In 1987, a new series called “Beauty and the Beast” started broadcasting on CBS. I was one of many viewers tuning in that evening, hoping that this newest version of the old story would have some merit. I knew that I would have to accept the story by suspending my disbelief. I had become adroit at this ability since I had been a literature major for a long time, and knew how to use it to understand a work of art which could not reasonably be experienced in terms of reality. In other words, a fantasy. I had read Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s explanation in which he explained the need for a mental adjustment of our thinking that he called “a willing suspension of disbelief for the moment….” Here’s what he wrote in 1817. Notice that he says that his poetry was going to contain “persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic….” By “romantic,” he did not mean romantic as in love, but having no basis in fact.
Here are the poet’s words. “In this idea originated the plan of the ‘Lyrical Ballads’; in which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination a willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”
So now, sitting in my living room far away from my present home, I slipped into Coleridge’s state of mind so that I could fully experience what Ron Koslow, writer and producer of the series, and the actors who were portraying characters in Beauty and the Beast were showing their audience. By far the greatest stretch of mind was accepting the basic premise of this fantasy: that a place could exist underneath New York City peopled by outcasts of many kinds, and that among them, a “person” named Vincent, whose face was terrifying, who could be described as a mythical monster with superhuman strength, really lived among them. I would have to really believe in Coleridge’s “shadows of imagination” to order to appreciate what the Mr. Koslow was trying to help us experience.
This temporary assumption of disbelief in our minds, even though temporary, is not easy for many people to summon. I’ve found that many people insist that nothing like that could exist in the real world they know. So fiction itself does not bear examination. In cases like this, I say gently that truth can exist in fiction, even in fantasy or mythology.
In the case of CBS’s show, I found on first viewing that the plot revealed elements of real life as it progressed, that shone through the plot. Here is a short account of that first episode. Catherine Chandler is a beautiful socialite in 1980s New York. She is stabbed and disfigured and collapses. Her face bandaged, she wakes in a strange place, definitely not a hospital, attended by a person with a kind voice, who reads a Dickens novel to her. She comes to depend on this person, but one day, after the bandages are removed, she sees, by accident, who the person is. That person is Vincent, the son of the man who is the organizing energy behind the collection of people in the underground community.He is known as Father. Vincent has been trying to avoid her finding out what he looks like. She screams. His reaction is a hiss of despair. When we as viewers see him, we too, along with Catherine, are frightened. Vincent is very tall, with a flowing yellow mane of hair, a cleft palate which affects a telltale split in his upper lip through which teeth are visible, and heavily furred hands. He gives every appearance of strength and physical agility. When later in the series he comes to Catherine’s aid, it does not surprise us when he literally goes through a roof or hurls himself through a window to get to her and pummel her assailants, or when he has to go somewhere in New York and rides a subway to get there, clinging to the roof of a car. Catherine displays bravery and honor by not making this mistake again, eventually accepting that he is an estimable person who is highly cultured in many fields including literature, music and philosophy, whom if he had a normal face, she would enjoy talking to in the New York art world. And more: he is comforting and telepathic, and the two feel a bond of shared suffering. The series unfolds with Catherine going home and undergoing plastic surgery to get rid of the scars and taking on the job of a lawyer in the district attorney’s office. She is tasked with looking into cases of New Yorkers who have been victimized. Once she is home in a new apartment in which she lives alone, she has deserted her wealthy home with her father, she cannot forget Vincent. He must see her, and starts appearing on her balcony overlooking the gorgeous spectacle of a lighted New York, and they talk. Knowing she will be in danger much of the time from the cases she takes on, she takes lessons in defending herself physically from an enemy, so that she is not a “helpless woman” so commonly seen in movies and television. Vincent is her defender.
The special effects of the underground community were fascinating as I watched the program that evening long ago. This was before the age of computer generated imagery, and the creativity the designers put into this colony under the streets of New York adds to the sense of wonder I felt. On the one hand, New York is depicted as it was in the 80’s, the bustling overcrowded city with many dangers, contrasted with what it’s like below the streets. Father rules over a huge underground place, where books are everywhere because everyone reads, people manufacture distinctive clothing at sewing machines, and a system of primitive Morse Code prevails by which the inhabitants tap messages on pipes, which helps them keep track of each other no matter how far away they are at the time. There is a waterfall under the ground, and bridges constructed by the inhabitants, and in one scene later on, we see Vincent poling Catherine in a craft down an underground river. Dressed in his habitual cloak, he looks like the ferryman poling a visitor to hell along the river Styx. The inhabitants are of all ages. They have their own ceremonies, like the baby-naming ritual or a modest celebration if one of the young people accomplishes something.
A reader, who grew up with far more sophisticated CGI sets in movies, said this with respect to the underground set: “That show could never be made the same way today. On the one hand, it could be made with far superior sets and effects–imagine the underground world with all the CGI at the show’s disposal. Far more rich and compelling.” Yet for the time, the underground was compelling, and the reader was enchanted with the program.
