‘Beauty and the Beast’ in the Modern World

What the fairy tale’s success among adults suggests about society.

Beauty and the Beast, the latest in a string of live-action Disney adaptations, exceeded lofty expectations this past weekend to gross $350 million worldwide. Though impressive, this development is not necessarily surprising: live-action titles like Maleficent, Cinderella, and The Jungle Book have all chalked up substantial box-office returns, and the original Disney animation is widely beloved. What is surprising, however, is that a reported half of the film’s audience was non-family; that is, adults seeing the film without children. Beauty and the Beast is not Harry Potter – its themes are simple and unambiguous, its cartoonish characters painted in broad strokes. So why might a fairy tale about 17th century France generate such worldwide appeal?

One of the most striking aspects of director Rob Condon’s live-action adaptation is how familiar it is. The film’s visual design, down to the characters’ costumes and the composition of certain shots, recreates the look of the 1991 classic to a tee. One gets the distinct impression that the film is not so much trying to shake up our memories of what Beauty and the Beast is but to invoke them; to reassure us that this is indeed the classic story we remember, and that we need not worry about the undue violation of our expectations. Overblown controversies about the film’s gay Le Fou aside, Condon’s film is anything but subversive. This Beauty and the Beast does little beyond racially diversifying the cast to bring the fairy tale into a modern context.

The film’s appeal, then, seems to be as a kind of foothold, less a bearer of cultural change than a bulwark against it. In a world that grows increasingly complex and unpredictable by the day, adult audiences seem to need such a foothold – an assurance that things have not changed as much as it seems since 1991, or indeed since the 17th century. The tension between tradition and revision has always been a part of fairy tale, and as theorists like Maria Tatar note, the archetypal pairing of Beauty (male or female) and Beast (male or female) far predates our modern conception of the story. “Beast was not always a suitor living in regal isolation;” Tatar writes, “Beauty was not always kept in a castle.” But the relative gradualness of cultural change in eras past has assured that fairy tales could retain their perennial relevance. Stories could change just enough to meet the demands of a new audience while nevertheless feeling timeless.

It is worth asking whether this pattern will continue in the coming decades. How will classic fairy tales fare amid a global landscape that becomes less and less recognizable? Such tales are predicated on the existence of certain constants in human nature: the duality between humans’ animal and rational spirit, the role of empathy in romantic love, and our ambivalence about beauty. These tensions indeed feel like constants, and Beauty and the Beast’s success suggests that their relevance endures. But it’s hard not to suspect that the film’s appeal is as much the result of future shock as deep resonance.

Will Beauty and the Beast survive our changing relationship to non-human animals, shifting conceptions of gender, or rapid technological advance? At the moment, it seems it will. But so long as cultural progress drives humanity further and further from its unconscious animal nature, fairy tales may increasingly seem like quaint if not downright unwelcome reminders of our past. As the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim famously explained, fairy tales help the child bring unconscious challenges into the conscious mind, facilitating the process of psychological maturity. If Beauty and the Beast’s success among adults is any indication, the modern world has driven many aspects of our nature into the unconscious. We may not like what we see when such beastly qualities come into the light.