Of Destinies and Dreams:
The Gist of Beauty and the Beast (1987-1990)
This story has meant so very much to a great many people over the past quarter of a century. We all come to the tale from different places, with different needs. Beauty and the Beast is so intricate, so layered with ancient meaning and modern-day magic, that it is able to nourish and heal on multiple levels at once. This is one of the most essential functions of a good story, and one that has nearly become lost in an era of ubiquitous entertainment. We who have been changed forever by a tale well-told enjoy the many variations that currently exist, and welcome new perspectives that may spring into existence as time goes on. But to be sure, the irreplaceable story that appeared in our world in 1987 will remain preeminent in our hearts.
Once upon a time—on the evening of Friday, September 25, 1987, to be precise—a televised fairy tale of unparalleled beauty, compassion, and romance was first broadcast across the airwaves by CBS. The tale was an urban fantasy. It unfolded in the City of New York. It also lived and breathed in the hearts and imaginations of thousands of astonished viewers throughout the world. Beauty and the Beast was and is a story that changes lives.
The power and appeal of this story should not surprise us. The original fairy tale is important to our constitution as human beings. Many variations of the tale appear in folklore worldwide. The Grimm brothers' story "The Frog Prince," Tchaikovsky's ballet "Swan Lake," Apuleius's "Cupid and Psyche," Celtic and Norse myths of the selkie, the Arthurian ballad of "The Marriage of Sir Gawain," all these and more explore the theme of the lost and enchanted lover. Some renditions also delve into the primal mysteries of the animal bride or bridegroom. In "Beauty and the Beast," we are specifically entranced by the extant quest for union between a feminine embodiment of all that is understood to be beautiful, and a masculine embodiment of all that is not considered beautiful. As this tale proceeds, we encounter challenges to our definitions of beauty, as well as inspiration for our ideas about what it takes to become fully human.
The most common Beauty-Beast source story used in film and television comes to us from France. La Belle et la Bête gives us all the trappings of the fantasy romance with which we are now familiar: the loyal daughter of a widower, the journey to an otherworldly realm, the rose, the Beast, the love that grows between Beast and Beauty, the gradual transformation of both lovers into something greater than what they were before they met. Two primary written versions of the French story exist, as well as a play and an opera, all making respective appearances during the 1700s. Many other retellings and adaptations have appeared over the years, including the unsurpassed 1946 film directed by Jean Cocteau. Our cherished American television series from the 1980s tapped into such established traditions of this fairy tale and translated them into solidly twentieth-century terms.
The series was created by Ron Koslow (Roar, 1997; Moonlight, 2007-2008). Rising star Linda Hamilton (Children of the Corn, 1984; The Terminator, 1984) portrayed our Beauty, a New York attorney named "Catherine Chandler." An eventually prolific—but at the time virtually unknown—actor, Ron Perlman (Quest for Fire, 1981; The Name of the Rose, 1986), performed the role of "Vincent," our urban subterranean Beast. Writers and producers for the series included Ron Koslow, screenwriters Alex Gansa (credits include The X-Files, 24 episodes during 1993-1994) and Howard Gordon (credits include Angel, 16 episodes during 1999-2000), and screenwriter and novelist George R. R. Martin (credits include The Twilight Zone, 6 episodes during 1986-1987).
The phrase "gifted and talented" characterized the entire cast and crew. Notably, Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London, 1982; Men in Black, 1998) designed the Beast's exquisite makeup. The title musical theme was written by TV-veteran Lee Holdridge, and episode scores were composed by Don Davis (who has concocted music for everything from Hart to Hart, 1983-1984, through all productions pertaining to The Matrix, from 1999 onward).
