‘Books, not boys’: Director Bill Condon on updating ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and the whole princess/prisoner deal – Los Angeles Times
One of the most cherished musical numbers in a Disney movie centers on a young woman ostracized from her community because she likes to read.
â€œLook there she goes, that girl is strange no question. Dazed and distracted, can’t you tell?â€
This is how we meet one of Disneyâ€™s most progressive princesses: Belle, the girl who dared to read. Sheâ€™s the nonconformist, the outsider, the nerd.
â€œNever part of any crowd. â€™Cause her head’s up on some cloud. No denying she’s a funny girl, that Belle!â€
Life in Belleâ€™s poor provincial town, as described in the classic song by the late lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, sounds quite cruel for the bookish heroine.
Not only is Belle labeled a â€œfunny girl,â€ her inability to fit in is called a â€œsin.â€ But despite societal pressure, she reads on. And that passion for education was one of the emotional cornerstones director Bill Condon used to build new plot points and broaden the characters inside the retelling of Disneyâ€™s â€œBeauty and the Beastâ€ as a live-action film.
â€œ[Reading] defined Belle in the original movie,â€ Condon says the day after the filmâ€™s Hollywood premiere.
Still energized from the positive audience response at the El Capitan Theatre, the director breaks down how he turned animated fantasy into live action reality.
â€œBooks, not boys. And everything that books represent,â€ he says. â€œIt’s a double thing for her. There’s an escape into the adventure of books, but it’s also just feeding her imagination, and the zeal for knowledge. That’s something that, I think, is important to a lot of us.â€
While the animated filmâ€™s townsfolk chided Belleâ€™s interest in education as foolish, the new movie (opening in theaters Thursday) goes one step further â€” they punish her for it. One particularly harrowing scene shows the locals outraged at the sight of Belle (played by Emma Watson) teaching another girl how to read. They are so enraged by this act that they destroy Belleâ€™s clever clothes washing contraption (in this movie, her father, Maurice, isnâ€™t the only inventor).
â€œWhat Iâ€™m proud of in our movie is that [Belleâ€™s] also become an activist 25 years later,â€ Condon says. â€œThat she not only has a private interest in [reading], but she wants to share it and figure out how to help other little girls discover books too.â€
No longer does Belle sit solitarily reading to disinterested sheep â€” â€œOh isnâ€™t this amazingâ€ â€” sheâ€™s actively trying to get young women involved.
The ramifications of reading are threaded throughout Condonâ€™s feature. The heavily stocked bookshop that the original Belle frequented in her cartoon town has been swapped out for a more realistic representation of the times. New Belle picks from a minuscule collection of reading material housed in the local church.
â€œThere weren’t bookstores in 1740,â€ Condon says. â€œIt’s as simple as that. The church would have been the center for learning, and she’s found one priest who connects to her. Everyone else thinks it’s just an absolutely crazy thing that a woman would be interested.â€ This makes the eventual reveal of the Beastâ€™s expansive castle library even more impressive.
Even LeFou, the lackey to the villainous Gaston, gets an illiteracy gag in his climactic solo during the rowdy tavern performance of â€œGaston.â€ Itâ€™s a moment not lost on Josh Gad, the actor behind the joke and father of two little girls.
â€œRight now, my daughter is learning how to read,â€ Gad says. â€œTo have this character whose superpower is essentially that she devours books and is an inventor is a great thing to hold up and share with them. She is the hero of the movie. I think that now more than ever we need amazing female role models like that, and I’m thrilled to be a part of a movie that has one at its core.â€
â€œBeauty and the Beastâ€ isnâ€™t Condonâ€™s first musical movie adaptation â€” he spearheaded the two-time Oscar-winning â€œDreamgirlsâ€ in 2006. Nor is this his first brush with a devout fan base. He put the â€œTwilightâ€ saga to bed in â€œBreaking Dawnâ€ Parts 1 and 2. However, this is the first movie that combines massive fandom with an internationally adored songbook. The director is aware heâ€™s playing with a powerful brand of nostalgia.
Still, Belleâ€™s rebellious reading wasnâ€™t the only part of Disneyâ€™s tale as old as time that was due for a little dusting. With a running time 45 minutes longer than the original, Condon hoped that his â€œBeauty and the Beastâ€ expansion would answer questions fans may have been carrying with them for years. Some new investigations are arguably easier to answer than others, thanks to a little movie magic.
For example, how were the townsfolk seemingly unaware of the existence of a multistory, magical castle in the woods that (presumably) used to house their governing system? Simple: a magical memory wiping incantation directly tied to the Beastâ€™s curse.
Granted, the larger questions Condon attempts to answer (how did Belle and her father wind up living in a village where they’re complete outsiders, and what happened to Belleâ€™s mother?) are clearly more complicated and will forever change the back story to this Disney staple. But most pressing, according to the director, was expanding the relationship between Belle and the Beast (played by Dan Stevens).
â€œYou’re asking an audience to believe that Emma Watson is falling in love with this big hunk of fur,â€ Condon says. â€œSo you want to make it absolutely recognizable in human terms.â€
That also meant addressing the Stockholm syndrome issues with the classic storyâ€™s prisoner/princess relationship. When questioned about the problematic nature of the duoâ€™s courtship, the director immediately lists his leading lady as a champion for this change.
â€œThat’s where having Emma Watson as a partner, as a collaborator, was so crucial,â€ Condon says. â€œBecause she’ll always know more than I do about this, because she’s leading the life of a strong role model for women in the 21st century.â€
In fact, both Stevens and Watson worked with Condon on their dialogue in hopes of refining and reshaping their complicated affair in an attempt to steer it away from victim and kidnapper.
â€œTo me, the crucial line is when they finally connect, and [Beast] says, â€˜Could you ever be happy here?â€™ [Belle] thinks about it and says, â€˜Could anybody be happy when they’re not free?â€™ â€
â€œShe’s not falling in love with him. She understands the terms of what he’s done, she reminds him of it, and he feels ashamed of it,â€ Condon says. â€œShe very clearly sets up those boundaries. And it’s only when he actually does free her, and long after that, that she kind of lets herself open up to her feelings for him. That scene, which probably has only 10 lines, it’s sort of like haiku. We kept refining, word by word, to make sure that moment, that line, packed a real punch.â€
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