It’s very easy when you first see a version of a story, in a theatre somewhere or a film or hearing it in an audiobook, or even just the images you conjure up in your mind when hearing or reading the story for the first time, to cement that as your concrete vision of how the story should look. The uproar that fell upon the casting choices of J.K Rowling’s stage performance of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, where the role which Emma Watson had filled for the cinematic versions of the installments of the Harry Potter series was given to a woman of colour helped to bring those deep cemented ideas of what our characters should look like out of the woodwork, in this case in a particularly unattractive way.
It is harder then, as a viewer, to detach yourself from what you think of as “your version” of the story, at least I have found this in my experience. To allow yourself to dive back into the same story over and over, often with its shape and structure morphed and tinkered with by whoever is adapting it, and continue to enjoy the version even though your reference point is a lot more deeply rooted in your head. For me, my reference point of the story of La Belle et la Bête or in English Beauty and the Beast is the 1991 Disney animated version, directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. Of course the original reference is the 18th century novel itself, but our modern understanding of fairy tales is most widely found in our films, or so I believe.
So then I wanted to take a look at three different versions of the story and see how they brought the story to life, where they succeeded and where they might not have. Adaptation of a story is something which can bring radically unique instances of the story itself, and so by looking at these versions (the cinematic classic of 1946, the more faithful adaptation to the literary source of 2014, and the Disney live action remake of 2017 of its own animated classic), I’ll try to find what makes these films beyond their shared core, that of the love fable.
CINEMA CLASSIC (1946)
Why do I call this one a cinema classic, what makes it so? Well, this adaptation is directed by Jean Cocteau, one of French cinema’s most distinguished auteurs and accomplished artists at a time when celluloid was beginning to really stretch its legs. Not only that, but it also starred one of the biggest names of French cinema, Jean Marais. And finally, the reasoning for it being held up as a cinema classic is because it has endured long beyond its time, the film being released one year after WWII finished, some 71 years ago on this day of writing. The first full length feature adaptation of the French story itself, this version has helped cement the legacy of Beauty and the Beast in public consciousness, and has most likely been a touchstone for every adaptation since.
So what makes up this version, this adaptation? Well it is closer to the original literary source, Belle’s troubles primarily enlarged by her surrounding family and amorous suitor as well as her stay with the Beast himself. But there are changes, permutations of it. Minor alterations, the amorous suitor himself Avenant is not in the original story, or the breaking into the glass room containing the statue of Diana. One inclusion from the story itself which deserves recognition is Belle’s sisters rubbing onions in their eyes to pretend they are weeping, something which evoked proper laughter from me.
But the story is only one part, and it is the part where the cinema has the least impetus to reveal itself. After all, the backbone is in the script, in word form. But what about what’s put in front of the camera? Well, besides the poetic language and dialogue which runs through like a rich vein, the images themselves are a haunting spectacle. In black and white, striking compositions of light shine through the castle, in near pitch-black darkness, evoking near holy imagery at some points it seems in the silence of the audio track. The setting of the castle itself is true magic, with silent human faces carved in elaborate baroque flourishes watching Belle silently, or the candelabras held by human arms lighting in tandem. It’s a testament to the skill of Cocteau that he manages to get so much out of a little, in comparison with the computer generated spectacles of the other two adaptations. Through old cinema tools, the fades and the superimpositions, the straight cuts and reversed footage, the work looks positively old-fashioned by today’s standards, but then so what? In the context of 1946, this mastery of cinematic trickery and illusion would have been breathtaking.
And while the film’s style will entrance you or irritate you, depending on your penchant for flowery elaborate French cinema, it is always interesting to see the story through the prism of the director. In this adaptation, the Beast himself is an agonised wretch “My heart is good, but I am a monster”. The pain he exhibits, though filtered through a costume which exceeds Liberace levels of extravagance, really helps to ground the nature of the story itself, of how this woman could fall in love with an animal. Josette Day as Belle is entrancing, even if her character would seem positively one-dimensional by today’s standards. And Cocteau stays true to the magical nature of the story, by having them ascend into the sky back to the Beast’s kingdom where they will rule in true happy-ever-after fashion. Through all this, it’s not hard to see why the film has endured, even if it has inevitably aged, its beauty in its cinema is undeniable.
LITERARY CLASSIC (2014)
There are more than three adaptations of Beauty and the Beast, and they all have their own unique stamps to be placed upon the story. This adaptation, by Christophe Gans, occupies a unique space in my opinion however, due to two things; 1) it is the first adaptation of the original story written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villenvue, rather than the abridged versions most commonly known by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (see history here). 2) The film occupies a space in time after the Disney rewriting of the fable itself, so that the most commonly known version of the story in Western culture is the musical 1991 version. As a result, this commitment to the original story, plus its choice to film the dialogue in French can possibly seen as a committed attempt to try to recover the French sense of identity of the fable itself. However, I’m hesitant to commit to that idea, mainly because it lies outside the scope of what I write about, namely how the film adapts the story. With that said, let’s delve into this adaptation.
If there’s one stark contrast to its cinematic predecessor, the abundance of computer generated imagery in this film is such a visual reminder of the chasm which has opened up in terms of cinematic tools since the time of Jean Cocteau. Not that CGI is inherently evil or good, in fact in this film its’ abundance works to its advantage in truly ramping up the scale of its fantasy setting, the film spilling out with glorious, impossible vistas and landscapes. Even the beast himself, aided with heavy CGI, shows how far technology has come.
