Back in 2006, about 2 1/2 years before my untimely demise and hellish rebirth, the members of the Writers Guild of America voted on and released a list of the 101 greatest American film screenplays. It was an entertaining and reasonably comprehensive list, and not wholly predictable (though I did call their number one choice,
"And it can't just be an alphabetical list," he told me. "You have to do a ranked, 'top 101' list, like the WGA did."
It took me a few hours to organize all my picks on an alphabetical list, and then I spent some good solid think time putting the films in qualitative order. The results were surprising even to me. Many scripts ranked higher than I would have expected, and a number of films that I've long considered favorites didn't even show up on the list (some of these will be the subject of future Movie Zombie entries, as "The Ones That Got Away"). But it was an illuminating and instructive exercise, and it taught me a lot about what I regard as important when it comes to screenwriting.
So I've set myself a project of going through the list and watching all these films again, from bottom to top, and as I do, I will be posting my thoughts on each film and why it made it onto my list of what I feel are the best-written films of all time. I hope you will find reading these essays as entertaining and illuminating as I found the films that inspire them.
So, we begin with...
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991)
Linda Woolverton (animation screenplay); Howard Ashman (song lyrics)
WHY IT'S HERE
I first saw Beauty and the Beast in its initial theatrical run, during the holiday season of 1991. I had recently started high school at a somewhat premature thirteen years of age, and I was also just embarking on what would later become a lifelong interest in film, which I eventually decided to pursue as a potential career. For a burgeoning student of cinema just entering the period of one's life when appearances and "cool" seem to matter the most, it might have seemed strange that I'd even bother with an animated fairy tale, especially one with the Disney imprimatur.
Of course, right from the day of the film's release, there was a very clear sense from both audiences and the critical establishment that this wasn't your typical cinematic kid's stuff. In fact, with the recent marketing to young girls of the film's protagonist, the bookish beauty Belle, as part of Disney's mega-successful "Princess" product line, it might be hard to remember that when Beauty and the Beast first hit theaters, one of its major selling points was that this was a fairy tale that wasn't just for kids. The film was promoted with two different poster designs, one depicting a kid-friendly collage of the animated characters, another (the "adult" poster) featuring a stylized silky-red rendering of Belle and the Beast dancing, with the simple slogan "The Greatest Love Story Ever Told". This was being sold as a date movie as much as a matinee outing with the tots, and the film garnered such critical respect that it eventually became the first (and to date, with the advent of a separate animated feature category, the only) animated film to receive an Academy Award nomination for best picture of the year.
And the fact is, this marketing was apt. Sure, it's now much easier, in the wake of all that followed, to see Beauty and the Beast as a textbook example of the 1990s Disney house narrative template, but that framework was perfected by this film, with all the studio's subsequent releases of the decade attempting to copy the formula with varying degrees of success. (1989's The Little Mermaid was in some ways a dry run for this formula, the Dr. No to Beauty's more accomplished Goldfinger.) Misunderstood, fish-out-of-water protagonist? Check. Cuddly anthropomorphic comic-relief sidekicks? Check. A villain who is in many ways a cracked-mirror image of the hero? Huge, Broadway-style numbers that dramatize the story's themes as well as the action itself? A classic fairy tale revitalized by modern animation style? Check, check, and double-check. Beauty and the Beast set the gold standard for what was to be a remarkable decade of animated features from Disney.
But none of the subsequent films were as skilled as Beauty at addressing complicated, adult issues within its narrative. (1996's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, directed by Beauty's Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, gave it a shot, but went almost too far into dark, queasily Freudian territory, and the result turned off many audiences.) In Linda Woolverton's screenplay, Belle is a proto-feminist ostracized by her community for her bookishness and desire for a better life than what is expected for a poor country girl. Sure, she may fantasize about handsome princes and far-off castles, but not because it's what her station in life demands of her; in fact, her dreams of romance and exotic locales are a form of rebellion against her "provincial life", of the simple, unquestioning acceptance of her lot. Belle is the epitome of every kid from straitened circumstances who looked up at the stars and said "Why not me?"
