"Give me back my Beast!"
So Greta Garbo is alleged to have cried after viewing Le belle et la bete, Jean Cocteau's masterful and very faithful film adaptation of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast. For centuries, the moral centerpiece of the tale has been the moment when Beauty learns to love Beast, despite his outward hideousness, and is "rewarded" by Beast instantly turning back into the handsome prince. But Garbo was having none of it.
The year was 1946, but her reaction was something we've now come to recognize as a very modern response to a classic story. The old tales still enchant, that's why they're classics, but the old tropes don't work on us in quite the same way any more.
Times change. Tastes change. One woman's Beast may be another woman's prince.
The pull of fairy tales is stronger than ever in our culture -- and it's tempting to say it's in response to the increasing complexity, darkness, and dangers of the real world. But reality has always been complex, dangerous and dark, even more so when these tales were first told. In fact, most fairy tales are concurrently dark and violent themselves, reflecting the tenor of their times, and all times.
It is perhaps because of their timelessness that the ancient tales (in which I would also include mythology, folklore, even Shakespeare) endure. But that also means that each new generation of bards and storytellers is obliged to reinvent those tales to keep them vital and current.
I was lucky enough to grow up in a house full of books, and they were sacred -- not just the physical objects, but their contents. It would not have occured to me that I could go in and monkey around with the characters or the story, any more than I would have thought to rip out a few random pages of the book itself. So it was a revelation to me as a young teenager on the day I picked up a news magazine and read a review of the Tom Stoppard play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. What, I remember thinking, another writer can just appropriate a couple of Shakespeare's characters and make up his own story about them?
What a concept!
These days, rewriting literary classics is all the rage. And it's particularly rampant in fairy tale literature, coming back into its own again after decades of Disneyfication. It's important to remember that the folk and fairy tales collected by the Grimms or transcribed by the likes of Beaumont and Perrault were not inttended for children. Rather, they were often aimed at middle-class ladies (and other adults thought in need of improving), a genteel readership who, it was naturally assumed, would see themselves in the position of the young, untested protagonist attempting to maneuver around the evils and obstacles of life with their moral compass intact.
But changing times alter perspectives as well. In our morally ambiguous era, we are more likely to identify with a flawed villain than an unbesmirched hero, a lonely Beast instead of a prince. Which may be why a new subgenre has sprung up -- I call it the Reclaimed Villain syndrome -- devoted to giving the traditional bad guys a chance to explain their side of the story.
The godfather of this cycle is probably John Gardner's Grendel. Inspired by the ca. 10th Century Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf, Gardner seizes upon the designated villain of that tale -- a creature portrayed for a thousand years as a mindless eating machine of malevolence -- and turns him into a lonely, thoughtful protagonist unable to make any sense out of humans, or their petty heroics, useless religions, or tribal infighting. It's a tour-de-force of existential bafflement.
One of the most famous recycled fairy tales of modern times is Gregory Maguire's Wicked. Not only does he reinvent Oz as a country of political infighting, racial intolerance, rebellion, and other recognizable forms of societal skullduggery, he dares to cast the Wicked Witch of the West as the misunderstood protagonist--an idea so bold and refreshing, it spawned three more Maguire Oz books, and a hit Broadway musical.
Less well known, but perhaps even more beguiling is Tad Williams' Caliban's Hour, in which the much abused, so-called "monster" from The Tempest makes his way back to Naples one fateful night to confront Miranda, daughter of his tormentor and enslaver, Prospero, to tell his side of the story. In one fleet, revisionist tale, Williams creates one of the most soulful of modern Beast-heroes.
When I wrote my novel, Alias Hook [Thomas Dunne Books, $24.99]. I approached the Peter Pan story (specifically, Peter and Wendy, J. M. Barrie's 1911 novelization of his famous play) from the perspective of someone who has always found Captain Hook a far more interesting character than the eternal boy, Pan. For one thing, he has funnier lines. One of his great tragedies is being trapped in a world run by prepubescent boys where nobody gets his jokes.
Make no mistake, Barrie's Neverland is no place for sissies; the fairies, he tells us, attend orgies, and the pirates and Indians routinely slaughter each other for the boys' amusement. But I wondered what Hook's life had been like before the Neverland--as a young blood about town, a gentleman privateer, a pirate. What on earth had he ever done to deserve his fate, playing villain to a pack of malicious little boys in a pointless war that never ends? Why should he end up as the crocodile's lunch? I thought he deserved a chance to write himself a different, better ending.
Because who among us doesn't want to feel that, whatever our transgressions are, we might still be worthy of redemption?
"Give me back my Beast!"