Disney’s Beauty and the Beast 2017 remake was enjoyable in certain ways—visually lavish, and obviously made by people who cared about the original story enough to put effort into the live action version. So it’s a bit baffling that throughout the movie, there is a palpable air of apologetic defensiveness.
What I mean is that many plot points and character actions that take place in this movie are specifically in answer to perceived plot holes in the original, 1991 animated movie. Unfortunately, each added action, plot-point, etcetera, seems to have been added without deep consideration as to what plot holes their addition may have created. To fans of the original, this is disappointing, and indeed the results are fairly clear, but what feels more problematic is how this impulse plays out in a subtler arena… particularly, how this desire to fix the original has managed to inadvertently destroy the feminism that was present in it and Belle’s agency—as a main character, and an individual—despite obvious wishes to the contrary.
The impulse to fix the original movie has perhaps the most devastating effect when it comes to the relationship between Belle and the Beast. There is no scene, perhaps, where this is quite as clear as in the “Come into the Light” scene: Belle and the Beast’s first meeting.
To discuss the contrasts between both renditions of the scenes, it needs to be admitted what the remake is actually doing. There is present throughout what I might call a failed deconstructive impulse, by which I mean that you can’t make jokes about how silly fairytale tropes are when the movie you’re in holds to all of them. A true deconstruction of a fairytale would take away the “fairytale logic” that makes those tropes work and look at them with the eye of realism—I can tell you now, many things would get very grim, fast. In this case, acts of kidnapping would almost certainly be a stumbling block to a happy ending.
A true deconstruction of the Beauty and the Beast movie, as a fairytale, would be a very different story from the remake itself, because it would require every character act toward the “fairytale plot” with the reactions a real person might expect if they were thrown into the story. But to have the characters point out the illogic (in realistic terms) of fairytale logic and then just… do nothing about it, gives short shrift to either a true fairytale or a true deconstruction.
Apparently that’s what happens around here when you pick a flower.”
I won’t talk overly about this point, but the stealing of a rose is brought over from the original morality tale by Beaumont, in which the father does steal a rose to give to his youngest daughter. In a fairytale, it is entirely within one’s right to lock someone up in your castle for life because they stole a rose. Why?
To answer this question, we need to think a little about what fairytale-logic actually is.
Characteristically, fairytale logic is emotionally-driven (think, almost, dream-logic) and also form-based. That is to say, observing something’s proper form is important. This seems to come from the fairytale’s close relationship to magic. Think about a fairy story—I mean, a story with fairies in it. They are rife with strange rules and seeming overreactions.
The key word though, and what makes fairytales, as a genre, sustainable, is logic. Although in a realistic sense there is no logic, within the confines of the genre, every action and reaction connect into a logical whole in which the characters can know, predict, and influence the story.
Take East of the Sun and West of the Moon—another story about a girl and a beast. The prince, in that story, gives her one rule: she must not look at him during the night. This is, in realistic terms, an arbitrary, ridiculous, and somewhat frightening ultimatum—but within fairytale-logic, it’s perfectly reasonable and in fact quite important.
For a similar story, in which the man making the ultimatum actually is a creep, see Bluebeard. There are also stories following the same pattern in which the woman is the one who can stay with her lover only so long as certain conditions are met—take, for example, the story of the crane wife, or of the selkie.
In each case the amount of coercion versus choice in the original decision might vary—the girl in East of the Sun and West of the Moon agreed to marry the bewitched prince only after persuasion by her father (who wants to become rich), but becomes convinced by her mother that she needs to be able to see him, to discover if he’s a troll; while the selkie is forced out of the water by the taking of her sealskin, and the negotiations thereafter about if she will marry the man is of necessity at a certain disadvantage. But what all these stories have in common is that, while the inciting incident that draws these characters together might be forced or strange, the key turning points have to do with the choices the characters make, knowing what they do about the bargains they have in place.
This is all to set the story of Beauty and the Beast back into context as a fairytale. Fairytales as a genre contain bargains and promises—think Rumpelstiltskin—and the consequences of breaking them. They are about difficult situations, desperate measures, and above all, cleverness.
