Tuesday, March 21, 2017

After All, Miss, This is France: Historical Accuracy and the New "Beauty and the Beast"

I saw the new live-action Beauty and the Beast on Saturday and I've been overthinking it ever since. (This is what happens when a bookish Millennial girl with degrees in Drama and French sees a remake of a beloved childhood classic about a bookish French girl.) So I have a few things to say about the adaptation, the changes it makes, and its historical accuracy or lack thereof.

Are you reading Shakespeare there? (CGI) Dan Stevens as the Beast, Emma Watson as Belle.
I appreciated some of the changes to the new version: the filling in of plot holes, and the attempt to show more of how Belle and the Beast's relationship develops. To that end, the filmmakers have included scenes where the characters bond over Shakespeare. (Belle is pleased to be living with a fellow book-lover and reads to the Beast from Midsummer's "Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind" speech.) Cute, but also rather anachronistic. In France in the 1700s, it's just possible that the Beast might have translated versions of Shakespeare's plays in that vast library of his, but it's unlikely that both he and Belle would revere Shakespeare above all other authors. At that time, the French still saw Shakespeare as déclassé, an uncultured Englishman writing sprawling plays that did not respect the all-important Three Unities. Belle and the Beast would be much more likely to read and discuss literature from their own country: the plays of Racine and Corneille, or maybe the essays of Montaigne. It's fun to imagine them reading Corneille's The Illusion, a play that has themes about artifice and looking deeper, and features a magic mirror that can show you what your loved ones are doing! (Also, it's a delightful play that was far ahead of its time.)

Another change in the new version is the addition of a lot of unnecessary backstory about Belle's family. We learn that Belle and her father Maurice moved to their "provincial" village when she was a baby, after her mother died of the plague. At first, this sounds slightly odd: wasn't plague a medieval disease, and doesn't this movie take place in the 1700s? (Why not smallpox or tuberculosis?) However, there were scattered outbreaks of plague long after the medieval Black Death epidemic, including a really devastating one in Marseille in 1720 (the Great Plague of Marseille). And if we assume that that outbreak killed Belle's mother, and further assume that Belle is about 20 years old when the main action of Beauty and the Beast takes place, we can pinpoint the exact setting of the film as 1740 — which was the year the original French "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale was published! Brilliant!

The only problem with this theory is that the film makes clear that Belle and Maurice are from Paris, not Marseille, and as far as I can tell from Wikipedia, there were no Parisian plague outbreaks in the 1700s. I am left angrily shaking my fist at the screenwriters: "It would have been so easy to say they are from Marseille and not Paris and it would have been a great Easter egg for us history nerds!"

I suspect that both of these matters — having Belle and the Beast discuss Shakespeare, and saying that Belle and Maurice come from Paris — can be traced to a larger problem with movies made for mass audiences: the fear of including information that isn't 100% familiar to everyone. Belle and Maurice are Parisian, not Marseillais, because American audiences can be trusted to know where Paris is but may have never heard of Marseille. Belle and the Beast read Shakespeare, not Racine or Corneille, because those French authors are not part of Anglo-American culture. (I do like that they also show the Beast reading Arthurian romances; this strikes me as historically plausible, understandable to a modern American audience, and not quite as much of a lazy choice as Shakespeare.) Perhaps this is even why Belle's mother dies of the plague, rather than of something like tuberculosis. I suppose I shouldn't be looking to a nostalgia-flavored Disney remake to expose people to unfamiliar ideas, but it makes me sad when mass culture doesn't take the opportunity to try to tell a mass audience something they may not have heard before.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

"The Bell" by Iris Murdoch is a perfect English novel

Last November, I joined a book club for the first time. There's about 6 of us, we meet once a month, we focus on literary fiction. I had worried about what it would mean to outsource a significant portion of my literary reading to the dictates of the club, but I've discovered some wonderful books and authors through it. Like Iris Murdoch!

 The BellThe Bell by Iris Murdoch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love stories in which people retreat from the world with noble intentions, only to find that sex gets in the way. I love English novels where attractive young men go bathing naked in the woods and then other characters run across them and nothing will ever be the same. I love novels that are purportedly “character-driven” and “philosophical,” yet have a climax in which a whole lot of crazy stuff happens, and it’s shocking and inevitable all at once. I love novels with a vein of black comedy running through them that is so subtle, and so dark, that no one else in my book club thought it was a comedy at all. I love it when an author can make me hate a minor character* so much that I write Bastard in the margin practically every time he appears. I love it when an author sees through to the heart of her characters, especially when she reveals their self-deceptions and mixed motivations. I love novels in which there are patterns and symbols galore, waiting to be deciphered, yet the characters and their predicaments feel real, not the product of an airless literary exercise.

All of this is to say that I loved The Bell and I definitely want to check out more of Iris Murdoch’s huge oeuvre. (I shouldn't really be surprised; one of my most-read authors is A.S. Byatt, who was Murdoch’s protégée.) As I noted above, Murdoch is skilled at both plotting and characterization; I was also really impressed by how she sets the scene. Most of The Bell takes place in a single location: an English country house and its surroundings, which include a moat-like lake, some outbuildings, and a convent of enclosed nuns. Murdoch describes this fictional setting so precisely that I could draw you a detailed map of it, or wander through it in my imagination. Of course, when I do that, I also can’t help picturing her characters, with all their contradictions and foibles, running around the landscape too.

*Paul Greenfield, in this instance

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Iambs and Anagrams and Anapests, Oh My

Some sentences from my reading that have jumped out at me lately.
[Leon had said] "I can't help but picture an armada of floating parties." But the men were serious and reserved and afraid of pirates.
—From Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
This stopped me in my tracks, and not in a good way. In my copy of Station Eleven, the word "pirates" is printed almost directly below the word "parties," and I got weirdly distracted when I realized they were anagrams. Was it intentional wordplay? Inadvertent? What did it mean? I'm inclined to think it was unintentional (I'm enjoying Station Eleven, but its prose is not flashy or full of wordplay) and that an editor should have noticed how distracting it is. Then again, it can take a few editing passes to spot something like this. I like to think I have a good ear, yet I nonetheless wrote a line of dialogue containing the words "tectonics" and "ironic" (yeowch! inadvertent rhyme!) in my latest script, and didn't notice it till an actor read it aloud.
There's some pocket of rot in the oak of their soul that can only be patched up by watches.
From the March 20 New Yorker article on watch collecting, by Gary Shteyngart.
No, wait, forget what I said above about wordplay being distracting and worthy of removal by an editor. This sentence, this I love. The metaphor! The assonance and slant rhymes! The anapests! All in a sentence that purportedly was not even composed by Shteyngart, but is a quote from a watch-collecting acquaintance of his! I read it while on MUNI and then wanted to run around the city chanting it. It reminded me of another New Yorker sentence that had a similar effect on me, from an April 2014 article on caving, by Burkhard Bilger: "Their digestif has come to grief against a fissure wall." Perfect iambic rhythm and a jaunty internal rhyme on "digestif" and "grief"!

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

We'll Serve Anyone (Meaning Anyone) At All

I was rereading Macbeth this weekend and realized that the conceit of the Porter's first speech is basically the same as that of "A Little Priest" from Sweeney Todd -- making grimly satirical jokes about various British professions, that is, though in a context of damnation rather than cannibalism.