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Why is It So Difficult to Update "Beauty and the Beast"?

By Christopher Campbell | Spout March 4, 2011 at 7:02AM

Even before learning, through Dan's review, that "Beastly" is mostly an unsuccessful attempt at modernizing the "Beauty and the Beast" story, I wondered about other updates of the classic fairy tale (originally written in 1740 by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve with changes made later by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont). I was sure there had been plenty. But all I could immediately think of was the campy 80s TV series starring Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman (which in retrospect looks like a mash-up of "Thundercats" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles") and of course "King Kong," which isn't really that direct an adaptation at all -- it's mostly the final line that recalls the tale.
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Even before learning, through Dan's review, that "Beastly" is mostly an unsuccessful attempt at modernizing the "Beauty and the Beast" story, I wondered about other updates of the classic fairy tale (originally written in 1740 by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve with changes made later by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont). I was sure there had been plenty. But all I could immediately think of was the campy 80s TV series starring Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman (which in retrospect looks like a mash-up of "Thundercats" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles") and of course "King Kong," which isn't really that direct an adaptation at all -- it's mostly the final line that recalls the tale.

Research brought me to Robert Beaucage's 2008 Shriekfest winner "Spike," which I rented and later regretted (it's on Amazon Instant if you're still curious). I might have known given that it's IMDb rating is 4.2, but it also seems to have devoted fans and picked up some great reviews. It's not really a faithful update either, though. The slight plot involves four friends who get a flat tire in the middle of nowhere and are attacked by a creature (who kind of reminds me of the monkey ghost from "Uncle Boonmee"), who happens to have some kind of relationship to one of the stranded teens. It's almost more akin to a "Friday the 13th" type movie, if it turned out Jason just had an unrequited crush on the female protagonist and attempted to convince her to live in the woods with him.

At least that premise reminded me that Wes Craven's "Swamp Thing" adaptation is kind of a modernized version of the fairy tale, and not a terrible one at that. It's based on a comic book, and that medium has been better at updating the story to present day than cinema has. When you've got mutated, deformed or otherwise "ugly" or "beastly" heroes like The Thing, Beast, Hellboy, etc., you have to put them through a love story. Female characters, such as Rogue, also have trouble with romance given their powers, though it's harder to connect those to the fairy tale.

A common practice with the male characters, though, has been to make "Beauty" a blind girl. Not just in comics, either. See "The Toxic Avenger" and "Mask," two films that play on the themes of the fairy tale without having to let the girl accept the hideous guy as is. And in these two specific cases, neither could ultimately be transformed. With the former, it would take away from the anti-toxic-waste message. And the latter was a true story.

Perhaps the greatest modern take on "Beauty and the Beast," even if not faithful to the strict narrative of the fairy tale, is Tim Burton's "Edward Scissorhands," which also appears to be the closest thing to adapting the work to science fiction. Or is there a film which makes the Beast character into a robot or an alien? There are a few examples in my list of greatest human-alien sex scenes where a human woman is with a male creature, but most of them are attractive. Even David Bowie in "The Man Who Fell to Earth" is more sexy than creepy (until he gets that gun out, anyway). And we can argue that Howard the Duck is at least cute, right? For the most part, though, hot aliens are of the female variety, as are hot androids. Because men are more likely to have such exotic fantasies.

But speaking of female "beasts," Dan tells me that he thinks the modern version of the fairy tale has just become reversed and turned into "Pygmalion" type stories. Yes, indeed, there are such films as "Splash" and "Mannequin," but again those creatures are hotter than not. Dan thought more specifically of the high school movie plot in which an "ugly" girl is turned beautiful and popular. Of course, in that case, more faithfully adapted man-beasts can be seen in teen movies like "Can't Buy Me Love," I guess. The recent fantasy film "Penelope" aligns the teen movie trope with the fairy tale with a reversal of gender.

There is always something rather sexist about those movies, particularly the ones with a female ugly duckling, but in general it's hard to have a "Beauty and the Beast" story that isn't demeaning to women. Though the original is meant to be about a guy who seems animal-like but is really sensitive, it's possible to still read the fairy tale as a story about an abusive relationship. A modernization might therefore go in a direction of a domestic violence tale, one full of abuse apologism. Actually, popular films of the faithfully period-set variety are criticized for already being just that. Here's a discussion of Disney's 1991 animated adaptation, from the documentary "Mickey Mouse Monopoly":



As much as I hate "Shrek," I guess there is something to be still valued in the way it ends, not with the beastly Shrek becoming human after the beautiful Fiona falls for him, but with her becoming an ogre permanently to better suit his form. There are other issues to be had with it if you must try, but I won't go into those now. This repair of the fairy tale's traditional ending for a more feminist approach is what has killed the possibilities for faithful updates on "Beauty and the Beast." Since "Shrek," though, DreamWorks Animation has not been consistent with its progressive angle on the theme. Last year's "Megamind" ends with the freakish title character's love for the human Roxanne still apparently unrequited (some viewers seem to believe they're together in the end, just as people similarly mistake the end of "The Apartment"). Maybe the sequel can clear that up for us.

In any event, the interest in modernizing fairy tales and other classic stories, updating them with contemporary setting and plot, may be passe quickly enough. Next week's "Red Riding Hood" ushers in the current trend in Hollywood for live-action fairy tales (including "Snow White") set in those period fairy tale worlds. Maybe last year's "Alice in Wonderland" can be included. But I am also curious, speaking of Tim Burton, whether his newly announced version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" will have Esmerelda falling for the deformed beast of the title. At least as much as Kim fell for Edward.

I want to thank the site TV Tropes for this look at the general idea of man-creatures and human women in a section titled "Mars Needs Women." It was helpful in considering what might qualify as based on the "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale. If you can suggest one that they or I missed, please do let me know.


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