Walt Disney has turned "Beauty and the Beast" into a parable about socialising masculinity without lessening its appeal. But Celia Brayfield thinks Superman and Lois Lane are unlikely to live happily ever afterby Celia Brayfield / July 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Once upon a time, when the Walt Disney Company re-created a fairy story, it did not suffer too much in translation. Embellishments would be small scale-a few proactive tweety-birds or new names for the seven dwarfs. The old stories were retold with classic restraint and Disney meddled only with modern tales (resulting in butchery of The Swiss Family Robinson and Jungle Book).
With Beauty and the Beast, however, Disney finally decided to reinvent a classic. The millions who have already seen the ?10m stage musical in London and elsewhere, and enjoyed the cartoon film which preceded it, have been told a radically redesigned story.
This is no longer the tale of Beauty, youngest daughter of a once wealthy Parisian, who asks her father only for a rose as a gift when he travels up to town hoping to restore his family’s fortunes. It is now the Beast’s story, and his struggle to master his savage nature in order to win her love, break his curse and save his jolly servants from turning into furniture.
Forget the traditional gentle Beast devoted to his books; in Disney’s reading, the brutish exterior conceals a brutish interior; the Beast owns the books but cannot read. He is, in fact, a violent, hyperactive, illiterate, unskilled thug trapped in the underclass, until he meets the new post-feminist Beauty-no longer even a blonde-who starts reading his own library to him. His potential for change is contrasted with the crass, unregenerate machismo of Beauty’s village suitor, Gaston. Beauty’s father is no longer a ruined businessman, but an eccentric inventor, and her six snotty siblings have been written out, as is appropriate for a time when the average single parent has only 1.7 children.
This radical surgery has adapted a European folktale for the task of social engineering in modern ghetto cultures. Instead of a story of transforming love, we have a parable about socialising masculinity. The story’s new purpose is similar to that of Anne Fine’s Mrs Doubtfire, in which Robin Williams as an immature father has to transform himself into a middle-aged nanny to regain his children; it is also close to the reworking of Peter Pan as the film Hook by Steven Spielberg, in which the elaborate nostalgia for childhood informing JM Barrie’s tale was replaced by crude propaganda for active fatherhood.
Children always want their favourite stories told the same way, so redesigning tales which speak to the child in all of us is a dangerous game. It is, however, one which has been played up and down the world’s cultures for centuries. Shakespeare and Verdi were two of the greatest masters, constructing masterpieces on the foundations of myth and legend which they adapted to the political climates of their times.
Storytelling is a way of creating a metaphorical debate on the issues which challenge society. Beauty and the Beast has already appeared in countless guises. The written version was first published in 1740 by the Frenchwoman Madame de Villeneuve. Privileged young women then made arranged marriages and there was an obvious advantage in a story which assured a reward for loving a repulsive mate. The tale also addressed a young woman’s fear of male sexuality, something difficult to imagine in our era of girl-power.
Collecting and retelling folk myths has been in fashion ever since the decline of peasant culture, and the practice of adapting the story for the audience grew with the genre. Marina Warner, in From The Beast To The Blonde, suggests that the Brothers Grimm were the first consciously to graft didactic elements into folktales. She also notes that Beauty became more and more passive under successive generations of male editors and writers.
The founding myth from which Beauty and the Beast derives is the Greco-Roman story of Cupid and Psyche. Psyche, the third daughter of a king, was so beautiful that mortal men were afraid to marry her. An oracle persuaded her despairing father that she should marry a lover who visits her only in the dark of night. Her envious sisters insisted her unseen lover must be a monster. Taboos being made to be broken, Psyche one night lit a lamp and discovered the exquisite Cupid sleeping by her side. A drop of oil from the lamp fell on him, he woke up and disappeared. Many trials later, Psyche became an immortal and was reunited with her love.
The motif of a love between a male monster and a beautiful girl appears throughout history, beginning with the taming of the wild man Enkidu by a temple prostitute in the oldest written narrative, the epic of Gilgamesh (2000 BC). There are parallels in Indian and Chinese mythology, in the Jamaican story of Bull-of-all-the-Land, and in the figures of Quasimodo, Tarzan and King Kong.
From a Freudian perspective, the story tells of a woman’s sexual awakening as she learns to transfer her attachment from her father to her mate. Jean Cocteau’s film version underlined this by using the same actor to portray both the Beast and Beauty’s village suitor. In the 1970s, Angela Carter conceived Beauty as a sexually aware heroine turned on by the Beast’s animality. A decade later Ted Hughes made Beauty’s sexuality the salvation of the Beast.
It is the aptness of the story for sexual interpretation that has guaranteed its popularity in this century. In Britain alone, 16 plays based on the tale were running in the year before the Disney musical opened. Carter described it as a story which had always been used to “housetrain the id,” and it seems immaterial whose id is to be housetrained. Disney’s masculine tailoring of the story has not diminished its appeal; the cartoon was their highest ever earner and the musical is a huge hit.
The same cannot be said of the changes made to another modern myth, the story of Superman. The man of steel is an archetypal figure whose ancestors appear throughout history. Every culture has its superhero-the Greco-Roman storytellers had Hercules; the bards of Ireland had Cuchulain. They are the least complex mythological protagonists, created to reassure us we can find a champion to defeat whatever evil threatens humanity.
The story of Superman, first told in Action Comics in 1938 by the writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, recreated this figure for the modern inner city, but allowed him to stray occasionally into the Cupid role with Lois Lane as his Psyche. Lois, star reporter on the Daily Planet, is enchanted by Superman, the mysterious suitor who takes her up to fly with him over the city, but barely tolerates his nerdy alter ego, Clark Kent. So far, so classical, and the Christopher Reeve films of the 1980s stuck closely to the original. But a simple hero can be at a disadvantage in a complex world. Unlike Batman, with his supernatural antagonists, the Joker, the Penguin and now Mr Freeze, Superman has had trouble punching his weight. His great feats have been restricted to saving busloads of orphans and averting train wrecks, nickel-and-dime stuff compared to defending society against sleaze, greed and corruption.
To compound Superman’s problems, the talented and assertive Lois Lane is an ideal post-feminist heroine and has recently proved fatally interesting to both scriptwriters and audience. The emphasis of the stories shifted to the relationship with Lois in the television series, The New Adventures of Superman, effectively marooning the hero in the wrong story. First, Lois was allowed to break the taboo hiding Superman’s identity. Following the pattern of Cupid and Psyche, he should have disappeared. Instead, Lois and Superman have been allowed to get married, which is quite against the rules. Heroes should not fall in love or get married. It always ends badly.
The gods are irritated. Ratings for the television series have fallen. The writers of the Superman strip at DC Comics have now been drawn to the inevitable consequence. They have decided that Superman will become a being of energy and that his body will physically disperse.
They have also decreed that Superman shall lose his powers. He is no longer flying so he cannot take Lois for those aerial tours, which is a killer since flying is one of the cardinal abilities of a supernatural being, as well as an irresistible technique of seduction. Peter Pan takes Wendy flying; the Snow Queen takes Kay; the Devil took Jesus up to a high place and showed him the world.
The divine courtship is over now that the lovers are married and we are assured by DC Comics that Superman is going to be a superhusband and Lois will be doing everything she can to help him get his powers back. I wager a mythological fiver that this simply will not work. Too many taboos have been broken. The hero is doomed.