In contrast, New York City was very much as it is today, with crowds of people everywhere, strange shops in various zones of nationality, heavy traffic, overcrowded with buildings of many designs, the waterfront, and everything that makes this city still one of the most fascinating places in the world. But it is the place where evil is rampant, and Father knows this well. That is why he does not want anyone to leave the underground colony. Discovery by outsiders means disaster.
Of all the versions of the ancient tale of Beauty and the Beast, this is the best, because it has deep meaning for human beings. Yes, even though one character is a man, even though he is deformed. The story dramatizes deep problems of human beings that are always present. One problem is falling in love with the “wrong person” and the consequences. Another is the treatment of people by using violence against them above ground. An evil still with us in 2017. In this version, business leaders are portrayed as determined to destroy their opponents, no matter what it takes, and form evil syndicates. Another theme is false religion which even when calling itself a religion, destroys its adherents unless they believe. Another problem of human beings is shown: misplaced trust.
It is apparent that the people who produced and wrote these episodes were familiar with the finest in western literature, mythology, philosophy and music. The viewer hears these things spoken by the people underground with love and reverence, and it reminds us that human beings are capable of great things which are inspirational. When Vincent reads or recites Shakespeare aloud to express his love for Catherine, we too are transported.
The actors and writers come to their roles with a wealth of experience. All of them do their finest work in this series. Here follows an appreciation by one of the writers, George R. R. Martin. Mr. Martin, who is active in writing today, had important things to say about his work on the show and also explain why the series came to a premature ending. Go to http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/george-r-r-martin-writing-tvs-beauty-beast-was-a-smart-show-986786.
Let’s finish with another appreciation, by Ron Perlman this time, who is an active actor today. His role of Vincent can never be equaled. Go to http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/ron-perlman-starring-tvs-beauty-beast-was-feeling-i-had-growing-up-987002.
And last a personal note for my readers and my friends. I’ve enjoyed tracing the history of Beauty and the Beast for you all. I urge you to read any of the versions that appeal to you, but also to include the CBS series. The series can be seen online or is available in DVDs.
Please free always to contact me about anything I write about in my blog.
After Jean Cocteau’s strange and beautiful surrealistic film of Beauty and the Beast, the fairy tale never lost its attraction, and became one tale in a series called Shirley Temple’s Storybook. Hosted by the former child star, the stories were perfect fare for children. On January 12, 1958, a straightforward version of Beauty and the Beast was broadcast, crediting the following for the story: Andrew Lang and Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont for the tale and Joseph Schrank for its adaptation. I saw this version and was impressed only by the Beast, portrayed by Charlton Heston. This consummate actor could do almost anything with his actor’s highly developed voice, and made the Beast’s voice low, masterful, and powerful. The Beast “growled out” his words.
In films, Walt Disney made an animated version of the story in 1991. Like everyone else who saw it, I was enchanted by the delight of the experience. Inanimate things like teapots were now animated, and the dialogue voiced by some of the best actors in the business. When the curse was lifted from the Beast’s castle, the animated objects went back to their original voiceless form. The music and dancing was, of course, beautiful.
Getting the Beast’s head right is important each time the story is acted or animated. What should he look like? The Beast in Cocteau’s movie has a near-indescribable head. Animal yes. Human? It’s all in the eyes of the audience in the theater. Glen Keane, the supervising animator on the Disney animated Beast film, “created his own hybrid beast by combining the mane of a lion, the beard and head structure of a buffalo, the tusks and the nose bridge of a wild boar, the heavily muscled brow of a gorilla, the legs and tail of a wolf, and the big and bulky body of a bear. He also has blue eyes, the one attribute that does not change whether he is a beast or a human.(IMDb).” The head of the 2017 Beast is different and quite fantastic. “His horns curve back and point slightly outward. His tail is that of a lion. The new Beast’s face is more human-like while the original’s was more animalistic and could have his jaw come out to form a wolf-like snout.(IMDb).
In both the animated version and the present version of the fairy tale, Belle is presented as a bright, pert girl who struggles her way through her experience and wins in the end. She has a mind of her own. The woman’s role in the story has been updated reflecting changes in western culture as to the role of women. Further, both the Beast and Belle are literate. They are both readers.
Finally, IMDb tells us that “Originally, the  film was going to be more faithful to the original French fairy tale, which features a darker and more sinister theme; however, when Alan Menken and Howard Ashman joined the production, this idea was dropped.”
The next appearance of Beauty and the Beast came in 1987, and this time, it was indeed a “darker and more sinister” version of the ancient story. Part 5 of this discussion of Beauty and the Beast will be devoted to the CBS series of the fairy tale.
