Story Telling: A Lesson from Beauty & the Beast
The 1991 animated Beauty & the Beast has always been one of my favorite movies. When I was a little girl, my grandma sewed me a Belle dress, and I would twirl around holding out my apron singing, "Little town, it's a quiet village..." I didn't just want to be Belle, I thought I WAS Belle.
It is still one of my favorite stories. The message that love looks past the surface, that love can forgive wicked acts, that love is stronger than death, that we are all under a curse that can only be broken by love, is one of the most important messages a story can tell. Recently, my sisters were up-in-arms when I confessed that Disney's 2017 Beauty & the Beast was something other than perfect.
My sister Katie: "Oh, Beth, you always have to analyze everything. Why can't you just like it?! I loved it!"
My sister Anne: "I knew you'd have some opinion about it."
I don't mean to be a Debbie Downer, there were aspects of the movie that I really liked and I would watch it again, but there were also things that my storytelling brain couldn't tune out.
Today, we're digging deeper into 2017 Disney's B&tB AND the 2014 French version of B&tB (which is currently on Netflix), to analyze what aspects of these iconic stories worked and what didn't.
What is Story comprised of?
In it's most basic form, storytelling needs the five following elements: character, setting, conflict (the problem), plot (how the problem builds), and theme (the deeper truth).
Both of these movies hit all of these basic elements, but I have to think that there is more to storytelling than these five elements otherwise we wouldn't crave stories that go any deeper than "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie..."
Story isn't just WHAT is being told but HOW it is being told. It is not just the broad stroke of a message, but the smallest details of word choice, scene choice, subtext, and nuance.
2017 Disney Version
I think Disney's version had a pretty solid screenplay (i.e. WHAT was being told) but largely failed in HOW it was told. In other words, the screenplay was good, the directing was not.
I actually have a lot of positive things to say about the film. I loved the symbolism of the slowly dying castle. The great urgency that time was running out for the enchanted objects and if Belle doesn't learn to love the Beast so much more will be lost. These heightened stakes (that weren't established in the 1991 version) added to the plot tension.
The movie opens up with Emma Watson striding around the village singing "There must be more than this provincial life!" While all the villagers sing behind their hands that she's a weirdo. This sticks with the original story, except for one thing, Emma doesn't look oblivious to their opinions (like the dreamy, animated version of Belle), she looks like she's ultra confident and doesn't give a crap what anyone thinks. She paced around the village set, almost mannishly, head up, a blank expression on her face. It pulled me out of the story so completely. I thought, "Belle seems pretty confident despite the ignorant villagers. Where's the insecurity? Where is the inner voice that whispers that she doesn't belong in this narrow-minded town?"
And while we're talking about this scene, let me address the fact that Emma Watson was singing from the inside of a tin can! As a classically trained singer myself, it took me about 7 seconds to realize her voice was completely synthesized. Which is fine...for Taylor Swift, but this is Beauty and the Beast! I could hear the computer blipping through her voice and it sounded so fake. I really wished they had just used Emma's real voice (imperfect as it might be) or dubbed over a real singer's voice. The synthesis felt patched up and shoddy to me, but some of my non-musical friends didn't even notice it, so maybe this one squeaked by the majority of the audiences...?
In the next scene, the villagers dumped Belle's laundry because she invented an agitator and tried to teach a little girl to read. This was gold. This sort of hostility was just what we needed to make us empathize with Belle's plight. But everyone was so matter-of-fact about the whole incident that it was quickly forgotten. Belle barely reacted, but simply picked up the sopping laundry, in a resigned way. What did we learn about Belle's inner conflict in that scene? Nada. Moment killed.
Let's fast forward to the castle, shall we?
Even at this stage, I was not getting a heartbeat from Belle. "Quick! Someone get an AED!"
The castle set was incredible--rich and textured. I also loved the antique look of the enchanted objects which were true to that period in France.
Belle's fight reaction to the enchanted objects was understandable, anyone would scream. But after that initial shock, she was very placid in her reaction to the fact that she was in a FREAKING ENCHANTED CASTLE!
I mean, COME ON girl! This crib is super sweet! This is what you've always wanted, show some surprise or enthusiasm or SOMETHING!
I DO understand her desire to get back to her father though and liked how she attempted an escape out the window. This independent and resourceful streak in her character would have been more interesting to watch had it contrasted with other emotions such as the ones I've mentioned above. But when all I see is a confident, smart, willful heroine (which Belle certainly is) it comes off as cliche because most heroines are confident, smart and willful. I would have liked to see more levels and more inner conflict.
During Lumiere's magnum opus, "Be Our Guest" Belle watches with a placid smile on her face. (I was watching with a placid smile on my face too because they slowed the classic song down by a full minute. Sorry, slowing a perfectly good song down doesn't make it better, just slower.) But that aside, Belle would have been in awe, she would have laughed as the dishes danced for her.
But no. "AED...? Anyone........?"
