Sunday, March 26, 2017

Beauties and Beasts in Different Places with Different Faces.

Alas, my friends, Beauty and the Beast Month is coming to a close.  And there are so many other places I could have taken this because there are so many other takes on “Beauty and the Beast”.  I still haven’t touched on the ‘80s soap opera version starring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton.  Nor have I reviewed the low-budget Cannon Films version (which I actually own on DVD).  Or Alex Flinn's Beastly, either in book or film form.  But I thought that in order to wind up the month, I should really go back to the story itself and its many variants.  “Beauty and the Beast” is one of those stories that has wound itself in and out of both folk and literary culture.  The most standard versions may have been purposefully written by certain upper-class French women, but that didn’t stop the story from travelling elsewhere.  So, with the help of D.L. Ashliman’s Folktexts site and my own experience, I decided to do a bit of a literature review and pick five noteworthy versions and post some thoughts on them.  Note that this isn’t a “Top Seven”.  There’s no ranking involved.
So, here we go:
)      “The Springing, Singing Lark” (Germany)
This one is a Grimm story from their rather sizable collection of German folk tales.  The story starts out like “Beauty and the Beast”, with the merchant going off on business and asking his daughters what they want him to bring back.  In this case, the youngest doesn’t ask for a rose but for a “springing, singing lark” (hence the title of the story).  He then finds out that the lark belongs to a lion who threatens to eat him if he doesn’t bring him the first thing to meet him when he gets home.  But after that part, the story takes certain turns that turn it into a completely different type of fairy tale.  That’s the thing that I find so noteworthy about this tale.  The interesting thing about this story is that it uses what I like to call “modular storytelling”.  It’s something that can be used in fairy tales but very few other types of stories.  You see, in certain situations, you can take different fairy tale motifs and fit them together as sort of “storytelling Legos” to form other stories.  “The Springing, Singing Lark” starts off as a “Beauty and the Beast” type of story and then turns into a completely different sort of Animal Bridegroom tale that’s more like “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” in which the heroine has to search for her beloved.  Then, when that’s over it turns into a “True Bride” tale.  And all of it really does work together.

  “The Singing Rose” (Austria)
This one is interesting because the “Beauty” herself is the one who goes searching for the rose.  It starts with a king telling his three daughters that his successor will be whichever of them can bring him back a singing rose.  So, right away we have young women embarking on adventures and potentially being placed in a position of power without having to marry into it.  A pretty refreshing start for a European tale.  The youngest princess eventually finds the singing rose in a castle garden deep in a pine forest.  However, in order to get the singing rose, she has to make a deal with the master of the castle who is an old man with a long grey beard.  The deal is that in seven years he will come take her away to live there in his castle with him.  So, it happens just this way with the Beast part being played by the old man.  But the princess’s stay in the castle is punctuated by slightly different events with different conditions attached to them.  Also, the ending is different from any “Beauty and the Beast” type of tale I’ve seen before.

      “Beauty and the Horse” (Denmark)
This Danish story sticks out because of just what animal the beast is.  There are many different animals taking the Beast role in these stories.  There are bears and frogs and dogs and serpents.  One story even made a point of noting that the dog in question was a poodle.  But this one I think takes the cake.  The Beast is a horse.  It doesn’t specify if it’s a wild horse or a tame horse.  Or even what color the horse is.  I’m not going to lie, I had thoughts of both Mr. Ed and Nell’s relationship with Dudley’s horse in the Dudley Do-Right cartoons while reading this story.  The rest of the story follows most of the “Beauty and the Beast” motifs with some slight tweaks to them.  But it just sticks out because the Beast is a horse . . . of course, of course.

      “The Fairy Serpent” (China)
By now, people should know that I have a soft spot for tales from China and Japan.  I can’t explain it too much, seeing as I’ve never been to either country.  Maybe it’s some of my otaku tendencies shining through.  Anyway, this follows many of the same “Beauty and the Beast” motifs with certain tweaks.  The father in this case was not asked to pick any flowers but sought them out himself so his daughters could use them as patterns for their embroidery.  Also, the serpent who plays the Beast here seems more upset about the trespassing than any theft (Huh.  Kind of like the Beast in the animated movie).  Also, all three daughters are offered the option of being the serpent’s bride.  Another interesting thing is that the family kind of drags its feet in bringing the youngest daughter to the serpent, so that the serpent has to send a swarm of wasps to convince them.  There’s more to it, but I won’t list it all here.  It’s just interesting that these motifs and archetypes extend that far beyond Europe.

