You’d be forgiven if, having watched the first episode of the CW’s Beauty and the Beast, you assumed that the show’s producers were trying their hardest to convince you that it’s worth paying attention to. Ostensibly a remake and updating of the 1987 show of the same name — which was itself a reinterpretation of the famous fairy tale — the new series not only adds a procedural element to the proceedings by making the Beauty of the title a cop, but also introduces two different strains of conspiratorial back story with (1.) the mystery of who killed Beauty’s mother ten years ago, and (2.) the second mystery of who is behind the genetic tampering that made the Beast an uncontrollable monster when he gets mad. (After all, it’s not as if the two could be connected in some way… Oh, wait.) But in the rush to make the show palatable to modern audiences, the makers of the new Beauty and the Beast seem to have forgotten what the original story was actually about.
Although Angela Lansbury would tell you that it’s a “tale as old as time,” the story of Beauty and the Beast is actually around three centuries old. It was first published in 1740 in La jeune américaine, et les contes marins as La Belle et la Bete, written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, a minor French author granted immortality for her connection to this particular story. It didn’t really become popular for another 16 years, when Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont published an abridged version that removed much of the backstory for both leads, and also changed Belle from a lowly merchant’s daughter into a princess, much to her own surprise. (Belle being entirely unaware of the identity of her true parents; take that, people who think that the princess fixation started with Disney.) In both incarnations, however, the story was about Belle’s transformation from a woman who judged based on surface appearances to one who recognized inner beauty, and found happiness because of it.
Even as the story was retold throughout the years, the transformation element remained a constant, though the type of transformation — and who underwent the changes in question, for that matter — underwent its own transmogrification from version to version. Take the two most famous “faithful” adaptations of the original story, for example: Jean Cocteau’s 1946 live action La Belle et la Bete, and the 1991 animated Beauty and the Beast from the Walt Disney Company. While both of these stick relatively closely to the central story that de Villeneuve published in the 18th century, with some minor alterations — Cocteau adds an attempt by Belle’s human suitor Avenant to steal the Beast’s treasure, and Disney removes the threat the Beast makes on Belle’s father’s life — the way in which each film approaches the transformation of the relationship between Belle and the Beast is significantly different, in part because the identity of the transformee changes from movie to movie.
In Cocteau’s version, as in the original telling, Belle is the one who changes — as if to emphasize the change, she even tells the Beast at the end of the film that she once loved the handsome-yet-greedy Avenant. But in the Disney version, it’s the Beast who has to change in order to win Belle’s heart; she has already realized that beauty isn’t skin deep, and requires wooing in order for the curse to be unbroken. (“There’s something sweet/and almost kind,” Belle sings at one point, “but he was mean/and he was coarse/and unrefined,” listing all his faults.)
The Disney film breaks from the original intent of the story, yes, but in doing so updates the story for the modern era. We have a more independent — and more intelligent, let’s be honest — Belle, who finally allowed Disney to step outside of the Princesses Just Wanna Have Fun, Preferably With Princes romantic mold when it came to their animated heroes. We also have a Beast who is forced to get past his gruff exterior (literally) and get in touch with his sensitive side, à la the popular trend of the 1990s. It’s a smart inversion of the story: Instead of the moral essentially being a patriarchal “women should learn to love whoever chooses them,” the Disney version is “a man has to be worthy of the woman he wants to love him.” The film also fulfills the story’s title for the first time in its history; instead of the kind soul who looks like a monster of previous versions, finally, we get a beast who has to learn to be cultured.
This transformative element, however, is strangely absent from CW’s Beauty and the Beast — or, rather, it’s absent from the show in its current time frame, as the important character arcs for the two leads have already happened prior to the first episode. Take Catherine Chandler, the Beauty of this particular series: After the flashback that opens the first episode — Catherine seeing her mother murdered, and then being saved by the Beast, although she doesn’t realize who/what he is at the time — you might expect her to be a damaged character, unable to form relationships or open up to anybody for fear of losing them, right…? But, no; she’s a smart, sexy detective whose instincts are usually right and wants to love, but just can’t find the right man, as we discover from watching her get dumped by the wrong man early in the episode. If Catherine has a character arc for the series outside of the external “Will she find who killed her mother?” it might have to be “Can she learn to be less perfect?” But, you know, that’s okay. Maybe this, like the Disney movie, is all about the Beast’s transformation.
Sure enough, Vincent Keller, this series’ Beast, does have more of an obvious character arc than Catherine. After all, he’s the subject of some kind of experiments that have transformed him into a beast when he is enraged, and so there’s a clear “Can he become a calmer man who doesn’t lose control” question. But by the time we meet him in the pilot, he’s been like this for ten years, and he’s already got that whole “control” thing down pretty well, only losing control once in the entire episode — even then managing to calm down after seconds. The Beast here is just a loner superhero who saves people and lives in an abandoned warehouse while pouting about how terrible his life is. It’s not even as if he looks like a monster; he looks like this.
What makes the lack of clear transformation narrative more frustrating is that the 1987 series that the disappointing 2012 version is based on didn’t have the same problem at all. The 1987 Beauty and the Beast, which starred a post-Terminator Linda Hamilton and a pre-Hellboy Ron Perlman, opened with a pilot that showed Catherine Chandler to have the same weakness for surface glamour as the original Belle, only her eyes were opened not only by Vincent’s kindness and good heart, but also by something far more dramatic: a knife attack that left her disfigured for weeks. The network series translated Belle’s lesson about not judging books by their covers into something more, in which the attractive “world above” that we live in often hid monsters, while the abandoned and disfigured denizens of the “world below” where Vincent lived offered kindness, beauty and safety unlike any Catherine had really known before. It wasn’t subtle, but it was there.
(There are numerous other ways in which the new remake differs from the 1987 original: Catherine is an assistant in the DA’s office in the original and cop in the new version; Vincent was “naturally” a beast, resembling Cocteau’s cat-like take on the character, in the original compared with the handsome man with one scar of today’s series. Furthermore, the original Vincent’s underground community of mutants — something perhaps inspired by the Morlocks of Chris Claremont’s early ’80s Uncanny X-Men comic books — doesn’t seem to exist in the CW incarnation at all, robbing the reboot of one of the main settings of the original. When you factor in the differing tones, mythologies and aesthetics of the two series, it really seems as if all they actually share are character names and a series title.)
Outside of the obvious mythology-heavy story arcs and the inevitable relationship that will develop between Catherine and Vincent (As Chekhov once wrote of dramas on the CW, you don’t introduce an adorable woman with bad taste in men and a brooding loner with no interest in woman in the first season if you don’t plan on pairing them off in the third), it’s unclear where Beauty and the Beast is going to go. It may end up a Smallville-esque mix of “monster of the week” procedural and epic season-long story arcs, or something entirely more ambitious. Until we see proof that either Beauty or the Beast are actually going to have to deal with some genuine growth and character transformation, however, I think everyone might be better served by pretending that it has an entirely different title altogether. Sexy Cop and the Non-Intellectual Property Infringing Cross Between the Hulk and Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer might not sound particularly catchy, but at least it has a ring of truth to it.