Actor's actor Roy Dotrice (Masterpiece Theatre's Dickens of London, 1976; Amadeus, 1984) co-starred in the show as "Father," and the incomparable Tony Jay (Reboot, 1994-2002; guest star on Lois and Clark, 6 episodes during 1993-1995) played recurring villain "Paracelsus." The introductory performances of long-term TV presence Terrylene as "Laura" helped to make television history during episodes featuring deaf characters played by deaf actors. Meanwhile, Beah Richards (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, 1967; Beloved, 1998) brought her own magic to the role of Tunnels mystic "Narcissa." These and other guest stars arguably constituted a best-of-the-best survey of late-1980s acting talent. While it was on the air, Beauty and the Beast garnered numerous award nominations. Series participants also won a collective total of three Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe Award, an Austrian Romy Award, and two Q Awards.
So considering this auspicious foundation to the 1980s Beauty and the Beast, what does its audience—then and now—receive from the show?
In a word: hope.
Every episode takes seriously a pressing personal or societal issue. The episodes do this not through shocking exposé or heavy-handed moralizing, but by allowing us to witness heroic characters overcome every obstacle they encounter with love. If this sounds cheap or silly, it's because too many stories in our contemporary world have portrayed love itself as cheap and silly. Koslow's Beauty and the Beast is one of those stories that redeems the old adage, "Love conquers all!"—but then takes it a step further.
In the world as it exists for Vincent and Catherine, love does not need to conquer, for love by its very existence inherently triumphs. The lovers' story gives us a chance to believe that their truth is an all-too-often overlooked quality of the real world in which we ourselves live. All parts and pieces which construct the story give us patterns of hope we can use to live better lives of awareness and empathy in the here and now.
Truly, those many story parts and pattern pieces are arranged into very unconventional combinations. Koslow's Beauty and the Beast is a strange chimera. It contains legal procedural elements because its heroine becomes an assistant district attorney—but it is not a procedural drama. It contains action-adventure components because its setting is an unavoidably dangerous place to live—but it is neither a shoot-em-up crime show nor a hack-and-slash thriller. It contains all the ingredients for a sexy, passionate romance—yet it never parses the connection between its title lovers as a typical sexual relationship. It contains a subversive critique of mainstream culture because its hero is a consummate outsider—and yet it never strays from an ethic of unwavering compassion for the human race. Rather, this story is a graceful fantasy, magical because it dares to establish itself beyond the domination of the trivial, enduring because it asks fearless questions about timeless truths.
What kinds of judgments do we usually make about people who are different from us, and why do we make these judgments? Why do so many of us spend our lives thirsting for love and intimacy, even as we destroy one another with our hate and fear? Is beauty merely superficial? Is it subjective—perceived by the eye of the beholder? Or is there a universal factor to things which are genuinely beautiful, an eternal power that nurtures and transforms? What makes a monster monstrous? What makes a human being fully human? What is the meaning and purpose of life?
The show of the 1980s tackled such questions with an honesty and courage rarely seen before or since. It explored themes of ability and disability, trauma and healing, wealth and poverty, power and vulnerability, isolation and connection. The show subtly revolved around children and the world we are creating for them. It defined love as an insoluble concern for the abundant well-being of the beloved. It celebrated everything in our lives that is good, and noble, and true. It showed us that Beast and Beauty reside together within each one of us, and that both of these aspects need acceptance and recognition. Beauty and the Beast is a generous mirror. It reveals to us What Is even as it reveals What Can Be. Providing this kind of mirror is a service that the best of fantasy performs for the human heart. And this service is the gift bestowed upon us by the original television show.
Admittedly, the series is in many ways a product of its times. The decade in which the story is set was the twentieth century's version of the Baroque Period, after all. Crimped hair, huge hair, clothes that seem to us now too tight or too baggy in all the wrong places. Failed experiments in rap and synthpop, a profusion of ruffles and neon coloration, truly terrible early music videos featuring painfully self-conscious choreography. Everything was wrapped up in ostentatious cosmopolitan flair and topped with the gaudiest proto-technological bow imaginable. Ah, the '80s.
