How Beauty and the Beast's Screenwriter Shaped Disney's First Feminist Princess

May 23, 2016

Disney just released the first teaser for its live-action reboot of Beauty and the Beast, which stars Emma Watson and hits theaters in March 2017. It’s the latest in a tide of live-action reimaginings of Disney’s animated classics, from Maleficent (2014) to Cinderella (2015) to The Jungle Book (2016). But even as we come to expect the live-action treatment for every princess ever dreamed up, there’s one person monitoring the 3-D-ification of Belle with more than a passing interest: Linda Woolverton, the screenwriter responsible for the quirky bibliophile who came out singing in Disney’s 1991 animated hit, which was, not incidentally, the first animated feature to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture.

Woolverton is not involved in the reboot, and when asked how she felt when she heard it was being revived, her response was “curious.” And then, reconsidering: “Belle is so close to my soul and my heart. So yeah, I’m honestly very protective.”

And with good reason. Woolverton’s fight to shape Belle into a new kind of Disney heroine was just that—a fight, every step of the way. The first woman to write an animated Disney film, she worked closely with Howard Ashman, the movie’s lyricist, to create a female character who could see beyond the end of her hairbrush, “one that isn’t based on being kind and taking the hits but smiling all the way through it,” she says. “I just didn’t feel like that’s the message that we wanted to move into the next century with. And that’s the Disney heroine that I grew up with.”

Steeped in the ethos of the women’s liberation movement, Woolverton set to work on a script that reflected her self-directed mandate to move women and girls forward. “They didn’t know what they were dealing with when they brought me on,” she recalls. “Seriously, they had no idea.” But rather than rewriting the script on the Disney princess, she found that her own script was subject to repeated, regressive rewrites.

In one scene, for example, Woolverton wrote Belle sticking pins into a map of all the places she wished to travel. By the time it got to storyboarding, Belle had been rewritten into a kitchen, decorating a cake. Woolverton protested, and the compromise that was reached had Belle with her nose in a book, a pastime at first considered too passive to be compellingly animated, which is why she always walks as she reads.

Woolverton didn’t win every battle, but each victory meant a better chance of sending a positive role model for children, and especially young girls, into the world. And in a culture in which the social impact of Disney's female characters continue to be fodder for academic research, playing the engineer behind those princesses is no small burden. “I feel an enormous responsibility, and I always have from when I wrote Belle,” she says.

“If you depict girls and women in these roles that we’ve never seen before, then it becomes an assumption for younger generations,” says Woolverton, who applied this principle not just to Belle, but to her version of Lewis Carroll's Alice, two decades later, who in 2010’s Alice in Wonderland rejects marriage and requires no rescuing—indeed she, as Woolverton’s story goes, is the rescuer—as well as in its sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass, out Friday, in which Alice works as a sea captain.

So as Woolverton looks to the live-action treatment of the feminist princess around whom she built a career—she also won a Tony for the Broadway adaptation of her own screenplay—all she can do is hope that Belle’s integrity has survived the quarter-century since she was born. “I don’t even hope that it goes further,” she says. “I just hope that it reflects the original.”

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