“Beauty & the Beast” in Our Time

The myth of our era (from the Los Angeles Times Book Review)

Sometimes extraordinary things happen to ordinary people, even professors. First I had a phone call from a program director at BBC4 in England. He was thinking about doing a program about fairy tales. “I wonder,” he asked, “do you think fairy tales say anything to us today? I mean, do they provide paradigms or something like that? I apologize for being so vague but, for example, what do you think about Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast?’ ”

An hour later, the phone rang again. This time it was a film producer. “We’re trying to expand our list,” she explained, “and we’ve realized we’re weak in potential children’s films. Can you recommend some books we might consider? We’re thinking about the incredible popularity of Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ ”

Both phone calls began in the same introductory fashion: “I (or my secretary) took the class you teach in children’s literature, and we’re wondering whether we could”–both used the same ominous phrase–“pick your brain.” With those two phone calls, a magic wand passed over me and I was suddenly changed from a drudge facing a desk covered with student papers into, well, maybe not a prince, but a Resource Person!

Of course fairy tales speak to our times and provide paradigms, but what is more interesting is the way certain tales speak to different times. During the Depression, it was “The Three Little Pigs.” Disney’s version of the tale won an Academy Award in 1933, a time when folks were trying to keep the wolf from the door and optimistically whistling the film’s hit tune, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” In the 1970s, the tale we seemed to need was “Cinderella”; think, for example, about “Rocky” (Sylvester Stallone climbing those stairs) and all its cinematic cousins. But since the 1980s, of all the world’s fairy tales, the one that speaks most to us is “Beauty and the Beast.” In fact, Disney’s film is a little late on the scene.

If films are the dream life of our times, a psychiatrist sitting in our theaters during the last decade might have concluded that we were obsessed with “Beauty and the Beast.” There was, of course, the passionately followed television series “Beauty and the Beast.” But consider also “Elephant Man.” Cher in “Mask.” The extraordinary popularity of “The Phantom of the Opera.” The remake of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” The re-release of “King Kong.” Even “Splash,” a kind of cross-gender version of “Beauty and the Beast.” Or follow Daryl Hannah from “Splash” to “Roxanne,” where Steve Martin does his Cyrano. Or “Tarzan, the Legend of Greystoke.” And then there’s “Last of the Mohicans,” or “Dracula,” which do the same thing as “Greystoke”: woman and semi-beastly lover. The list goes on.

We not only seize on certain fairy tales at certain times, we also reshape them to suit our needs. In the conclusion of the original version of “Beauty and Beast,” Beauty professes her love for the beast, and he changes. It’s an evolutionary tale: He leaves his wildness behind and becomes civilized, a gentleman. Today’s films, however, head in the opposite direction.

Take “Splash.” If it was following the form, we’d expect Daryl Hannah to end up changing from a mermaid into a human. Instead, Tom Hanks dives into the water and becomes a mer-man, a sea creature himself. Civilization is abandoned. Beastliness is embraced.

Look at the ending of “Greystoke.” In the novel, Edgar Rice Burroughs ends with Tarzan at the top of Darwin’s ladder–a polished gentleman in America. But the movie changed all that. In its conclusion, Tarzan returns to Africa, sheds his clothes and goes back into the jungle. If the original “Beauty and the Beast” story was evolutionary, then “Splash” and “Greystoke” are regressive.

What are we to make of these deviations from the pattern?

These stories (as their popularity attests) seem to address a need, a need of our times, for wildness. The television series “Beauty and the Beast” is the story of a woman in the upper world who wears a business suit and carries a briefcase. But at night, below ground–the world of the sewers where we expect Manhattan’s fabled alligators to live–she can let her hair down (hair otherwise kept up in a tight businesswoman’s bun) and experience the passionate, the dangerous, the wild.

This seems to me to speak to the situation in which many people, especially women, find themselves today. And of course, fairy tales provide paradigms for these situations. One of my favorite films–though it’s not well known–is “Company of Wolves.” Based on an Angela Carter short story, the film shows a 20th-Century woman’s coming of age. Through brilliant fantasy sequences, her story is linked to the story of “Little Red Riding Hood.” But there’s a twist. In the end, the heroine joins the wolf, becomes a wolf herself and runs with the wolves. It’s the same kind of ending as “Splash” and “Greystoke” and “Mohicans”–a return to wildness. (It is just this desire that the current underground bestseller, “Women Who Run With the Wolves” by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, addresses.)

But I don’t mean to imply that this is just the case with women. What are we to make of the extraordinary popularity of Robert Bly’s book “Iron John”? Again, a fairy tale provides a paradigm. The point of “Iron John” and the men’s movement it has spawned seems to be the need for men to “get in touch” with a missing wildness.

This theme is everywhere. Rent the movie “Never Cry Wolf,” which ends with a naked scientist running and howling with the wolves. Or “Harry and the Hendersons,” with its message that into every suburban family must come a touch of wildness. Or “Edward Scissorhands,” which makes the same point but via Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein.”

Still, knowing all that, how can we answer the Hollywood producer’s question: Which are the stories that will capture the popular imagination next? What will be the next “Beauty and the Beast”? I must admit that made me pause. Then, since we’re talking about fairy tales, let’s say my fairy godmother tapped me on the shoulder and said: “Wild Women have been done. Wild Men too. What about the Wild Child?”

The Wild Child or Feral Child is a term folklorists use to describe a group of stories about children who grow up in the wild, without human help, often raised by animals. Romulus and Remus. Kipling’s Mowgli raised by wolves. Tarzan raised by apes. Pecos Bill raised by coyotes.

There are accounts of actual feral children. In France, there was Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron (about whom Harlan Lane, Lucien Malson and Roger Shattuck have written interesting books). In Germany, there was Kaspar Hauser. And both boys have been the subject of art films, by Francois Truffaut and Werner Herzog, respectively.

Surprisingly, I noted to the Hollywood producer, most films about the Wild Child have been of this nonfiction kind. Only two fictionalized versions came to mind, both set in the jungles of South America: “Emerald Forest” and the lesser- known “Where the River Runs Black.” There seemed to be room here, I suggested.

So I sent the producer’s assistant to the library. Go get Charles MacLean’s “The Wolf Children,” I said. It’s an account of two girls in India, Amala and Kamala, who were raised by wolves (or so we were told by one Rev. Singh in what many now believe was an entirely fabricated report, though this doesn’t diminish its value as a story). Find an anthology of Wild Child stories. And if it’s nonfiction you’re after, look at Susan Curtiss’ “Genie: A Linguistic Study of a Modern-day Wild Child” or Eleanor Craig’s “One, Two, Three: The Story of Matt, a Feral Child.”

For background reading, pick up Freud’s aptly named “Civilization and Its Discontents,” with its contention that the more a society advances, the more individuals are obliged to sacrifice (and miss) an essential wildness. To get in the mood, turn to “Lord of the Flies” . . . or to what must be the most popular children’s book ever written: Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” (“The night Max wore his wolf suit . . . “).

To those who believe with me that stories, certain stories, speak to us and to our times, I would say: Read the original fairy tales, the paradigms–and “Beauty and the Beast” is a fine place to start. Then watch as a miracle unfolds and these stories begin to make sense, everywhere.

This essay originally appeared on page one of the Los Angeles Times Book Review (December 6, 1992) and eventually lead to my book The Meanings of “Beauty and the Beast.”

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