I grew up really enjoying the 1991 animated Beauty and the Beast. Now, in 2017, I had a chance to see Disney’s updated take on the fairy tale. These are great movies – beautifully animated, with excellent musical numbers, and an engaging story. However, there has been some debate about the morals of this new film. Having that in the back of my mind made me want to take the film apart a bit after viewing it, and so I have.
The Original Story
The original version of Beauty and the Beast was written by a French author in the 18th century and abridged in English by Marie Beaumont. You can read it here .
In this story, Beauty is from a large family and a father who suddenly becomes poor. Belle’s two sisters are so wicked that when they become poor, their lovers leave them. The sisters end up married to men of poor character; one is so full of himself that he never thinks of his wife, and the other uses his sharp wit to torment others for his enjoyment. Beauty, on the other hand, is quiet and industrious, intelligent and beautiful. She refuses to marry so that she might care for her aging father, and enjoys good books and hard work. Everyone respects her for her love for her father and her intelligence, except her sisters.
Beauty’s father accidentally comes across the Beast’s castle. He betrays the Beast’s hospitality and steals a rose for Beauty. The Beast appears and tells him that for his theft he will die or one of his daughters must die in his place. He gives the man a chest of gold to take home to his daughters, which revives the family fortunes. Belle insists on going to die in her father’s place, and trusts her soul to God.
At the castle, she is surprised to be well provided for and in no danger of death. She finds the Beast gentle, kind, plain-spoken and practical from the beginning, though not particularly quick witted. Every evening after dinner, he asks her to marry him, and she gently refuses. Over time, a deep friendship develops, but Beauty longs to see her family again. The Beast sends her home for a week. Her sisters are so upset that she is happy and they miserable. They work to delay her return, hoping the Beast will eat her when she returns late. The Beast is so heartbroken that he is on death’s door when she finally returns. When she sees him in this state, she realizes that she loves him. As soon as she consents to marry the Beast, he is transformed into a handsome prince. He had been cursed by a wicked fairy, and Beauty broke that curse. They marry, and her sisters are condemned to be fixed as statues before her gates to witness her joy. Beauty and the Beast lived for many years “and their happiness, as it was founded on virtue, was complete.”
Beauty’s family is lost in the translation to film. The new story focuses on Belle, the only daughter of an eccentric small-town inventor, who takes her father’s place when he becomes the innocent victim of the Beast’s cruelty. Belle still loves to read, but unlike the original story, it is not her sisters but the whole town that thinks this funny. Her small town admirer, Gaston, a boorish hunter, endeavors to woo her, but turns to force, imprisoning her father and leading a mob of peasants to the castle to kill the Beast. They are driven off, and Belle saves the Beast and all the inhabitants of his castle by professing her love for him as he lies dying of a knife wound from Gaston.
Unlike Beauty, Belle does not trust her soul to God at any point. The film is largely areligious. A religious reference is placed in the mouths of the ignorant mob going out to kill the Beast, who sing “Praise the Lord” and “we don’t like what we don’t understand” as they bear their torches and pitchforks. Religion is still in the background, but is now a malignant and small-minded, rather than positive, force.
Belle and Beauty demonstrate radically different virtues. Crucially, Belle rejects a suitor named Gaston because he is simple and boorish, and she wants “much more than this provincial life.” She feels no pity for him, and does not factor his lack of virtue into her decision. In this sense, she is the opposite of Beauty; Beauty was motivated by charity in her actions. She is even kind to her wicked sisters, working tirelessly to care for them. She is regretful that she must turn down the Beast when he proposes to her. She’d have turned down Gaston as well, but the musical number afterwards would be very different.
The 90’s Beast is also a radically different character. He is bitter, cruel, illiterate and hot-tempered. He is cursed by the enchantress because there is no love in his heart. His punishment is cosmic justice. He must prove that he can love another and be loved. He has great difficulty. He imprisons Belle’s father for simply entering the castle – no theft in this version. He has to be tamed by Belle and taught to read. Where Beauty learns to love someone beautiful inside but ugly outside, Belle works to change the Beast to be kind and literate. In the Disney film, the only love that matters is romantic love. (This was true of the original, but the original curse was not presented as a form of judgement.) Intentionally or not, the film makes this point very clearly; not only is Belle’s friendship-love not enough to undo the curse, the Beast spares Gaston after he tried to kill the Beast. Surely that is proof of love! But he is not saved by this act. He is transformed when he earns Belle’s romantic love.
In this sense, the moral arc of the story is fully transformed. Beauty and the Beast originally found a lasting happiness founded on virtue and marriage. In Disney’s first film, Belle’s happiness springs from her escape from small-minded provincial life into the arms of a prince; and the Beast’s happiness from his romance with Belle. Their happiness is founded on mutual satisfaction of each other’s desires rather than virtue. A profession of love, not marriage, is the culmination of their relationship and the end of the curse.
The latest version of the Disney tradition of this story came out this year. It is very close to the 90’s film, but again the film has undergone changes to better fit the spirit of the times.
