Literature: Black Beauty

"There are a great many kinds of men; there are good, thoughtful men like our master, that any horse may be proud to serve; but there are bad, cruel men, who never ought to have a horse or dog to call their own. Beside, there are a great many foolish men, vain, ignorant, and careless, who never trouble themselves to think; these spoil more horses than all, just for want of sense; they don't mean it, but they do it for all that. I hope you will fall into good hands; but a horse never knows who may buy him, or who may drive him; it is all a chance for us, but still I say, do your best, wherever it is, and keep up your good name."
Duchess, Black Beauty's mother, to her son.

Black Beauty is an 1877 polemic novel by Anna Sewell, tracing the life of the titular fictional horse from colthood to retirement. Today it is considered a classic of children's literature; however, originally it was not written for children, but as an effort to draw attention to the wildly varying treatment of horses in Victorian England. As a result it contains mini-lectures on everything from bits and blinkers to broken knees. Along the way Beauty also provides a horse's perspective on the human capacity for cruelty and kindness, and comparisons between the treatment of animals and the treatment of poor working-class humans.

Many film and television adaptations have been made, with varying degrees of faithfulness to the original work.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: While not getting everything right (and cutting the dialogue for all of the animals besides Beauty), the 1994 movie is considered the best of the film versions. (Not to mention that David Thewlis as Jerry Barker is some of the best casting in film history.)
    • Also the soundtrack for the film was composed by none other than Danny Elfman. Go to the YMMV page for a list over some of the best samples.
  • All Girls Like Ponies: Many of the film versions like to throw this in there.
  • Amplified Animal Aptitude: Mostly averted. Once you get past the fact that the horse is narrating his own life story, Beauty largely behaves like a normal horse - for instance, being too terrified to leave a burning barn until he's blindfolded and led out.
  • Animal Stereotypes: Black Beauty fits the horse stereotype to a T.
  • Animal Talk
  • Animated Adaptation: Two, one American (courtesy of Hanna-Barbera) and one Australian (via Burbank Films).
  • Artistic License Animal Care: Only in-universe; for example, Beauty is nearly killed by a groom who gives him cold water and leaves him standing uncovered in his stall after a strenuous effort. This is an invitation for colic, and it causes all the horse's muscles to lock up.
  • Author Filibuster: At least half the book is devoted to characters spending entire chapters basically getting on soapboxes to deliver lectures that have little or nothing to do with the actual plot (such as politics).
  • Author Tract: Anna Sewell suffered a serious injury in childhood which eventually left her unable to stand or walk unaided, and hence needing horses/ponies to get around. This constant exposure to them and their welfare was the motivation behind her book, to get people to be a little more conscious about the way they treated animals. Giving particular weight to the moral was that if religion did not teach people to be kind to animals, it was a sham (remember, this was read by Victorian Britons). Boy, did it work: an outpouring of concern about animal welfare resulted, and the use of the bearing rein lost almost all favornote . The book also inspired several pieces of anti-cruelty legislature, as well as changes to laws in order to ease financial strain on cab drivers, which in turn led to better treatment of their horses.
  • Bitch Alert: Lady Wexmere in the 1994 film. Her first scene is her having the bearing rein tightened over the horses, stating "they're not fit to be seen". Ginger gets a bit of an introduction like this but Beauty is attracted to her immediately.
    • Subverted with Ginger. She's very cross when she first meets Beauty (blaming him for getting her turned out of her box, which Merrylegs points out was her own snapping that did it), but as she defrosts and reveals her backstory, she turns out to be very agreeable when well-treated, she and Beauty become close friends.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Beauty ends up in a good home with the promise of never being sold again. Ginger however continues to suffer under one cruel owner after the other, ultimately killing her. Combine that with Beauty seeing her dead body, hoping her pain is finally at an end, and the ending with him dreaming about the days the two were together, along with Merrylegs and you'll find yourself in serious need of a tissue.
    • It's even worse in the book or comic when you actually read the conversation Beauty and Ginger have the last time he sees her alive. To paraphrase:
    Beauty: What happened, Ginger? You used to defend yourself when people abused you.
    Ginger: There's no use anymore. Humans are stronger. Now, I just want to die. I've seen dead horses, and I'm certain they're not suffering.
  • Break the Cutie: Ginger. Poor, poor Ginger.
  • Broken Bird: Have we mentioned "poor Ginger"?
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Ginger. Unusually for this trope, she is 'defrosted' by kind and humane treatment by her humans, not by the efforts of the hero.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Ginger. Poor thing just never caught a break.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: You're damn right that horse has to earn his happy ending.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The 1994 movie opens with the happy home Beauty ends up at before beginning his story.
