The story of Beauty and the Beast is as old as time. Well, not quite. It’s been around in various incarnations since 1740, when the fairy tale was first published. It was adapted for the screen first in 1946 by Jean Cocteau with the film La Belle et la Bête. But there have been numerous adaptations between then and now for both film and TV. It even inspired a Meat Loaf music video – for the song “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)”. True fact.
The most famous adaptation, however, has to be the 1991 Disney animated musical, which bagged an unprecedented nomination in the Best Picture category at that year’s Academy Awards.
Disney’s live action version, which hits cinemas this week, promises audiences a spectacular remake of its cartoon forerunner. But it’s more than simply a live action re-tread of the celebrated classic. We spoke to Emma Watson, Dan Stevens and Luke Evans from the film’s cast plus director Bill Condon and composer Alan Menken, who all supported our position that it’s not just better than the animated version – it’s the best screen adaptation ever.
1. It uses classic influences wisely
Like we said, the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast is not just a copy of the animated original. It takes the best parts of the Disney classic, and borrows aspects of Cocteau’s early screen version as well as elements from the original story to create a superior adaptation that is relevant to today’s audiences. Standing on the shoulders of giants, as Bill Condon does, results – in this case – in something stronger and better.
Condon says that not only was the Beast as a character heavily influenced by the Cocteau version – in costume and performance – but specific design elements were also inspired by La Belle et la Bête.
From the moment when Belle’s father, Maurice, first walks into the castle to the lamp that comes to life, there were lots of touches that Condon attributes to the Cocteau film. “The whole gazebo in that movie informed the way we designed the colonnade,” says Condon. “Throughout, you just only aspire to that feeling of incredible beauty and magic that that film has.”
More than 70 years have passed since that version first hit screens, and Condon makes the most of the advances in technology to realise the things that Cocteau could only dream about. If Cocteau were around today making films, there would surely be plenty in Condon’s version that he himself would aspire to.
But it’s not just the first screen version that Condon draws from. There are other classic influences that he has built on, including benchmark Hollywood musicals. Condon says, “There’s a big nod to The Sound of Music and in the “Be Our Guest” number there are about a dozen musicals that are referenced.”
Condon says he looked back at some of the earliest screen musicals: “There’s a film called Love Me Tonight that Maurice Chevalier is in from 1932. It opens with this long number where Paris comes to life. And there’s this Ernst Lubitsch movie, The Merry Widow with these incredible waltzes. I would look at stuff like that just to get ideas going.”
And in trying to get the tone and balance right between the characters of Belle and the Beast, it also borrowed from old screwball comedies. For the Beast in this adaptation, Dan Stevens, says, “we looked at screwball comedies and that toe-to-toe relationship where you give as good as you get.”
It’s here, says Dan, that the new version really differs from the original: “It’s not that [Belle] is teaching Beast to read, she’s reminding Beast that he can read. And reminding him of the beauty of books, reminding him of the beauty of dance – which he hasn’t done a lot since he got these massive paws.”
2. It fills plot holes
When you look back at the traditionally animated original, however fondly you remember it and however groundbreaking it may have been, through today’s lens it’s easy to judge it more harshly. There were elements of the animated original that stretched audiences a little when it came to suspension of disbelief.
One of the biggest questions left hanging over that original is tackled in the new version. The issue of how the villagers were able to forget about the imposing castle on the outskirts of the town, and the prince that lived there.
“They’d been cursed as well,” says Luke Evans, who plays villain Gaston in the film. Loved ones from the town are turned into the furnishings and homewares that come to life in the castle, while those left behind are enchanted too, and forced to forget.
Another problem with previous adaptations is that audiences grow to love the Beast, and are less than enthusiastic when he changes back into the prince. Bill Condon tackles this by introducing Dan Stevens as the prince early on as a way of making audiences more open to embracing the prince’s transformation at the end. He also restored a line of dialogue that had been cut from the 1991 movie, when Belle says to her prince: “How do you feel about growing a beard?”
Says Condon, “I think you just have to acknowledge the fact that the beast is going to be sexier – even when it’s Dan Stevens – than any actor that’s playing him”.
3. It’s tailored for a modern audience
Audiences are different today – animation has moved on leaps and bounds in the wake of Pixar’s breakthrough CGI movies, as have special effects. The facial capture techniques used in this film in animating the Beast have resulted in some incredibly realistic footage.
“The process we used was a more sort of conventional motion capture for the body,” says Dan. But to capture Dan’s expressions, another process was used. “Every couple of weeks I’d go into a cage and they’d spray my face with UV paint, and we’d basically just play the scenes that we’d done for the past fortnight.”