The new Belle is a very different iteration of Beauty/Belle. She wears an odd dress hiked up on one side to show her undergarments. She is an avid reader – the one trait that pervades all of these stories! But unlike her predecessors, Belle is locked in conflict with her town. She faces violence at the hands of the schoolmaster and townspeople because she teaches a girl to read and invents a washing machine. Belle’s town no longer thinks she’s funny, but dangerous. The 90’s film passed no explicit judgement on the simplicity of the townsfolk; but Belle’s father tells us that the town is small minded, and that Belle is ahead of her time. This reflects modern attitudes; we have increasingly become unable to tolerate dissent, believing other opinions to be “phobias” or “hateful” that gives rise to violence. They must be eliminated by progress. We especially despise the past. It is ironic that the fairytale written two hundred and fifty years ago gives has a higher opinion of a learned woman in that time than one from this year.
Gaston has become a hardened villain. The original Gaston was handsome, muscular, but boorish and simple. Lust turns him into a villain; he must have Belle, and resorts to increasingly desperate attempts to secure her affections. The new Gaston’s villainy now seems to be hardwired and greatly expanded. LeFou attempts to calm Gaston down by reminding him of war, explosions and widows. When Belle’s father, Maurice, tells Gaston he will never marry Belle, he tries to murder Maurice. It is only after he is unable to murder Maurice that he follows the 90’s film and attempts to have Maurice placed in an asylum. He leaves his friend LeFou to die in order to pursue the Beast. Le Fou recognizes Gaston as a monster and even abandons him to join Team Belle. We need our villains to be Really Bad People because as a culture we are having increasing difficulty defining right and wrong with clarity.
Interestingly enough, a positive sense of religion is restored to the story and given greater prominence. Belle’s reading material in town is not supplied by the schoolmaster (who leads the opposition to her reading) but via the kindness of Catholic Father Robert. It is he who lends books to her from his meager library (and a crucifix appears in the backdrop of that scene.) He helps Belle pick up her laundry after an assault on her by the schoolmaster. He is the only one to speak up in defense of Maurice when Gaston has him sent off to an asylum. Though the villagers, still sing “praise the Lord” as they go to kill the Beast, this is a surprising reversal of the 90’s film. The Chrsitian faith is indeed growing in our world, if not consistently in the West. Whether the film intends to or not, it bears witness to this.
The Beast himself has also undergone a radical transformation. Greater emphasis is placed on his upbringing. Great care is taken to exonerate the new Beast. His mother died, leaving him to be twisted by his nasty father, and both we and Belle are reminded of this. In the new film, he is a sophisticated individual with an excellent education who can quote Shakespeare. This is unlike the 90s Beast who had to be taught to read, and unlike the original Beast who never talked “with what the world calls wit.” Like the original, he catches Maurice stealing a rose, and like the 90’s film, he imprisons Maurice for life rather than sentencing him to death. In this case, it seems the film makes a much more sympathetic Beast; we are encouraged to judge the intolerant so readily that we need to be shown that it is not the Beast’s fault.
Although the details have been overhauled, the moral arc of the story remains the same. It is romantic love that saves the Beast. He still spares Gaston, and the enchantress still fails to accept this evidence. But in this new version, all resistance to romantic love needs to be crushed. Not only Gaston needs to die; the old LeFou needs to die and the new one to play for Team Belle. The villagers are transformed en masse at the end of the story; where the old story provided no closure for them, in the new story they take up their places at the castle. It is no longer just about happiness for Belle and the Beast; it is about that love making a new world.
The story also introduces a new dynamic – the LGBTQ movement. LeFou, Gaston’s loyal stooge, had a huge man-crush on him in the first Disney movie, and in the updated version, all of his scenes remain within the realm of that original persona. A few important distinctions remain. LeFou’s relationship with Gaston is more provocatively physical – he showcases a bite on his stomach from Gaston and poses in an awkward physical pose with him during a musical number before asking, ‘Too much?’ In the first Disney film, Gaston lifted a bench of female admirers to showcase his strength; now he lifts LeFou and a female admirer. There is a minor character that is pleased to be dressed in drag and he and LeFou dance in the final scenes. I think Disney has done a masterful job of weaving this into the tale in such a subtle and comic way that there’s no reason to take offense. However, on the part of one of the directors at least, these few scenes are meant to be a beachhead establishing an opening for future Disney movies. For those of us who believe that God meant love to be more than sex and sex to be limited to a married man and woman, the fear is that future stories will tread even further down the path that lionizes romantic love alone, irrespective of virtue.
The biggest moral issues with Disney’s Beauty and the Beast were introduced in 1991. The heroine despises Gaston not because of his lack of virtue (though he certainly lacks that) but because of his boorish simplicity and the provincial life that he represents. The enchantress who curses the Beast will only accept evidence of his ability to love through romance, devaluing a fuller vision of love more effectively than the subtle LeFou plot. The expanded resolution of the new film that sees all surviving characters reconciled to Beauty and the Beast could signify our culture’s increasing obsession with making sure that everyone validates each romantic relationship. Nixing marriage and prizing intelligence over virtue are also problems, though in fairness only by contrast with the original story. An additional problem is the increasingly paternal and patronizing attitude we take towards our dead ancestors; who were on the whole (if judged solely by the three versions of this story) more comfortable with the idea of a woman reading in their time than we are.
More positively, the main plot of both films tells perfectly fine love stories. I own one of them, and intend to see both of them many times over again. The new one makes expanded room for religion. And they’re just great, classic movies that people should go see. Any flaws, while real problems, are hardly unique to Beauty and the Beast. No story is perfect. That’s why you need to be selective with what you take from any story, and compare it to the Truth.