Fairy Tale Round-Up: Beauty and the Beast

One of my favorite fairy tales is “Beauty and the Beast.”  If you read the original by Jeanne Marie Leprince de Beaumont, it has as many weirdnesses as any other fairy tale.  But it also has a heroine with more spirit than most (and who likes to read!) and a romance with at least the potential for more depth.

The story is pretty consistent, about a girl who goes to live with a Beast to save her father’s life.  She sees past the Beast’s forbidding exterior to fall in love with him, breaking the spell and turning him into a handsome prince.  And usually there are roses in it somewhere!  In the original, the Beast is kind of scary and manipulative, not to mention far too attached to his flowers.  But the retellings are some of my very favorite stories…

Beauty by Robin McKinley was probably one of the first fairy tale retellings I ever read.  It’s a beautiful book that’s as much about Beauty, her family and her own growth as it is about her romance with the Beast–which is still quite sweet.  The non-magical world feels very real, and even the enchanted castle, while appropriately magical, has a somewhat homey feel.  It’s a cosy book, sweet and lightly humorous.

McKinley returned to the story for Rose Daughter, another (unrelated) retelling.  This version is gorgeously written, and far more surreal.  If Beauty is all pastels and greens and browns, Rose Daughter is all vivid scarlets and purples and strange shadows.  The Beast’s castle is truly another world, where rules of magic supercede little things like the rules of physics.  I didn’t like the romance quite so well and there was a lot about roses, but it’s still an absolutely lovely book.

I’m not as fond of La Belle et La Bête, Jean Cocteau’s 1946 movie version.  It has a very surreal feeling too, but to some extent that kept me at a distance from the story.  The characters felt too much like archetypes and some parts were unexplained–and I don’t think it was a problem of the French dialogue.  The sets and effects are wonderful and it’s a landmark in fairy tale films, but it’s more interesting as an academic view than as simple entertainment.

I do love the much lighter Disney Beauty and the Beast.  It has gorgeous scenery, excellent songs, and wonderful characters.  Belle, the Beast and the assortment of talking objects are all delightful characters, and the plot is much improved by the introduction of Gaston as a convincing villain.  This may be my favorite Disney cartoon (though there’s some stiff competition out there!)

Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier is a much looser, more mature retelling.  Caitrin comes to the castle to work as a scribe, fleeing her abusive family and an unwanted suitor.  She meets Anluan, crippled in body and even more so in spirit, and learns about his family curse that populates the fortress with ghosts.  It’s “Beauty and the Beast” only in the broad strokes, but there is an enchanted mirror and a curse to overcome–even though it’s really more about finding strength within than it is about meeting requirements to break a spell.

I’d love to find more good “Beauty and the Beast” retellings!  Any suggestions?

La Belle et la Bête

In my ongoing quest for more fairy tales, I recently watched the French film, La Belle et la Bête.  This is another one for Once Upon a Time‘s Quest on Screen.  The movie was…odd.  I’ve heard this one touted so much as a landmark film in the realm of fairy tale retellings, but sadly, I just wasn’t impressed.  I’d actually seen it years ago, in a mythology class in high school.  I was hoping that I was wrong back then–because I disliked it the first time through.  I liked it better this time, but I’m still not really a fan.

The movie is based on the story by Jean-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, as all Beauty and the Beast retellings seem to be.  Beauty’s father is a wealthy merchant who loses all of his money, forcing his family to live in poverty in the country.  This particular version involved poverty that still featured footmen and a big house, but they were supposedly fallen from greater means.  Beauty has two sisters who are greedy and horrible, while Beauty is kind and sweet and devoted to her father.  This movie does get points from me for including Beauty’s brother (the original had three brothers), the only version I’ve seen do that–and the brother was my favorite character.  Beauty’s father gets lost in the woods one dark night, and is sheltered at a magical castle.  When he makes the fatal error in the morning of picking a rose from the garden, a terrible Beast appears, and demands that the merchant send one of his daughters to live with the Beast.  Beauty, of course, volunteers, to save her father’s life.  And so it goes from there…

The movie was made in 1946, but felt more like it was from the era of The Thief of Bagdad than Casablanca.  I had trouble with the acting, especially Beauty.  She had the big limpid eyes of the silent film stars (which was fine) and she did a lot of strange head tilts and hands waving about (which was not).  There are a few scenes of her walking around the Beast’s castle, and nobody actually walks like that.  On the plus side, like the silent films, I was impressed by…I don’t know whether to call them sets or special effects.  Everything in the Beast’s castle is alive–the statues, the arms holding candelabras, and so on.  Those were well-done, and often achieved a very good, slightly creepy effect.  I also very much liked the music, which I think did a lot to set the tone.

