Friday, January 12, 2018

Beauty & the Beast 2017: The Great Lesson Revealed

(*Disclaimer: this is not a review of the 2017 film, but an rather an essay on the value of the story as portrayed in both Disney films.)

Last year, my friend and I were arguing about the story of Beauty & the Beast as portrayed in the Disney classic: “I hate the faulty logic behind the curse, that he [the Beast] must make someone else fall in love with him in order to prove that he has become truly selfless. It really ought to be the other way around, that his simple ability to love without expecting anything in return is what should free him.”

 I believe that G.K. Chesterton (pictured left) has the answer to his quibble with the story line: “There is the great lesson of Beauty and the Beast, that a thing must be loved before it is lovable.” However, like many brilliant Chesterton quotes, his words require a little unpacking. The first thing that came to mind when I encountered this quote was a passage from I John 4:19, “We love because He first loved us.” In other words, we fallen human beings are only able to love selflessly because Beauty Himself showed us the example of unconditional love. We were created by and for a God who is Love itself, and this Love became incarnate and died upon the cross to show us what real Love looks like. But how does this pertain to the story of Beauty and the Beast?


First of all, to be fair to my friend, the conditions for breaking the curse as described in the prologue are misleading. According to the narrator, “If [the Beast] could learn to love another, and earn her love in return before the last petal fell, the spell would be broken.” A more accurate description might read, “If he could learn to love by BEING LOVED by another, the spell would be broken.” Human beings are not born knowing how to love — it is something that we must be taught through knowledge and experience. In the new Disney 2017 adaptation, it becomes clear that the Beast’s selfishness and unkindness stem largely from his upbringing by his cruel father and from the neglect of the loving but fearful castle staff. What little the Beast had learned of sacrificial love from his mother was long forgotten on the fateful night when the enchantress cast her curse.


From the beginning, Belle represents the nature of love: she cannot help but love. This is apparent from the first time the audience meets her in her little village. Even though Belle is misunderstood and disliked by many of the locals, she is kind towards them and does what she can to help those in need — such as teaching a young girl to read, or giving a few coins to the mysterious beggar woman, Agatha.

After her imprisonment, Belle is the first to selflessly reach out to the Beast. This moment takes place after the Beast has fought off the pack of wolves and lays wounded and helpless in the snow. Belle has the chance to escape and regain her freedom. Instead, she brings the Beast safely home to the castle where she subsequently nurses him back to health.*

*Now, one might argue that it was the Beast who went after her first. This is true, but the Beast had everything and nothing to lose. His motives were still tainted by selfishness: Belle may have been the only chance he had to break the curse (it’s not as though women were just stumbling into the enchanted castle on a regular basis). If he died in the attempt, his life of misery would simply end.


It is in being loved by Belle that the Beast begins to learn to love selflessly. However, unconditional love is twofold, for it includes both the ability to love others and to love one’s self. According to C.S. Lewis, we all have an unloveable aspect within us, and we must learn to love even that (see Lewis’ The Four Loves). This is what is lacking in the Beast’s transformation. This is why the curse remains unbroken after he releases Belle at the end of the famous dance scene.  Although the staff exclaim, “It’s because she doesn’t love him!” this is clearly not true, for only moments ago we all saw the tears of sorrow and gratitude in Belle’s eyes as she says goodbye to him. The Beast has learned to love selflessly, but he has to embrace his own self-worth in order to break the curse.


To illustrate my point, let’s turn to another literary example. In Sigrid Undset’s novel Kristin Lavransdatter, we meet the married couple Ragnfrid and Lavrans. Lavrans is a charismatic leader, a virtuous man, and a loving husband. In many ways, he is an ideal match, yet Ragnfrid often comes across as cold and bitter towards him as well as her children.

Later on *SPOILER ALERT* the author reveals that Ragnfrid was unfaithful to her husband in the early years of their marriage. Ragnfrid regrets her sin, but her sense of shame is so great that she is unable to love/forgive herself, hence her bitterness. She cannot understand how someone like Lavrans (or even her children) can love her. She cannot see any redeeming quality within herself. This is particularly evident when Lavrans shows her any kind of gesture of love. These gestures make Ragnfrid feel uncomfortable, because in them she has to feel or experience his love, a love which she has yet to understand.


The Beast is similar to Ragnfrid: although he does not behave coldly towards Belle’s kindness, he has yet to forgive himself. He has repented, but he does not understand how someone could love him because of the wretchedness of his past life, which has brought him to his current state. For this reason, he falls into despair as soon as Belle leaves the castle. When Plumette proposes that Belle may return, he rejects the idea, saying, “No. I set her free.” In his mind her departure confirms that he is unloveable. He has yet to learn the power of unconditional love: the ability to see both the beauty and the ugliness within others and one’s self and to love both in spite of the ugliness. (Of course, the magic of unconditional love is that the ugliness of past sins vanishes in its transformative power!)

However, the Beast’s transformation is completed during Gaston’s attack. It is only when Belle returns that he begins to defend himself, as he realizes that he is worth saving. The live action film brings home this transformation more so than the original film: when the Beast traps Gaston, the villain begs, “Don’t hurt me, Beast!” The Beast responds, “I am not a Beast,” reaffirming that he has embraced his own value. His transformation is reinforced by his treatment of Gaston: instead of imprisoning him or killing him, he tells Gaston to leave and never come back. The Beast chooses love over hatred, sending his enemy away rather than taking his life.

The transformation of the Beast is not that Belle loves him but rather that the Beast can — and does — unconditionally love himself and others.


Does this undermine Belle’s profession of love in the pivotal moment of the film? Not necessarily. The Disney adaptation of Beauty & the Beast is among the first fairytale films to portray its heroine as a three-dimensional character, meaning that the allegory component of Beauty & the Beast is somewhat compromised. For this reason, Belle is portrayed as imperfect and even somewhat prideful. She, too, undergoes her own transformation over the course of the story, giving up her life plans to save her father and subsequently befriending the Beast and his enchanted companions. At the end of the film, it is clear by her actions that she reciprocates the Beast’s love (the audience has watched their relationship progress from friendship to romance throughout the second half of the film). However, love demands expression in actions and words. For this reason, it is significant that Belle declare her love verbally moments before the Beast’s transformation. For it is then that the the Beast, the wintry castle, and his enchanted companions exchange their mechanical and grotesque forms for their true selves. (Also, fun literary tangent/parallel: The castle is to the Beast what the portrait is to Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, only the Beast has a happy ending).

This truth is portrayed in both the original Disney classic and in the 2017 remake. However, while I agree that the remake is imperfect, controversial, and sadly somewhat tainted by political agenda, I argue that it still possesses truth and beauty. Furthermore, the 2017 adaptation is far more successful than its predecessor in fleshing out the personal journey of the Beast over the course of the film. While the movie may require parental discretion, I believe that the remake of this beloved classic is worth watching and enjoying.

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