Remember the ending to Snow White, where they make the stepmother dance herself to death in red-hot shoes. That’s cruel and unusual punishment, right there! And at the behest of the heroes, no less. But in fairytale-logic, there is no problem here. Now keep in mind that the original Beauty and the Beast played by fairytale-logic, and the remake is bringing a deconstructive impulse to bear—in other words, it is introducing realism into what is at base a surrealistic medium. The action the Beast has taken in each version: imprisoning Belle’s father, for life.
In a fairytale, this action is justified and entirely within the Beast’s rights. Notice that in the original movie, the Beast is censured by the other characters not for the act of imprisoning Maurice, per se, but by the fact that his actions show that he cannot control his temper. It’s an important difference—it’s not that this single action is unjustified, but that it is part of a pattern of him reacting in anger when there was no need for him to. That imprisoning Maurice is within his rights as master of the house, no one disputes.
In a fairytale, acts are judged not by the acts themselves, in realistic terms, but by the symbolic meaning of those acts. By dismantling fairytale-logic, the remake changes the interpretation of these actions. Flip the genre. Now, the Beast is an irrational kidnapper responding to perceived slights to lock someone up, entirely inhumanely.
This isn’t a good start, but it gets worse.
Belle’s response and the Beast’s reaction will set up their relationship as it will play out through the rest of the movie.
This is how the scene plays out in the original movie. Note that it starts out portraying the Beast as terrifying, but we are soon privileged to his expressions, even before he steps into the light:
BEAST: What are you doing here?
The Beast starts speaking as Belle talks to her father, and this entrance is the part of the scene where the Beast comes off scariest; you hear his voice as he puts a paw to Belle’s shoulder and turns her around. The first shot is of Belle in profile on the right side of the screen, kneeling before the barred door that her father is trapped behind; they are holding hands through the bars. Belle looks sad, Maurice terrified. Once the Beast grabs hold of Belle and turns her around the shot quickly turns to show the Beast—the empty corridor beyond—and the torch the Beast held falling on the ground.
BELLE: Who’s there? Who are you?
Close-up on Belle on the left hand side of the screen, startled and frightened.
BEAST: I am the master of this house.
Wide-shot showing Belle as a small figure at the far-left of the screen, slightly in profile turned away from the viewer, a wide beam of light separating her from pitch-darkness behind which the Beast is barely visible. Between them, the background seems to show a boarded-up stone doorway, crypt-like, with the head of a horned gargoyle above the mantle and another on the left-hand side, giving the impression that they are looking straight at Belle, below. Visually, the Beast completes the triptych, as he stands to the right of the blocked doorway in front of where you would imagine a third gargoyle to stand guarding the other side. The brightest colors in this shot are the blue of Belle’s dress and the bow in her hair, which match the blue of the Beast’s visible eye.
The Beast swoops left across the frame, his cloak swirling behind him as the shot follows him, ending with the Beast in profile, center-frame. The left side of the frame, behind him, is entirely in darkness. On the right, the wooden door fills the frame vertically, with Maurice visible, staring at the Beast in fear, and Belle, still sitting by the door.
BELLE: I’ve come for my father! Please, let him out. Can’t you see he’s sick?
On “Can’t”, cuts closer in to show Belle on the right and Maurice on the left, both staring forward and slightly to the left of shot.
BEAST: Then he shouldn’t have trespassed here!
Shot of the Beast’s face, moving closer to the viewer as he speaks until his eyes are uncomfortably close.
BELLE: But he could die. Please, I’ll do anything.
Reverse shot, same as before.
BEAST: There’s nothing you can do. He’s my prisoner.
Cut to wider shot again, this time from a slightly different angle that favors the Beast at the front of the frame, so we can see his pained and bitter expression, he turns away from Belle as he speaks, looking off the left of the screen, and then moves through the sweep of his cloak as he passes to show Belle’s reaction. She’s sitting on the very left of the shot, you can barely see Maurice’s hands grabbing the bars behind her, and the beam of light takes up most of the space in the shot.
