Linda Woolverton and Belle

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

"Snow White is a kind, simple little girl who believed in wishing and waiting for her Prince Charming to come along. On the other hand, Cinderella was more practical. She believed in dreams all right but she also believed in doing something about them. When the Prince Charming didn't come along, she went right over to the palace and got him."

 – Walt Disney in an introduction to his weekly television show in the 1950s.

I guess it is just human nature that we seem to forget things that were innovative at the time. Walt Disney's career is filled with many innovations that we all just take for granted today as standard operating procedure—from feature-length animated films to Audio Animatronics to theme parks to countless other things that have enriched our lives.

However, there have been some fairly recent innovations we often don't appreciate either. I was recently reading that Tim Burton's live-action version of Alice in Wonderland will utilize a script by Linda Woolverton. I don't think that Woolverton is fully appreciated, not only for her very evident writing skills but how she transformed Disney animated heroines.

Woolverton was the writer for Disney's animated feature Beauty and the Beast that was released to theaters on November 22, 1991. It was the very same day that Beauty and the Beast: Live on Stage appeared at the Disney-MGM Studios, making that show another forgotten landmark where a theme park show debuted at the same time as the animated feature that inspired it.

Of course, Beauty and the Beast was the first (and at this time only) animated feature to be nominated in the Best Picture category at the Academy Awards (Silence of the Lambs garnered the honor at the ceremony).

Beauty and the Beast was the first Disney animated movie to use a fully developed script before it was then storyboarded and animated. Up until that film, Disney animated films were all storyboarded first. Michael Eisner, in particular, found it difficult to follow the story arc and character arcs watching a storyboard being pitched. His background at Paramount was to see a written script and felt it helped solve time and money issues to do it that way.

Disney had struggled with developing Beauty and the Beast for decades. It was Linda Woolverton who finally made that project a reality.

Born in Long Beach, California, Woolverton holds a bachelor's of fine arts degree in theater arts from Cal State University Long Beach and a master's degree in Theater for Children from Cal State Fullerton. Following graduation, she started her own children's theater, for which she performed, wrote and directed productions that traveled to schools, parks, malls, churches and local theaters.

In 1980, she began a four-year stint as an executive with CBS Television, where she developed both children's and late-night programming.

Against all advice, she quit and became a full-time writer. She wrote two young adult novels, Star Wind and Running Before the Wind, for Houghton Mifflin. She also paid the bills by writing scripts for animated series like Ewoks, The Real Ghostbusters, Chip 'n' Dale Rescue Rangers and Ducktales.

When one of her novels came to the attention of a Disney executive, she was hired to work on several animated projects, including one involving Winnie the Pooh that was eventually shelved.

Two writers had recently produced scripts for "Beauty and the Beast that proved unworkable. Woolverton was brought in for a rewrite. Two and a half years and four completed drafts later, she was still working with the project.

"Belle is a strong, smart, courageous woman. She sacrifices herself for her father. There are great themes of passionate love in the story, almost operatic themes. She's a Disney heroine who reads books. It excites me. We've never seen that before," Woolverton told author Bob Thomas in 1991 for the book, The Making of A Walt Disney Classic: Beauty and the Beast.

It was Woolverton who revised the script yet again when Howard Ashman was brought in to offer suggestions so that the film could be transformed into a lighter musical. It was Ashman's idea that the servants in the household had been changed into household objects just as their master had become a beast. However, it was Woolverton's influence on Belle that remained unchanged despite the other shifts in story that happened.

"Belle is a very strong, smart, courageous woman. She trades her freedom, the very thing she's been wanting from the start of the film, in order to save her father. Because she is an avid reader, she has a point of view of her life and that doesn't necessarily involve a man getting her there," Woolverton said when the film was released.

Woolverton said that she drew her inspiration for her screenplay and approach to the character of Belle not from the famous 1946 Jean Cocteau film version of the famous tale but from the 1933 film version of Little Women. Woolverton also admitted that there was a lot of Katharine Hepburn from that film in Woolverton's characterization of Belle.

Woolverton's next project was Walt Disney Pictures' live action feature Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993), followed by her work on the animated feature The Lion King (1994).