Dan was struck by not only the technology but also the attention to detail – the team spent time capturing thoughts, not just, say, head orientation.
Additionally, the film’s political messages are more relevant today than ever and Condon has drawn them out.
“That sense of xenophobia and the mob has a different feeling now I think,” he says.
Luke Evans agrees. When Gaston rallies the villagers to hunt out the Beast and kill him, it’s a “very scary thing to watch”.
Condon also found it important to explore the power balance between men and women a bit deeper. “Specifically, the empowerment of women and how threatening that still can be to the social order,” he explains.
4. There’s more depth to the characters
Which leads us to Belle’s development as a character. While the Belle from the 1991 original was a new kind of female Disney hero for the time, it was important to both Condon and Emma Watson to move that on.
“The notion in 1991 was that she liked books,” Condon says. “In [the] 2017 [version], she not only likes books but also has a real desire to share that. She’s an activist – she teaches little girls how to read.”
She’s also clever and resourceful and basically invents the washing machine to ease the burden on the women of the village. Emma Watson adds, “That was very key. I insisted she have a vocation of some kind.”
Building in back stories was also crucial.
“This lives or dies on your investment in the relationship between Beast and Belle,” says Condon. “So we have to know more about them. We have to know more about how they got to be where they are when we find them and what it is specifically about them that makes them right for each other.”
That led to a very big change in the story. “This Beast is not illiterate,” says Condon. “She loves books but he’s read more books. It was about taking something that happens very quickly – kind of in a moment – in the animated film and watching the steps of it.”
For Emma, filling in Belle’s backstory was vital: “I was able to add some more of her history, and layers and depth, and hopefully some more subtlety”.
She thanks the medium for that, but the story was also padded out to include more detail. Watson also had a hand in developing aspects of the character, like adding trousers and flat boots to make Belle more akin to our concept of a modern – aka real – woman.
“I insisted she had some kind of trousers on underneath her skirt so she could get on and off a horse in a way that wasn’t ridiculous,” she says. “And I made sure that she wore proper boots and I insisted that she had these big pockets so she could carry around her books.”
By filling in back stories, giving us a deeper understanding of their situations, it allows the audience more insight – and makes things like the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ criticism that’s been levelled at the story less pertinent. In Belle’s case, she finds more freedom with the Beast and all that he offers (including his extensive library) than she ever felt in the small town she wound up in.
But it’s not just Belle and Beast that benefit from character development. Gaston and his sidekick LeFou do too – and then there’s Belle’s father, Maurice.
Of Maurice, Dan Stevens says, “Belle is blessed with an absolutely beautiful father in Maurice. I think [Kevin Kline’s] portrayal of that father is so beautifully sensitive.” The Maurice of the new version is a far more nuanced character – less of a caricature – which makes their relationship all the more touching and what happens more heartrending.
As for Gaston and LeFou, Condon says, “They needed the most translating from the animated version because those two people do not roam the earth in real life.”
He looked at what the model would be now. “I liked the idea of introducing a militaristic side to [Gaston]. And the idea that like some jocks you see, he peaked at age 17 and he’s been coasting ever since. And the ego has gotten more and more fragile and people have to recreate his greatest moments of triumph in order to make him feel good.”
He also had fun updating the relationship between the two men. “I like playing with the roles that men find themselves playing,” he says. “They’re best buddies but it’s clear that on every second day LeFou wakes up and instead of wanting to be Gaston, he wants to be with Gaston. And Gaston probably doesn’t mind that either – just don’t make it obvious.”
The chemistry between Josh Gad, who plays LeFou, and Luke Evans is another thing that elevates it above other versions. It’s a natural chemistry that allowed them to ad-lib some of the film’s funniest moments.
“The cart scene through the forest, a lot of that was ad-libbed,” says Luke.
5. Alan Menken outdoes himself
Composer Alan Menken is responsible for the Oscar-winning music of the Disney original – and rather than overhaul it completely for the live-action version, executives made the smart move of bringing Menken in to tweak his original music.
Menken brings three new songs to the film.
“My approach was triggered by my discussions with Bill [Condon],” says Menken. “I was going to be writing the new songs with Tim Rice. The new material was probably going to deal a lot with trying to establish a really strong French stamp … And also the 18th-Century sense of time and place, the backstory for Belle and Maurice coming to this little town and backstory for the Beast as well.”
He was also tasked with supplying a new song for the Beast when he lets go of Belle, which meant re-writing a song from the Broadway show.
Menken’s updated music enhances the live action – and song and dance numbers are all the more enjoyable for audiences who loved the music first time around because of the tweaked songs, additional numbers, and enthusiastic performances from the actors.
Beauty and the Beast is out on March 17.