The driving conflict in Beastly (2011, directed by Daniel Barnz) is set in high school, that daily battleground for adolescents where fragile identities form, clash, and remake themselves. The film retells the fairy-tale of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ as a story of teen rivalries, exclusions, and ultimately romance.
In many ways, it is a perfect choice. Appearance is all-important to teens, and the pain of being different doesn’t need any explanation. So when arrogant class leader and likely prom king Kyle Kingson (or, the prince) is turned from handsome to “ugly” by a curse from an “ugly” girl he has callously tricked and humiliated, no teenager will be surprised that he skips school and hides out, while he figures things out. I put ugly in quotes, both times. The Beastly Kyle (Alex Pettyfer), who now calls himself Hunter, is transformed, but only arguably ugly: he seems to have a seriously punk look–bald with tattoo tracery over his face and scalp, scars, and some neat piercings, and spends much of the movie shirtless to show off his abs, which seem to be intact, ugliness curse notwithstanding. Likewise, Kendra, the girl who curses him, played with menacing aplomb by Mary-Kate Olsen, has a commanding presence as the witch, but it would be a stretch to call her ugly. Different is not the same as ugly, but in this teen universe, as perhaps in our own, these two blur.
Vanessa Hudgens is this film’s Beauty, and her character, Lindy Taylor, manages to be both beautiful and different, the outsider, marginalized by her family’s uncertain income and her father’s involvement with illegal drugs. She has had a rough education for compassion, so her perspective on suffering prepares her to be the Beast’s salvation. But first he has to convince her to come out of her room! She’s been staying at his lavish New York apartment for protection, hiding out from someone threatening to take revenge on her father through her. (In this small detail, the film adaptation loses a wee bit of magic, because the fairy-tale Beauty goes to the Beast to save her father’s life, not her own.)
The tale is well-known, and the film follows its outline with reasonable faithfulness. The “Beast” learns more about pleasing the tastes and interests of his Beauty, he learns to be less self-centered and more giving, and romance blossoms along with the roses he cultivates on the apartment’s rooftop garden. With only a hint of any obstacle in their path, restoration follows swiftly upon romance.
Although the familiar shape of the fairy-tale (‘La Belle et la B ête’ by Madame le Prince de Beaumont, 1756) is clearly in evidence, the film seems to lack some of the substance that makes ‘Beauty and the Beast’ one of the most influential and widely dispersed tales, second only to ‘Cinderella’ for its numerous variations in many languages.
It belongs to a general class of folktales about animal grooms (and sometimes animal brides) whose fate depends on the actions and emotions aroused in a human partner. By discovering the truth behind appearances, the human character reaches maturity and grants the animal character a renewed chance at human life. Along the way, the opposites of beauty and ugliness, kindness and brutality, and humanity and bestiality are played off against each other in subtle ways to prepare for the final transformation. (The Fictional 100, p. 190)
Beastly, the film, emphasizes the beauty-ugliness dimension, and to a lesser extent the kindness-cruelty dimension, to the virtual exclusion of the hallmark dimension of humanity vs. bestiality. When he is cursed, Kyle is obsessed with his ugliness, the loss of his radiant looks and the identity and power they gave him. He is “beastly” only in the sense of behaving badly–with thoughtless disregard for others’ feelings or needs. Despite his adopted pseudonym of “Hunter,” the animality of a Beast is essentially bypassed. This eliminates one of the fundamental internal conflicts for the Beast as well as a significant obstacle for Beauty to overcome and learn to accept.
‘Beauty and the Beast’ can be read for its social, psychological, and even political overtones, which critics such as Bruno Bettelheim and Maria Tatar have done with great insight. Yet the heart of the fairy tale seems to be one of the big questions of philosophy: What makes us human? How do we accept and come to terms with our animal nature, while still cultivating that which makes us transcend it? The Beast is transformed because as a man he was living at a level beneath full humanity. During the period of the curse, his form matches his bestial nature and he must work to regain his personhood. Beauty, the emblem of the fully human, willingly sacrifices her freedom to save her father. After she takes up residence in the Beast’s castle, her compassion for him soon flows from the same fountain of human kindness and empathy, despite facing the evidence of his animality.
This is shown dramatically in Jean Cocteau’s masterpiece of film making, La Belle et la Bête (1946), starring Josette Day as a luminous Beauty and Jean Marais as the most poignantly convincing of Beasts. In one visually stunning scene, Beauty accidentally observes the Beast in the midst of a meal, devouring the prey he has caught. Becoming aware of her, he himself feels caught, and is overcome with shame, symbolized by the smoke rising from his bloodied paws. No other image could so completely capture his dilemma. She is shocked at first, but understands that this is what animals must do.
When the Beast allows Beauty to return to her sick father (in Beastly, Hunter must face a similar decision that tests his ability to be unselfish), he is on the road to recovering his humanity, but he is only released from the curse by grace, the freely given love of Beauty who returns to him. (Perhaps we are all made human by such grace!) Beauty is also transformed by this act, integrating her humanity with her physical nature, thereby enabling the true marriage with her prince–body and soul.
To the extent that the film Beastly bypasses the dilemma of our simultaneous human and animal nature, it misses an opportunity (one that Twilight takes advantage of through Bella and Jacob). Even Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast (1991) embraced the animal transformation of the Beast. I have not read Alex Finn’s 2007 novel Beastly, the basis for the film adaptation, but what little I have read about it suggests that her teen Beast may have been hairier! I would be interested to have someone who has read the novel weigh in on its treatment of the human-animal theme.