Beauty and the Beast and Jane Eyre are the Same Story
Vanessa Hodja breaks the conspiracy wide open for a special screening of Jean Cocteau's 1946 version of Beauty and the Beast, one of Guillermo del Toro's favourite films
Jean Cocteau's 1946 adaptation of Beauty and the Beast must be seen to be believed. The film's fantastic sets, dreamlike photography, and magnificent music score were so powerful they impressed none other than Guillermo del Toro, who selected the film for his Influences programme, presented in partnership with the AGO on the occasion of their new exhibition Guillermo del Toro: At Home With Monsters. The Mexican auteur describes Cocteau's film as "the most perfect cinematic fable ever told. After Méliès, only Cocteau has understood that perfect simplicity is required to tell a fairy tale — and that nothing but the power of pure cinema is needed to create awe and wonder." To pay homage, we've unearthed a 2016 article by Vanessa Hodja, where she compares the fable with another beastly romance, Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel Jane Eyre.
She’s a bookish young woman. She defies authority and lives by her own rules. She moves away from an abusive family and into the mansion of a rich aristocrat. He’s tall and beastly, rude and impassive. Their personalities clash. Slowly, they find solace — in each other, in their shared interests, in their contrasting values and the humour when those two things inevitably clash while they live together.
The man’s servants are friendly and caring towards the girl. They fiddle uncomfortably when she asks personal questions about their master’s past. Slowly, the girl gains the affections of the beastly lord of the house. In turn, she begins to care for him, to the point that she considers him a friend. They spend time together and learn from the vast chasm that separates their worlds.
But then, she learns what his terrible secret is. It’s ghoulish, and it horrifies her so much that she runs far away from the castle, back to her family. Eventually, when she realizes that the beastly man’s life took a turn for the worse after she left, she comes back to him. Her love saves him; it literally transforms him into a new person. They get married and live happily ever after.
Pop quiz: did I just describe the plot of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre? Or was it the Disney musical Beauty and the Beast? I was five when I watched the animated version of Beauty and the Beast. I was 21 when I read Charlotte Brontë’s novel. Both works of fiction sent me into a feverish wormhole of obsession and sleepless devotion. (I called my mom in Venezuela to fact-check this, and she said that I used to beg her to rewind our VHS copy of Beauty and the Beast at least 15 times a day.) So, did a Disney animation condition me at age five to love a Brontë novel at age 21? I asked my therapist, but she brushed me off (“We need to work on more important things,” she said).
I’ve always thought these two classic works were of the same blood, coursing through the same veins. Just compare Jean Cocteau’s madly endearing 1946 film Beauty and the Beast and the latest cinematic adaptation of Jane Eyre by Cary Fukunaga (starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender), made in 2011.
Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast begins with down-on-her-luck Belle working as a servant to her sisters. Jane Eyre is in a similar situation: her aunt and cousin treat her like she’s possessed by some kind of unruly demon. In both stories, there is no real, justified reason for their family’s scorn. Both Jane and Belle just happen to possess virtues their families either envy or despise in a woman: beauty, intelligence and stubbornness.
In a way, leaving their families behind and enduring the hardships of uncertainty ends up being a blessing for both protagonists. Jane’s aunt abandons her at a “charity school” where she watches her friends die of typhus and hunger. She climbs up a steep hill of hardship at the school until she becomes a teacher and finds a position as a governess at Mr. Rochester’s house (spoiler alert: he's the man she will eventually marry). Belle becomes the Beast’s unwilling guest in order to pay for her father’s crime of stealing a rose. She visits her family once, but her sacrifice gives her a new life, far from the exertions of her family’s jealous cruelty. It’s through the experience of uprooting and digging themselves deep in unfamiliar soil that our heroines find themselves, their destiny, and ultimately, their significant others.
Throw enough rolling thunder, fog, tall leafless trees, and darkness at anything, and you’ll make it look spooky. In real life, places like Haddon Hall (the country house Jane Eyre’s Thornfield Hall is based on) are worth millions. But in a gothic romance, they become very convincing romantic backdrops to millennials like me who will probably never own any property. Both films feature sprawling moors, creeping vines, and horseback riding — it’s like clicking through the beautiful Facebook album of someone who went to a Scottish wedding.
