How Belle Has Changed (and Hasn't) in the New Live-Action 'Beauty and the Beast' Starring Emma Watson

One of the ways Watson and Condon added dimension to Belle was by giving the book-loving character a passion for helping others

A beauty but a funny girl, that Belle!

When Emma Watson signed on to play the role of Belle in the live-action remake of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, she wanted to make a few changes to modernize the beloved character.

“In the 1991 film, Belle was a real breakthrough among Disney heroines,” director Bill Condon tells PEOPLE. “But obviously a lot has happened in 25 years. We wanted to make sure that she remained a feminist figure and someone who looks to the future.”

One of the ways Watson, 26, and Condon added dimension to Belle was by giving the book-loving character a passion for helping others.

“In the original film she’s someone who loves reading, and in this film, she’s equally concerned with teaching other girls how to read,” he says.

And Condon says it’s no accident that many of Belle’s new characteristics reflect Watson’s in real life.

“It’s interesting how when we would think of ideas for Belle, it was like, ‘Wow that’s what [Watson] is doing in her own life,’ ” he says of Watson’s passion for women’s issues (the actress has been a staunch advocate for gender equality) and for literature (she’s recently been hiding books in New York and London subway stations for passersby to find).

Watson previously told Entertainment Weekly that along with teaching young girls how to read, Belle is also now the inventor in her family.

“In the animated movie, it’s her father who is the inventor, and we actually co-opted that for Belle,” said Watson. “I was like, ‘Well, there was never very much information or detail at the beginning of the story as to why Belle didn’t fit in, other than she liked books. Also, what is she doing with her time?’ So, we created a backstory for her, which was that she had invented a kind of washing machine, so that, instead of doing laundry, she could sit and use that time to read instead. So, yeah, we made Belle an inventor.”

Still, one element of Belle’s personality remains unchanged: her strength as a woman, which Watson admired the most while watching the original film as a child.

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“She was this feisty young woman who spoke her mind and had all these ambitions, and was incredibly independent — wanted to see the world,” Watson said in a behind-the-scenes clip from Disney. “She had this relationship with Beast where they were just toe-to-toe. That to me just seemed like such a dynamic and interesting relationship that I’d never seen before in a fairy tale.”

Beauty and the Beast hits theaters March 17, 2017.

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