However, technology is one thing, and how you utilise it is another. In this adaptation, which again must be noted is the most faithful to the original (although it takes its liberties and is not a straight adaptation), the technology is used often for spectacle rather than necessity. It’s grandiose and spectacular, but ultimately it also distracts (and rightfully so) from rather muted, subdued performances. The cinematic spectacle is abundant, but feels rather hollow when put up against these rather monotone characters. It’s odd that in an adaptation of the unabridged version, the characters feel more archetypal and one-dimensional than in their alternatives. Furthermore, the spectacular imagery also hides some of the more lacking elements of cinema, its loose editing, it’s perfunctory soundtrack. What works in its favour is the settings themselves, although you can never tell when they’re real or when they’re CGI, and the costumes which take inspiration from their older counterpart, rich and extravagant.
The film speaks a lot more to the mainstream cinema of today, with action sequences in between the love story, and suffers from a severe tonal problem. In the prism of this director, the Beast (Vincent Cassel) still carries the anguish in a lesser form (“enhanced” through an unnecessary subplot) but the CGI actually hampers it, creating this constant dead lack of expression. In fact, for a film so visually expressive, all the performances seem to suffer from this. Léa Seydoux’s Belle occupies a much fiercer, more progressive role than her role might originally suggest, but really the lack of chemistry throughout all involved really has nowhere to hide. And its ending is also further cause for confusion, as it falls into the other side of the spectrum, in that the Beast comes to live with her family while she takes care of her father (André Dussolier). It seems to be completely shunning its magical aspects then, as they go off to live a simple, provincial life. It’s not necessarily bad, just very different. It just speaks to the strange mutations that a story can undergo during an adaptation.
DISNEY CLASSIC (2017)
It’s easier to adapt fables because their simplicity lends itself well to the creation of a new version. There are not any intricate complex plot twists or power reversals, not in the same way we might find in a film such as The Godfather (1972, Dir. Francis Ford Coppola), and while you can argue that even our fables require a coherent and complex level of understanding, there is a reasons we read them to our children. They are elemental in a way that more mature stories do not immediately reveal themselves as. That, and the copyright on them is expired which makes them free rein for all.
This most recent adaptation of Beauty and the Beast then, directed by Bill Condon, occupies a space in which it must live up to the spirit of the original material, written some 200 years before, and must also live up to its own internal successor, that 1991 animated version which came during the period of Disney’s “animated renaissance” as they brought to life through hand-drawn 2D animation, various fables and folk tales which are now getting their own live-action adaptations. An intricate mess, I imagine.
This film then, is a hybrid more than any others, a delightfully musical Frankenstein of Beauty and the Beast. It strays very far from the literary source material (while also straying from its animated counterpart), Belle’s family beyond her father is non-existent, the castle is inhabited by various talking furnishings who do musical numbers (what a sentence), those characters themselves are revamped or reinvented in some ways (one with an added LGBT slant), Belle’s amorous pursuer (named Gaston) is given much more to do, and meets a much more grizzly end. The tool of CGI is also used extensively here, but much more focused on imbuing the animated furnishings with a sense of life and human personality. The castle itself occupies that similar baroque/gothic world, though in this adaptation it retains neither the haunting darkness of the 1946 version, nor the medieval stone aesthetic of the 2014 version, instead opting for a much more golden aesthetic which runs over everything.
The story itself has been warped as well, though no more than its counterparts. Beyond the characters, backstories and elements (the central rose and the spell by the witch is close to, but not identical to the source). Obviously the music shines, though that too has to fight for space under the weight of Alan Menken’s stunning original score.
So what does this film do? Well the story seems to be shaved of its rough edges, the Beast (played by Dan Stevens) is less menacing, less of an animal, less of an obsessive creeper, with most of the ugliness forced onto Gaston (Luke Evans, a current favourite of mine) who gets his just deserts. The CGI enhanced beast doesn’t suffer the same emotionally dead problems of its modern counterpart, which is a godsend. It’s more sinister undertones of the romance (Stockholm syndrome) are sanded down in favour of the humour and the spectacle, which is not a surprising choice. Belle, played here by Emma Watson, also follows the path of being a much fiercer, more combative and equal partner in this dance, and while neither central performance is perfect and without some clumsiness, the central entwining of the two is mostly pulled off. The ending finally, with its unifying musical number and dance as Belle and the Beast live in the castle ends in the middle ground between the realist ending of the 2014, and the pure fantasy of the 1946.
SO WHAT DID I FIND?
Why did I chose Beauty and the Beast, as opposed to any other? Well obviously I saw the most recent one, which sparked it. But I’ve read and watched a lot of fables, and I find the story of looking beyond one’s appearance a greatly important one to learn, one probably partially motivated by my own insecurities and partly due to the great wisdom involved in doing so.
So in the adaptations, each maintains that core ethos, though him being rich and magic nevertheless almost always helps. And in this way they’re the same, each adaptation spinning around this story, adding bits on and taking bits out, but always around this core story.
But they are also incredibly different in a million different ways. In all aspects of cinema, their cinematography and editing, their misé-en-scene either real or computer generated, their performances and their direction. You can look at every film and know that even though they’re telling the same story, they could never all be done by the same director. It’s a testament to the infinite little unique variations of what makes a film unique from its counterparts, either imposed through the director and his supporting crew in their choices and abilities open to them at the time (the work Cocteau would be able to carry out with today’s technology is dizzying to even think about).
What it really shows is that a work never survives completely intact through adaptation. From literary source to film, it undergoes a morphing process, as an experience which takes place solely inside your mind, the reading of the book, is transformed into an external piece to be seen. But even from cinematic adaptations, the 1991 Disney animated to its 2017 live action counterpart, it has been transformed along the way. So is there any definitive version of the story? All of them have claims, but how do you measure which one is “the” version?
Easy: You can’t. You can have more accomplished versions, but the best thing about stories is that they can be told and retold in a million different variations, but as long as you’ve still got that central ethos at the core, the world’s your oyster.
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