Beauty and the Beast is a tale as old as time: Prince gets turned into monster by enchantress, meets beauty, they fall in love, the curse is lifted. And, like any classic tale, it's been defined by Disney; the studio's 1991 animation is far and away the most famous adaptation of the French fairy tale, and in the twenty-five years since its monumental release has gone on to completely dominate how the story is perceived in the public consciousness.
This is only going to be compounded by the new live-action remake. Starring Emma Watson as Belle and Dan Stevens as the ill-fated Prince (and a host of big names in supporting roles), the film is the latest in the Mouse House’s trend in readapting their biggest hits in glossy new form; the enterprise began fully with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and has been followed by Maleficent, Cinderella, The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon, with most other noteworthy favorites in some stage of development.
These aren't just straight redos, however, but attempts to modernize or otherwise find new depths to the stories. Animation is a different form to live-action and storytelling thus needs to be approached differently, especially when it comes to pacing and length of sequences. Alice in Wonderland was a wholly Burton take on Lewis Caroll, while Maleficent reframed Sleeping Beauty from the misunderstood villain’s perspective. The Jungle Book is perhaps the most striking success, taking what was originally a series of musical vignettes and weaving a visually resplendent coming-of-age story.
Moreso than any of the previous examples, Beauty and the Beast hews the closest to its original; not only is the story broadly the same, but many of its narrative diversions are a beat-for-beat match. However, that’s not to say there aren't still some big differences in there. Director Bill Condon has made some substantial changes to the provincial tale, especially in regards to the underlying motivations powering the characters. Here’s the biggest you need to know about.
The Curse Redefined
The curse that plagues the Beast is on-the-face-of-it as it always has been - find true love before the enchanted rose wilts - but through a series of little adjustments across the film becomes significantly more complex. For starters, the remake cuts out the long-cited age issue – in the animation, the Prince has until his 21st Birthday to find true love and, as the castle has been cursed for ten years, meaning the enchantress basically punished a precocious kid. There’s no “ten year” line in the remake and the time measure is simply dependent on the rose petals. This is representative of how it plays a more substantial part in the plot. The flower has a key personal importance to Belle (which we’ll get to in a moment) and is why Maurice is held hostage; he was caught taking one of the castle’s roses. This is further why she decides to sacrifice herself to save her father, and early on personifies parallels between her and the Prince.
Overall, the curse has a more visceral presence on the film. Each petal of the rose falling leads to the castle crumbling a little more and the cursed inhabitants becoming more like their household objects. The effects also reach further to include the castle being cut off from the outside world and stuck in a perpetual, year-long winter. Additionally, the villagers’ memories have been wiped, simultaneously explaining away a long-standing plot hole about how the provincial ruling class can just be forgotten and allowing for a last-minute twist that Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts had partners in the village.
It transpires that only those loyal to the Prince at the time of his transformation were turned into household objects (again clearing up a jokey criticism of the original’s logic); Lumiere, feather duster Plumette (who have a much more evident relationship), Cogsworth, Mrs Potts, Chip, dog-turned-foot cushion Sultan, a mute man-servant coat stand, wardrobe Garderobe and new character Cadenza, a piano played by Stanley Tucci. They're further distinguished from their animated counterparts by the extent of their curse; when the final petals falls they become their respective objects for eternity, leading to one of the remakes most striking, unique scenes.
All this said, the biggest change made on the curse side of the narrative is the role of the enchantress. In the original, she is simply conveyed in the opening stained-glass windows, but here we not only see her in the flesh but have her as a recurring presence; early on Gaston flippantly references the village’s resident spinster, who reappears throughout the movie at key points and at the end, when in this version Belle is too late to profess her love and the castle is forever locked in its rundown state, she silently reveals herself as the witch and reverses her hex, actively forgiving the Prince and making her seem much less callous as a result.
This next point is technically a part of the curse, but is so seismic a change that it needs to be stated by itself: the Beauty and the Beast remake introduces teleportation. After they’ve discovered there’s something there that wasn’t there before, Beast shows Belle a book that allows him to teleport to wherever in the world he so desires. How it works exactly is kept intentionally vague, but it essentially relies on dreams; Belle uses it to travel to Paris by placing her hands on the book and picturing where she most wants to be.
It's real, full-on teleportation too - not a vision or imaginary - with Belle actually bringing an object back through with her. It's a strange choice, one that definitely stands out against the typical Beauty and the Beast story and the usual approach Disney has towards its fairy tales in general.
