As usual, I will cover the adaptations based on release date. This time I start with the 1976 TV-movie of Beauty and the Beast. It is a fairly obscure version, but I think it is worth a watch, due to it being a pretty close adaptation to the original source text while also managing to present a really engaging version of it.
I have to compliment this take for three aspects: Pacing, focus and characters. A lot of adaptations of this story spend a lot of time on the lead up to the Beast first appearance often to a fault. I’ll be frank: I doubt that anybody in the audience really cares about how the merchant precisely ended up in financial trouble or wants to see him travelling around. This movie starts with him getting shelter in the Beast’s castle and then visualizes his thoughts and memories. It is a great device because this way we aren’t just introduced to his daughters and their wishes, we also get a sense for his worries and how much he feels like a failure for not being able to deliver the riches demanded.
In this movie, there are three daughters and only one son, but also one son-in-law. All of them eventually play a role in the story, though the main focus is on the time Belle spends with Beast. A lot of adaptations deal with this period in a few scenes or a montage. But this movie does pretty much the opposite. It gets Belle to the castle within 10 minutes and then takes a lot of time to explore both of the characters and their interaction with each other.
Belle is way less subversive than in most adaptations. She doesn’t go to the castle to sacrifice herself or even to fulfil a promise, but because the Beast has already shown to have magic power and due to herself being the only one in her family immune to it, she hopes that she can persuade the Beast to release her father from the promise he made. When she gets captured but the Beast, she is rightly disgusted and makes clear that this is not just because he imprisoned her, but also because of his beastly look.
The interaction between those two starts out like a negotiation. For example the Beast wants to eat with Belle, Belle insist that she wouldn’t be able to eat while he devours his prey, so he agrees to just keep her company during dinner. They have discussions during which the Beast argues that one can’t change his nature (yeah, really uncomfortable subtext there), while Belle insist that he could, and that she can’t change it for him. Though this claim is kind of undermined by the story, since the Beast “has a temper” , which he tries to get under control because Belle immediately pushes back whenever he starts to rage. So she does kind of change him, weather she intends to do it or not.
The Beast has a very low opinion of humanity in general, but he is also very concerned about Belle’s sensibilities and desires. He actually encourages her to read and further her education and he is truly interesting in getting to know her. They actually have a discussion about Aristotle’s opinions about the difference between men and women. they argue their different point of views and they have just fun with each other – and that for nearly 50 minutes. That is how much the movie focusses on their relationship.
But it also takes its time to flesh out Belle’s family, just by showing them interacting with each other. Especially the scenes in which Belle isn’t present are very revealing. One sister was married, but her husband left her. The husband of her younger sister stayed, but being a noble-man who most likely married “beneath him” for money alone, he is just as unpleasant than they are. Which is a welcome change. I always felt it unfair that in the tale the sons were all well-behaved while the sisters weren’t. It doesn’t really make sense if they all grew up equally spoiled.
Thus said, the son is the only one of the family who shows concern over the grief of his father but here, it makes sense. He is still a child and it is suggested that Belle was responsible for him in his most formative years. And there is an actual plot reason for him being the friendly one, because he eventually helps Belle to get back to the castle, when her family tries to hinder her. Not even out of concern – that is the motivation of the father – but because they know that the Beast will die without Belle and they want to steal his riches once he is gone.
Even the unpleasantness of the sisters and Belle’s brother in law are handled so much better here. Their role isn’t just to make Belle look morally superior, but also to put the Beast in a better light. Belle was always disgusted by the Beast hunting and eating like, well, a beast, but watching he brother-in-law she realizes that at least the Beast did it to survive while humans often do it for blood sport. She also really misses his courtesy and friendliness, which is quite understandable considering how her sister are constantly bickering and throwing out cutting remarks.
Does this adaptation manage to sidestep the unfortunate implications baked into the original story? Eh, not quite, it can’t quite escape the fact that the Beast holds Belle prisoner and is a little bit too concerned with making excuses for this. Though one of the better excuses is that the Beast just can’t help but follow its nature while also clarifying that humans don’t have the same excuse.
Overall I would call this a better version of the source text. The topic is still largely marriage, but it no longer advocates acceptance of an arranged marriage, or to pick a partner based on money. In fact, the situation of Belle’s sisters shows that a marriage based on economic consideration only doesn’t yield particularly good results. Belle on the other hand enjoys the gifts she gets from the Beast, but what wins over her heart is the deep understanding which develops between them. And that is certainly a message I can get behind.
Quote: “You’re not ugly, Beast. You’re monstrous.”
If you want to see an adaptation close to the source text, this is the one to pick. The screenplay is very poignant and excellently acted (well, hard to get wrong with George C. Scott), and the sets are quite elaborate for a TV production. Sadly it is not easily available, especially not in good quality. Which is really a shame.