I already mentioned two weeks ago that I wasn’t particularly familiar with the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast growing up. What I didn’t mention is that the first time I finally did see a live action adaptation of it, it wasn’t even a traditional take on it. Instead it was the pilot episode of the TV show Beauty and Beast from 1987. And I fell immediately in love with it.
I guess you could say that this show was my Twilight. I was very invested in the tragic romance between Catherine Chandler and Vincent. So I admit when I searched for the show again a few years ago, I did it with a lot of trepidation. I mean, I outright hated the third season (as it is bond to happen when the main actress of an epic romance has to be written out of the show), but I had a lot of good memories of the first two. Would they still be as good as I remembered it?
Well, they weren’t. Back then, I never quite realized how formulaic and downright dumb a number of those episodes were. Not all of them, but it was pretty much the standard network TV fare CBS is falling back on even to this day. On the other hand, I never really remembered the show for its story (especially not considering how the epic romance between Catherine and Vincent ended – just…never watch season 3. NEVER!). No, what I remembered above all where the two main characters (played by two amazing actors), the sets, the costumes, the style, the music. Honestly, this show might have had one of the best romantic themes ever.
Though there was one thing which was even better than I remembered it on a narrative level and that was the pilot episode – well, with a few criticism. The plot is a little bit truncated to fit into the run-time, it feels as if this was supposed to be a movie length script which was hacked to pieces to fit a standard episode runtime. But otherwise, I discovered a lot of details I missed beforehand (or had forgotten about).
So, what is the story? Basically, it is Beauty and the Beast in our modern world. To be precise, in New York. But the pilot episode still plays like a fairy tale. It starts with “Once upon a time” and New York is portrayed like this dangerous jungle. There is the world in the glass tower for the rich and powerful, the normal people are living in a world with street gangs and dangerous criminal, having to fight daily for their survival (which, honestly, is pretty accurate for New York in the 1980s) and finally the “World Below”. Unbeknownst to everyone people who have been thrown away by society have created their own community deep in the sewers, subway tunnels and whatever else is hidden under New York. Especially this place has a magical feel to it and often looks like something from the middle ages. In short, the show is urban fantasy at its finest.
But it’s not really Beauty and the Beast, even though it is an official adaptation of it. Oh, the basic is still there, there is still a beautiful woman falling in love with a beastly looking man. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Remember, Beauty and the Beast is about a young woman whose family has fallen on hard times financially, and who slowly learns to appreciate the gentle character of a Beast after she is forced to live in his castle. That is not at all what the TV show is about.
Let’s start with Catherine (Beauty). She doesn’t have any financial trouble at all. Catherine is the daughter of a successful corporate lawyer, working a highly paid job in the law firm of her father, but not really feeling fulfilled in said job. Her life changes abruptly when she is attacked one evening. Badly hurt she is dumbed in the park where Vincent (the Beast) finds her and brings her to the world below. With the help of “Father”, the leader of the community and a former doctor, he takes care of her until she is well enough to go back home.
First change: Instead of the Beast forcing Beauty to come to him, in this story “Beauty” gets attacked and rescued by the “Beast”. Which in turn solves what can be considered the biggest problem in the original story. The idea there is that the Beast is a noble person, despite its appearance. But no matter what excuse one picks, there is nothing noble about holding a young woman captive. No matter how much stuff someone piles on someone else, it is still a messed up situation, meaning the Beast shouldn’t be considered noble. But Vincent certainly is. By bringing Catherine into the world below he breaks one of its most important laws, to never reveal its existence to an outsider. And the risk for him is higher than for anyone else living there, considering that his beastly appearance would certainly draw a lot of negative attention. There is nothing selfish about the act and nothing questionable.
Second change: Catherine gets to know Vincent’s gentle nature before she sees his face. Due to her injuries, her face is initially in bandages which cover her eyes. Frankly, the situation is quite terrifying for her. How would you feel getting attacked and then waking up not in a hospital but an unfamiliar place and essentially blindfolded? Being forced to trust into what some voice tells you?
Third change: The first time she sees his face happens when she takes off her bandages. She looks into a mirror and sees her scared face and then he turns up behind her and she sees his reflection. And reacts by throwing the mirror at him, but the important point is that in this story “Beauty” has lost her beauty, too. And a lot of her relationship to the “Beast” is built on an understanding of how much the way someone looks influences his or her standing in society and how little meaning it has otherwise.