  • Friend to All Children: Merrylegs the pony is specifically cited as being this. Of course, it helps that, being a Shetland pony, he's pretty much child-sized.
    • Although, despite their cute appearance, Shetlands do not automatically make good pets. They were bred as working animals, and although intelligent and sociable, they can develop stubborn temperaments and become impatient and snappy, particularly if they've been spoilt or inconsistently handled. Treated with care, they make good companion animals but they're not for children who think they can get away with not treating an animal with full respect and care.
    • Arguably same for Merrylegs. He's been well-trained and well-handled by his owners and thus makes a fine babysitter as long as the children respect his limits. Only when they start treating him like a toy (like the boys that keep trying to ride him even though he's clearly tired) does he gently but poignantly let them know "enough's enough." See Rearing Horse below.
  • The Film of the Book: Quite a few in fact. At least four movies.
  • Follow the Leader: Inspired many similar books.
  • Gender Flip: In a 1995 animated adaptation, Joe was changed into a girl named Jenny.
  • Hollywood Atheist: One of Jerry's fellow cab riders, Larry, doesn't believe in religion. He's also the hardest on his horses, is willing to drive them more harshly for an extra shilling, and of all the cab drivers is going through horses the most frequently because he wears them out with his harsh treatment.
  • Horsey Heroism: Beauty (and to a lesser extent, the groom who rides him) saves his mistress's life when he brings the doctor in time.
  • Horsing Around:
    • At least twice Beauty rebels against orders. The first time he refuses to cross an unsafe bridge; the second, he pitches a fit at the bearing rein. He is meant to have the audience's sympathy (and he does) both times.
    • The book also includes a scene in which Beauty, and John riding him, observe a boy trying to whip his pony into jumping a fence too high for it, and getting tipped out of the saddle and over the fence on his own for his trouble. As in the examples involving Beauty, the reader's sympathy, like John's, is with the pony.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: See if you can read the words "bearing rein" without being thrown into a frothing rage.
  • I Will Find You: What Joe tells Beauty when leaving him in his new home.
  • Kick the Dog: Some of the more villainous characters get to do this.
  • Mature Animal Story: While the novel does not contain any material that is inappropriate for children, much of it would probably go over their heads.
  • Meaningful Name: Ginger, a chestnut mare, though she is called that because she snaps.
    • Doubles as a Stealth Pun.
    • Also Mr. Thoroughgood, the thoroughly good old man who buys beat down working horses like Ladybird and Beauty and gives them a second chance at life by "makes them young again," and finding them nice owners.
  • Mini Series
  • Nearly Normal Animal: Beauty is entirely a horse, but he is capable of grasping maxims like "always do your best" and "keep up your good name." His mother tells him not to kick or bite, not for threat of punishment, but because he is of a good family and above such coarse behavior.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: On top of the other problems blinkers cause, they restrict horses' vision so they can only see a fraction of their normal range, and from the front at that. Most significant sights and sounds come from beside and behind them. Horses are easily spooked, but can get used to sudden noises and/or sights if they can see and understand where it's from. The blinkers prevent this, so not knowing what strange, sudden sights and sounds constantly surround them end up frightening them more.
    • Same when the barn catches fire. Even before the smoke and fire shows, the horses sense something is wrong, but can't understand what it is, and this frightens them far more than any Jump Scare ever could. So much so that two horses pay with their lives, because they're too scared of the unknown terror surrounding the barn to move out of the barn.
  • OOC Is Serious Business: Beauty is normally so gentle and compliant that the few times he acts up, those that know him know that something is seriously wrong.
  • Primal Fear: Horses are full of them. Fire, like above. Loud noises like from steam engines (it took Beauty two weeks to get desensitized to it), reduced vision like from blinkers, sudden or constant noises like from crowded streets, etc. Really, horses are chalk full of them.
  • Rearing Horse: Mostly played straight; downplayed with the pony Merrylegs, who would do this as a gentle way to get passengers off his back when he'd had enough of them (he is, of course, a lot closer to the ground).
  • Recursive Adaptation
  • Spared by the Adaptation: There are at least two animated versions for children where Ginger survives in the end.
  • Spirited Young Lady: Lady Anne, based on what we see of her.
  • Tempting Fate: Lady Anne rides a mare she's warned is not safe, then refuses to dismount when her riding partner needs to make a quick stop inside.
    "Oh, do not hurry yourself; Lizzie and I shall not run away from you."
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Implied to be the fate of Mrs. Gordon. Subverted at the end, when it turns out she's still alive after young Jim Green has grown into a man.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: The attitude of some owners to their horses. Several of the horses we see under these masters have crossed the Despair Event Horizon and are waiting to die, particularly Ginger.
  • Xenofiction