The interiors of both the castles in Beauty and The Beast and Jane Eyre are also enchanting. Belle and Jane enter their new adopted homes like apparitions, quietly, in the dark. They glide through the dusty darkened hallways, greeted by enigmatic maids and butlers destined to a lifetime of servitude under their caustic masters. In Belle’s case, the servants are disembodied arms and legs attached to lamps, doors, beds, and mirrors. Belle’s mirror startles her when it speaks to announce his function. “I am your mirror, Belle,” it says, dejectedly. The Beast’s arrogance and dismissal of magic cursed him, and his servants suffered the consequences. They can’t speak. They can’t move. They’ve been stripped from their agency by being turned into inanimate objects. If that’s not a metaphor for the resignation of the 19th-century’s working class, I don’t know what is.
In Jane Eyre, the housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax is the kindly aunt Jane never had. From the moment she enters the cool shadows of Haddon Hall, Jane is greeted by pure kindness and a sandwich. “I'm so glad you are come,” says Mrs. Fairfax. “To be sure, this is a grand old house, but I must confess that in winter one can feel a little dreary and alone. Leah is a very nice girl and John and Martha good people too, but they are servants — and one cannot talk to them on terms of equality.” The servants Leah, John, Martha, and even Mrs. Fairfax might as well be the inanimate objects in Beauty and the Beast. They’re accessories to the love story: lamps with arms, mirrors that talk, and statues that open and close the doors that Jane walks through.
Before the strolls in the garden, the outlandish dinners, and the #TMI conversations — there’s a fire. In both works, it acts as the literal ignition of a more intimate nature between the two core relationships. In Jane Eyre, Jane wakes up in the middle of the night to a fire in Mr. Rochester’s room. She puts out the flames and saves his life. After the adrenaline rush, they stand in the middle of the bedroom, panting, wearing nothing but their damp nighties, surrounded by smoke and twilight. Rochester demands to thank Jane by shaking her hand.
“I knew you would do me good in some way,” says Rochester, possibly flirting, possibly delirious with carbon monoxide poisoning. “I saw it in your eyes when I first beheld you. Their expression did not strike my very inmost being so, for nothing.” I read the fire in that scene as a thinly-veiled symbol for the things Victorian writers couldn’t just talk about without being shunned by society. Physical attraction, romantic obsession, and sexual desire: you know these feel like a prickling burn under the skin. (Not literally. If you feel a burning sensation and it doesn’t go away, please see a doctor.)
In Beauty and the Beast, fire is an allusion to the sinful destruction caused by the Beast’s pride. In one scene, he learns that Belle has refused to marry or fall in love with anyone. She’s resigned herself to a lifetime of taking care of her sick father. The Beast is enraged by the obstacle to Belle’s heart; he needs her love to break the curse. In a fit, he runs into the forest enraged and disappears. When he returns that night and knocks on Belle’s bedroom door, he’s covered in blood and his clothes are smoking. There’s no explanation for the Beast’s attempt at self-immolation. Belle recoils and tells him to leave her alone; his attempt to shock her had no effect. The Beast is surprised by Belle’s scolding and tells her that her look of contempt “burns like fire.”
The Beast brought that curse upon himself, and now it eats him alive, consuming him physically and mentally while he looks for the cure. He’s obsessed with finding the more nurturing warmth of true love, because it’s the only thing that’ll break the spell. It’ll save him from the consuming hellfire of his pride.
There’s romantic tension between both couples from the first second that they see each other. At the beginning of the story, Belle isn’t into staring at the face of an indescribable monster (seriously, what is the Beast supposed to be? A hog-bear-lion mix? Send me an email). When they first meet, she sits at the dining table and looks away. The Beast looms, closing the space between them to take a better look at her. (Like Rochester, these men just doesn’t get the concept of personal space.) He’s menacing, ugly, and aggressive. Cocteau’s camera frames them so that the focus of the emotional reaction is on Belle, our compass in the story.
After a few days, Belle’s curiosity grows and her disgust dissipates. The Beast dresses her up in fancy gowns and jewelry. In one scene, Belle bends over a river, scooping up water with her hands and helps the Beast to quench his thirst. It’s just what friends do for their cursed, beastly pals, right?
Belle’s feelings start out as pity, but become a fiery, almost obsessive devotion to the Beast’s better qualities. Yes, she lives at his mansion as his prisoner, but spends most of her time as his dinner guest and dance partner. This is how all great long-term relationships start: with prisoner-warden dynamics and Stockholm syndrome. Case in point, this infamous dance scene in the Disney verison.