In 1946, Jean Cocteau filmed La Belle et la bête in France. Cocteau, 1889 to 1903, was a Renaissance man who worked in almost every genre of artistic expression: he was a poet, novelist, dramatist, essayist, film writer, director, painter, and sculptor. Best known as a writer, he associated with many of the most creative people of his time. Particularly important for our discussion, he often adapted myths and legends in his work. His screenplay was based on the old Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont fairy tale. His work can be identified by his use of surrealism, which tried to find a reality above the surface or within the surface of what the reader or film-goer is seeing. Cocteau and other surrealists tried to suspend the discipline of conscious or logical reason, aesthetics, or morality in order to allow for the expression of subconscious thought and feeling” (Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, Third Edition.)
The terms “Fairy Tale” and “Folk Tale” are often confused. As defined in The Harper Handbook to Literature, Second Edition, a fairy tale is written or created, “a story of dire trials and rescue by witches, ogres, fairies, and other magical beings.” The Folk Story, on the other hand, was an oral folk story forming part of the folklore of a community, generally less serious than the stores called myths. In preliterate societies, virtually all narratives were either myths or folktales: oral histories of real wars, kings, heroes, great families, and the like accumulating large amounts of legendary material.”
Roger Ebert, the late film critic, said of Cocteau’s film of the fairy tale that “It is the most magical of all films. . . alive with trick shots and astonishing effects, giving us a Beast who is lonely like a man and is misunderstood as an animal.” The tone of the film, and the film is very surrealistic, is “established in haunting images, and bold Freudian images to suggest emotions in the subconscious of his characters.” The Beast’s castle is a strange, confusing place. When I watched some of the film recently, my impression of the castle is that of a dream (or a nightmare.) The heroine, Beauty, wanders through it haphazardly, sheer draperies blowing out, muscular arms without bodies holding lighting fixtures, the Beast appearing and disappearing, statues that are alive, and music, sometimes dissonant and moody, accompanying what is playing on the screen.
If you would like to read Ebert’s review of December 26, 1999, “Beauty and the Beast,” you will learn more about the surrealistic touches in the film, and then if you want to enter Cocteau’s dream world, you’ll be prepared. Ebert remarks that “Cocteau wanted to make a poem, wanted to appeal through images rather than words…” Although the story of Beauty and the Beast was old and familiar, “its surface seems to be masking deeper and more disturbing currents.” This is obviously one version of the story not meant for children.
Today we go a little farther into the story of the beautiful and dutiful young girl and the ugly Beast. Last time I included the second version of the tale which is longer and more detailed. One of my readers loved the story and found it be indeed charming. Another reader thought it somehow familiar and he had seen it before. Even so, he enjoyed reading it again.
Picking up on the appearance of Beauty and the Beast in books over the years, we discover the famous Andrew Lang who put together the Blue Fairy Book of 1889, in which he included Beauty and the Beast. The Jeanne Leprince de Beaumont and Lang versions were widely reprinted. Here is a link to Lang’s book in which you can listen to more than thirty tales including Beauty and the Beast. I think you’ll enjoy this link: http://www.loyalbooks.com/book/the-blue-fairy-book-by-andrew-lang.
If you read the book version of last time or listen to this second link. you will find that these stories have an obvious moral in them. That is one important reason why they were composed. Our story presented an enchanted castle, a ferocious Beast who frightened both a kind father and his beloved daughter who would do anything to save her father, and magical happenings. What better way to learn what it was to be a good person than reading a story like this? The motif of a good girl who goes through a frightening experience and then falls in love with a Beast who turns out not to be a monster even though he looks that way, and then is redeemed for his sins and turned back into the handsome prince he was before, was certainly an enjoyable way of teaching children to look below the surface before judging people by the way they look. And there is much more in these tales which are meant to be instructive.
Next time, I’ll talk a little about literature as opposed to folklore and then we’ll go on to Beauty and Beast in films.
This morning I’m writing a literary post here that focuses on my appreciation of the very old fairy tale, “Beauty and the Beast.” The lush new cinematic version has recently appeared and I’m sure theater-goers are rushing to see it. But I happened to know that the story can be traced back of Greek mythology and has made numerous appearances all over the world, including reprints of the original story in English (the best coming from the University of Pittsburgh), new versions of the story, and even an opera. In the next blog, I’ll be writing about some of those versions, and I hope my readers will be inspired to not only read the material contained in my links but also go to see the new Disney movie with a fuller appreciation of the tale.
Gabrielle Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve is credited with her original story published in 1740. It was included in book entitled La Jeune americaine, et les contes marins. The story is the length of a novel and written in the prevailing style of novels of that time. After she died, her story was rewritten by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont and published in 1756. Beaumont’s Magasin des enfants was intended to instruct young girls in moral lessons. Since she gave no credit to Villeneuve, it’s often assumed that Beaumont is the first author of the tale.
Let’s stop here for a treat for everyone who loves fairy tales. Click on this link and up will come the very famous English version from the University of Pittsburgh. Thank you UP for the tale and Wikipedia for the above information.
Please go to http://pitt.edu/~dash/beauty.html.
Tomorrow I’ll continue with more about the tale and its later versions, including one of my favorites, the television series set in New York City featuring another Beast, this time named Vincent.