Yet all things considered, Beauty and the Beast ages pretty well. Remember, it strives for beauty above fashion. And where fashion does show through it becomes more of a historical footnote than a major plot point. Yes, it can require a little imagination to "see through" what we now believe to be quaint or cliché or "cheesy." Such effort on the part of the audience becomes necessary whenever we are looking at a prior rendering of a cultural theme that has become commonplace because the earlier incarnation was good enough to bear repetition. We commonly call these themes of plot and circumstance "tropes," these days. Tropes are the snarky descendents of the more authoritative "archetypes" found in ye olde fairy tales. The 1980s Beauty and the Beast has fed the tropes in contemporary media. But the show itself was all about revisiting archetypes for a new generation. These fresh interpretations of ancient patterns deserve our special attention.
The pattern for Beauty receives a sensible update in our story. The pilot episode opens with a leisurely introduction to Beauty's character. When we first meet the original Catherine Chandler, she is a wealthy corporate attorney and popular New York socialite. Not quite a princess, but certainly on par with her eighteenth-century counterpart: the attractive and cultured daughter of an urban businessman.
Catherine works in her father's law firm and does not seem to work very hard. Her father, Charles Chandler, is a senior partner in his firm and it is his obvious hope that Catherine will succeed him in that position one day. Catherine Chandler comes across as physically beautiful, intelligent, elegant, and kindhearted; but also aimless, unsure of herself, perhaps a little too sheltered and somewhat discontented with her life. She has a positive relationship with her father and a less positive romantic relationship with an ambitious city developer. In the introductory scenes, we learn that Catherine acts out of a sense of responsibility and sympathy toward others.
Catherine is someone who stands out even when she is in her element: at work, or at a dinner party. She stands out because, from the beginning, she is making choices that distinguish her as someone who sees with her heart. She breaks with expectations whenever she feels something is wrong with those expectations. It takes strength to do this, and the seeds of moral courage. Her tendency also means that Catherine's connections with her world are fragile. Her heart tells her that somehow, she does not belong. Her self-initiated isolation makes her vulnerable.
A random act of violence takes full advantage of her isolation. In a case of mistaken identity, Catherine is attacked on the street, beaten and disfigured, and left for dead in Central Park. She becomes Beauty in her most fragile state; she becomes ugly because evil forces have dehumanized her.
Then: out of the shattered night, a hooded shadow appears.
In the same way that our Beauty is the modern heroine we need—a heroine from the fairy tale that fills an empty place in our collective imagination—our Beast is exactly the hero we have been denied by too many other stories in our time. We meet him, not by seeing his face, but by observing his silence. He gathers up the body of a dying woman and hastens down with her to a secret realm beneath the city. His kingdom is the underworld of New York in a very literal sense. It is a place where the outcasts have gathered, a forgotten geography of steam pipes and abandoned subway tunnels offering a measure of security to people who have been brutally harmed by the world Above. Our Beast is a prince in a patchwork coat, the friend and champion of those who are impoverished, homeless, helpless—and worthless by the unjust standards of Beauty's world.
When Catherine wakes in this other world, she is a wounded woman lying in a stranger's bed. Her face is bandaged, her eyes covered. She is at the mercy of whomever it is that has brought her Below. Beauty meets Beast by hearing him break his silence in order to comfort her. Koslow's script notes that, "His voice is the voice of pure emotion, pure heart...It's the kindest, gentlest voice she's ever heard..." The first thing the voice of the Beast tells Beauty is that she is safe. No one will hurt her anymore; she is safe with him. Catherine's safety in the Beast's care and company remains complete throughout the entire series. Next, the Beast asks Beauty to share her name. The second thing he asks of her is not to succumb to her fears—and in making his second request, he says please.
This, as we quickly learn from ensuing conversations between Catherine and her gentle rescuer, is Vincent. His very name alludes to the paradoxical nature of the character. Catherine's name is straightforward in its meanings. She is "Catherine:" pure, clean, sacred—and she is "Chandler:" one who makes lights, one who crafts candles to illuminate the dark places. "Vincent" means: victorious one, conqueror. It connotes the identity of a noble warrior or knight, which we might expect of a princely hero in our well-loved fairy tale. Indeed, at a later moment in the first episode, we will discover Vincent's full capability as a defender against violent opponents.