I think this was a little bit Emma Watson's fault but most of the blame is on the director. I DO believe Emma put her heart into the performance, but the director should have worked with her on interpreting the roll a little more. The story was paced fairly well. And there were some funny parts, Belle getting flattened by the Beast's giant snowball and Lefou's attempt to spell Gaston's name at the end of his tavern song were both belly laughing moments. (Also, I thought that the scene where Gaston and Lefou tie up Maurice in the woods could have been omitted to allow more time to develop the friendship between Belle and the Beast. But that's just me.)
There was also this magical book that was used to show Belle what happened to her mother. This was actually a really cool IDEA...but then the book disappeared and wasn't mentioned again. I thought the Beast would give Belle the book at the end and tell her to go on the adventure she's always wanted and then she would choose him instead. That would have been really nice to see. But no. As it turns out the book was a random convenience to the plot.
Up until this point in the story, I was liking it, but looking forward to the ballroom dance scene. I was hoping its lyrics would make my heart swell and I would cry for the beauty. Now first, let me say, the choreography was really great in this scene and the timing of song and dance perfect. BUT here I come to the director's greatest sin. He chopped up the scene. Literally. The scene should have felt like one seamless camera gliding around Belle and the Beast as they danced then shooting up to the chandeliers and the cute cherub butts on the ceiling, but it was so darn choppy.
In writing, we call this syntax, meaning, how words are arranged in a sentence to create a mood. For example, a long flowy sentence might suit a description of a landscape while a short, staccato-like sentence might convey a level or urgency.
The scene felt rather staccato. I was aware that there were about eight cameras around them. The clips of the dance spliced together made the interaction look formal and unromantic.
Finally, the Beast's pointless song "Evermore" aside from being a pretty song, tells the audience nothing they don't already know. I like the idea of the Beast doing a solo in his tower, but the lyrics should at least show us something we don't already know.
Overall, nothing wrong with WHAT was being told, but HOW it was told could have improved.
2014 French Version
This is a much darker version of Beauty and the Beast inspired by the tale by the Brother's Grimm.
In my opinion, the directing in this version was inspired, but the screenplay was not. So, opposite of the Disney version, the problem was WHAT was being told, now HOW it was told.
As far as directing, costuming, CGI, music score, editing, and set, you honestly could not ask for better. The director was a master at mood lighting and also slow-mo and special effects that were totally EPIC!
It was pure, lush, movie screen eye candy.
The French version starts out very strong and true to the original fairytale: a merchant with three daughters loses his fortune and must retire to a farm in the country.
In this version, Belle is happy to live the simple life, filled with hard work and her father's love. In fact, when the merchant's ship come in again (literally) she doesn't want to return to the city life of pomp and circumstance, she wants to remain on the farm.
The story builds and remains very strong until Belle trades her life in for her father's and goes to live in the enchanted castle. Here, cracks begin to appear in the plot.
Belle is disgusted by the Beast and there is this creepy implication that he wants her as his mistress. "WHAT?"
Then, Belle begins to have these magical dreams in which she sees the Beast's past. These dreams keep building until Belle discovers how the Beast was cursed. I liked the concept, but the flashbacks were so long that there was no screen time to develop Belle and the Beast's romance. In fact, there was none.
They have one tense dance together, but THAT IS ALL. Belle goes home to be with her sick father with a promise to return in three days.
Then looters begin marching on the castle and a super epic battle ensues. And I mean SUPER EPIC! Belle feels responsible and hurries back to the Beast.
There are stone giants, wood nymphs, a god of the Forest, a healing pool, a fortuneteller, and a couple of bad guys; and although I like all these concepts individually, there is simply TOO MUCH going on.
Like a cake that implodes when there's is too much baking powder in the batter, so a story implodes when there is too much going on. The audience doesn't know where to place its emotion and what to pay attention to and you end up with something mediocre.
I did love the ending of this version over all other versions. It flashes forward 7 years and shows the life that Belle and her husband have together which is very sweet.
I like the beginning and end of this version better than Disney's take because I really understood what Belle wanted. I understood her emotional center and what drove her decisions.
It's a wrap!
Overall, I liked the Disney version more because the screenplay was better. In a perfect world, the director of the French version would have taken the reins for the Disney screenplay.
All of this analysis of B&tB got me thinking about plot and writing style and asking myself what is more important. Is it most important what is told? Or how its told?
A few books I recently read came to mind...
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer
Perhaps the most sensory/beautiful prose I've read in a single book, but the storyline was indulgent, weak, and flashbacks were the only source of tension. This novel was really strong in HOW it was told but not WHAT was told.
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
Suspenseful and laced with foreshadowing: I couldn't put this book down. I didn't think the descriptions of the landscapes were particularly stirring, but every character in the book is described in sharp focus. Even the smallest gestures (especially from Rachel) were so vivid in my imagination. I think this book hit all the qualities of HOW and WHAT and was the work of a master storyteller.
Preferably, I'd like to read stories with both plot and style, but if I had to pick one I'd chose plot every time. I'd rather read a basic page turner than artful fluff.
But that's just me. :)
If you had to pick between the two, what would you choose?