BELLE: Oh there must be some way I can… wait! Take me instead.
As Belle begins to speak, the shot zooms in on her, as she herself leans forward and braces her hands on the ground in front of her. The shot pauses in its motion as she thinks (between “can” and “wait!”). She’s still left of center, and sitting, but now there is no one else in the scene; the background behind her is featureless bluish stone with the very edge of the cell door visible. Belle holds out a hand in some distress as she calls out, “Wait!”, afraid that the Beast is leaving.
Cut to a low-angle shot of the Beast looking back at her. A diagonal bisects the screen with the right-upper-hand in darkness, where his face is hidden.
Cut to Belle bringing her hand back slowly, looking almost surprised at herself, and considering. The shot is straight on and closer in, so her face is the focal point of the scene. She is still slightly left of center, and a similar diagonal of light bisects the screen so the upper-left side is in darkness, covering her own expression and visually paralleling her with the Beast in the previous shot. She looks off to the side, and then purposefully moves forward, exposing her face to the light, her eyes closed, before she opens them and continues with, “Take me instead.”
BEAST: You! … you would… take his place?
Slight low-angle shot of the Beast, right of center, looking grumpy, as he starts to speak. He then considers, seeming surprised and struck by her meaning for the first time. When he continues speaking, his voice is much softer and uncertain; he turns towards her as he speaks, ending with his face slightly left of center.
MAURICE: Belle, no! You don’t know what you’re doing!
Shot shows Maurice, close up behind the bars. You can see his horrified expression.
Cut to Belle, lost in thought. She is now almost center-frame of a close-up shot on her face, looking sad.
BELLE: If I did… would you let him go?
As Belle stops speaking, shot changes to show Belle and the Beast in the same frame. Low-angle; the beam of light crossing diagonally between them.
BEAST: Yes. But… you must promise to stay here forever.
He moves forward slightly on promise, and Belle shrinks away from him, against the wall.
Cut to close-up on Belle.
BELLE: …come into the light.
She speaks calmly, and seems curious as well as slightly doubtful. Cut; the Beast steps forward slowly; we see his foot first, the camera then pans up; cut back and forth from the Beast looming over her to Belle’s wide-eyed reaction; extreme-close-up center-frame. Cut, Belle gasps and leans back against the door; the shot is still close to her, we see her holding her hand to her mouth, scared. The shot then moves as she turns toward her father, ending with her face in profile, the bars, and her father behind. Maurice reaches to take her shoulder.
MAURICE: No, Belle. I won’t let you do this!
Belle turns toward the Beast again as Maurice speaks, scared, but now overcoming her first reaction of terror and despair. She moves out of the shot.
Cut to Belle and the Beast in profile, facing each other, with the beam of light between them. From this angle, none of the horrible details of the background can be made out. Belle holds her arms up toward herself and her head slightly bent in thought, her eyes seemingly closed. The Beast regards her skeptically. Belle steps toward the Beast, into the beam of light, and lower her arm, raising her chin.
BELLE: You have my word.
He moves past her, his cape swirling by; now Belle stands in the center of the frame by herself, with the shadow at her back. She covers her face with her hands, then sinks to the ground, curled up, her cloak blanketing her.
More shots, to be glossed over for time reasons. Maurice is taken back to the village in the creepy spidery carriage while Belle watches from the window, then begins to cry.
After Lumière tells the Beast to offer Belle a better room, he enters the tower again. Now it’s very clearly a tower, with a slit-window in the very center through which the sky is visible, and a sad little pile of brush and a tilty little chair on the left hand side. Belle sits up at the Beast’s approach as his shadow falls over her.
BELLE: You didn’t even let me say goodbye. I’ll never see him again.
She’s obviously distressed, still crying. Cut to the Beast, in profile. As Belle continues to speak, he turns his head slightly to the right and brings his hand up to his neck. He no longer seems angry, but as though he’s actually realized what he’s done, and that he’s now made Belle really sad.