The Beast I found hard to take seriously when he first steps out in the garden.  He’s, well, furry.  He’s just really obviously a man in a Beast-suit.  Which he would have to be, it’s live-action, but…he’s not that ominous when he’s just standing there.  However, he actually was creepy at later moments.  The camera pans in and he kind of looms and it’s much more effective.  He also seems to lose control at times; from a plot standpoint this wasn’t very good because I’m still not clear exactly what happened, but a couple times he wanders around the corridors looking lost and dishevelled with magical smoke coming off of him and blood on his clothes.  In a strange way, he’s much scarier when he seems scared and confused.

I never got very attached to the characters, though.  I don’t think the problem was that it was in French, with subtitles.  There are long stretches without dialogue at all, so I don’t think the language mattered that much.  It was more the style of acting and storytelling that got me.  I mentioned Beauty seemed to be coming from the silent film school of acting, and the Beast and her father also seemed somehow distant.  All three of them felt like fairy tale characters–more archetypes than people.  That’s why I liked her brother best–Ludovic is the only one who seemed liked a real person.  He’s something of a scoundrel but I think good at heart, and the only one with any sign of a sense of humor.

There’s a subplot here involving Ludovic’s friend Avenant, who is also a suitor for Beauty.  When the Beast turns into a Prince (sorry if that was a spoiler…) he turns out to be the same actor as Avenant.  I’m sure this was intended to say something symbolic, but it still felt disconcerting, especially because Beauty noticed it.  She comments that he looks like her brother’s friend, and I feel like that fractures some version of the fourth wall, or something.  A more serious issue (and more of a spoiler so I’m trying to dance around it)…let’s just say something is happening to Avenant at the same moment the Beast is turning into a man, and while they’re related events, I feel like it distracts from what should be the pivotal moment of the story.

So all in all, I’m glad I saw La Belle et la Bête, but it’s never going to be a favorite, and I don’t quite understand the excitement over it.  After we watched it in my class, I went home and watched Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.  The French film may be a landmark in cinematography and certainly is much closer to the original…but I enjoy Disney more, especially the characters.

I did very much like the opening of La Belle et la Bête, a written message from the director.  Translated, it reads in part: “Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us…They believe in a thousand simple things. I ask of you a little of this childlike simplicity, and to bring us luck let me speak four truly magic words, childhood’s Open Sesame: Once upon a time…”

Beauty and the Roses

It’s always a joy to come back to a beloved book, and find out you still love it on a reread.  But it’s even better when you find out you love it even more.  That happened to me with Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley.  I’ve read it at least once–maybe twice–and I always liked it.  But this time I really loved it.

Rose Daughter is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, and my first book for this year’s Once Upon a Time Challenge.  I was excited to jump into the challenge, which is why you’re getting a third book review this week!

I don’t have a lot to say about the plot, because mostly there aren’t surprises here (except when there are, and that’s too far into the book to discuss without ruining it with spoilers!)  There’s a ruined merchant and his three daughters, there’s a mysterious castle with a mysterious Beast, and there are roses.  Lots and lots and LOTS of roses.

You may be thinking–didn’t McKinley write another story with this plot?  A few less roses, but still the same story?  She did–Beauty.  But the amazing thing is how different the books felt to me, even though they are essentially the same plot.

I’ve said before that I am hugely impressed by the different writing style in McKinley’s different books, and that’s very true in these two.  Beauty is practical.  There’s magic, but it’s magic that exists in a very reasonable, understandable world, with real people and commonplace concerns.  Even the magic has a slightly homey feel to it, from winds that scold and candles that whisper “Psst, wake up!” when one of their number forgets to light.

