I’ve now seen Beauty and the Beast (2017) four times, and I absolutely adore the film. I think the film is utterly charming, the changes and additions in the live action remake of the original animated film improved on the story, and the performances were wonderful. Not only did the new film tweak and update certain elements of the story to fix plot holes in the original film, they added backstory for certain characters to flush them out, including Belle. So how well did the live action version do in updating the Belle character?
As I wrote previously in my article about Belle, I love the character in the animated Beauty and the Beast (1991), but I recognize that Belle is not as capable of a character as she could be, and there are some problems with the story. The original film is nearly perfect, but I do think the live action version does improve on it in certain areas.
While Belle loves to read in the 1991 film, the Belle in the 2017 film, played by Emma Watson, is smarter and more capable. Of course the 2017 Belle loves to read, but she also teaches other people to read; and not only does Belle help her inventor father with his music boxes, she is an inventor in her own right, inventing a donkey-powered washing machine. I quite like these additions because it shows that not only does Belle love reading, but she is very intellectually capable and she can problem solve.
In the animated film, Belle stands up for herself against Gaston and Beast throughout the film, but in the live action version not only does she stand up for herself but she takes charge of her life in ways that she didn’t in the animated version. A change I love that the live action film made was instead of having Belle cry when she gets to her room in the castle, she uses fabric to make a ladder to escape out the window. This shows that Belle is mentally capable, in that she can come up with a plan to get herself out of the situation she’s in, and very emotionally capable, in that she doesn’t just break down in tears.
The biggest change/addition that the 2017 film did was give more screentime to the Belle/Beast romance. In the 1991 film, the romance between the two characters is limited to one token of kindness (Beast giving Belle the library), one song (Something There), and one dance (the ballroom scene). Rewatching the 1991 film again really shows just how much the film glossed over the central romance in the story. But the live action film devoted much more time to showing the relationship develop naturally, and showing why these two characters fall for each other. The 2017 film shows Belle and Beast discussing their shared love of books, Beast giving Belle the library and the two characters exploring it together, the two characters connecting over the fact that they both are outcasts in their homes, and the characters connecting over learning what happened to Belle’s mother. That’s all before they get to the ballroom scene where they dance before Beast lets Belle go in order to save her father. One of my biggest problems with romances in film in general is that the romance shown is never a romance that I would relate to or enjoy, and is usually focused on how good looking the two people involved are. The romance in Beauty and the Beast (2017) is the only romance on film that I truly believe and enjoy watching. The changes and additions the filmmakers made to the relationship between Belle and Beast is one of the most enjoyable parts of the new film.
One of the traits I love most from characters is the ability to problem solve – it’s a characteristic that I mentioned many times when I wrote about my favorite female characters, and it’s a characteristic that I talked previously about wishing Belle had but doesn’t in the original film. When I discussed Belle from the 1991 film, one of my biggest sticking points was the fact that Chip saves her when Gaston locks her in the basement – it was such a missed opportunity for Belle to show her problem solving abilities by getting herself out of the situation, or at least telling someone else how to get her out. While the live action film does have many more places where Belle shows her problem solving skills, she still doesn’t get herself out of being locked up toward the end of the film. While I enjoy the callback of Belle handing Maurice the tools he needs to fix whatever it is he’s working on, it would have been great for Belle to suggest to Maurice that he pick the lock with her hairpin instead of just handing him the hairpin after he’s already said he’s going to pick the lock. It could have gone like this: Belle asks Maurice to pick the lock, he searches for something to pick the lock with, and Belle hands him her hairpin. It would have had the callback to the earlier part of the film AND had Belle be the one to suggest picking the lock. It’s a little thing, but it would have made Belle’s character better.
One part of the original film that I discussed before that I thought was a great point was Belle literally saving Beast’s life at the end of the film by grabbing his cloak and preventing him from falling to his death. It’s a small moment with big impact because it makes Belle active during the final battle of the film, which is between Beast and Gaston. Without that moment, Belle would have been completely passive. The new film does make Belle a bit active by having her take Gaston’s arrows, but they removed the moment where Belle helps Beast after Gaston injures him. So while they tried to make Belle more active during that final battle, they ended up making her more passive.
My biggest problem with Emma Watson’s Belle is that she is too passive at the end of the film. When I saw this new film for the first time, during the scene where the Enchantress comes in after the final battle and Belle is sobbing over the dead Beast, I was shouting in my head for Belle to confront the Enchantress, to either fight or plead with her to save Beast, but that never happened. It was a change from the original film to include the Enchantress physically in the room bringing the Beast back to life, and I think not having Belle confront the Enchantress in some way was a huge missed opportunity for Belle to be active in the final part of the film. The final battle is between Beast and Gaston, and because Belle doesn’t save Beast from falling, she is almost completely passive during the final part of the film, which really undercuts how capable she is prior to that. A great way to make her active would have been for her to confront the Enchantress in some way, but she didn’t. Huge missed opportunity.
Overall, I very much love Beauty and the Beast (2017) and almost prefer it over Beauty and the Beast (1991). I think the way the filmmakers updated Belle, and the changes and additions they made, worked very well and did improve Belle as a character. The positives definitely outweigh the negatives here. What negatives there are are more about missed opportunities to improve Belle even more than the positives I’ve discussed here already did. The live action film did a very good job updating and improving Belle, but there are a few missed opportunities that would have made her even better.