Friday, June 29, 2012

Beastly by Alex Flinn

Beastly by Alex Flinn

Target Audience: YA/Teen

Summary: Kyle Kingsbury used to be the most handsome, most popular, most sought-after guy in his high school – until he public humiliated one of the so-called “ugly” crowd. Unfortunately for him, she was no teenager, but a modern-day witch, and as punishment for his beastly behavior, she’s turned him into a true beast. Shipped away to a penthouse by his famous father, he has two years to find a girl to love him or he’ll stay that way forever.

Type of Adaptation: Modernization with a perspective shift

So Alex Flinn is a relatively new name to the fairy tale adaptation genre, and what I like about her books is that she writes modernizations almost exclusively, and with a story like Beauty and the Beast with iconic adaptations like Beauty to its name, it’s nice to see the new context that a modernization forces. Because when you’re setting a story in the real world, there are some questions you have to answer: how does magic work? Are there really witches walking among us? How do you hide a beast in New York City?

We start by meeting Kyle Kingsbury, our spoiled prince character, and the translation of this character is handled very well. First of all, his name. “Kyle” means “handsome one,” and “Kingsbury” is obviously evoking the royalty that doesn’t exist in modern day New York. But secondly, we see that this kid is, in fact, as royal as our society gets. He has everything he could ever want – he’s handsome and popular, he has a rich and famous father, he goes to an elite private school, he has a beautiful girlfriend. In short, girls want to be with him; guys want to be him. He is the envy of everyone, and the philosophy he has grown up with is that in order to get what you want, you have to be beautiful.

When modernizing this story, you have to be aware of how the curse plays out, because in today’s society, if everyone who was selfish and egotistical was cursed to be a beast, we’d have precious few humans walking around. And here, Flinn handles the story very well.

Kyle becomes aware of a girl at his school who doesn’t fit in. She’s overweight, dresses all in black and out-of-date clothes, and wears goth-like make-up. When the class is asked to vote for the Homecoming Prince and Princess, she refuses and takes a stand against what she calls a glorified beauty pageant. Kyle stands up for the beautiful people, and just like that, he has caught the attention of this girl, Kendra. She calls him “beastly,” and the word really gets to him. So, he hatches a plan to get back at her.

He singles her out in gym class, and, under the guise of making an apology, asks her to the dance. He tells her that it’s to show that he does care about more than just appearances. She smiles, perhaps a bit too gleeful that he’s asked, and agrees to go. Then she goes and spreads around the school that Kyle Kingsbury asked her to the dance.

When Kyle’s girlfriend Sloane finds out, she’s not pleased, but that’s when Kyle reveals his plan – he wants Kendra to tell everyone that he’s taking her to the dance, so that when he actually shows up with Sloane, he’ll be able to humiliate Kendra in front of the entire school, so that she’ll learn her place.

So, yeah. A bit more than your ordinary selfishness going on here. Kendra, because she’s a witch and is specifically testing Kyle, knows that this is Kyle’s plan, but she’s giving him a chance to redeem himself. She gives him several, actually, and he fails them all. And so, when he humiliates her at the dance, she isn’t upset at all, but tells him in no uncertain terms that he’s about to get what’s coming to him.

And when he gets home that night, he finds her waiting for him, and she explains – he needs to be taught a lesson, and so she’s going to curse him, that his outside might be as ugly as his inside. It’s not just that he was selfish and rude, she makes clear. It’s that he was cruel, deliberately. He wanted to hurt another person, and for that, he must pay.

And originally, there was going to be no way out. Once a beast, a beast forever, that was the original intent. But he did himself one favor. His girlfriend wanted an orchid for a corsage, but Kyle’s maid bought a white rose instead. Sloane threw it away in a fit, and Kyle gave it to the girl taking tickets at the dance, because she said how lovely it was and how she would have accepted such a gift if it had been given to her.

And because of that small act of kindness, Kendra is prepared to give him a way out. She’ll give him two years to change, two years to find someone who can see past his beastly exterior and love who he is inside. If a girl admits her love for him within two years, he’ll change back. If not, he’ll be a beast forever.

And so he is transformed. Covered with fur that grows back the minute it’s cut, complete with fangs and claws, Kyle’s father is horrified, mostly by what this will do for his own image if it’s discovered. Kyle is pulled from school, and they travel to every doctor in the country looking for a cure, but they’re told the same thing – no cure exists.

And so, Kyle’s father buys a penthouse in Brooklyn. He ships Kyle off to it, with a maid and a blind tutor. Kyle isn’t stupid, and he recognizes this for what it is – he’s being disposed of, because his father cares more about his image and career than he does his own son. But he gives Kyle his credit card, and Kyle is allowed to purchase whatever he wants to make himself more comfortable.

