Friday, April 6, 2012

Favorite Adaptations: Beauty by Robin McKinley

Here is the another entry in the Favorite Adaptations Giveaway. This entry is by Christine Ethier, too. Read more about the giveaway here to learn how to win a copy of Kill Me Softly by Sarah Cross. I am extending the deadline on entries through April 14th since I didn't think ahead about this week being spring break and vacations for so many. Probably because this week has been anything but for me...


There is something about the Beauty and the Beast story that is attractive to society in general and to the literature, movie making crowd in particular. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch and other books in varying literary quality draw on the motif, subverting, perverting, or simply retelling it (One of my faves is Jane Yolen's version which is a mash up with O Henry's Gift of the Magi). It is no surprise that Robin McKinely was drawn to the tale, twice, and any reader can see the germ of the second novel in this book, her first.

McKinley's writing, in particular The Hero and the Crown, was one very important touchstone of my childrhood, as it seems to be for many fantasy reading women of my age. I can't help but wish that teen girls of today would read her the obessive way and in the vast amount of numbers of those that read Twilight or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. McKinley writes better, and she will most likely last longer.

This book, McKinley's first and her first retelling of Beauty and the Beast, was totally ripped off by the Walt Disney Company for thier movie. It's actually sad and insulting because not only did Disney rip it off, but they totally shortened the Beauty character (now, before people come and demand my Tigger shirt back, I happen to like the Disney movie, but a spade is a spade. Get over it).

McKinley draws heavily on the French version of the story, yet she makes it her own. Beauty likes to read, but unlike Disney's Belle (Beautiful in French), Beauty reads literature, not the romance novels of her day. Belle's love of reading is based on her love for romantic adventure; Beauty's is based on a love reading for itself and for knowledge. She is a scholar. It is difficult to imagine Disney's Belle having the same reaction to the library in this book, that Beauty does (also, we are never given a title of what Belle reads, hmmm).

Another change that McKinley makes, and she is one of the few authors who does this, is make Beauty's family a loving family. Beauty not only loves her father, but she loves her sisters. She and her sisters get along. They take to each other, not down to each other. They are not in competition. This isn't a fairy tale of the bad sisters being punished and the good (always the young one) being rewarded; it's about a loving family being rewarded.

Because this is early McKinley, there are flaws in the book, flaws that make the reader understand why McKinley basically rewrote the story in Rose Daughter. Beauty, for instance, is almost too perfect. She is the girl who stands out because she is not only more bookish, but more boyish than the other women. This perfection is dealt with in the end sequence. Additionally, Beauty's gaining of Greatheart feels like a wish fullment version of the horse movie of the week. But these are really, almost nit-picking. The most serious flaw is the fact that Beauty's sisters, Grace and Hope, are almost interchangable, though fully likable. McKinley also presents the view that being non-bookish is not any worse than being bookish, which is nice.

What I truly love, now, however, is simply that I only realized when I re-read this book as an adult. Beauty and the Beast from its earliest days was always a story about women and marriage, in particular the fear of marriage that must have developed in a society when the marriages were arranged and husband and wife barely knew each other. McKinley keeps this, and adds, understandably, a fear of desire and of changing into an adult. In many of Beauty's reactions to Beast there is the change of pubertry but also that struggle of coming to terms with adult desire, love, and one's own sexuality.

Thanks, Christine!


  1. Wow. For a favorable review of one of my favorite books, I agree with almost nothing here. But one of the great things about books is that you can enjoy them so differently!

    One thing I did have a big problem with, though-- the snobby put-down of Disney's Belle. This may be the first time I've seen someone criticize her for not being a good enough reader. Next time I pick up "Beauty", should I think that I'm not as worthy as the heroine because I ready fairy tales for fun instead of classic literature in the original? How absurd!

    And considering McKinley has a whole book to name-drop in, while the movie chose to keep most real-world references to a minimum to keep the fairy-tale tone, I think the charge that Belle reads only one kind of book (frivolous) while Beauty reads another (serious) is reaching. All we know about Belle's reading habits is that she's read *every* book in the village library, and her favorite was an adventure story. While Beauty, also a voracious reader, does read classic literature in the original, also shows a strong preference for adventure stories-- loving Homer but slogging through Cicero, for example, and most of her English-language choices are heavily entertainment-based (Sir Walter Scott, Sherlock Holmes, etc.)

    I know it's popular to Disney-bash, especially when setting them against McKinley and Cocteau, but let's try to keep our criticisms valid, and fair.


  2. I have seen book name drops in movies, so Disney could have done it. They really could have, even just a title on a spine, if they wanted. They could refered to Homer or done an in joke to one of the fairy tale authors. I like the movie, but they could have. And I don't think criticism is necessary bashing Disney. And I don't think reading romance novels makes you not a good enough reader. I just said she likes romance stories, that her love for reading is based on a love for adventure (she wants more than this provencal life). And there's next wrong that. I just said she didn't read literature. Why do you think that means not good enough in terms of reading?

  3. In the paragraph where you introduced the contrast, you wrote that Disney "shortened" her character, and that it was "sad and insulting". Then you compared them by their reasons for, and choices in, reading. It came across as criticism, and since I felt (ymmv) that it was unwarranted, it came across as bashing-- rather like that article of Terri Windling's where she criticized Disney for including Gaston, right after praising Cocteau to the skies without mentioning Avenant.

    If you just meant to point out that Beauty has more stated life goals, ie becoming a scholar, whereas Belle's are left at a vague "adventure! wanna get out of this town!" I totally see your point. Disney's not very good at showing their character's lives beyond the movie, and it does make them less believable. It also contributes to that "you got married, all your adventures are over now" vibe, which is another post entirely...


  4. It wasn't meant as bashing. I think I was trying to avoid by pointing out that I love Disney movies, including B&B, it's just as I get older that lack of character bugs me. I was thinking about what you said, and I will admit that if all someone reads is one type of book and never breaks out of that type, I have problem with that. Not in terms of good and bad, but limited in terms of reading. It's wonderful if you are young, but if you are an adult (say mid-20s and beyond) and all you're reading is Harry Potter and Twilight type books then I have an issue with that. But I think the way to fix that is to encourage readers to read books that are almost like. For instance, a student who likes the Hunger Games, might like Handmaid's Tale. Sorry, I got on my horse. I just really got upset sometimes with the way reading is taught. If a student likes a book, they shouldn't be told not to read it, that the book isn't worthy. The teacher should be able to suggest something along those lines. (really sorry, I'll shut up now).

  5. No, don't shut up! =) Wanting people to expand their horizons is lovely.