What is it about love stories that endure? Romeo and Juliet. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. Beauty and the Beast. Stories we keep coming back to. Tales as old as time. Just as these classical pairings of characters fall for each other, we, in turn, fall for them. They become emblematic of love. A portrait. A song and dance. Disney’s live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast may not change anything we know and love about the original, but the film reminds us why classical tales of woe are not only timeless, but enrapturing.
In a small, unfair provincial town in France, Belle is seen as a funny girl. Not the good funny, but odd and peculiar. Her only crime, partaking in the harmless pleasures of literature – progressive, given the time (and you can’t get any more progressive with Emma Watson in the role). People look down on her from their windowsills, sneering, judging. Any self-professed bookworm knows the feeling of scrutiny. She lives in a town that believes in applying themselves conventionally. A town full of farmers, bakers, and candlestick makers (even when she practically invents the washing machine, she is, once again, seen as more witch than pioneer). To read a book is so unconventional. Because honestly, who has the time?
They are a small-minded folk, but none quite as small-minded as Gaston. For Belle, a book is everything. To him, the book is but a shield. It’s in the way. And why have something as meager as a book in the way when you can look and marvel at him. The only time Belle is interested in a conversation with Gaston is when he remarks on the book her hands and she then asks if he’s read it (he hasn’t). Gaston represents everything society thinks it needs: an alpha male. What we find terrifying about him is actually a trait that should be admirable, but is coated in so much bravado and chest hair that it’s something to be feared – male confidence (though with Luke Evans’ sheer charisma, narcissism has never been so delightfully entertaining).
Society enables his ego, morphs it into entitlement. In his mind, Belle is already his wife even though they hardly know each other. Is that fair? Gaston doesn’t care. And Belle is all the more despised for rejecting him each time. If it takes a village to condemn a woman, then it takes a village to enable a villain.
When Belle finds that Beast has taken her father captive, she believes she’s found the proper villain to her story. In fact, she’s met her Prince Charming (as the song goes, she won’t discover it’s him ‘til chapter three). She does something heroic – she takes her father’s place in the cell. I suppose time makes us prisoners of us all.
The original Beauty and the Beast story, written by Gabrielle Villeneuve, was a darker tale than Disney’s interpretation. Beauty is promised to the Beast by her father, an impoverished merchant who is given riches in exchange. Upon arriving at the castle, she’s surprised by the Beast, who lavishes her, engages her with thoughtful conversation. He asks for her hand every night. And when she sleeps, she dreams of a handsome prince, unaware that it’s the Beast reaching out to her in her subconscious.
Villeneuve intended it as an allegory for arranged marriages, detailing women’s anxieties of leaving their household, fearful of the men they’re doomed to marry. Arranged marriages were the norm, where love came after people were wed, not before. Disney’s version still retains threads of Villeneuve’s story. It’s Gaston who courts Belle’s hand, Gaston who believes marriage is a deal that can be brokered.
It is the Beast who knocks on her door asking if she would like to join him for dinner. Despite his royal title, he doesn’t feel entitled to her acceptance. He still takes it upon himself to ask. For someone in his position, asking requires its own form of courage. A leap of faith. Of course, Belle has more self-respect than to say yes to her captor. Beast throws a tantrum, assumes that’s the end of it. Gaston, however, can’t take a hint.
It’s only when there’s a genuine effort on Beast’s part to be kind and cordial that Belle, in turn, responds in kind (for those suggesting their ensuing romance is symptomatic of Stockholm Syndrome, remember: Belle doesn’t make any excuses for the Beast’s behavior, she stands her ground against him, and she chooses to remain in the castle). Her respect isn’t something that’s magically bestowed upon him. He has to earn it.
Perhaps the most romantic gesture comes before their inevitable fall for each other, when he treats her to his library (the book that does the trick? Romeo and Juliet). The world, as far as she’s concerned, and it is through a book that allows them to literally travel the world. The act of reading is as intimate as it is grand. Ask any bookworm (or just ask Emma Watson) and they’ll tell you. Books are escapist, transportive. At the same time, we see a little bit of ourselves in these stories.
During the film’s climax, Belle has to prove to the villagers that the Beast exists. Using the magic mirror, she shows them what is essentially a reflection of themselves, and the monsters they’ve become. They see a beast; she sees only a man. Beauty, as they say, is in the eyes of the beholder.
Whereas Romeo and Juliet sees love as a tragedy, one that reconciles a bitter feud between families, Beauty and the Beast views love as a fantasy, one that frees Beast, his servants and the rest of the townspeople from the enchantress’ spell, its impact and allure far-reaching. It dares to depict love as a joyful song and dance. An endless waltz. There’s a wonderful irony in the symbolism of the red rose, encased, its petals falling one by one like an hourglass. Beauty and the Beast has endured over the centuries, with remnants dating as far back as 4,000 years. Because stories like these aren’t just timeless; they’re enchanting.