Back at Haddon Hall, Jane Eyre is hired as the tutor to Rochester’s adopted daughter. If there’s any actual teaching in the movie, we have to imagine it. Jane spends most of her time in cozy rooms, having picnics by the pond, playing badminton, and resisting the backhanded advances made by her employer. (I say resisting, but if you read the novel you’ll see that she’s actively participating and even enjoying herself. Jane is my inspiration for flirting, now that I think about it.) The first time Jane meets her master is pretty unpleasant. She’s walking along a foggy path, minding her own business, when Rochester runs into her. He falls off his horse and calls her an elf and a witch. That night, while he recovers from a sprained ankle, their conversation softens. His anger lessens and the playfulness begins.
In their adaptation, screenwriter Moira Buffini and director Cary Fukunaga decide to keep Charlotte Brontë's dialogue almost intact, finding a way to express desire in a bygone era where dropping your handkerchief was the closest way to say “buy me a drink." Instead, they give Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender a lot of freedom to express the subtext in their performances. Like I mentioned earlier, Fassbender’s Rochester ignores personal space (like Cocteau’s Beast) from the second they meet. He doesn’t miss a chance to hover over Jane, or hold her hand. He puts flowers in her hair and asks her to sit down at his dinner parties. Eventually, he proposes marriage in haste and gives Jane a fancy dress and jewelry. In both stories, there’s an unpleasant first meeting between a man and a woman, a hasty build-up to flirting, a friendship, and finally, love. They're love stories about people who don’t have time to waste and can easily ignore problematic power dynamics.
The endings are unbearably satisfying in both movies, explaining why both stories keep getting adapted over and over again. Both the Beast and Rochester were introduced as proud, deceitful men only their mothers could love. They were rude, unpleasant, and blissfully cruel in a blue-blooded, aristocratic sort of way. Their lives were full of lies, poor decision-making, and hallways full of rooms locked with secrets.
Then, Belle and Jane sweep in with their nerdy love of books, travel, and botany. They occupy the spaces of their master’s mansions with nothing but their wits, kindness, and a violent resistance to dictatorship. While both are small in frame, with no status attached to their names, they manage to defy every convention expected of their station. Instead, they unlock the secrets in their decrepit mansions to unleash a much-needed transformation on the master of the house.
Both films use the contrast between day and night, as well interiors and exteriors to show the drastic changes in their love stories. Jane Eyre first walks into a dark mansion. She’s cold, afraid, and fresh out of teaching school. By the end of the film, Jane returns to Haddon Hall during the day. She looks healthy, purposeful, and confident. She’s not a frightened 18-year-old girl anymore. Rochester, on the other hand, was first introduced to us as a greedy, unbearably proud aristocrat. When they’re reunited at the end of the film, his mansion is in ruins, so he sits outside by a tree. He’s blind and missing an arm. He was mentally and physically humbled into becoming a new person, renewed into a life free of secrets and lies. He is cured from his own curse, thanks to Jane’s interventions.
In Cocteau’s film, the Beast returns to his human self, thanks to Belle’s love. Belle also entered the story in total darkness, trapped inside the haunted walls of the castle. At the end, Belle returns to the Beast as he dies in the garden, just as the curse is about to take him. She abandons her family when she realizes her love for the Beast is true, and that realization is what brings the Beast back to life. Like Rochester, the Beast is physically transformed. Belle’s love sees the light of the day. That revelation, that someone as good as Belle would love a monster as ugly and angry as the Beast, saves him. The Best emerges regretful of the pride that cursed him. He’s anew in body and spirit.
It’s easy to narrow these stories down to their romance. But I think what’s remarkable about them are the strong female protagonists. Jane and Belle exercise powerful agency in their narratives; never allowing themselves to feel sorry for their unfortunate lives. Jane is an orphan who endured cruelty during most of her childhood, and yet has kept her kindness towards others. There’s a scene at the start of the film where Jane is summoned by Rochester. He commands her to speak; he wants to be entertained. But Jane doesn’t budge. “Nothing free born should ever submit for a salary,” she says, when Rochester prompts her to speak on the grounds she’s his employee. He’s surprised, but he agrees. Rochester is smitten by Jane’s feistiness, and so am I.