Of course, the whole thing is intended to be a further show of the enchantress’ ironic punishment, allowing Beast to travel anywhere he chooses yet being unable to actually experience it due to his hideous appearance. How successfully it conveys that will vary from viewer to viewer, but it’s a bold choice and one that serves as essential grounding for another big difference made between versions.
Belle and Beast's Parent Issues
Many of the remake’s biggest changes are expansions, with Condon taking unremarked on threads from the original and pulling. He thus substantially expands the backstory of both Beast and Belle (we know little about either of them in the 1991 version), and in doing so creates some interesting parallels between the pair that make their later relationship feel that more genuine.
We learn that the Prince was the subject of a troubled upbringing; his mother died when he was young, after which his domineering father raised him to be as cruel as him. This general unlikeability is established in the extended opening that shows Dan Stevens at peak douchebag, but is contrasted later on; the film shows in a flashback that he clearly cared for his mother, and Mrs. Potts further states the reason she and the rest of the servants remained when he was cursed is because they see his innate goodness.
The other substantial alteration made to the Beast is his affability and intelligence. The 1991 character is altogether uncouth, and while in 2017 his poor table manners remain, this version is incredibly well read – he first bonds with Belle over opinions on Romeo & Juliet and has this time actually used that plentiful library. That Belle would find something attractive deep inside him makes a lot of sense, and their banter reflects an emotional common ground.
Indeed, Belle has her own similar parent issues. The Maurice in the film is one of the biggest personality departures – an artist instead of an inventor, he’s more sincere and less zany – and holds within him a deep longing for his deceased wife, who he refuses to talk about. Belle’s single parent was totally unremarked in the original, but here it forms the emotional crux of her journey – she learns through Beast’s teleportation book that her mother died of the plague and Maurice left her deathbed to save their daughter, a reveal that directly motivates her to return to the village at the start of the third act.
Gaston's Darker Plot (And LeFou’s Betrayal)
There’s no real change made to the characterisation of Gaston. He's the vain, egotistic heavy as he always was, with the similarities carried right down to the specifics of his song. He is now a war veteran, explaining his cockiness and getup, but otherwise Luke Evans is the closest the film has to a straight personality adaptation.
However, though some story choices Condon manages to alter how he’s presented, making the villain darker yet actually more understandable. It’s not a revisionist take that makes him in any way relatable, but he’s still a considerably more well-rounded character; we grasp his desire to marry Belle, which comes from a similar contempt for provincial life, and the rejection is shown to repeatedly hit hard on him, pushing him to more emotionally erratic directions.
The middle act sees him get a new plot thread that furthers this, going with Maurice on a mission to find Belle rather than just kicking the old man out into the snow, culminating in him trying to actually kill the artist. It’s a resolute reminder of his menace while making him more understanding and predicates his later mob-building abilities. Of course, all these changes are still in aid of conveying how Gaston was always conceived; he's a mirror of the Beast, outwardly handsome but horrible on the inside.
Then there’s LeFou. Contrary to all the controversy over making the henchman gay (the moments in question are fleeting, although Josh Gad does play it more effeminately), the changes made to this character are more significant on the plot side of things; in the final act, he moves out of his subservience and actively fights back against Gaston’s goons.
The New Songs
Beauty and the Beast is unique out of the Disney remakes so far for being a musical; all previous films shirked songs aside from The Jungle Book, and that only used two in the main story. Here all of the original numbers get faithful covers by their respective stars (although not the Special Edition’s "Human Again"), some with a few rewrites to reflect bigger alterations or include previously unused lyrics.
What’s of interest, however, is that Condon’s actually expanded the film’s musical credentials, adding in three news songs: "Days in the Sun", showing Belle and Beast gradually adjusting to life in the castle together; "How Does a Moment Last Forever", a French-style song from Maurice's introduction and reprised by Belle after learning her mother’s true fate; and "Evermore", an emotional lament from the Beast where he accepts his fate in lieu of being with Belle. None is as big a showstopper as those in the original (although "Evermore" is better in the context of the remake than "Be Our Guest"), but each still feels essential to the film, connecting together different emotional elements.
And that's really representative of all these changes - as much as the 2017 remakes divergences from the 1991 animation can be dissected, they are ultimately in aid of expanding an 84-minute movie, adding dramatic weight where it wasn't necessary before. Like the full movie the results are mixed, but they overall have a positive impact.
- Beauty and the Beast (2017) release date: Mar 17, 2017