So here’s the thing: you do not protect someone by faulting their behaviour and then trying to control them so as to limit it.
It took me a while to click this and I don’t have it entirely straight in my head yet, but the way I see it, if a person is vulnerable to making unhealthy choices, you protect them by limiting their surroundings, not by limiting them.
To give an example: you protect children by keeping sharp objects out of reach; you don’t protect them by telling them they must never reach, and certainly not by punishing them for trying to reach. (Though sometimes you let them discover wisdom for themselves – like when my parents let me serve myself a heaped spoonful of mustard because I kept demanding it.)
Meanwhile, as anyone who has studied domestic violence will tell you, entitlement and desire for control are the root of abuse. I’ll be the first to say that faithfulness is bigger than consent, but faithfulness is not about control – and it’s definitely not about retributive punishment.
Welcome to part 2 of comparing Fifty Shades with both the animated and live action versions of Beauty and the Beast. CONTENT NOTE: Consider this your spoiler warning. I will be talking about plot details of the live action Beauty and the Beast. I also include a few of the creepier quotes from Fifty Shades.
Let’s start with a few memes with some choice quotes from Fifty Shades:
What happens in 50 Shades?
Christian acts with sickening self-righteousness towards Ana. From how she eats to who she can socialise with, he makes the rules and it’s all “for her safety”. I’m not saying Ana is sensible (she’s not, she’s awful) but Christian has no right to appoint himself as her guardian and definitely not when she tells him not to. The fact that he does treat her like this makes her feel like she’s suffocating. It’s not good but the narrative makes excuse after excuse for Christian and never truly calls him out on his “need” to control Ana. What’s more – Christian does this right up to the end of the trilogy. (Did you notice that last meme quotes from chapter 24 of Fifty Shades Freed?)
The few times that Ana stands up to Christian and actually lands her point home to him in a way he remotely understands, he still doesn’t truly accept what he’s saying. I say this because each time she does it, he responds with flattery. No, that’s not changing your attitude, it’s deflecting the issue. It’s a way of disguising non-acceptance.
Meanwhile, Christian monopolises the moral high ground and makes sure all responsibility slopes off his shoulders and onto Ana’s. Perhaps the most telling moment is when Ana tells him (as his wife, near the end of the trilogy) that she’s pregnant:
What happens in Beauty and the Beast?
“Fine! Then go ahead and starve!”
The thing about this moment is that neither the 1991 nor the 2017 versions pretend that Beast is showing moral concern for Belle’s wellbeing. Beast is being controlling (trying to be, anyway – the servants undermine him) but his behaviour is portrayed as flat wrong. In this, there is a huge difference from Fifty Shades.
There are some differences though between the two renderings of Beauty and the Beast.
In the animated version, Beast has commanded Belle to join him for dinner. She’s refused him. So he’s gets angry and gives the ultimatum: eat with him or not at all. The thing about this exchange is that Beast wants to eat with Belle because he wants Belle to fall in love with him because he wants her to break the spell. Now, I’m not saying that his actions are in any noble (they’re not), but they are coming from a desire for his freedom. Yes, he gets it all horribly wrong, but then the whole point of the story is how he learns to love.
As for Dan Stevens, it’s different. Beast sits himself down to dinner and sees the place setting laid out for Belle opposite him. He then flies into a rage. So far as he’s concerned, Belle is his prisoner and his servants have undermined him by cooking for her. So when he bangs on her door demanding she come down, his actions are driven by a desire for control in its own right.
I much, much preferred the 1991 version because there you could see that Beast was trying to use control as a means to freedom. I’ll come back to this in part 5 (hope and love).
“If you hadn’t run away, this wouldn’t have happened!”
Beast lays into Belle for running away. And this moment is full of the self-righteous indignation we see so often in Fifty Shades.
Thing is, Belle silences Beast.
In the 1991 film, this is one of the pivotal moments, where you see Beast beginning to change. He not only shuts up when Belle rebukes him, but he also then allows Belle to do what he previously hasn’t let her do: nurse his wound, even though it hurts him. He is also gracious when Belle thanks him for saving her life.
The other thing that gets me about this moment is what you don’t see here, but do see in so many Christian Grey moments. Beast doesn’t threaten Belle with punishment if she does it again; he doesn’t try to guilt her for getting him injured; he doesn’t try to restrict her movements so that she can’t try again. Yes, he still wants Belle to stay in the castle as his prisoner – but he’s definitely started on the journey of giving up control.
In the 2017 film, this scene gets watered down. Hugely. Emma Watson gives the impassioned line “You should learn to control your temper”, but Dan Stevens just rolls over in a huff. To me, his silence didn’t look like he was reeling from her correction, but more like he was rejecting it. In fairness to him, he didn’t come out with lots of creepy Grey-speak, but neither did he show that he was willing accept anything from Belle that he didn’t want. Not like in the 1991 version, anyway. I was disappointed.
“You must promise to stay here forever.” (1991) / “Once that door shuts, it will never open again.” (2017)
Beast imprisons Belle. But he doesn’t do it because he’s morally superior to Belle. Instead, the undercurrent of Beauty and the Beast is that it is not OK for Belle to be Beast’s prisoner. This is brought out most clearly in how Beast lets Belle go: because he loves her he cannot control her.
Now, I always thought this was clear enough in the 1991 version, but if there was any doubt, the 2017 version made it impossible to miss. Emma Watson finishes dancing with Dan Stevens and says she likes him – but that she’ll never be happy without her freedom. Some people I know found this an eye-opening moment that made the whole film smell less like Stockholm Syndrome. For myself, it felt like clumsy script writing. In particular (and I appreciate that this is my interpretation) it meant that when Beast let Belle go, it was not so much because he loved her, but rather so that she would love him.
I’ll come back to this in part 4 of the series (objects of hope).
“Do you realise what you could have done?” (1991) / “You could have damned us all!” (2017)
Belle goes into the West Wing, finds the enchanted rose and is then discovered by Beast. His loss of temper is pretty bad, but it’s never defended in either film.
Thing is, whereas I don’t think his behaviour is good, I do think it’s understandable. It takes an exceptional amount of self-control to stay calm when you discover someone has ignored your warning, trespassed into your private sanctum, looked upon your indignity, and come very close to dooming you forever. I don’t blame Beast for not having that level of self-control. Not at this stage in the plot.
I’d summarise the characters like this:
- Christian Grey:
- Desires control for its own sake
- Sees himself as entitled to morally correct Ana
- Refuses responsibility and puts it on others
- Justifies himself saying he can’t lose Ana.
- Beast in the 2017 version:
- Desires control for its own sake
- Is ambiguous as to whether he accepts correction
- (Eventually) sees virtue in others
- Lets Belle go so that she can be free to love him.
- Beast in the 1991 version:
- Desires control as a means to freedom
- Accepts correction non-begrudgingly
- Learns virtue
- Lets Belle go because he loves her.
It’s undoubtedly the case that Dan Stevens’ Beast is better than Christian Grey, but I much, much prefer Beast’s characterisation in the 1991 version.
This is part of a five-part series looking at how Fifty Shades and both versions of Beauty and the Beast frame the following:
- 1) Coercion and manipulation
- 2) Control and faithfulness
- 3) Questions of guilt and shame
- 4) Change and transformation
- 5) Hope and love.
You can find an index for all posts here.