The Newest Tale As Old As Time

When Howard Ashman began the titular song of 1991’s Beauty and the Beast with the line “Tale as old as time…,” it wasn’t an exaggeration. Elements of the story can be found in tales 4000 years old, though the most direct link would be the story of Psyche and Cupid from the 2nd Century AD book “Metamophoses” by Platonicus. The modern form dates from France in the mid-1700s, with “La Belle et la Bête” by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, though other authors have added their own touches to the story since then. It’s been filmed many times, including Jean Cocteau’s 1946 La Belle et la Bête, and has spawned a couple TV series. The best version, though, has to be Disney’s 1991 animated feature – the first animated movie to receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination. I wrote a full post on it after its re-release in 3D six years ago, and it remains one of my favorite movies of all time. Now I must add an asterisk to that statement. If anything, the new live action version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is better.

This is the third live action version of a classic Disney animated movie to come to the theaters. Tim Burton started it with his Alice in Wonderland, then Kenneth Branagh did a sparkling non-musical version of Cinderella in 2015. The studio is planning a full slate of adaptations, with the next one to be Mulan next year. (Currently the plan is for it also to be a non-musical.) While I was looking forward to Beauty and the Beast, I admit I had a bit of trepidation as well. The 1991 version brought me to tears in the theater, and I still can’t watch it without choking up at the climax. But the new version isn’t just a hit; it slammed in the center of the bull’s-eye.

Part of it is the casting. I’m now convinced that Emma Watson really is a wizard who’s cast a spell beguiling us. Her singing is just as wonderful as her acting, and her intelligence shines brightly in the character. Luke Evans (Fast and Furious 6, The Hobbit trilogy) manages to make meta-villain Gaston realistic and definitely threatening, while Josh Gad’s version of LeFou is delightful and definitely deeper than the 1991 version. Dan Stevens probably is most known as Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey,” though now it will be for his performance as The Beast. Even with the massive makeup, you still see through to the Beast’s soul. The film has an overabundance of riches in its supporting characters. The castle is populated with Ian McKellan, Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. A special delight for me was Kevin Kline as Belle’s father, Maurice.

Another benefit comes from the highly-successful Broadway version that expands the story from the 1991 film’s original 84 minutes. (The new version runs 129 minutes; there are a couple of places where the flow of the story slows a bit, but they’re minor hiccups.) Music from the Broadway version has been incorporated, with lyrics by Tim Rice to music by original composer Alan Menken, and the story has been fleshed out in other ways as well.

The adaptation was done by Stephen Chbosky, who wrote “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” which he both adapted for the movie version and directed. Chbosky had also done the adaptation of Rent, so he’s worked in the musical genre before.  He collaborated with Evan Spiliotopoulos who’d done multiple direct-to-video scripts for Disney and was well-acquainted with the studio’s style. Some of the story departs from the 1991 film and instead incorporates pieces from the 18th Century versions, in particular Maurice’s experience in the Beast’s castle, and expands Belle’s background. They also add some wicked quips, including one referencing the permanent winter surrounding the castle which passes without comment in the animated version.

Director Bill Condon, too, has worked with movie adaptations of musicals before, writing the script for Chicago as well as writing and directing Dreamgirls in 2006. He’d also won an Oscar for his 1998 script of Gods and Monsters, which he directed. Condon isn’t constrained by the visuals of the original. He pays tribute to them occasionally, such as during the “Bonjour” sequence as well as Belle’s “I want adventure” reprise, but overall he smartly reimagines the scenes and sets so they work in the live-action realm.

There was a kerfuffle amongst some conservatives when it was announced a character would be openly gay – no points for guessing which one. It truly is a tempest in Mrs. Potts. Nothing in the film is more objectionable than in the classic Warner Brothers cartoons from seventy-five years ago. They were a bit edgier than Disney, but they were funny then and are still funny today. Also, it’s rather ridiculous to be upset about a gay character in a film about a girl and a horned beast falling deeply in love. Beauty and the Beast is all about seeing the heart and not the externals.

What’s more poignant is why the character’s orientation was included. The lyricist of the 1991 movie, Howard Ashman, was openly gay. He could turn a phrase as well as any of the giants of musical theater, such as Oscar Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, or Alan Jay Lerner. With his composer partner, Alan Menken, they’d created the musical version of “Little Shop of Horrors.” Following that, Disney had them compose the songs for The Little Mermaid, the movie that established the new age of Disney animated brilliance. Beauty and the Beast was their masterpiece, but strangely enough it almost didn’t happen. The film was originally written as a non-musical. Ashman and Menken were working on what was supposed to be their follow-up – Aladdin – when Disney execs asked them to save Beauty and the Beast as the production was going nowhere. But during that time Ashman was diagnosed as HIV-positive. It progressed to full-blown AIDS, and Ashman died eight months before Beauty and the Beast was released. That film bears the dedication “To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful.” The inclusion of a gay character in the live-action remake was a tribute to Ashman.