Rose Daughter is surreal.  The Beast lives in a constantly changing castle where laws of time and space simply don’t apply.  The magic is somber and imposing and a deeply serious business, powerful and ominous.  Even the world outside the castle feels more like something wild and strange, a world where everyone’s names reflect who they are (Beauty’s sisters are Jeweltongue and Lionheart), and there are mysteries and magic and curses.

While I always liked Rose Daughter, I also preferred practicality to surrealism.  I’m not sure what happened since my last reading, if it’s just that I got older or if it’s that I read more Brothers Grimm, but I loved the style of Rose Daughter this time.  It really may be that I came to it shortly after writing my own Brothers Grimmesque stories, and this is a Brothers Grimmesque book: the names, and flowery ornateness of the writing, smack of the Brothers Grimm (even though they didn’t write a version of “Beauty and the Beast”).

The writing is just gorgeous.  I love the descriptions, of feelings and flowers and smells.  There are long passages about flowers, but don’t be offput by that.  I’m not even fond of roses, but I never got bored by the book–and it kind of made me want to have a love affair with roses, even though I’ve been in a very happy relationship with daffodils for years.  Based on other reviews, it seems to make many people want to go out and plant rose bushes.

I think, in my heart of hearts, I do still love Beauty better.  I like that Beauty a bit better than this one, and I definitely like her romance better.  Much as I love Rose Daughter, the relationship with the Beast just didn’t appeal to me as much.  But I do love Rose Daughter, and it is a truly, truly beautiful book.

McKinley wrote an Author’s Note about the inspiration that led to Rose Daughter, and mentions that it came twenty years after Beauty–so maybe the story will come back to her in a new form in another twenty years.  That was in 1996, so if that prediction comes true, we only have four years to wait!  If I could, I’d put in my preorder today.

Author’s Site: http://www.robinmckinley.com/

Other reviews:
Dodging Commas
Fyrefly’s Book Blog

Belle and the Beast

One of the “Once Upon a Time Challenge” Quests involves watching fantasy or fairy tale-based movies.  So today we’re going to take a side-trip into Cinema-land.

I decided to revisit a favorite fairy tale, and watched Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.  I haven’t watched it in a long time–not since I got serious about finding the originals of the fairy tales.  Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is pretty far distant from Jean-Marie LePrince de Beaumont’s version–but I like the way they tell it.  Disney’s was the first version I ever saw/read so I’m sure that slants my view, but I do think they manage some clever revisions of elements of the original.

I like the handling of the rose.  Threatening to kill someone because they picked your flowers is, um, unstable behavior.  But that’s pretty much how it goes in the original.  Having the Beast freak out because it’s a special, magical rose tied into his curse is far more reasonable.  I also like it that the Beast locks up Belle’s father for staring at him, rather than messing with the garden.  Sure, it’s a huge over-reaction either way, but if he has to over-react about something, it makes so much more sense that he’d be overly sensitive about people looking at him funny.

I can’t decide how I feel about Belle finding the castle and volunteering to stay, rather than the Beast demanding that Maurice send a daughter to take his place.  On the one hand, I’m sure the goal was to reduce the Beast’s villainy.  But on the other hand, at least in the original he was taking a proactive step towards breaking the spell.  He needs a girl, so he tries to get a girl.  Not in the best possible way, but at least he was making an effort instead of just moping around.

It’s kind of too bad that Belle lost all her siblings who were in the original, but my guess is that was to make space for other supporting characters, so it was probably worth it.  Lumiere and Cogsworth are really wonderful, and Gaston is a brilliant addition too.

Gaston, besides adding extra comic relief, is a great idea because it gives the story a villain.  In the original, Beauty’s sisters are pretty nasty, and I think a case could be made for the enchantress as the villain, but nothing is clear-cut.

Gaston’s main contribution, I think, is all in the last couple scenes.  First, bringing the mob adds great extra tension, as well as being a fantastic example of mob mentality.  It just needs one charismatic leader and everyone else is swept along (you see the same thing in Disney’s Hunchback, only more so; that crowd makes hairpin turns about three times).  I also love the way the mob demonstrates fear of the Other.  The line “we don’t like what we don’t understand; in fact, it scares us, and this monster is mysterious at least” says it all.

