Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Beauty by Robin McKinley

Beauty and the Beast is one of the most well known fairy-tales that has ever been adapted many many times by the film and television industry. From head-shaking flicks like Beauty and the Briefcase to more loose adaptions like Rigeletto, there seems to be no end for this tale. But the most well known adaption was released by Walt Disney in 1991. This is the version I grew up with and consider to be one of my favorite films. But I've always been intrigued by other versions and even the darker elements of the Disney film. When I looked into this, Beauty by Robin McKinley is what I found. I bought the book right away and now three years later have finally found time to read it!
I won't lie when I say I came to this book very cautiously. Retellings are always hard to tackle. It is a clash between building on the original work and making it better vs. what people know and slowly easing them into questioning their usual understanding. Anyone attempting to adapt a fairy-tale of this caliber is entering a danger zone. If done properly, the outcome can be really good. However, more often than not these retellings are cliche and contrived and take the reader/audience no further than one dimension. Does Beauty fall into this trope or does it rise above it?
Sadly, this book falls into the tropes I feared it would. In an attempt to flesh out the story and add contemporary flare we are subjected to constant exposition and more plot holes than the original tale.
Before I go into more detail, let me state that reading this book only made me appreciate the Disney movie even more. I became very aware of the choices McKinley made vs. Disney's version and only have more love for the film. The film builds upon the idea of the rose and the enchantress and the spell and introduces Gaston to show why Belle would choose to love a Beast. It is just really well done. This book didn't do anything to help the original story except elongate it and make it feel much more didactic. Some of the major changes from the fairy-tale to the book is Beauty's sister's are not mean but very good, Beauty is actually very plain and ugly, and Beauty does not return home to check on her father but to reveal some information to her sister. I'm guessing that second point is meant to be ironic but it is painfully didactic. It's the author's laughable attempt to show how beauty is found within...because apparently the story hasn't done that already.
So let's start out with the plot. Other than what I mentioned in the previous paragraph, not much is changed from the original fairy-tale. This book is essentially the fairy-tale stretched out a lot. Think of Beauty and the Beast as play-dough. When you stretch it out it becomes this book - thin and easy to tear apart. My biggest concern with the plot was that it failed to build upon or fix plot holes but adds more insufficient plots creating only more plot holes from the original fairy-tale. And the fact that it was so laid out with these added meaningless plots made me want to skip paragraph after paragraph just to return to something that mattered. This begs the question - why rewrite it in the first place? This book not only ignores it's source material plot holes but adds more. It is disappointing. Not only that but I continued to wonder as I was reading if the author knew her setting/time period very well. In the beginning she mentioned a curling iron which by all my knowledge should not have been invented yet. No other electronic device is mentioned thereafter. I found this to be very odd.
One plot line I was interested to see McKinley handle was the cursed servants in the castle. At first I really loved how they were portrayed. However, they grew very annoying after a while. I think all of my issues stem from the author's lack of knowledge of her story's voice. She seems to have compiled some layers with substance but doesn't know how to handle them without them coming off as just okay. The book seems to want to come off as raw and realistic but I found it to be anything but.
The characters aren't much better than the plot. I connected with none of them. They are all just traits and nothing more. Beauty, the person we are meant to connect with the most, was nothing more than a caricature. For example, we know she loves books but nothing in this book really shows us this. Sure we see her reading to the Beast and have books around but it is all told to us. There is never a moment where we truly feel Beauty's passion. We are just told she likes to read and that is it. A contemporary example of this is in the show Two and a Half Men on CBS. In the final season, Ashton Kutcher's character adopts a little boy and we are told through the dialogue that he really loves this kid. But Kutcher never actually seems to have chemistry with his child counterpart and we as an audience are painfully aware that this story-line is only possible because the original actor (putting the 1/2 in Two and a Half Men) is all grown up and they need another kid to fit the show's title. That is all. The same goes for this book. There is never a sense that Beauty loves to read, only that it is required of her character and so she does it. But this issue doesn't compare to how McKinley eventually has Beauty see things differently. Let's just say fainting is involved and heightened senses. Twilight anyone? That isn't the only Twilight reference I could make but I won't go on hating this book anymore than I have to.
Overall, this book was very disappointing. I know the author was going for something great but her poor characterizations, constant exposition, and dragging of the plot-line didn't do the story any favors. I will give this book 2 out of 5 stars. My advice, just read the original. It is much better and takes less than an hour to read.

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