Fourth change: As soon as Catherine is well again, Vincent brings her back home. At no point is he trying to force her to stay with him or be with him. Quite the opposite in fact, he is the one who keeps telling her that he can’t live in her world and she shouldn’t live in his. So, none of the passive aggressive BS which is inherent in the original version of the story. There is a true connection between those two characters. Literally.
Fifth change: The one magic power this “Beast” has are emphatic abilities. Vincent connects with Catherine on such a deep level, that he is able to experience her feelings, her pain, her fears but also her happiness. And yet this connection never feels creepy, mostly because he mainly uses it to be there for her whenever she needs help. Or just someone to talk. On her balcony (yeah, they got a lot of leverage out of this balcony). He never in any way tries to control the way she spends her live or reacts possessive when she develops feeling for someone else. The one goal Vincent has is to see Catherine happy.
Sixth change: The “Beast” never turns human. Catherine regains her beauty (after all, the rich and powerful can afford the best doctors), but Vincent was born this way and will never be anything different that what he is.
I mentioned beforehand that every adaptation of Beauty and the Beast has a different focus. The focus here is clearly the tragic love story between two people who never can truly be together. But there is a little bit more to it than that. A running theme through the pilot and the series in general is how judgemental society tends to be. Vincent avoids said society for exactly that reason, but Catherine deals with is every day. And just like Vincent, she is put in a handy category, too. First it is “socialite”, never mind that she has a law degree. Than it is “victim”. And finally, when she decides to ditch her old job and work for the attorney’s office instead, it is “useless free-loader”. Not because she acts snobbish or lazy, but because she is good looking and obviously well-off, so nobody expects her to be actually dedicated to her job.
Though this comes sometimes in handy, too. Catherine decides to learn to defend herself. And when I talk about defending herself I mean that she trains in dirty street fight to ensure that she will never be helpless again. That doesn’t quite work out because, well, most of the episodes end with Vincent having felt her fear and coming to her rescue, but there are again and again scenes in the series in which someone underestimates either her wit or her ability to fight back, and pays the price for it.
I guess, I was kind of lucky that this TV show was my Twilight. Because I got the tragic love story, but one which isn’t just built on contrived drama, but on a believable struggle. I got the devoted boyfriend, but my version wasn’t about a sparkling It-crowd but idealized character over good looks and popularity. And I got a female main character who broke out of the invisible cage her father and boyfriend had build for her. I wish that the current generation had something along the line, too. Oh, there is a remake of Beauty of the Beast, with another Vincent and Catherine. I even watched the pilot episode. And then I had the desire to smash something. Because the remake, well, it is as if someone had decided to “twilight” the original TV show. It is so bad, I don’t even have the energy to rant about it. My only condolence is that this one, unlike the original, will most likely eventually fall into obscurity.
Quote (Actually, the opening narration in place of a quote):
Vincent: This is where the wealthy and the powerful rule. It is her world…a world apart from mine. Her name…is Catherine. From the moment I saw her, she captured my heart with her beauty, her warmth, and her courage. I knew then, as I know now, she would change my life…forever.
Catherine Chandler:: He comes from a secret place, far below the city streets, hiding his face from strangers, safe from hate and harm. He brought me there to save my life…and now, wherever I go, he is with me, in spirit. For we have a bond stronger than friendship or love. And although we cannot be together, we will never, ever be apart.
Best Episode: The Pilot
Best Set Piece: The Staircase
Well, if you are into a epic love stories and slightly corny romances, check this one out. While it never was a hit series, it is certainly an interesting piece of TV history. After all, one of the writers of the show was George R.R. Martin (yeah, I was surprised to discover that one, too), and it had a very dedicated fandom. Which might not have made the best decision to push for a season 3, but I won’t blame them for that. The Remake you should avoid at all cost. I am usually not in the habit of making snap judgements about TV shows, because there is always the possibility that one gets better further down the line, but this…thing…has the worst pilot I have ever seen. In this version the “Beast” is an actual stalker with violence problems and “Beauty” might be the most incompetent police officer ever. So, better stick to the original.