Tuesday, March 21, 2017

After All, Miss, This is France: Historical Accuracy and the New "Beauty and the Beast"

I saw the new live-action Beauty and the Beast on Saturday and I've been overthinking it ever since. (This is what happens when a bookish Millennial girl with degrees in Drama and French sees a remake of a beloved childhood classic about a bookish French girl.) So I have a few things to say about the adaptation, the changes it makes, and its historical accuracy or lack thereof.

Are you reading Shakespeare there? (CGI) Dan Stevens as the Beast, Emma Watson as Belle.
I appreciated some of the changes to the new version: the filling in of plot holes, and the attempt to show more of how Belle and the Beast's relationship develops. To that end, the filmmakers have included scenes where the characters bond over Shakespeare. (Belle is pleased to be living with a fellow book-lover and reads to the Beast from Midsummer's "Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind" speech.) Cute, but also rather anachronistic. In France in the 1700s, it's just possible that the Beast might have translated versions of Shakespeare's plays in that vast library of his, but it's unlikely that both he and Belle would revere Shakespeare above all other authors. At that time, the French still saw Shakespeare as déclassé, an uncultured Englishman writing sprawling plays that did not respect the all-important Three Unities. Belle and the Beast would be much more likely to read and discuss literature from their own country: the plays of Racine and Corneille, or maybe the essays of Montaigne. It's fun to imagine them reading Corneille's The Illusion, a play that has themes about artifice and looking deeper, and features a magic mirror that can show you what your loved ones are doing! (Also, it's a delightful play that was far ahead of its time.)

Another change in the new version is the addition of a lot of unnecessary backstory about Belle's family. We learn that Belle and her father Maurice moved to their "provincial" village when she was a baby, after her mother died of the plague. At first, this sounds slightly odd: wasn't plague a medieval disease, and doesn't this movie take place in the 1700s? (Why not smallpox or tuberculosis?) However, there were scattered outbreaks of plague long after the medieval Black Death epidemic, including a really devastating one in Marseille in 1720 (the Great Plague of Marseille). And if we assume that that outbreak killed Belle's mother, and further assume that Belle is about 20 years old when the main action of Beauty and the Beast takes place, we can pinpoint the exact setting of the film as 1740 — which was the year the original French "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale was published! Brilliant!

The only problem with this theory is that the film makes clear that Belle and Maurice are from Paris, not Marseille, and as far as I can tell from Wikipedia, there were no Parisian plague outbreaks in the 1700s. I am left angrily shaking my fist at the screenwriters: "It would have been so easy to say they are from Marseille and not Paris and it would have been a great Easter egg for us history nerds!"

I suspect that both of these matters — having Belle and the Beast discuss Shakespeare, and saying that Belle and Maurice come from Paris — can be traced to a larger problem with movies made for mass audiences: the fear of including information that isn't 100% familiar to everyone. Belle and Maurice are Parisian, not Marseillais, because American audiences can be trusted to know where Paris is but may have never heard of Marseille. Belle and the Beast read Shakespeare, not Racine or Corneille, because those French authors are not part of Anglo-American culture. (I do like that they also show the Beast reading Arthurian romances; this strikes me as historically plausible, understandable to a modern American audience, and not quite as much of a lazy choice as Shakespeare.) Perhaps this is even why Belle's mother dies of the plague, rather than of something like tuberculosis. I suppose I shouldn't be looking to a nostalgia-flavored Disney remake to expose people to unfamiliar ideas, but it makes me sad when mass culture doesn't take the opportunity to try to tell a mass audience something they may not have heard before.

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