“You didn’t even let me say goodbye.” Notice the focus here; her quarrel with him. It’s that the Beast didn’t let Belle say goodbye—something that would have been entirely within the bounds of their agreement. The Beast then realizes this, and looks abashed and ashamed. Already, even in this early moment between them, while the castle is still a scary and uncertain place, Belle and the Beast react to each other as equals. I will note that the scene as a whole is quite dark and ends (if we go on, to Belle being taken to her room) with what seems like utter despair and desolation; but the first building blocks for how to leave this emotional moment have already been established.
The scene, between versions, couldn’t be more different, and the framing and acting reflects this. In the original, the scene is small, taking place in a stone tower which keeps Belle and the Beast in close physical proximity for the whole scene, and the Beast’s expressions and reactions are shown to the viewer even when he is still in shadow.
In the remake, Belle shouts her questions upward into a cavernous hall, and her expressions are shown while the Beast replies from above and far away, where even the viewer can’t catch a glimpse of him.
BELLE: I’ve come for my father!
Cut to a wide high-angle POV shot from the Beast, with the entire scene almost bathed in shadow. Belle is framed in an archway, left-of-center frame, what seems like a full storey below. The archway where she stands is the only place that holds the slightest illumination.
Cut to a low-angle shot from behind and below Belle, further emphasizing the vastness of the space and the height difference between where she’s speaking from and where the Beast is speaking from. Belle faces away from the viewer, on the left side of the frame; the archway that the Beast speaks from on the right, but the Beast can’t yet be made out.
BEAST: Your father… is a thief.
Belle is still on the left of the shot, which is now facing her, with her father barely visible on the right-hand side of the frame behind the diamond lattice. Belle is obviously distressed and angry.
BEAST: He stole a rose.
Cut to another shot looking toward the Beast. This time, you can see his form vaguely, and the shot is not so wide as last time, though set up basically the same.
BELLE: I asked for the rose.
High-angle shot focusing on Belle’s face, still distressed. (Cut to her father. Cut back to Belle.) Belle’s face is illuminated, but the rest of the scene is shadowed. Her head is tilted up in order to speak to the Beast, emphasizing vulnerability. All choices in the shot serve to undermine the stability of having Belle in center-frame. [SHOT A]
BELLE: Punish me, not him.
MAURICE: No! He means forever!
Short cut to Maurice as he speaks, then back to Belle, as she turns to him. The scene is even darker now. Nothing stands out from the background except her face, now off-center slightly to the right of frame.
MAURICE: Apparently that’s what happens around here when you pick a flower!
As he speaks, the shot now faces Maurice in the right background of the scene, behind the diamond prison bars. Belle is foregrounded on the left, with a warm golden light behind her hair. The shot is bisected visually, creating an illusion of more space between her and her father than there actually is. Maurice plays the line not terrified, but angry and almost sarcastic, which honestly doesn’t help to keep the scene focused on the moment.
Cut back to SHOT A, with Belle now incredulous as well as distressed.
BELLE: A life-sentence for a rose?
Cut to the Beast above, visible only as a shadow that jumps across the screen; his growl is the most evidence of his presence. He lands, and—cut—Belle steps back in startlement. Cut to her father’s reaction, still eclipsed by the bars. More fast cuts, (glossing over for length reasons).
BEAST: I received eternal damnation for one. I’m merely locking him away.
At this point, though the shot is close to the Beast, the viewer still cannot see anything but his darkened silhouette.
BEAST: Now, do you still wish to take your father’s place?
BELLE: Come into the light.
Shot on Belle as she says it, but wide enough to see almost her full figure, and it cuts very quickly away; there is no moment of thought either before or after she speaks, before the camera moves back to the Beast, and the line is played with very much the same emotional tone as every previous line of hers in this scene.
The Beast turns his head a little but doesn’t move.
Cut to Belle again; impatient, she grabs poor Lumière and steps forward. Cut to the Beast’s face; another cut, Belle gasps and steps back as she sees it. More cuts, glossed over.