The vital update to his pattern that our Beast receives at the outset, however, augments his heroic nature to include the fact that he is also the namesake of St. Vincent's Hospital, the place where he was found as an abandoned infant, some thirty-odd years ago. Thus we learn that Vincent was named after the patron saint of charity, a figure who is frequently depicted as a holy man walking alongside or carrying children. The allusion is swiftly confirmed in our story, when Vincent speaks playfully with an underworld boy, sending the child forth to fetch tea from Chinatown for Catherine.
Vincent as Beast is a creature who is undeniably a man, and who is just as undeniably something more (or Other) than human. His adoptive father is the leader, doctor, and surrogate parent of their undercity realm. Roles are fluid in the world Below, with people helping the community by using whatever talents and skills they possess. Vincent's primary roles seem to be that of protector, teacher, and counselor. Like Catherine, he is being groomed for future leadership by his father. Vincent presents himself as an introspective character, a lover of literature and the arts. He is not by any means naïve—he walks through the streets of New York at night and lives with people from every possible walk of life—but he radiates a calm innocence, a self-acceptance that is free of bitterness or shame.
These are important qualities for Vincent to have internalized, for he is forever unable to participate in mainstream society. He was born a monster, an utterly unique being with both human and leonine physical characteristics. He has feline fangs. He has claws. His body is covered in fur. He possesses bestial strength and keen animalistic senses. He has mysterious empathic powers. In the upperworld, he is a freak, a disaster of evolution inspiring fear and hostility—sometimes even instant loathing. There is no "cure" for what he is, and in this tale there is no physical transformation in store for him. His nature isolates him from the possibility of an ordinary life. His differences are both his strength and his abject vulnerability.
The series that follows the pilot episode, "Once Upon a Time in the City of New York," emerges both from repeated collisions of the world Above with the world Below, and the stunning relationship that develops between Vincent and Catherine. As is fated to be, they fall in love. Their love creates what is perhaps one of the greatest romances of our time. Theirs is an impossible union that nevertheless finds creative ways to ensure its own continuation. Their romance is chivalric, honest, chaste without ever becoming prudish, respectful. The connection they share is deeply spiritual. They are able to literally feel things that the other feels, even over great distances. The bond that forms between Vincent and Catherine establishes a level of trust and intimacy between them that is seldom seen in the stories we are given access to today.
Their love is pure. It is light-giving. Their love is victorious. And their love is charitable. Vincent and Catherine, Beast and Beauty, are two halves of the same whole. Together, they discover new ways to be gentle and new ways to be strong. They learn. They grow. They help each other and they help everyone else who comes into their lives. They are beautiful. The pattern for a loving life which they build shows us that anyone—no matter how privileged or disenfranchised, no matter how limited or limitless—anyone at all can change themselves and change their world. Any of us, all of us, can make a difference to each other.
It is this story that has meant so very much to a great many people over the past quarter of a century. We all come to the tale from different places, with different needs. Beauty and the Beast is so intricate, so layered with ancient meaning and modern-day magic, that it is able to nourish and heal on multiple levels at once. This is one of the most essential functions of a good story, and one that has nearly become lost in an era of ubiquitous entertainment. We who have been changed forever by a tale well-told enjoy the many variations that currently exist, and welcome new perspectives that may spring into existence as time goes on. But to be sure, the irreplaceable story that appeared in our world in 1987 will remain preeminent in our hearts.
ATU 425C Folktale Type, "Beauty and the Beast" http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0425c.html
Beauty and the Beast Scripts and Transcription Project http://www.batbforever.com/scripts/index.html
Beauty and the Beast, TV series (1987-1990). Paramount DVD release, three seasons, 2007-2008.
The Criterion Collection DVD listing, La Belle et la Bête http://www.criterion.com/films/177-beauty-and-the-beast
"History of Beauty and the Beast," Heidi Anne Heiner http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/beautybeast/history.html
Internet Movie Database http://www.imdb.com/
The Journal of Mythic Arts: