I was recently discussing the theme of Disney’s animated film Beauty and the Beast on Twitter and, after disagreeing with another’s interpretation (or maybe just misunderstanding due to Twitter’s inherent limitations), was challenged to back up my claims. As pondering and analyzing stories, especially films, is one of my favorite things to do in general, I thought it would make a worthy subject for a blog post, affording me more space to elaborate.
The statement I am disagreeing with can be found in this Twitter thread, which is overall an insightful and interesting thread.
The specific statement I disagree with is this interpretation of the film’s theme or message:
(Note, I am not talking about the fairy tale or its “theme” at all, I am strictly talking about the film, and Disney’s original 1991 animated film at that.)
So what I try saying in my quote tweet is that “look beyond appearances, love can turn a beast into a prince” is not the theme / message of the animated film, nor does it at all try to be.
First, some foundational premises for my thoughts: I consider themes or morals derived from stories to be subjective. Different people will naturally interpret or infer different things from the same story. The interpretation of the theme being “the power of love to change someone” is certainly a fair and valid one. So, in and of itself, I don’t think it’s “wrong” in any objective sense. (But the original tweeter says “the message is no longer such and such”. So… you agree that it’s not the message? Because that’s my point, that it’s definitely not the message.)
Anyway, furthermore, the very idea of a “theme” or “moral” of a story can be an ambiguous concept, and it’s likely that every writer thinks about the idea of “theme” in a different way. I’ve actually been meaning to elaborate on how I understand the concept in a blog post for years now, and I don’t think I ever have, so I’ll go ahead and do that, but only after I talk about Beauty and the Beast. For now, a quick Google definition of “moral” will do fine:
a lesson, especially one concerning what is right or prudent, that can be derived from a story, a piece of information, or an experience.
A theme that doesn’t really work, does it?
Now to the meat of this blog post. The first is why “love can turn a beast into a prince”, or some variation of that, doesn’t work as the theme of the film. Then I’ll move on to what I consider the theme of the film.
“Love can turn a beast into a prince” doesn’t work as the theme because there’s no substantial exploration of it in the film. That is, there’s no real testing of this message. Being overly judgmental based on looks happens once in the prologue, and that’s it. Belle, the protagonist, is never challenged by it. Nor is she ever challenged to fall in love; it’s not as though she’s asked to and at first refuses. The Beast doesn’t tell her anything about the curse he’s under. Her love for him comes about entirely from the Beast’s own nature, most notably when he rescues her from wolves when she tries to escape, and then we get the Something There That Wasn’t There Before montage, which shows the Beast being animatedly charming. Granted, we’re only given a few examples of the Beast’s positive side, and one could argue they’d need more examples to fall in love with such a character, but films have a limited time to tell their story, and I think most viewers accept the quick relationship development. The point is, falling in love with the Beast is never her goal. She is never told to give it a try, nor does she decide of her own volition to give him a chance. It just happens naturally through their time together. Thus, she never learns anything. So it makes no sense for the theme to be “love can change a person from a beast to a prince”. Yes, that’s what happens, so it’s conceivable that one could extract that as a theme. But if that’s the theme, as the original the tweeter noted, there’s no reason why Belle couldn’t have changed the “beast” that was Gaston by just giving him a chance. So while it’s a valid theme to infer, it doesn’t “work” in respect to what actually happens (or doesn’t happen) in the film.
Another theme makes more sense
There’s a simple theme more in line with what actually happens in the narrative, but it’s less obvious. It’s subtle, because it’s not the protagonist, Belle, that learns it. It’s the Beast. He’s the one who needs to change, and does by the film’s end. In the beginning, he is “spoiled” and “unkind” with “no love in his heart” (as the prologue points out). In post-prologue beast form, he is short-tempered, full of despair, and vain, more concerned about his likely fate of staying a hideous beast than about genuinely caring about others. But, unlike Gaston, his bad qualities are tempered with good qualities; he’s still willing to rescue Belle from wolves, to try to eat soup correctly, to have a fun snowball fight, etc.
And it’s when Belle looks through the magic mirror and sees that her father is sick or something that the Beast makes his real transformation, the one that shows that he has learned the theme: He lets Belle go, knowing full well that doing so will doom him to remain a Beast forever. Of course, his transformation doesn’t really end there, because he regresses into a depressive despair until Belle returns, but making that sacrifice of letting Belle go was the thematic lesson he needed to learn: that when you truly love someone, you’re not just thinking of yourself. His temper and vanity fall to the wayside as he puts Belle’s concerns above his own. So that’s the real theme. Or, to put another way, that theme is much more consistent with the events of the film. Belle is the protagonist, the one we follow as the audience. But thematically, it’s the Beast’s story.
In so far as all that goes, the original fairy tale really doesn’t matter. Disney just told a story based on it. They weren’t subverting anything or teaching a misguided lesson, they used the fairy tale as a foundation and built their own story on top of it, as they often do.
What’s a theme anyway?
Hopefully all the above makes sense without any more elaboration on the idea of “theme”, and will continue to make sense even if one disagrees with my further elaboration below.
(Also, I continually ponder these things, so my viewpoint may change or expand or become more nuanced years later, who knows.)
First, I think stories can have a number of small “themes”. Perhaps one could call them quasi-themes? Or themelets? These are just issues or types of conflicts that occur multiple times throughout a story. One can think of them like musical themes; they pop up again and again. For example, a character having to choose between family and work, or a character constantly trying not to reminisce about a lost love and move on. Such conflicts arise, but they’re not necessarily central to the plot’s main conflict. (In Beauty and the Beast, the dichotomy between outside appearances and inner beauty could perhaps be considered one of these types of themes.)
Then there’s the central theme or moral (most stories only have one), and here’s how I would define it: It’s the change needed in a mode of thinking to solve the story’s central conflict.
For example, in Beauty in the Beast, it’s the Beast needing to, of his own volition, put Belle first, as he does when he lets her go.
Sometimes the modes of thinking are on more of a spectrum, and a balance has to be found. For example, in Jurassic Park, the theme is respect for chaos vs enforcing order. Sometimes different characters argue for different sides of the spectrum, as in Jurassic Park’s Malcolm vs Hammond, and sometimes a character just goes too far in one direction then another, as in Bill Murray’s exploration of various “wrong” modes of being in Groundhog’s Day.
“This” vs “that”, where “this” and “that” are modes of thought, is usually a concise way to represent a thematic conflict, but sometimes it’s hard to think of concise words to fit them. For example, I’m not sure how Lord of the Rings’ theme would fit that format; almost any words you choose would feel too narrow.
That’s all I have to say for now.