Becoming a Better Protagonist - Beauty and the Beast and Manchester by the Sea.
In life, it is possible to get away with doing the same thing over and over again. Patterns of behaviour can become ingrained, so much a part of a person's habitual response that others may think, 'oh, that's so-and-so for you, he's always been like that, unsociable/quick to take offence/ whatever. But in a movie, or a novel, it will not do to get to the end of the story to find that the protagonist has learned nothing from his journey, and is unchanged by his experiences. In order to work, a story needs the main character/s to change. They might be tested, they might have some realisation or insight, or they must go on some journey, real or metaphorical, and arrive at a different place from where they set out. If, for example, at the conclusion of Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy was still arrogant, and Elizabeth still judgemental, there would be no story.
Beauty and the Beast, in its original form, (written by Madame Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1756), is a story of transformation through love. Beauty is kind, sensible, and sweet tempered, as well as beautiful, but she cannot love the Beast because of his fearsome, monstrous appearance. In the original story, the Beast is consistently kind and gentle with her from the beginning. Under enchantment by a wicked fairy, (with no reason given as to why he deserved this), his task is simply to find a woman who will love him for the goodness of his heart, and nothing else.. Beauty must change for the story to work. She first learns not to fear the Beast, then to converse with him and enjoy his company, and feelings of friendship and trust grow. But still she cannot love him, (we infer a sexual love of course, but being a fairy story, this cannot be explicit). But at last, when the Beast is dying in her arms, and she sees that she might lose him forever, she realises a passionate love for him.
"I thought it was only friendship I felt for you,' cried Beauty passionately, 'but now I know it was love.'
Her words break the enchantment, transforming the Beast back into a handsome young Prince, and providing the final step in her journey from innocent girlhood to sexually awakened woman.
(In the story, when Beauty first looks up and sees the Prince, she sobs, "but where is my poor Beast? I only want him and nobody else!' It is an awkward moment, glossed over by the explanations provided by the Prince, and the moralising of the fairy-lady, who appears like a mother figure to tell Beauty that she has 'chosen well.' I have always thought it oddly contradictory that Beauty must learn to love a Beast, only for her reward to be the replacement of the Beast with a man. The Beast means everything to Beauty, and to me, the reader, who has gone on the journey with her; the handsome Prince seems a mere standard, annoying substitute.)
At any rate, this is a classic, exemplary story about the power of perceptual change, achieved through incremental steps and hard learned lessons, to transform our lives. 'I see things differently now,' Beauty might say, along with Elizabeth Bennet, Dorothea Brooke, King Lear, and a host of others.
I was quite trepidatious about seeing the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast. Would they mangle the tale beyond recognition? Would it be a sentimental, saccharine confection? Would Beauty have any internal conflicts, or would her happy-ever-after be handed to her on a plate? My fears were unfounded. The movie delivers a hugely satisfying version of this classic, although I was marginally irritated by the whole Gaston sub plot, especially the improbability of such a foppish buffoon suddenly becoming a fearless fighter and a match for the Beast at the end. Never mind.
The most intriguing thing for me about the movie was the way it showed character development in the Beast, as well as in Beauty. In the original story, the Beast simply persists. The enchantment makes him stupid as well as bestial. All he can do is show his true, kind heart. The movie however, offers a parallel transformational arc for him, as well as for Beauty. Backstory shows him as a vain, selfish, self indulgent Prince, with a cruel and vicious temper. When he inadvertently offends the enchantress, the spell she puts on him specifically requires him to change, or face eternal damnation.. He must learn to win love, without the aid of good looks, wealth or the trappings of power, and to do this he must learn to curb his temper, think of others before himself, and open his mind to culture and learning, (a lovely touch, I think, in this movie, is Belle inspiring the Beast to re connect with his books.) By the end, he has learned to be humble, and to put another's needs ahead of his own, and he deserves his fairy tale reward.
I saw Manchester By the Sea, a Kenneth Lonergan film, on the same day as Beauty and the Beast, in a rare movie marathon with my ever- up-for-it friend S. Great fun! But hard to imagine two more different movies, and I would not attempt to compare them, except for this one thing.
Manchester by the Sea tells a story about a man, Lee Chandler, who has suffered a terrible trauma that has affected his whole life.. Lee is depressed, angry, stuck in the past, his relationships broken, and his whole life apparently on hold. Not perhaps entirely dissimilar from the position of the Prince at the beginning of Disney's tale. A twist of fate - an unexpected provision in his brother's will - suddenly gives him an opportunity for change.. He is required by the will to be guardian for his sixteen year old nephew. It's an intriguing narrative device, and I was fascinated to see how it would play out.
Lee refuses categorically to take up the responsibility he's been given. I thought that this would just be his initial reaction, that his position would slowly change. The terms of narrative development required it! It simply didn't occur to me that this would be a story about someone who stayed resolutely and massively stuck, despite all the many opportunities for redemption that the movie offers him.
His nephew is an engaging young man, who despite having just lost his father, is determined to get on with his life, no matter what. Unlike his Uncle Lee. Coming to a workable arrangement for the guardianship of this very competent, self assured, and agreeable young person would not be hard, you would think. Lee turns it into a nightmare. He is relentlessly negative and uncompromising, and manages to pick unbelievable fight after fight with his bereaved young nephew.
Other friends and relatives offer opportunities and assistance. Will Lee's ex wife, in a serendipitous meeting on the street, in which she offers a heartbroken apology for past hurts, and an affirmation of love and forgiveness, swing Lee to a different viewpoint? No. He rejects her definitively, and continues on the same morose, self defeating path that takes him right to the end of the movie.
Casey Affleck, who plays Lee, is like a black hole on the screen, sucking the energy and life out of everything that crosses his path. I felt myself losing the will to live just watching him. He needed to take some lessons from the Beast! Even the most obnoxious person, dealt the worst possible hand, can still become a better person!
The beautiful, gentle, evocative cinematography, and the nuanced relationships of other characters, gave hope that this might be a different kind of movie. One that moved, somewhere, anywhere, that took us on a journey. But by the end, Lee has done nothing, attempted nothing, taken no chances, risked not a thing.
When, at the end, Lee's nephew asks him why he can't stay with him, Lee simply replies that he 'can't beat it.' In life, this is certainly sometimes tragically true, but in a movie, makes for a frustrating, dissatisfying experience.
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