Gaston’s most important purpose, though, is that his presence means there’s someone to kill the Beast.  In the original we have this disturbing bit where the Beast tells Beauty she can leave if she wants to but it’ll kill him, and then when she goes, he tries to starve himself to death.  That’s seriously manipulative and unhealthy.  It’s so much better to have it play out with the Beast sad that she left but not dying–until he’s stabbed by Gaston.

There’s just one thing I don’t understand in this movie.  The spell has to be broken by the Beast’s 21st birthday?  Lumiere tells us, “ten years we’ve been rusting.”  So…this encounter with the enchantress happened when the Beast/Prince was eleven?  Isn’t turning a bratty kid into a monster kind of an over-reaction?  Okay, he was nasty to her, but show a little maturity!  And it doesn’t seem to me that the Beast learned anything much about seeing past appearances.  Belle did that (and as a reward, she gets to marry someone handsome…?) but the Beast went and fell for a beautiful girl, so what’s proved?

But aside from a few of the weirdnesses that often crop up in fairy tales, it’s a wonderful version.  And when I hunted down and read the original, I was so glad to find out that Belle’s love of books goes back to Beaumont.  That’s a favorite part of the movie–and I think everyone I know who loves to read wants the Beast’s library!

Beauty (Maybe) and Her Beast

Beauty and the Beast has always been one of my favorite fairy tales–probably because the retellings are so good.  If you go back to the original story, it’s almost as flawed as any other traditional fairy tale.  But the retellings…are SO good.  Beauty by Robin McKinley is a particular favorite of mine.

The basic story is familiar, if you’ve read the original or even if you’ve seen the Disney movie.  From the Disney movie you’ll recognize the part about the terrifying Beast living in the castle in the woods.  A lost traveler spends the night and, upon offending the Beast, agrees to bring back his daughter, Beauty, to stay at the castle.  From the original story you’ll recognize the part about Beauty’s father being a rich merchant who lost his fortune, forcing them to move out to the country.  And Beauty had two sisters as well, and it was Beauty’s request for a rose when her father began his ill-fated journey that, in a way, put everything else in motion.

I think I read Beauty before I read the original fairy tale, so when I did read the original, I kept thinking, “oh, now I see where McKinley got that detail or this part from!”  But, like any great fairy tale retelling, McKinley has taken the slender original story and embroidered and expanded upon it, bringing the characters to life and explaining the bits that never quite made sense.

Beauty’s father and two sisters are very real characters, and the tragedy of going to the Beast’s castle is as much about leaving them as it is about going to an unknown fate with a monstrous Beast.  How a rich merchant family makes their way in a country village is a detailed and developed part of the story.

Beauty and the Beast are my favorite characters though.  Beauty, like the original and the Disney version, loves to read.  She’s also ugly, or at least considers herself so (not something from either version).  I LOVE that element.  If you read enough fairy tales, breathlessly beautiful heroines get very old.  They’re all very much the same, sweet-tempered and beautiful and sickeningly good.  So I love McKinley’s scrawny, mouse-haired, stubborn-minded Beauty–a name she picked up as a child and has been too embarrassed to request dropped.  The Beast is charming, sometimes unsure of himself, and really rather sweet.  I thought the romance was very cute.

My other favorite part is probably the castle itself.  It’s enchanted, of course, but there’s a wonderful practical side to the magic.  Beauty has a couple of enchanted breezes (sort of) attending to her, and in personality they’re quite fussy and straight-forward and focused on common sense.  And I’m so very, very amused by enchanted candles that light themselves–and sometimes have to admonish each other, “Hsst–wake up, you” when one of them doesn’t light.

Robin McKinley wrote another retelling of Beauty and the Beast called Rose-Daughter which, despite following the same basic plotline, is quite different (a lot more roses, for one thing).  It’s very good also, but much more surreal.  The magic, and even the non-magical characters, like the two sisters, feel less real-world to me–not unrealistic, exactly, but not so realistic either.  I recommend it too, but personally I prefer the more grounded Beauty.

But by all means, read both.  Or either.  Or pretty much anything else by Robin McKinley, because I can’t honestly say I’ve met a book by her I didn’t like.  Beauty may be my favorite, though.

Author’s Site: http://www.robinmckinley.com/