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 reader is. That person is Vincent, the adopted son of the man who is the organizing energy behind the collection of people in the underground community. Vincent’s father is known by everyone as Father, because he acts in the role of a loving father to all those who live under the ground. 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.