The girl is entranced by books. One of the first places we see her is in a bookshop, where she slides a ladder around to find and borrow a book she can’t afford to buy, a book she wants to reread. The astonished proprietor (“but you’ve read it twice!”) gives her the book and she leaves, rereading the book as she walks, singing happily.
“Oh, isn’t this amazing/It’s my favorite part, because, you see/Here’s where she meets Prince Charming/But she won’t discover that it’s him, ’til Chapter Three!” She sits by a fountain and settles in to enjoy the book, sheep crowding her at every side, water falling behind her.
I’d never seen myself in a cartoon character before, but watching Belle on the big screen transported me back almost twenty years, to a summer of rereading. Staying at my grandparents’ house in Connecticut, we had only the books left behind by my mother and her sisters. Like the movie’s Belle, I carried my books outside. Grandpop had planted a Christmas tree grove and the trees formed lanes and little rooms, circles carpeted with pine needles and hidden by thick branches. I would carry a book into the cool shade of one of these pine chambers and read, inhaling the musty fragrance of old books along with the sap-infused air of the grove. Disney’s Belle brought that former self back to me, reminded me of who I’d been and who I hoped my daughter might become: an outside reader: taking books outdoors and unmooring their stories.
Not that I really knew what to expect from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast the first time I saw it. I might vaguely have remembered the French tale, in which a youngest daughter asks her father to bring her a rose from his travels, when her greedier sisters ask for clothing and jewels. But the rose comes from a magical garden, owned by a mysterious Beast, who demands, in exchange for the rose, the girl who has asked for it. Belle moves into the castle where she is waited on by magic, and where a sad and quiet Beast asks for her hand nightly. Though she refuses him, they coexist peacefully until she briefly returns home. Her jealous sisters conspire to keep her there past her promised return, bringing the Beast near to a mysterious death; finally, she rushes back to meet the dying Beast, kisses him, and turns him into a handsome prince.
Unlike the Disney movie, the French tale focuses on Belle’s transformation: she must learn to look beyond appearances to love the Beast himself, and is finally rewarded with — you guessed it — good looks and wealth beyond imagining. As in so many fairy tales, we get no back-story and little motivation: the Beast’s ugly appearance seems to be the result of a capricious fairy’s whim, and Belle herself needs little encouragement to appreciate the Beast. Furthermore, while she does actually read to pass away the time in the Beast’s castle, it’s hardly a central theme of the tale.
Nonetheless something about the tale appealed to me, so when the Disney film came out I took our daughter, Mariah — then not quite two — to see it at a restored movie palace in LA. A mural on the inside walls depicted an older, more romantic Los Angeles — the Brown Derby and Grauman’s (now Mann’s) Chinese Theater were prominent — and when the theater darkened for the previews tiny pinpoint lights shone from the windows of buildings in the mural. The setting was magical even before the movie started, scenes of outside brought in.
Mariah had never been to the movies before, had never even sat still for ninety minutes. She didn’t this time, either. When the wolves attacked Belle’s father Maurice in an early scene, she nearly crawled over the back of the seat, so great was her fear at these enormous snarling animals. I had to take her out to walk around in the lobby more than once to escape the wolves or other fearsomeness. But we returned to finish the movie, and we left the theater singing. Before she was three she had the opening lines of the film memorized and would recite them on cue. (Now 17, she still can.) Soon she had the book and the tape and her first Barbie doll, Belle in her blue dress and pinafore, and the wolves were just part of the scenery. She was never as scared of the Beast as she was of the wolves. Indeed, a friend saw her playing with the Belle-Barbie and a Beast doll, and recorded the following conversation, in which Mariah played both parts:
Beast: Come on, Beauty, you have to come live in my castle.
Beauty: No, I don’t want to.
Beast: You have to. I say so.
Beauty: No I don’t. You’re not my boss. I’m going to put you in the zoo.
Mariah’s version was a lovely redaction of the movie she’d seen, in which Belle — here, the only daughter of an inventor-father — willingly exchanges her life for her father’s to appease the angry beast. Living in the castle as a prisoner/guest (her stay is far less pleasant than her French predecessor’s), Belle teaches the Beast to behave, to control his temper, to love — and then (unlike in Mariah’s version) learns to love him back.
Mariah’s Belle rewrites her story, just as Disney had rewritten the French tale with which it shares, really, only a name and a rose. Mariah’s Belle is perhaps not mine or Disney’s either; we make our outside reading our own, after all, by culling from it what we can use and rejecting or misremembering what we dislike. Like a good outside reader, Belle herself predicts her future from a book in that first scene, in which she sings of the heroine who meets her Prince Charming without knowing who he is. In that moment Disney reignites the fairy tale. Although she no longer reads outside once she gains access to the Beast’s library, Belle is still an” outside reader” at the end of the movie, taking only what works for her from the earlier tales, reading against the grain that identifies Gaston as the hero and the Beast as his prey, seeing both into the story, and outside it, for her own new life. Seeing the Disney version makes clear what is buried in the French one: this is indeed a tale of slow love, of finding out who someone is before committing to him or her. It is a story about reading and learning rather than the instant recognition on which Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella turn, those other tales of beauty rewarded. When virtue is rewarded and familiarity — reading and re-reading — breeds love and recognition, what more can we ask of the tale?