What I love about this set up is the way that it works the classic magic into modern day New York – the house isn’t enchanted; Kyle’s just got a limitless credit card. Tasks aren’t done by magic, but by a pair of servants who are being blackmailed and bribed into staying.

The blind tutor, Will, is one of my favorite characters in the whole novel. He puts up with exactly no nonsense from Kyle, and after allowing Kyle the chance to sulk for a few weeks without putting in any effort to study, Will lays down the law – either Kyle lets him do his job, or he’s leaving. And since Will is one of the few people who doesn’t treat Kyle as if he’s a monster, Kyle agrees.

Over the course of the next year in the novel, Kyle is forced to take a good, hard look at himself, and he doesn’t like what he sees. He watches the world around him and the people in it, and he comes to some pretty unsettling conclusions. Using a magic mirror given to him by Kendra, he spies on Sloane and his old friends and hears the things they say about him now that he’s gone. He watches the almost invisible girl from the ticket booth who he always ignored because she was plain and on scholarship, and he sees that she lives in the slums with a dad who’s a junkie, and she stays up all night studying to keep up the grades necessary to keep going to the private school he took for granted.

He starts insisting that he be called Adrian during this year as well. He can’t be Kyle any long, can’t be “handsome.” So instead, he chooses a name that means “dark,” and the new name suits him well, and with it, he takes on a new personality.

His only refuge is the rose garden Will plants to bring some beauty into the place. At first he resists the idea, but he warms to it, to the idea of helping to give life to these plants that have come to mean a lot to him. He can’t stand to watch them die, though, so he learns to build and maintain a greenhouse. He learns a lot of strange things with Will in his new home, and what I like about the novel is the way that it really makes it clear how much work it is to learn these things. It would be easy to disbelieve a high school kid just up and building a greenhouse one day, but Flinn makes it believable.

A few times, Adrian tries to go out to the hustle and bustle of the city. During the summer, he can manage it – dressed in a long coat and scarf, he looks like a homeless person, and the city dwellers ignore him. But the colder it is, the less invisible he becomes, and the more risks he takes. The last time he tries is on Halloween. He goes out to a school dance, hoping that he can pass off his beastliness as a costume and find a girl who will maybe fall in love with him, but the night ends in disaster, and he basically gives up. He resigns himself to the idea that this is his life now, and there’s no escape. He has his roses. He has his dad’s credit card. He has Will and Magda, and maybe that can be enough.

Kendra shows up and calls him on it, and that’s another thing I like – Kendra is present throughout the story. She doesn’t just cast her spell and leave; she sticks around to see how it’s playing out. And she makes it clear that she doesn’t have the power to remove the curse. Once cast, it’s out of her hands. She’s bound by rules of magic just as he is. And here, she shows up to ask why he’s giving up. He says he’s not, he’s just living for his roses now, not himself. Then he asks if she’ll do something for Will and Magda. Give Will his sight, give Magda the chance to be with her family. Kendra can’t, because of the rules, but she tells Adrian that if he breaks his curse, she’ll reward them as well. It’s her way of getting him to keep fighting.

And then, the break in. A junkie tries to rob Adrian’s penthouse, and Adrian stops him. The man is terrified because, hey, beast, and starts begging his way out of the situation. He says there must be something he can give Adrian, but Adrian says there’s nothing the junkie has that he wants. That’s when the man asks if he wants a girlfriend, because he has a daughter, and Adrian can have her, if he wants. Utterly disgusted by this man, Adrian agrees – because no girl should have to live with a father like that, and Adrian wants to believe he’s saving her.

Which is all well and good, and noble in a way, but what Adrian doesn’t remember is that we can’t always help who we love, and even when our parents are utter scumbags, we feel a loyalty to them. This is certainly true for Linda, the junkie’s daughter, who does not take kindly to her imprisonment, though she’s willing to go through with it to keep her father out of jail.

Not until she shows up does Adrian realize that Linda is the girl from the school dance, the one he gave the rose to. And he wants so badly to get this right, because this is his last chance, but he keeps making missteps. Luckily, he has Will there to clue him in to when he’s being a self-righteous, overly proud and entitled asshole, and slowly, he learns.

And then we watch the Beauty and the Beast story play out. Oh, there are key differences, sure – instead of bonding over books and dinners, they bond over midnight popcorn and The Princess Bride. But they study together with Will and they tend the garden, and they explore the penthouse, and they become friends. And Adrian falls in love. It almost breaks his heart to hear Lindy talk about this guy at school she once had a crush on – Kyle Kingsbury – who didn’t know she existed. And how she hated that she liked him because he was handsome, because she wanted to be above all that, but he gave her a rose once, and she’s kept it since then. Adrian changes because of Lindy, growing to see her not just as a potential break to his curse if he can convince her to love him, but as someone worth his time and energy and love, someone he wants to love him only because he loves her and wants to be with her. He’d want her to love him even if it didn’t break his curse, and that’s one of the real turning points for him.

