again.

It's a heavy task. I think I'm up to it. And I hope you, dear readers, will enjoy it.

Works Cited

"Beauty and the Beast." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.

Bower, Simon, and Melanie B. "5 Romantic Movie Gestures That Were Actually Dick Moves | Cracked.com." Cracked.com - America's Only Humor & Video Site Since 1958