Sunday, 8 August 2010

A Perfect Beast

I spent Friday night with Bighead and a couple of other friends watching the Gala Theatre Stage School perform the stage musical adaptation of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

It was a fascinating experience. I’m never entirely sure what to make of the actual story. I have two fundamental problems with it, one from the Disney interpretation, and the other as old as the tale itself (which is not, one assumes, as “Old as time”). I find it very difficult to entirely shake off the feeling that the overall message of this particular yarn is that if you’re prepared to fall for someone ugly, you’ll get yourself a reward for being so nice as to forgive their repulsiveness. Now, there are plenty of good counter-arguments to this interpretation. It’s possible to view the moral of the story in exactly the way it’s presented: true beauty lies within. That might come across as a little clearer had the Beast, say, become gradually more attractive as the tale progresses, but then that would sacrifice the drama in the set-up, so it’s hardly surprising that route wasn’t taken. Even so, I remain uncomfortable each time I see Belle profess her love to the dying Beast, and then see the look of happiness on her face when he turns out to have been a Gallic pretty boy all along. This is why Shrek’s inversion of the tale works so well. The point isn’t that inner beauty translates into outer beauty, it’s that the former, we hope, renders the latter largely irrelevant. Belle’s reward for being willing to forgo physical attraction is to receive it. Shrek receives no reward other than the love of the woman he loves in return, and that’s absolutely all he needs.

I realise I am probably being uncharitable, in addition to potentially applying far too much thought to a tale for children (though that attitude taken too far is profoundly dangerous). Nevertheless, the issue remains. It’s accentuated by the Disney approach itself, in which all that stops Belle from leaving the Beast forever is him saving her from being torn to pieces by a pack of slavering wolves. That, at least, seems fairly unambiguously rooted in childhood fantasy. “She might not notice me now, but I bet if I saved her life she’d see how awesome I am”. The man who confuses gratitude for affection does himself – and the object of his desire – no favours.

So I have some problems with the structure of the story. The execution, however, was flawless. I really should go to the theatre more often, but my inexperience has the happy knock-on effect of being amazed every time I go as to just how much can be achieved by an inventive and dedicated troupe. Watching a man turn from man to beast and back in front of your eyes is truly astonishing. The battle for the castle that forms the film’s conclusion was brilliantly, impossibly recreated, with added lashings of French farce (a lovely and smart touch) for good measure. The cast’s rendition of “Be Our Guest” actually outstrips the source material, which shouldn’t be humanly (furnishing-ly?) possible – I’m really not sure why they didn’t end the first act on that, rather than what I can only assume was meant to be some kind of musical suicide note by a moping Beast. Absolutely nothing fell short of expectation, and frequently the show outstripped all hopes for it. Even the new songs, whilst not up to the standard of the originals, were engaging and interesting in their own right.

My only major niggle was the desperate lengths the cast went to imitate the accents and voices of the original stars. In this, I differ markedly from BigHead’s opinion, but if I’m watching an interpretation of a work from another medium, that’s what I want; an interpretation. Not something that is as close to a copy as possible within the structure of the new situation (something you could argue Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, for example, fell afoul of). Obviously, when you’re dealing with something as popular as a Disney film (or The Lord of the Rings, which also came up whilst I was talking this over with BigHead), the major heresy is not to copy too avidly, rather to change for the worst, but that makes replication merely safe, not necessarily good.

Over the course of this conversation, BigHead pointed out that I would be hardly likely to raise similar complaints had we seen a band that night rather than a play. And to some extent he’s right. Indeed, I am on record as disliking, say, Counting Crows’ habit of re-jigging their songs during live sets – though in fairness that has less to do with purism and more the fact that they’re often just not very good at doing so. On the other hand, I’ve seen live performances by Coldplay (on TV, admittedly) which were indistinguishable from their recorded versions, to the extent that it took me much of the song to determine they weren’t miming.

That holds absolutely no interest for me at all. I want some variation in a live performance. That, in large part, is the point of a live performance in the first place, at least to me. You can keep your shared experience. I want change. Not too much, perhaps, but surely some Goldilocks Zone of alteration and innovation must exist. This is especially true because the analogy above is faulty. We weren’t watching a band perform one of their songs. We were watching them play someone else’s song. Anyone ever loved a cover version because it was essentially indistinguishable from the original?

I’m betting no.

Still, I’ve gone on at length about this because it’s an interesting topic, not because the problem that led to it was particularly crippling. On the contrary, I was profoundly impressed and entertained. Even if I am worried about the fact that I thought the French maids were more attractive as feather dusters...