As most know, Beauty and the Beast demolished the box office records for a March release, racking up over $170 million domestically and passing $300 million worldwide in its first weekend. But for me, its success was me sitting in my seat in the theater with tears streaming down my cheeks at the film’s climax. I knew it was coming, but still I was overwhelmed. I sat in the theater to the end of the credits to give myself time to recover.

When a movie can touch people in the audience with that power, it is truly something beautiful.

A Tempest in a Mud Puddle

The rule of thumb is that a movie is almost never as good as the book it’s based on. When it comes to the Bible, remove the “almost.” Screenwriters have always taken liberties with the text. One I remember from my youth is The Story of Ruth, which the screenwriter embellished the story by having Ruth be a Moabite priestess who marries the son of Naomi in secret. Even a movie like The Passion of the Christ took liberties by having children stoning Judas on his way to commit suicide. Of course, the real world has plenty of examples of misrepresenting the Bible. In South Africa, the white Dutch Reformed church mistranslated passages from the story of Noah to read that Ham, Noah’s son, was cursed to be the servant of others because of his darker skin, and used that to justify 50 years of apartheid. Compared to that, any embellishments in a movie are quaint. Passions can get inflamed, though. About 25 years ago, there were protests and picketing of theaters that showed Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ. While it isn’t as intense, there’s now a movie that has stirred the anger of some Christian groups: Darren Aronofsky’s Noah.

The blogosphere has been bubbling with people condemning the movie as being unbiblical, and for portraying God as angry and vengeful. Some are upset that the movie doesn’t actually use the word “God,” substituting “Creator” instead. (That one betrays a lack of knowledge, since the name of God used in Genesis – Elohim – means “Creator God.” It actually appears 2570 times in scripture.) There’s a sixteen-minute movie on YouTube that goes on breathlessly condemning the film and saying its part of a conspiracy by Hollywood to turn people into atheists. But one thing that’s pretty common throughout is the people condemning the movie haven’t seen it and are instead basing their statements on 2nd or 3rd hand sources. I think that a movie should be judged on its actual merits.

So my verdict on Noah is it’s a glorious mess – an attempt to de-sanctify the story to make Noah understandable and therefore relatable to our own lives, which isn’t in itself a bad thing. However, Aronofsky’s indulgent video style and the fantastic elements he adds to the story defeat the purpose. If you want to look, there’s a decent moral that affirms the grace and mercy of God, but it’s not really worth the effort to get to it.

Anyone who’s attended Sunday School has likely learned the story of Noah – bad men, good Noah, God decides to flood the place out, Noah builds the ark, cubits, 2 by 2, rains for 40 days, dove with an olive branch, ark comes to rest on mountain, cue the rainbow! The embellishments start early, with Aronofsky having the descendants of Cain overpopulating the earth like rabbits, while the Seth side of Adam and Eve’s family seems to only have one child per generation. According to the Bible, along with the first-born descendant, each of the generations after Adam had plenty of children. For a movie, it simplifies the narrative so you don’t get confused by thousands of relatives, but it wasn’t only the descendants of Cain who incurred God’s wrath with their violent ways.

Aronofsky has also added a group of fallen angels who protect Noah and help build the Ark. There sort of is a basis for this in the Flood story, since it includes a section on the Nephilim. They were called sons of God, which was one way angels were referred to in the Old Testament. The verses in the Bible have more in common with the Greco-Roman deities than the rest of the Bible. It’s one of those sections that make readers go “Huh?” and it could have been interesting since no other movie has dealt with it. However, Aronofsky has turned the Nephilim into prototypes of the Transformers – rocks that come to life, so the portrayal becomes pretty silly. (Interestingly, the one verse from the section on the Nephilim that is often quoted is that God has set a limit on the age of man at 120 years, though it’s in between the genealogy of Adam, when his descendants live for 700 to 900 years, and Noah’s story, with him being 600 years old at the time of the Flood.) Another visual flourish is that when Noah sees visions several times in the course of the movie, they’re prefaced by an image of the snake in the Garden of Eden, and of Cain killing Abel with a rock. The image quickly becomes repetitive and boring.

Russell Crowe does a decent job as Noah, given the script he’s working with, as does Jennifer Connolly as his wife and Emma Watson as the wife of Shem. Anthony Hopkins portrays Noah’s grandfather Methuselah, and Ray Winstone is the King of Cain’s descendants. The most developed character among Noah’s sons is Ham (Logan Lerman), who has his conflicts with Noah. Lerman was excellent in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which also starred Emma Watson, and he has a face that the camera reads well.

One worthwhile aspect of the movie is its portrayal of the conflict between two attitudes towards Creation – Subjugation, which holds that mankind was given the earth by God and we can do what we like with it, and Ecotheology, which posits that God entrusted man with the earth and we must be responsible in our use of its resources. That’s led some in the media to brand this Noah as the first eco-terrorist, though that’s a hyperbolic overstretch. The portrayal of the flood is interesting, since it incorporates the image of the world held by man in those days, that God had created the world by separating the waters above it and those below it to form the dry land. When the flood came, the waters both rose from underneath as well as fell when the firmament was opened.