Belle reacts with fear and distress as the Beast looms over her and her father entreats her not to make him lose her too. Belle says she wants to say goodbye, and the Beast opens the door for her. There’s a very touching moment when she gets to hug her father and say goodbye. Then:
BELLE: (in a whisper, to her father) I will escape, I promise.
She shuts the door.
There are certain things to pick out from these scenes of especial note: one, as already mentioned, is the difference between the intimacy in the size of the space in the original, versus the cavernous distance of the space in the remake. The other is that the focus of the remake scene is diluted from the bargain, and the interplay between Belle and the Beast, by the lengthy discussion on whether Maurice deserves his imprisonment, and by the fact that her goodbye to him near the end is slightly longer than in the original. As much as the goodbye is a nice emotional moment, it doesn’t help to set up the interplay between Belle and the Beast.
There are differences in dialogue as well: in the original the dialogue is focused to the point, and there’s already a visible curiosity in the characters’ words and in how they are delivered, towards each other; even in the overall terror of the scene there are moments when that is put aside. In the remake, Belle insults the Beast and speaks angrily to him, while the Beast talks about himself, and why he’s right. Neither ends the scene having come to any inner realization or change of heart.
In the original, the Beast offers the promise to Belle, and warns her that she’ll have to stay forever; while in the remake he doesn’t show her that courtesy, and the line is given to her father, which plays awkwardly in the scene. In the original, Belle gives her word to stay with the Beast in return for her father’s freedom; in the remake she doesn’t, but instead promises her father that she will escape. This brings the focus back to the relationship between Belle and Maurice and away from Belle and the Beast. She is no longer staying in the castle because she gave her word.
And then, of course, there’s the very palpable difference between the lines, “Wait! Take me instead,” and “Punish me, not him.” While the literal meaning is fairly close, the connotations veer in wildly different directions.
What was in one version a bargain made between equals, with the weight of a fairytale-pact behind it (something that will be incredibly important for later in the plot!), is now a desperate action… where Belle literally locks herself in a cage.
And, as the deconstruction continues, this choice will have consequences.
Because Belle and the Beast did not properly conclude a fairytale bargain, because the relationship, which (in both cases) starts as horror, no longer has the proper building blocks for the rest of the movie to stand on, Belle sees no reason to stay in the castle, and tries to escape out the window of her room. Because the movie can’t end so quickly, or take such a radical departure, she fails. Again, instead of being held to the castle because of a spoken promise and her honor and character as a person, Belle is being cast as a kidnapped victim in need of escape, and furthermore a victim who can’t escape.
That Belle considers her staying in the castle, in the original version, to be because of her promise, not because she literally can’t get out, is made clear when she finally does leave, after the confrontation in the West Wing:
LUMIÈRE: Where are you going?
BELLE: Promise or no promise, I can’t stay here another minute!
Because the fairytale bargain no longer holds weight in the remake, Belle’s crucial moment of breaking her promise loses its emotional tension. In the remake, Belle is not risking anything to her integrity by escaping. She is not operating on integrity in which to risk. The Beast’s terrifying reaction to Belle in the West Wing is less dramatic because he’s been terrifying from the start, with no moments in which the viewer is privileged to a softer side, or any regret for his actions; and it serves his character badly. Instead of Belle being so frightened of the Beast that she consciously decides to break her promise and escape after their confrontation in the West Wing, which shows the effects of the Beast not being able to control his temper and why it really is a problem that he needs to solve, you get the Beast continuing to be nasty because he just is. (Backstory—everything about the Beast and his unpleasant father—only explains, it doesn’t vanish on-screen actions.) This, then, changes the whole interpretation of the scene where he rescues Belle in the forest… you get the picture.