       “A Rosy Story” (Scoharie, New York)
This is my own contribution and a story that you’re not going to find on the internet.  I may have mentioned this in another post before.  It comes from an old book entitled Folk Lore of the Scoharie Hills that I found in the local history section of a local library.  For those who don’t know, Scoharie is part of Upstate New York (in other words, my own stomping grounds).  The interesting thing about this story other than its location and seeming rarity is that it splits the Beast’s role in two.  The being that demands the merchant’s daughter return to the house/castle is depicted as a ghostly headless man who confronts the merchant when he steals the rose.  However, the cursed prince himself is depicted as a giant toad who acts as a servant in the castle.  If the two characters were meant to be one and the same, it’s never stated in the story.  But then, the story itself was pretty rough in the form I found it.  I had to polish it a good deal before I made it into a decent storytelling performance.

So, that’s it.  There’s a good chance I haven’t done these stories any justice here, so check out the Folktexts website.  Heck, check out Sur La Lune’s “Beauty and the Beast” page too while you’re at it.  Also, you might want to check out the Facebook group Fairy-tale Forum.  They just launched and they’re having a big Beauty and the Beast giveaway.

This ends Beauty and the Beast Month, but I’ve got some more big stuff planned so stay tuned.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Beauty and the Beast (2017)



I’m getting ahead of myself.

I recently went to see Disney’s latest adaptation of the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens and directed by Bill Condon.  And as the centerpiece of Beauty and the Beast Month, I present my reaction/review of it.  Beware, for there may be SPOILERS ahead.

Before I go any further let’s acknowledge something about this movie: it does not reinvent the story of Beauty and the Beast.  This movie follows the same basic plot as the 1991 animated movie.  If you’re looking for a “twist” on the story, this isn’t that movie and it’s not trying to be.
When it comes to adaptations of well-known stories like this, the more important thing is the details and how they’re handled.  And if you want my opinion, this film handles those details very well.

This version of Beauty and the Beast even makes a point of fixing some of the holes in the original film like why the Prince’s servants are cursed too, how old the Prince was when he was cursed and how people managed to just forget about a member of the royalty after he was cursed.  And all these things are woven into the story in a way that doesn’t halt the story or take anything away from it.  In addition, we learn more about our main characters.  The reason for the Beast’s heartlessness when he was human comes forward.  We learn more about what happened to Belle’s mother.  Overall, the entire movie just offers a deeper look at what the animated movie set forth.

Heck, even some of the most unexpected side characters get some depth.  Take LeFou, for instance.

Yes, LeFou.  The guy who’s had this whole controversy surrounding him because the movie depicts him as gay (for the record, I don’t care).  In the animated film, LeFou was a tiny comical toady who followed Gaston around and did his bidding.  He was the human equivalent of an animal sidekick in a movie where most of the sidekicks are housewares.  His crowning accomplishment in the animated film is that he sang the song “Gaston”.  In the live action film, he starts as Gaston’s sidekick but is quickly shown to be a man with a conscience but a weak will.  He even finds the nerve to change sides later on.  LeFou is one of the characters that had the most growth in the move from animation to live action.  And his sexuality ,or the tiny hint there is of it, really kind of pales in comparison to the fact that he actually feels like a character now.

Gaston himself shows his malicious side a lot sooner in the live action film.  Whether you like that or not is likely going to come down to personal taste.

There are other things I like.  For example, the Beast and Belle actually bond over Shakespeare in the live action film.  And it’s not just “I love that book too”.  They actually disagree about it.  Score a point for intelligent conversation.

The production design is gorgeous.  They really seemed to go all-in for the French Baroque opulence on the Beast’s castle.  The designs for the enchanted objects are all entertaining and interesting.  I especially like the birdlike design of the Plumette the feather duster.  There’s even a nod to the Cocteau film with two lamps held up by arms outside the entrance to the castle.  Though, I think that detail may have been in the animated film too.

The film has all the songs from the animated film except the reprise of “Gaston”.  There are also three new songs.  “How Does a Moment Last Forever” is the new end credits song and both Maurice and Belle get to sing a bit of it.  “Days in the Sun” is a song primarily sung by the enchanted servants about their hope to be unenchanted.  And “Evermore” is a torch song for the Beast.  And these are all really new songs.  I checked to see if they were ported over from the Broadway production and they weren’t.  The new songs are all pretty good.  One little issue about the music, though.  You can tell that some of the actors aren’t really singers.  They’re not terrible, but you can tell that they’re not really vocalists by profession.  They still commit themselves admirably to the task.  It didn’t bother me, but it might bother other people.  It certainly didn’t stop me from buying the soundtrack.