The ways he shows this love are absolutely wonderful – because she’s never left the city and never seen snow, he arranges for his dad to rent a ski-house for the winter, and takes her there. He teaches her to build a snowman, and he obviously leaves the door unlocked each night so that she can run away, leave, if she wants to. She isn’t his prisoner anymore, and he makes that clear, but he never says “I love you.” He can’t bring himself to. Because it would break his heart if she didn’t say it back. He wants her to be happy, and he asks how he can make her happy. And she responds by asking to see her father.

Her father, who essentially sold her into slavery to save his own skin, but who she still loves despite everything. And Adrian agrees. And when the magic mirror reveals that he is ill, Adrian insists that she go to him. That he can’t keep her anymore. He can’t be that selfish.

So she goes. And Adrian knows that’s the end. Will and Magda try to convince him otherwise, but he knows. She won’t come back. She won’t try to visit the penthouse. She’s gone, he let her go, he’ll be a beast forever, end of story.

And then Kendra shows up, for one of my favorite conversations of the whole book. Because she can see that he’s changed. She can see that he has learned his lesson. And if it was up to her, she’d change him back. But those weren’t the parameters of the curse. Is that fair? No, but that’s life. They have a great exchange. He says, “But I’m not the old Kyle Kingsbury. I’m not Kyle Kingsbury at all.” And she says, “I know. And that’s why I’m sad that you’re saddled with Kyle Kingsbury’s curse.”

And then, two years to the day, Lindy is in trouble. Her dad has sold her off again, but this time promising her virtue to the landlord in exchange for rent. In desperation, she cries out for Adrian, and through the mirror, he hears her. Abandoning his fear of being seen and despised, thinking not of himself but of helping another person, he leaves his home and runs to find her. He causes quite a disturbance, but he makes it to her in time. He even takes a bullet for her, and the fact that it wounds him is how he knows that the curse is failing.

But because this is Beauty and the Beast, in the nick of time, she admits her love and kisses him, and the curse is broken. And she’s really freaked out that she’s sitting there with Kyle Kingsbury, and she keeps saying she has to find Adrian. He convinces her that it’s him, Will and Magda are helped with the breaking of the curse, and voila, happily ever after.

Overall, there were only a handful of things I didn’t like about this adaptation. One, between each part of the book was a chat-room conversation between real-life folk who had been transformed through magic. Kyle was there talking, as was the frog prince and the little mermaid and the bear from Snow White and Rose Red. And I mean, it was kinda of cool to see some more obscure fairy tale characters, but it was really just a framing device for Kyle telling his story, and it wasn’t necessary. It got redundant, and it pulled us away from the story rather than enhancing it.

Second, there was this weird thing at the end where it turned out that Kendra was Magda, and she’d picked Kyle to try and change because of . . . reasons, and it was complicated and I didn’t quite follow it, and again, it didn’t seem necessary. It was one layer of connection too many for me.

But overall, I thought Flinn translated the story very well into modern times with modern sensibilities. How well? Well, let’s to the checklist.

Stronger Beauty character? Yes. Lindy’s not in a lot of the novel, but she’s very well developed when she is. We sympathize with her, we understand her, and yet, she’s very human and flawed, too. She loves her father despite everything he puts her through, but she’s not a saint. She still judges the Beast, and it takes time for her to grow past that, to learn to trust him. So check.

Stronger backstory for the Beast? Well, it isn’t backstory here; it’s the story, and as I said earlier, I love the translation this made to a modern character. It’s not just about selfishness, it was about cruelty. The reason for the curse got stepped up a notch, which it needed, and Kyle’s growth was very believably done and very rewarding for the reader.

Stronger reason for Beauty’s non-return? Like many other adaptations this month, she didn’t have to return. It wasn’t a condition. Now, Kyle did ask if she would, if she would visit him, and the reason why she didn’t there was great – she didn’t know how to get back to the penthouse. She didn’t have an address, her father wouldn’t tell her, and she’d only gone there once before by a very roundabout way. I buy it, so yes, check.

Stronger relationship between Beauty and the Beast? My favorite part about this relationship is that they knew each other before the curse. Lindy knew Kyle when he was beastly in both respects, and she’s the one he first showed that redeeming bit of kindness. It really wrapped her into the story early on, giving the whole thing a lot more connectivity. And once she got to his home, again, very well done. Full marks.

Stronger message? Not just a stronger one – one a bit more applicable to our time. It’s got the whole “inward beauty is more important than outward” message, but with a twist of, “No, the world doesn’t follow that aphorism, so you’re going to have to continually fight to believe it,” which is wonderful.

This is a masterful adaptation. One or two flaws in the narrative, to be sure, but the story is contextualized really well, and despite the magic added to New York City, it’s entirely believable.

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