Beauty and the Beast: This is the Wrong Story for Belle and the Beast

Belle and the Beast stand in front of a winter landscape, Belle holding a rose. The text reads "Disney, Beauty and the Beast."
Image: Disney

Genre: Fairy Tale Retelling

Synopsis: A prince is cursed to become a beast for an act of unkindness. He can only be redeemed if someone falls in love with him. Enter Belle, an educated young woman unsatisfied with her life, and willing to do anything to save her father–from the beast who’s imprisoned him.

Verdict: This adaptation is genuinely charming in its execution, but it’s quite faithful to the Disney version, and fixes none of the major flaws of its predecessor. If you liked Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, you’ll probably like this one—it’s not that different.

I’ve always wanted to like the Beauty and the Beast story more than I actually did. Watching this 2017 adaptation made me realize why. There’s a lot of potential to the story to get excited over, but the choices it makes are unsatisfying. And while the 2017 version has a few nice touches that belong in the 21st century version of the story, many of the parts that needed to catch up to the times are left exactly as they were.

Belle

As I watched the introductory parts of Belle’s story, where she demonstrated how stifled she was by the life she was supposed to lead, expressing her interest in travel and teaching a girl to read…it struck me that Belle feels like the wrong character for this particular story.

She’s educated and adventurous. What she really wants is to see the world. This introduction primes her character to take the initiative in building the life she wants. To take risks in order to seek out happiness.

Her story should be about finding her freedom—and instead, she gets tossed into a prison for the rest of the movie.

The resolution does not fix these problems, either. Marrying a prince and moving up in the world by virtue of what she sees in someone else, rather than working to achieve the place in the world she actually wants…well, it’s not necessarily unrealistic, but it takes away a lot of her agency. This is a story, and she’s the protagonist, so she’s supposed to drive it. And based on her personality and motivations, it feels like she’s driving the wrong story.

Belle is unique among the Disney heroines, in that she gets to be intelligent and literary. But neither the Disney movie or this 2017 version makes use of her supposed intellect beyond letting the Beast have an easy present to give to her.

Watching this movie has finally made clear to me, why I’ve always wanted to like this story, and why it’s never quite worked for me. I genuinely like the outline for Belle’s character, and want to see a plot that deserves her. But the plot she gets is much more about the Beast than it is about her.

The Beast

Is it just me, or are there a lot more stories encouraging women to look beyond men’s appearances than vice versa? (TV Tropes seems think so). Regardless, this theme makes especially little sense in Beauty and the Beast.

The story problem is caused by the prince not looking beyond a woman’s appearance, and yet he never has to learn from that mistake. His love interest is canonically stated to be uncommonly beautiful, and the story makes it her job to look past appearances for him. He never actually has to do it himself.

I mean, what?

The convoluted logic is probably something like, ‘oh, he has to become a good enough person that someone will love him despite his appearance’. Or maybe, ‘since he looked down on someone because of how she looked, he has to experience it himself now.’

Those could potentially be reasonable explanations. If breaking the curse wasn’t centered around someone other than him being the better person. Because Belle is the one who has to do the actual work here.

I mean, yes, if the Beast has to become good enough that someone will care for him, then he’s got to do some work to be worth it. But that doesn’t even necessitate that he fix the character flaw that got him into this mess in the first place.

The problem isn’t that he has no redeeming qualities worth caring about—in fact, we have no idea if that was ever true. All we know, is that he wasn’t willing to show a shred of kindness to someone who looked poor and unattractive. Has he learned his lesson by the end of the movie? Maybe, but the story never asks him to demonstrate it, so we can’t be sure.

And if he was meant to learn what it’s like to have other people judge him based on his appearance, then why was his salvation dependent on someone else doing for him what he wouldn’t do for others?

It makes no sense to me that the Beast has to be redeemed through the goodness of another person, rather than demonstrating that he’d changed himself.

The Romance

I must have blinked and missed the actual development of Belle and the Beast’s relationship. From a storytelling perspective, the growth of their friendship and romance happened during what was basically a long montage. There was no antagonist, no conflict, no tension driving those scenes. It happened too abruptly, and thus made for an unbelievable foundation to base the rest of the movie on.

Oh, and also, he was still keeping her prisoner during that whole time.

Which makes the relationship not just unbelievable, but a little repulsive on top of that. Belle thanks the Beast for letting her go see her father when he’s in trouble. That’s messed up. In healthy relationships, you don’t need your partner’s permission to visit your dad—at all, let alone during an emergency.

Then when it came to defending the Beast before the townsfolk, Belle actually told them he was gentle and kind, that he’d never hurt anyone.

Seriously, Belle? He imprisoned your father for picking a rose from his gardens. Earlier in that same night, you told him you weren’t happy because you weren’t free. Why weren’t you free again? Oh right, because the guy literally wasn’t letting you leave.

He saved your life, yes, though it’d be nice if he wasn’t the reason you were out there in the first place. And then he hung out with you and gave you books to read. You know what would have made all that nicer? If you’d, I don’t know, actually had a choice about being there.

Maybe if you could send your dad a note saying you weren’t rotting in a dingy little cell anymore? That would have been cool. Or getting to visit him would have been great, too. Or inviting him over. Or being allowed to leave.

Let’s not forget that even at his most ‘gentle and kind’, the Beast was still keeping Belle trapped in recompense for a rose her dad plucked from his garden.

I might buy that she’d give the Beast a chance to change, sure. But her defense of him went so overboard that it made Gaston’s ‘she-must-be-under-a-spell’ theory actually sound plausible.

Other Comments

  • The version of the Beauty and the Beast song in the minor key is awesome–and maybe more fitting to the story than the original.
  • The enchantress cursed an entire castle’s worth of people, separating families and even affecting children, because one dude was rude to her. Wow. That’s Maleficent levels of villain territory.
  • I feel like it should have been harder to convince a bunch of townsfolk to trek to an unknown location and pick a fight with a monster who wasn’t even paying attention to them. Where is their survival instinct?

Overall

This is the 2017 version of Beauty in the Beast. But it doesn’t feel like the main plot of the story has been updated to the 21st century. It isn’t a grueling watch by any means, but it isn’t quite fulfilling, either.

Favorite Quotes:

“But she’s so well-read. And you’re so…athletically inclined.”