Beauty and the Beast: Setting and Storycraft
Welcome back to the Zurn Blog! I wrapped up my teaching engagements (though I gained another one in May - more on that in our next post), and that means that we're back to the blog. Over the past few weeks I've been teaching high school students across the country about the beauty of storycraft, using Beauty and the Beast as one of my core texts. And now that I've seen the movie three times (and the 1991 cartoon myriad times), I'm excited to start sharing some of my thoughts on the new rendition of the "tale as old as time."
We will be breaking up these posts into a six-part series, as there is a lot that can be said about my favorite fairy tale of all time, and I don't want to bore you all to tears.
Interestingly, there are no spoilers in this post: if you are familiar with the 1991 cartoon by Disney (or have read the French rendition by Charles Perrault), you'll know the content we are covering. So enjoy a spoiler-free blog post today. :) If you don't know the 1991 cartoon...then you seriously need to get caught up, friend, :)
1. The Setting of the Story
It is important to note before we begin that fairy tales are mythic, not allegorical, which requires us to explain the difference between the two. An allegory is distinguished from a myth in that every character in the story has a one-to-one correlation to something or someone. For excellent examples of allegory, look at Pilgrim's Progress by Bunyan, The Chronicles of Narnia by Lewis, and (I would argue) The Hunger Games by Collins.
Myth, on the other hand, is radically different. Instead of more "stock characters" portraying a given virtue (Reepicheep from Narnia), vice (Giant Despair from Pilgrim's Progress), or person, the characters and plot will touch on the core elements that make us human. Mythic stories are timeless, because they touch on who we are as people, regardless of era.
This gives some leeway for the setting of mythic tales, because the setting is designed to tell the story, not necessarily reflect an era of history. But since the movie will need guidance as to costume styles, technology level, etc., the setting still matters.
The story itself tells us a few details about the setting. The story happens in France (as Lumiere tells us, though the naming scheme for characters confirms this as well), is set near a large forest (so probably southern or western France), and probably an inland town, as there is no mentioning of ships and foreign trade in the story.
Beyond this, Disney adds to the setting: based on technology the story happens in the 1600s (a hunter using a blunderbuss, bow, and crossbow; formal suit style for Gaston, the Beast, and Lefou; etc.), and takes place in a town untouched by war (based on the timeline, probably the Hundred Years War), so probably the Aquitaine region of France. In fact, the village does not appear to have a town militia, so the likelihood that the story takes place far from where the war would have touched is likely.
But the setting is more than just the place and time. The setting ultimately is more than just a girl in a French village meeting a cursed prince; it's about the redemption of a man, and more than just a man: the lowest of the low in fairy tales.
One of the most egregious sins in a fairy tale is a lack of hospitality, be that to a fairy (Sleeping Beauty), a girl (Snow White), or a stepdaughter (Cinderella). In the Beast's case, he refuses to offer hospitality to the Enchantress not just once, but twice, and thus receives a curse.
So when Belle comes to the Beast (who also failed to show hospitality to her father), she agrees to stay with literally the lowest of the low in fairy tale literature. This is similar to the Greek concept of arete (moral excellence), so Belle's quest to set the Beast free is arguably the greatest act a heroine could ever do.
Which is a fitting setting for a good story.
And this touches us on a deep level: how do you find a love that strong? How does it grow? Can you cultivate it? Keep following this series to answer those questions, :)
2. The Power of a Good Setting
But a lot of this is dependent on a good setting. We tend to gloss over the setting in favor of the more popular elements of storycraft (characters, plot, etc.), but the setting is critical to the development of the characters. The setting informs how the characters can solve their problems (no phoning the village means Belle must leave the castle to save her father, for example), what experiences the characters walk into the story with (Belle's background with her father is critical, of course, to what drives her actions throughout the story), and more.
And for us as storytellers, this is key, because players are naturally wired to probe into the setting. If you don't put thought into the setting, players will try to figure it out by testing it with their actions. So take your time in crafting a good setting: what are the people like in this area? Do they have rules/laws/social norms that the players would (or should) know?
What natural phenomena or elements might influence the decisions of the players? The presence of a magical wood near the action could present cover if they need to make a quick escape, and could also present danger (making the choice more important). The knowledge that there is a derelict castle with a mysterious monster in it nearby could be a warning or an invitation to the party.
Build the setting, because like all good stories a good setting will give your players more room to create and imagine, because they will be grounded to something outside of the plot and themselves. And we want our tales to be grounded if they are to be timeless.
Until next time,