There are other flaws.  The reasoning for the Beast’s cruelty when he was human is introduced and moves by very quickly.  That moment probably could have been given some more exploration and time to breathe.  Also, while it was great to learn more about Belle’s mother and Belle’s desire to know more about her does connect to one very important scene, that importance is maybe a little too understated .  Also, Ewan MacGregor’s French accent as Lumiere is pretty bad.  But these are minor things, really.  Even with these flaws, it’s hardly Disney’s worst Beauty and the Beast production.
Well, I guess that really is it and I . . . oh wait, I forgot about the rose scene.

Now, this is a part of the film that doesn’t necessarily make it a better movie, but makes it a slightly better fairy tale adaptation in my book (after all, I’m not a professional film critic so take my assessments with a grain of salt).  But one of my biggest pet peeves about the 1991 animated film is that they dropped the part about Belle asking her father for a rose.  In the fairy tale, when Belle’s father is going on a business trip he asks his children what he should bring them back.  Belle’s sisters ask for jewels and finery but Belle asks for a rose.  Belle’s father then gets lost and gets treated to some mysterious hospitality at the Beast’s castle.  But on the way out he picks a rose for Belle.  This angers the Beast who accuses him of stealing and that kicks off the main action of the story.  Now, the animated film cut that part out.  Probably because they also cut out Belle’s sisters and that negated the point of her asking for a humble gift.  The rose was repurposed as a symbol of the Beast’s imprisonment and the story’s proverbial ticking clock.  But it’s still an awful shame to cut that part.  It’s one of the most iconic parts of the story.  The live action film reintroduces the rose request, but how do they do it without Belle’s sisters being put back into the mix?  They make it a symbolic connection to Belle’s long lost mother.  I don’t know about anyone else, but I think it works.

Overall, I think this is a highly entertaining film.  It’s beautiful, adds depth to some established characters, has some entertaining songs and tugs on the heart strings.  It’s maybe not going to please everyone (for example: if you still see the whole story as an ode to Stockholm Syndrome, this film is not going to change that.  Sorry).  But I think if you like Disney’s previous reimaginings of its classic properties then I think you’ll like this.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Four-Color Fairy Tales: Fashion Beast.

You know, I feel like for Beauty and the Beast Month I should really tackle something with some more bite to it.  Something that’s edgy and offbeat and subversive and very much not for kids.

How about a version of “Beauty and the Beast” set in a dystopian version of the ‘80s fashion industry and devised by the creator of the punk movement and written by the man who created the deconstructionist superhero comic book Watchmen?

Fashion Beast, as this comic is called, was created from an idea by Malcolm McLaren.  McLaren was a British impresario and artist in many fields but is probably best remembered for managing the pioneering punk band The Sex Pistols.  It is written by writer Alan Moore, a man best known for deconstructing superheroes with Watchmen as well as creating other groundbreaking works like From Hell, V for Vendetta and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  The story is adapted to the page by Antony Johnson and Facundo Percio.

Fashion Beast was dreamt up by McClaren as a fictionalized version of the life story of designer Christian Dior mashed up with the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast”, with a heavy influence from Jean Cocteau’s film adaptation.  The Introduction by Alan Moore states that the story for Fashion Beast was originally devised as a movie during a time when McLaren was experimenting with film.  For various reasons, the movie wasn’t made and the screenplay for it languished in obscurity until William Christensen from Avatar Press discovered it and asked Moore if they could adapt it into a comic book.  Moore asked McLaren and pretty soon things were off and running.  The collected edition of the comic hit stands in 2013.
The story itself takes place in an undisclosed city in a world that’s on the verge of nuclear winter.  The main character is a woman named Doll Seguin who works initially as the coat check girl at a nightclub.  This lasts until a fateful encounter with an aspiring designer named Jonni Tare gets her fired from her job.  Seeking employment, she goes and auditions to be a model or “mannequin” for reclusive designer Jean Claude Celestine (notably, Jonni Tare also works for Celestine as the person in charge of dressing the models).  Celestine is a man who no one sees because he never leaves his studio.  Rumor is that he’s ugly and deformed, a wretched-looking reclusive genius.  During the course of her audition, Doll leaves the building while wearing one of Celestine’s designs and gets assaulted by a mob.  The dress is now ruined but rather than run away returns to explain what happened to the dress and return it to its owner.  This sets Doll on her path as Celestine’s chief model and the heroine of a surprisingly good “Beauty and the Beast” adaptation.

Alan Moore has a reputation of being one of the best comic book writers in the world.  Personally, I’ve always found his work to be more of an acquired taste.  Sometimes I like his work, sometimes I don’t.  However, I’m impressed with this.