Does the movie justify the campaign against it? The answer is no. No one with even a minor knowledge of the story is going to think this is anything but a Hollywood fantasy, and not a very good one at that. Noah would have sunk under its own weight when the first audience reactions started to spread. What the campaign of condemnation did accomplish was to boost Noah to an opening week box office win, raking in more than 40 million dollars. Without the loud, negative campaign against the movie, it’s unlikely that would have happened. It’s been said there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Noah proves the truth of that statement.

******Upddate*****

A friend directed me to an interesting article about the possible source for the imagery in Noah. It seems to have its base in Kabbalah, a form of Jewish Gnosticism. Gnosticism basically means a belief in “special knowledge” that common people aren’t privy to, and it shows up regularly in religion. Christianity has had many Gnostic splinters over the years. The Nicene Creed that many liturgical churches recite weekly was written to combat a 4th Century Gnostic belief about Jesus. To read the full article, click here.

Survival Guide

Stephen Chbosky’s bestselling YA novel “The Perks Of Being A Wallflower” was published in 1999, and has – deservedly – taken its place among the best of that genre.  Several producers wanted to adapt it as a movie, but Chbosky held onto the rights, planning to do the movie version himself.  He went on to write the screen adaptation of Rent as well as create and produce the post-apocalypse TV show Jericho.  He finally put together a package, with John Malkovich as one of the producers, that allowed him to both write and direct the movie version of his book.  It was worth the wait.

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower takes place in mid-1990’s Pittsburgh.  It begins as the book does, with Charlie (Logan Lerman) writing a letter to an unnamed person about what’s happening in his life.  He’s about to enter high school, which is enough of a psychological challenge on its own.  However, Charlie has the added baggage that, the year before, his best friend had committed suicide, an event that sent Charlie into a mental tailspin that he’s pulled out of only recently.  The first day is about what Charlie expected at the school, with two exceptions: in his shop class, there is a senior named Patrick (Ezra Miller) who delivers a sharp parody of the teacher before the man arrives; and Charlie’s English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd) recognizes Charlie’s intelligence and seeks to open him up to the broader world of books.

Along with Charlie’s fragility, his parents (Dylan McDermott, Kate Walsh) are dealing with his oldest brother going off to college.  Charlie’s older sister Candace (Nina Dobrev) is in a relationship that, Charlie discovers, is abusive.  Charlie asks Mr. Anderson about why she would accept such a relationship, and Anderson responds with the wise words, “We accept the love we think we deserve.”

Charlie attends a football game alone, but when he sees Patrick there he moves over to sit by him.  They’re soon joined by Sam (Emma Watson), Patrick’s stepsister, who’s also a senior.  They invite Charlie to a party at their house and, under the influence of some “happy” brownies, he displays the wit and intelligence he’s kept bottled up.  He impresses Sam and Patrick’s friends, the wallflowers of the title.  He also tells Sam about his friend’s suicide, and Sam and Patrick decide to take Charlie under their wings.  Both of them are outsiders as well, Patrick because he’s come out as gay and Sam because she got a reputation as a party girl when she was a freshman.

The story covers Charlie’s initial year of high school, and a little bit beyond, in a series of beautifully-observed incidents.  Chbosky uses the inner dialogue of Charlie’s letter-writing to both comment on scenes as well as to foreshadow what is coming.  As time goes on, the dramedy swings away from the comedy side and goes into some deep, dark places, but you’re willing to follow because you care about these characters.

Chbosky gives the film a feeling of authenticity throughout, helped by filming on location in Pittsburgh.  This is a case were being director, screenwriter, and writer of the source material isn’t vanity, but is instead necessary because of his depth of understanding of the characters.  He coaxes wonderful performances from his cast.

Sporting her pixie haircut and a perfect American accent, Emma Watson leaves Hogwarts behind once and for all.  In Perks she shines, as does Ezra Miller.  He captures the happy-go-lucky, gay (in the old meaning) persona of Patrick, but there is also a seething anger beneath the patina, motivated by his still-in-the-closet boyfriend as well as the society of that time.

The anchor of the story is Charlie, and Logan Lerman does the role proud.  He’s been active in Hollywood for years, having played Christian Bale’s son in 3:10 To Yuma and starred in the title role of Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, a sequel to which will be coming out next year.  His role as Charlie is a quantum leap above his previous performances, showing Charlie’s vulnerability, awkwardness, and brokenness.  As Charlie works out the event in childhood that left him fractured, we feel his pain and, finally, the lifting of the burden.

High School life often revolves around the music students are listening to, and the movie captures this perfectly.  The soundtrack is excellent, especially with the use of David Bowie’s “Heroes” as a pivotal piece.  Sometimes the heroic victory is getting through a day and learning that the next day can be better.  It’s a message that should be shared with all the wallflowers out there.