Talia said...

Personally I always thought that Beast (in the Disney version at least) was always better looking as a beast than as a man.

Although I'm not sure I want to know what that says about me.

SpaceSquid said...

Speaking as an entirely heterosexual male squid, I agree with you entirely. He looked more girly than Belle did.

Nemain said...

I entirely agree, what with his long flowing locks and ample male bosom......

BigHead said...

The "Beast > Prince" position is perhaps sufficiently common to be considered mainstream.

Lengthy reply forthcoming.

BigHead said...

Right, here we go.

I can see several plausible counter-arguments to the criticism about "love uggo, get hottie". First, the Prince isn't a hottie. He's a bit of a wimp. The "Bring back my Beast!" brigade is, if not in the majority, pretty close from my experience. There are certainly very few Disney Princes who are less appealing. Next, I don't see her happiness at getting a human. Belle actually looks quite nervous and unsure until she looks into the Prince's eyes and sees it really is the one she loves. At which point, she's obviously going to be happy, because a few seconds ago he was dead. Then he rose into the air, fired light from everywhere, changed form, and was alive again. A certain amount of "omg!" is very justified at this point.

Finally, the criticism is coming from an entirely Belle-centred point of view. But the story isn't just about Belle. It' about redemption for the Prince. If he hadn't been a muppet, he'd never have been turned into a beast. As soon as he learns not to be a muppet, he gets rewarded with his original form. This seems like a worthy moral.

The wolf scene criticism seems more reasonable, but in order to progress the story does require some way for Belle to realize that the Beast is capable of being something other than a terrible monster towards her. Given the Beast's state of mind, he doesn't seem capable of doing anything else that would achieve that.

Now we reach the meatier topic of "how close should the musical stick to the film". The first observation is that Squid and I immediately differ on the word to use to describe what this show was supposed to be. Squid calls it an "interpretation". I would call it an "adaptation". I suspect that ultimately one's answer to the original question is strongly influenced by which of these you want or expect. You cannot have both. As someone who much prefers the concept of adaptation to the concept of interpretation, it's clear which side of the divide I am likely to fall upon. This is made yet more noticeable by the fact that we are talking about one of my favourite films. Squid essentially calls close adaptation safe, presumably intending to mean that loose interpretation has chances to be worse and chances to be better. In the case of something I really like, I tend to view close adaptation more like avoiding sure loss: your interpretation won't be as good as the original, so don't try. At the very least, the expected value of adaptation is going to be higher.

I guess an important point here is that moving from animated movie to stage musical with all the attendent changes that requires, the new dialogue required, the new songs required, is quite a big enough change already. It's very different. Since so much has to change, there's no need to also change anything that doesn't need to be changed. If you didn't like whatever it is being adapted from, then fair enough, this might not quite be to your liking, but it's always my belief that if you're going to make a version of something in a different medium, then it should be the fans of the original you are catering for, not other people. To do otherwise strikes me as disrespectful. In particularly bad cases it can be the equivalent of dumbing down for the console kiddies.


BigHead said...

*unsnip (I wrote too much apparently)*

he analogy with covers is interesting. Certainly if a band did a cover of someone else's song, I'd expect changes. It'd be a case of moving a song from a different style to your style. That's fine. On the other hand, if I were listening to a tribute act, I'd probably rather they were trying to make it sound like the original. I think something entitled "Disney's Beauty and the Beast" is a bit more like a tribute act in this analogy. So i wouldn't have a problem with going to see a show of, say, rock versions of Beauty and the Beast songs, but that wasn't advertised. I think what was advertised was what was provided.

Something of a tangent, but the following was interesting to write at least. When it comes to a live performance, it seems reasonable to say that if you watch a band on TV playing a live version of their song so that it sounds just like the studio version, that's pretty boring generally (although when a band like Iron Maiden is playing an instrumental part exactly as they play on the studio version this is quite awesome to watch because you can see their technical wizardry), but surely this is more because watching a live version on TV is almost never anything like the live version actually sounds like if you're there. At High Voltage, Wishbone Ash and Uriah Heep each played one of their classic albums without deviating very much at all from the old arrangement, but it was a completely different experience because the sound and atmosphere are very different even though all the notes are the same. I doubt many in the audience would have wanted them to do anything different. It's hard to even claim that this is a different case on the grounds that it's the same band doing the show as recorded the album, since precisely two out of the ten musicians on display performed on the original albums.