When Belle finds herself imprisoned in the Beast's magic castle, a sacrifice to save the life of her imperiled crackpot-inventor father (in a nod to the classic Disney formula of decades past, Belle is being raised by a single parent, her mother's absence never explained), Woolverton's script really starts digging into its central theme: appearance vs. reality. The Beast is a fearsome creature, with his razory talons and imposing, buffalo-like bulk, and at first, his personality is a reflection of his appearance, with roaring tirades and a tendency to smash furniture when things don't go his way. But Woolverton's script tells us right off the bat that the Beast isn't this way because he looks like it. An elegant prologue informs us that the Beast was once a handsome but cruel young prince, cursed by an enchantress due to his disgusted refusal of lodging to her simply because of her hideous appearance. So the Beast is not a creature whose appearance has poisoned his soul; instead, his rotten heart has taken root in his body and twisted him into monstrousness. And the Beast, who must find someone to love him before the last petal falls from the witch's enchanted rose, figures he is doomed. After all, look at him. "Who could ever learn to love a beast?"
Well, someone who sees the soul rather than just the vessel carrying it. And that's Belle, who never rejects the Beast because he is ugly, but only because he is angry and unkind. When he shows his true colors by defending her from a pack of ravenous wolves, she starts to realize that there's more to this snarling creature than meets the eye (a theme deftly articulated by Howard Ashman's song "Something There"; indeed, throughout the film, Ashman's songs, co-written with composer Alan Menken, carry as much thematic weight as Woolverton's story and dialogue). And the Beast starts to look more and more beautiful as his soul transforms under the watchful heart of a woman who's found the adventure she's always been dreaming of.
Beauty's true masterstroke, however, is the character of Gaston, who reminds us that just as an ugly exterior does not necessitate inner ugliness, a handsome face doesn't always reveal a handsome heart. Gaston is the village's most strapping gent, a hunter and warrior who believes that physical superiority is all that matters in life. Gaston plans to make Belle his wife, but only because he thinks she's the most beautiful girl in the village: "That (and apparently nothing else) makes her the best! And don't I deserve the best?" He is not interested in Belle's thoughts, her opinions, her mind and heart; he sees only her beauty, and that's all he cares about. Likewise, when he discovers the Beast, he sees only his monster's form, hates it on principle, and whips together a posse to go and kill the Beast. He even throws the Beast's true nature back in his face as they battle: "What's the matter, Beast? Too kind and gentle to fight back?" Quite possibly the most loathsome villain in the recent Disney canon, lacking both the elegance of The Lion King's Scar and the twisted humanity of Hunchback's Judge Frollo, Gaston is a hideous reminder that the devil has power to assume a pleasing shape. It's a bold message, one that probably hit home with a lot of kids who can remember being picked on for some uncontrollable defect of shape, size or strength. As a former chubby kid mercilessly cut down by classmates every day of elementary school, I could certainly relate.
The film did receive criticism in some circles for its climax, in which the Beast is restored to his handsome human form so he and Belle can live happily ever after. But what most of these critics forgot is that his curse is lifted when Belle, weeping over his wounded, prostrate form, says "I love you." And she's not intending this as a magic evocation, a chant to lift a curse. She's saying it because she believes the Beast is dying, that the situation is hopeless, and so she wants him to know before he leaves her forever that, fur, fangs and all, she loves him. And without his spiritual conversion, that handsome face would mean next to nothing at all. Just look at Gaston.
Beauty and the Beast provides a good lesson for the screenwriter. Just because your story is being told in the "frivolous" medium of the fairy tale, that doesn't make it any less potentially serious or insightful about the human condition. It doesn't matter if you're writing a western, a science-fiction picture, or a "kiddie movie"; if your story deals honestly with problems and issues that we all struggle with in our lives, that universality will result in a universal audience. Beauty and the Beast got the message, and the result was one of the most acclaimed films of 1991. I only hope that my own stories, in whatever genre I choose to present them, can achieve that level of honest emotional commitment.