The recent rash of movies based on fairy tales has many of us thinking about the use of these stories in culture. The role of fairy tales in cutlure has traditionally been ritualistic and instructive. Until relatively recently in the history of humanity, the choice to relegate these stories to the nursery would have been an absurb, if perhaps even unheard of, idea.
These stories make us consider more deepely psychological aspects of our experience. And they do it without preaching to us with a false sense of religiosity or authority so common in other mediums of psychological exploration, such as the church or the therapist’s couch. These stories are a reflection of our cultural complexes. They are often the truest likeness of psyche a culture can perceive, as the images come in an almost allegorical form. The meaning is clear to those living INSIDE the mythic imagination of a culture; the characters, the motifs become signifiers that house the interpretation of an entire culture.
Beastly is based on a 2007 novel of the same name, and as this name suggests, it purports to be a contemporary retelling of the Beauty and the Beast tale published in the 18th century by Jeanne Marie LePrince de Beaumont. The original tale centers around La Belle, the beauty, who sacrifices herself for her family and confronts a beast, becoming his “prisoner” and eventually falling in love with the sweetness in his wounding. This tale has universal apppeal, and is considered to be the 2nd most commonly recycled fairy tale in the world behind (guess who) the girl with the glass slipper.
The idea that someone can love even the most frightening imperfections and that that love can actually bring healing to both the lover and the beloved is one that touches us all, as we can identify with both the beast and the beauty.
This newest celluoid incarnation certainly takes on this motif of the blind nature of love (yes, that was a reference to NPH), but what I find even more compelling is the aspect of the story that differs slighty from other tellings, and that is the relationship of the characters to truly beastly parenting.
All the while that I was watching this film, I couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow I knew this film. The aesthetic was so familiar. It traversed the road of magical realim with a specific vision that I’d not seen in a while. Nevertheless, the style was familiar to me, so I went home and googled the movie. A connection I’d not noticed popped right out at me. This film was directed and adapted for the screen by Daniel Barnz, who was also the director and the screen writer for another movie I loved titled Phoebe in Wonderland.
Ba BAM! This connection seemed to obvious. They are both stories about the dangers of bad or neglectful parenting. They consider the exact issue that I understand to have reached epidemic proportions in our culture…what happens to a child if they are raised by narcissistic parents.
In Phoebe, the parents are loving, but emotionally absent. They are too obsessed with their careers, with attempting to provide and with developmental and behavorial problems presented by their other daughter to notice that Phoebe is starving for attention. Consequently, Phoebe moves into Alice’s world. Her mom is in process of authoring a PhD on the subject so it feels safe and familiar to her, as she has been surrounded by this story her entire life. However, at first, Alice’s world seems to plague her. She has frightening and dangerous dreams (day and night) until, with the help of a drama teacher, Phoebe is finally able to develop some kind of communication between her mom and her.
Beastly takes on this exact same theme. Beauty’s parents, while loving, are pretty much absent. Her mother has passed away, and the pain of the loss has caused her father to turn to drugs. This is largely the same as other telling of the story, where Beauty own responsibilty for her father leads directly to her transformative relationship with the Beast.
This tale, however, offers a fascinating portrayal of the roots of Beast’s transformation into the physically “beautiful” (I guess) that he is at the beginning of the film. His mother has abandoned the family, and it is clear that she wants nothing to do wiht her son. The father is the very incarnation of emotional disconnection. He is a news anchor, of the kind of professional calliber as Diane Sawyer, and he clearly considers his son to be just one more beautiful bauble in his collection.
My favorite example of the disconnection between the family in this film comes during a scene when they are sitting into the ktichen together. Beast attempts several times to approach his father about a school election that he has clearly run in and won simply to catch his father’s notice. However, his father ignores him, choosing instead to focus on his own image on the huge plasma screen in front of him rather than giving his son the attention for which he is so desperate. The Beast is what I like to call a man-boy. Although his body looks like a man’s body, he is a child without identity. He does have allies, however.
Abandoned by his father after his appearance becomes a problem that he both cannot fix and will not live with, the Beast lives in exile with his house keeper, a Jamaican woman, and his tutor, a blind man. Through this experience with these two true seers, the Beast learns how to discover his own desires and how to (amazing) truly consider the needs and desires of another. To put it in blunt Jungian terms, he encounters his own anima, his own feelings, and he realizes that avoiding feeling anything was his way of avoiding the self-loathing he inherited from the abandonment of his parents. His relationship with Beauty, however, makes that neglect impossible (enter open flood gates, stage right), and the rest, as they say, is history.
The clear message of these films for parents? Hug your kids! Attempt to understand them and help them understand you. And for heavens sake, parents, deal with your own BS! Because, even if you don’t, your children will figure out a way to deal with it, and then they will leave you behind, which will, of course, be your just desserts. Not that you’d necessarily care…
The clear message of these film for kids? Don’t trust anyone over thirty…unless they teach drama, are blind or have vaguely exotic West Indian tendencies…and when necessary, YES, YOU TOO can transcend your narcissitic parents!