It’s interesting to see all the parts from the original story that find their place in this one even if they’re in an unexpected place.  Doll Seguin is Belle, but she’s also Belle’s father.  She’s the one who goes to live with the Beast in his castle, but also the one who loses her source of income and goes to recover it only to pluck the metaphorical rose.  Doll doesn’t have shrewish sisters in this story, but they are reborn as Celestine’s shrewish keepers.  Jonni Tare is essentially the Prince reborn in a separate character from the Beast (a reading that will make more sense if you read the comic).  And Celestine, of course, is the Beast.  There are even “blink-and-you’ll-miss-them” callbacks to the original story.  In many versions of the story, one of the traits of the Beast’s garden is that half of it is always in Summer while the other is always in Winter.  In one scene between Jonni and Doll, Jonni notes that even though they may be on the verge of nuclear winter there are only two seasons in Celestine’s salon: Spring and Fall.  This is because there are a Spring collection and an Fall collection.  Perhaps a little bit of a stretch for some to notice, but a nice callback nonetheless and one that fits in the fashion world depicted in the comic.
The somewhat haggard-looking Mr. Alan Moore.
The nature of this comic also allows Moore (as he usually does) to make some commentary on the wider world, as well as to outwardly state some of the subtext that could be seen in the original story.  In one scene, Jonni Tare talks about why he thinks Celestine designs clothes the way he does.  He describes both Celestine and his designs as being too demure and sexually repressed and muses on what the effect of being locked up like that is.  And come to think of it, that could be a perfectly good allegorical reading of the Beast himself if you’re into that sort of thinking.  Man’s more animalistic, sexual nature but isolated and locked up and held at bay by his own shame.  In many versions of “Beauty and the Beast”, the Beast is often depicted as something of a passive-aggressive sad-sack who is prone to some degree of self-flagellation.  Celestine is certainly no different.  Almost to underscore how sterile everything is in Celestine’s salon, the seamstresses and tailors who put together his designs do so in uniforms that resemble surgical scrubs, complete with face masks.  Celestine himself engages in a speech about fashion, clothes and the power of appearances that is frightening but also has a ring of truth to it.    Even those who are interested in the study of gender in fairy tales or comic books might have an interest in this because according to the introduction, Doll is supposed to look like “a woman who looks like a man trying to look like a woman” and Jonni is supposed to look like “a man who looks like a woman trying to look like a man”.  And that is largely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to commentary.

Fashion Beast is an interesting and challenging take on the “Beauty and the Beast” story.  It’s also one that has a few twists to it that I won’t spoil.  I’d definitely suggest it for anyone looking for a decidedly different take on this story.  Perhaps not Alan Moore’s most definitive work, but one that’s definitely worth a look.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Beauty and the Beast (2014)

Hey, everybody!  Guess what!  It’s Beauty and the Beast Month here at Fairy Tale Fandom.

That’s right!  For the rest of March I’m going to focus on posts about that tale as old as time, “La Belle et la Bete”!  This will include a review of the new Disney adaptation at some point.

But for today, I thought I’d focus on the version of Beauty and the Beast that beat Disney’s live action outing to theaters by a whole three years.  The difference is that this movie came out in France.
This specific version of Beauty and the Beast is directed by Christophe Gans and stars Lea Seydoux and Vincent Cassel as the two title characters.  For a long time, I thought American audiences wouldn’t get to see this version.  But thanks to the good folks at Shout! Factory, it’s now available on DVD with an English dub (Good old Shout! Factory.  How can you hate someone who gives you DVDs of French fairy tale movies, Japanese superhero shows and Mystery Science Theater 3000?).
The basic story is the same as the one set forth by Mme. Villeneuve and Mme. Beaumont.  Belle is the daughter of a rich merchant and has two spoiled sisters and three mostly spoiled brothers (the youngest brother is kind of okay).  The family loses all its fortune when three of the patriarch’s ships are lost at sea.  So, they retreat to a small house in the country where everyone acts like a spoiled pain in the neck except Belle herself.  When the father finds out that one of his ships has been salvaged, he goes to the port with a list of gifts for his children in hand, including Belle’s request for a rose.  The father’s luck does not improve as his ship’s cargo is seized by his creditors and he gets lost in the forest on his way home.  In the forest he finds a seemingly abandoned castle where he finds food and gifts laid out for him to take.  However, on his way out he picks one rose for Belle.  This angers the Beast who owns the castle.  He allows the father to return home and say goodbye but demands he return on pain of death.  “A life for a rose”, he demands.  And if you know this story, you know Belle does not take this lying down.