Woolverton provided the book for the Broadway adaptation of Beauty and the Beast that opened in New York in Spring 1994. She also wrote the book for Disney's theatrical production Aida, among many other writing credits. She and her husband, Lee Flicker, are the proud parents of a daughter named Keaton.

Woolverton was in her mid-30s when she worked on the script for Beauty and the Beast and those who worked on the film say that there is a lot of Woolverton in Belle.

I recently found my notes from February 1992, roughly two months after the film premiered, where Woolverton was gracious enough to talk about her approach to the character of Belle for a local newspaper article I was writing about the film. I thought the readers of MousePlanet might like to see all of the quotes from her interview about the character of Belle as a way to celebrate how innovative Belle was as a Disney heroine.

Linda Woolverton in her own words:

"I'm just so happy that the world has embraced Belle. In the past we've seen that other animated heroines were reacting to outside forces. Belle isn't like that. She initiates action. She sets things in motion. What is great about her, I think, is that she shows us all that women don't have to sit around and wait.

"Now, I don't want to stand here in 1992 and say I think Snow White and Cinderella were negative role models for girls, because that's not fair. They were signs of their time. I have a daughter and when she's old enough, I'm going to let her see those movies. I think what that will do is launch a discussion about how women have changed. Because in those movies, women didn't go out and conquer the world. They dreamed about someone to save them from their life. Belle is different. She goes out as a woman and does it herself.

"Aside from the fact that the film has made a lot of money, I feel really good about creating a character who is a positive role model for young girls, and boys, too. Because that's the audience that's important. They're going to run the world one day soon. To Gaston, Belle wasn't a person; she was a possession. And I think it's great for little boys to see that Beauty doesn't choose him. Not only can they look at Gaston as an example of how not to treat women, but they can hopefully be taught by the Beast, a macho guy who is comfortable with his feelings and gentleness. He could teach a lot of men, in fact, about sensitivity.

"They [Disney] knew I had a feminist sensibility and they were at ease that the same accusations leveled against Mermaid (like Ariel forsaking her family and heritage for a man) wouldn't happen with Beauty and the Beast. I never took part in marches. I just knew I wanted to go out, very much like Belle, and do things myself. I thought I was smart enough to be able to do that.

"The only thing I wrote [to describe Belle physically] was 'she has a little wisp of hair that keeps falling in her face'. Because I wanted her not to be perfect. It was important that not every hair be in place.

"Her love of books was to show that she had an open mind, that she was available to new concepts and ideas. One of my big things with the character was showing her love of adventure. That's why in the scene where her father goes off to collect his prize money, you see her at home sticking pins in a map, marking off all the places she wants to visit when they get the money. That day I showed up, they (the male Disney animators) had thrown out the map business and she was shown baking a 'Welcome home, Papa!' cake in the kitchen. Animation is a collaborative process so it was more a matter of saying, 'Well, guys, that's not in her character. She wouldn't even know how to bake.'

"They had her crying too much when she was in the Beast's castle. She cried all the time. I said, 'Guys, I don't think she would cry this much. I mean, I wouldn't cry this much'. I thought she'd be looking for a way out, or she'd be intrigued that she was living in an enchanted castle.

"The opposite sort of thing would happen as well. Once everybody realized she wasn't going to be this typical Disney female, they would go to the extreme. When Gaston came, they had her dumping him in a closet. She became bitchy. My argument was that she shouldn't dump him in there, because she was too smart for that. She could get rid of him in other ways. I gotta hand it to Jeffrey Katzenberg because he would see scenes like that and say, 'Does that seem consistent with who Belle is, Linda?' He never told me to make her more liberated but he did turn to me a lot as a barometer.

"I have made a point of asking mothers if the movie is too intense for their little kids and the thing I always hear is 'no'. I've seen 3-year-olds sit through the scene with the attack wolves and not even flinch. Sure, the Beast is scary initially. He's supposed to be because he is, after all, a beast. But we present his back story early on, so you understand his actions. If there is any controversy over a supposed violence level, I don't understand that at all."