Why this deconstruction is a problem is that it takes moments of equality and agency away from our heroine, and replaces the developing of a believable romance with the developing of a relationship which has unsubtle implications of emotional manipulation. Take the scene where the Beast shows Belle the library. A scene that is in the original framed as the Beast’s gift to her because he knows how much Belle values books becomes an off-handed occasion to boast about how many books he has and belittle her for not having had the same taste, or, by implication, the same access. By revealing that the Beast can read, and has in fact read much more than Belle, and has, in fact, disdainful opinions that boil down to that Belle can’t be a real fan of literature if she enjoys Romeo and Juliet, the power relationship is again severely damaged. That scene in the original where Belle shows the Beast the wonder of words; where she, in effect, shows him new experiences, taking him to places of the mind beyond the walls of the castle? Now the Beast has to show Belle new places with a magic book. The snowball fight becomes even more disturbingly changed, with overtones of violence on the Beast’s part that were never there in the original.
Even the final fight between the Beast and Gaston loses focus as Belle arrives on the scene early enough to watch it play out, becoming a helpless damsel at the verge of the men’s fight, in a scene about her that shouldn’t be about her; rather than a heroine who shows up just in the nick of time to try to save the one she loves.
All this without even mentioning the gratuitous undergarment exposure. Did we need to see Belle taking off her ball-gown to ride to her father’s defense dressed in nothing but her shift? No. We did not. The original movie did perfectly well without. It seems tiresome to bring up Laura Mulvey’s 1975 cinema theory of male gaze yet again, years after Hollywood’s style demanded the creation of the term, but this ball-gown detail certainly didn’t exist for any warranted reason.
The Beauty and the Beast remake gives shout-outs to a conception of feminism by pointing out how sexist Belle’s environment is—highlighting, in fact, sexism which did not exist in the original movie—while simultaneously not allowing Belle the agency in her own narrative that she used to have, in the original Disney version. The remake creates a society for Belle in which she can’t flourish not because she’s kind of weird (the original movie) but because she’s a girl. To foreground the limiting of possibilities in a story about possibilities is sad. Instead of being happy that Belle found a place where she can fit in, you feel dissatisfied that the girls in the town still can’t learn how to read. While this might have been argued to be justified by deconstruction, the remake loses the integrity of its position when it creates a movie which treats Belle more carelessly, and with more evidence of sexism in the very plot and scenes itself, than the original.
Was the movie aware of what it was doing? Probably not. But the fact remains that by trying to combine a deconstruction with a fairytale played straight Beauty and the Beast (2017) has become a markedly less feminist work than its counterpart, created 26 years before.
Ain’t progress grand.
Beauty and the Beast, Directed by Bill Condon, Walt Disney Pictures, 2017
Beauty and the Beast, Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, Walt Disney Pictures, 1991
Mulvey, Laura, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Screen, vol. 16 issue 3 pg 6-18. 1975.
Charles Perrault, “La Barbe bleüe,” from “Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralités: Contes de ma mère l’Oye (Paris, 1697) English version: Blue Beard Andrew Lang, The Blue Fairy Book (London: Longmans, Green, and Company, ca. 1889) (ed. D. L. Ashliman)
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Sneewittchen, Kinder- und Hausmärchen, (Children’s and Household Tales — Grimms’ Fairy Tales), final edition (Berlin, 1857), no. 53. from Marie Hassenpflug, others. English version: Little Snow-White trans. D. L. Ashliman.
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, “Rumpelstilzchen,” Kinder- und Hausmärchen, vol. 1 (Göttingen: Verlag der Dieterichschen Buchhandlung, 1857) [Children’s and Household Tales — Grimms’ Fairy Tales] from Henriette Dorothea (Dortchen) Wild, others. English version: Rumpelstiltskin trans. D. L. Ashliman.
Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, La Belle et la Bête from Contes moraux pour l’instruction de la jeunesse, ed. Barba. 1806. English translation: Beauty and the Beast from The Young Misses Magazine, Containing Dialogues between a Governess and Several Young Ladies of Quality Her Scholars, by Madam Prince de Beaumont, 4th ed., v. 1 (London: C. Nourse, 1783) (ed. D. L. Ashliman
Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, Østenfor sol og vestenfor måne, English translation: East of the Sun and West of the Moon from Popular Tales from the Norse, translated by George Webbe Dasent (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1859) (ed. D. L. Ashliman)
Tsuru Nyōbō, (鶴女房) Crane Wife
Post by Sara Barkat.
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