So, yeah, that was an awful lot of recap I dropped on you.  But I wanted to make a point.  Namely, that they included a lot of the stuff that got left out of the Disney version.  In fact, they include a lot of stuff that no one would blame them from dropping.  They even keep the dreams Belle has where she sees the Prince, though they’re often used here to explain the Beast/Prince’s back story.  Though, there are things that are left out.  For example, Mme. Villeneuve’s version of the story ends with Belle’s mother showing up to reveal that Belle is actually a fairy princess or something like that.  A lot of adaptations ignore that part, and this one is no different.
The one thing in “Beauty and the Beast” adaptations that it seems like everyone gets to do their own take on is the backstory of the Beast.  In the earliest version by Mme. Villeneuve, the prince simply turned away the unwanted advances of a fairy.  The fairy cursed him because she was being petty and vindictive.  In Jean Cocteau’s famous version, he was punished because he and his family did not believe in magic (yes, that’s about all the explanation that’s given).  In Disney’s version, it was because the prince turned away an ugly old beggar woman who turned out to be an enchantress.  Now, this movie also has its own take.  You see, it’s revealed through Belle’s dreams that the prince was constantly involved in a hunt for a golden deer.  He had other things in his life including a court and his wife, but the hunt seemed to take up a good part of his time.  One day, he finally manages to hunt down and kill the deer.  However, it turns out that the deer isn’t really a deer.  The deer was just another form of a person, and it was a person that he knew and loved dearly.  It’s then that the “god of the forest” curses the prince to be a beast.  On top of that, the rose bush is shown growing from where the golden deer fell, explaining why the roses are so precious to him.

It’s a different take.  It’s an unexpected take.  And it’s kind of a fitting, interesting take.

The overwhelming moral or lesson or theme that’s long been associated with “Beauty and the Beast” has always been “look beneath the surface” or “don’t judge by appearances”.  There’s still some of that in this version, but there’s another theme that runs through the whole thing and you might not even see it at first.  The theme is the damage and harm that people can inadvertently do to each other.  If you think about it, it’s always been there in the story.  Belle’s father thinks he’s doing right by his family by giving them everything they want, but instead he makes Belle’s siblings spoiled, lazy and arrogant.  Belle thinks asking her father for a rose is a simple request, but it turns out to be a request that has a big impact on her family.  She also doesn’t think it’s a big deal to stay away from the castle longer when the Beast lets her go, but it’s a decision that nearly kills the Beast.  The new villain who’s added to this movie also supports this reading.  It’s not strange for new villains to be added to the story of “Beauty and the Beast”.  Jean Cocteau’s version added a hunter named Avenant who was also a suitor for Belle.  Disney did much the same thing but named theirs Gaston.  In both cases, they were handsome men who were monstrous underneath the surface.  Gans’s film takes a different approach.  The villain in this version is a thug named Perducas.  Perducas is neither beautiful on the surface or underneath.  He also has no desire to stake a claim on Belle.  In short, he’s nothing like either Avenant or Gaston.  Instead, he’s a criminal who Belle’s brother owes a lot of money to.  He’s also the one that Belle’s father is running from when he goes into the forest and stumbles on the castle.  At the end of the film, Perducas along with his own men and Belle’s brothers go to the Beast’s castle because Belle’s brother has convinced Perducas that it’s filled with treasure (specifically, enough to pay off his debt).  Perducas’s involvement is another way that someone’s choices have an unforeseen impact.  In this case, it’s the brother’s debts that now impact the life and home of the Beast.

At least, that’s my reading of it right now.  Ask me after the next time I watch it and I might tell you something different.
Visually, the film is absolutely stunning.  Every frame is gorgeous to look at.  Even when some of it takes a turn for the strange, like the introduction of the strange doglike creatures called Tadommes, everything else looks beautiful enough that it’s easy to overlook it.  Though this version is far more elaborate and features far more special effects, it’s easy to see the influence of JeanCocteau’s classic 1946 film in it.  The Beast’s design is essentially a modernized version of the one from Cocteau’s film.  Lea Seydoux’s stern and reserved resistance to the Beast while in his custody is reminiscent of Josette Day’s performance in the 1946 film.  Even the prince’s hunt for the golden deer is reminiscent of elements of classical mythology that Coctea drew on in his film.  Yet, the film always feels like it’s paying homage rather than simply aping Cocteau’s film.

I like this film.  While it may not be quite the drastic reimagining some people might want, I think it’s a solid adaptation that still manages to find its own voice.  Give it a try if you get the chance.