April 22, 2013

Adaptation Contemplation: A Little Princess

When it comes to adapting books to movies, little details such as character's ages or Hermione's Yule Ball dress aren't as important (seriously, people!) as the overall picture. What is important is actually keeping the story intact, especially when a story is well-known for its pivotal scenes or endings.

Now, while the adaptation that personally irks me the most is the movie that bears absolutely no resemblance to The Dark is Rising, most of you probably wouldn't know what I was talking about.  Runner up?  The Frances Hodgson Burnett classic A Little Princess.  Sure, Cuaron did a great job with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and that's one of my favorite HP movies - but at least Harry didn't end up living happily ever after with Sirius!

Burnett's other and probably more famous book, The Secret Garden, got a better adaptation and few changes that mattered - although there are versions that horribly skew things.  The big-budget version, however, is only guilty of underusing Maggie Smith.   Unless they make Little Lord Fauntleroy starring Justin Bieber, the worst movie is still A Little Princess.

This isn't actually the first movie to screw it up, there was a Shirley Temple movie in 1939 that had the same ending.  Apparently, people thought it was too sad or something, and completely missed the point.

If you haven't read this book, it's the ending that I'm particularly pissed about, so there will be ample warning when I'm about to spoil it for you.  You can get a quick summary of it on Wikipedia or other sites.  Apparently, it's also public domain.

*Miss Minchin's first name is Maria.  We don't even get this until the end of the book,  which finally breaks down all of Miss Minchin's excuses and behaviors and reveals the unloved little girl that she really still is.

Young Sara Crewe, who is barely seven as her widowed father brings her to London for the first time, is quiet to the point of stoicism and more of an adult than her father in some respects. Her French mother had died when she was very young. Sara has short black hair, big green eyes, and is thin and reserved.  "The fact was, however, that she was always dreaming and thinking odd things and could not herself remember any time when she had not been thinking things about grown-up people and the world they belonged to.  She felt as if she had lived a long, long time...She did not care very much for other little girls..." She can sense the solemnity of what's to come, and faces it bravely. As a final gift, and a companion for when the Captain has left, Sara seeks out a doll that she names Emily, who is practically a character herself.  Neither of them knows anything about Miss Minchin's Select Seminary, recommended by an associate of Captain Crewe's.

Well...they nailed "big green eyes".  The movie opens with '90s Sara busy goofing off noisily with her friends, until her father reminds her that they'll soon be off to New York.  They'll be sending Sara to her mother's old school.  Hold on tight to this locket, it's your favorite possession.  Emily? Oh, yeah, here she is, I just picked her up for you.

Why does it have to be New York?  Sure, this is before the HP craze made England exciting, but the book's been British for nearly 100 years, and that never hurt its popularity.  The Secret Garden is still in England!  I'm also confused as to whether or not someone thought Sara was Emo or something, because they've never met a quiet child, and so they made her chatty and sometimes flippant. The locket and her retelling of The Ramayana  are the constantly recurring plot devices invented solely for the movie.  Why not the doll?  The whole point of Emily is that Sara is confiding how she really feels to her, things she wishes she could express to others.  You can't really do this with a locket, some tenuous connection to a mother she shouldn't really remember.  A diary would have made more sense...but again, the point is that Sara remains optimistic and like a princess despite all the hardships she goes through, and it is to Emily that she confides and later lashes out at for the first time.

Also, since MovieSara has no problem defending her right to keep the locket, why doesn't she just keep it in her room?  The only thing she's told is to not WEAR her locket in class.  Yes, that's the purpose of a locket, but when you're dealing with a woman like Miss Bitchin, you've got to stave off any trouble before it starts.  Now BookSara knows this...but is too eager to maintain her royal demeanor, hoping it will rub off on others, so she says nothing as she's assumed to be a spoiled brat with no formal education. There's also a scene where Minchin can speak French, and again this removes the idea of her being intimidated by Sara who is everything she is not.

The movie did a better job with the secondary characters.  The problem here is that there are suddenly so many of them.  Lottie is whittled down to just screaming fits.  Ermengarde is a lot braver initially than she should be, leading the other girls to reunite Sara with her precious not-Emily locket when she's banished to the attic. Miss Amelia is a bit braver, too - which defeats the purpose of her big outburst as she finally tells her sister off and collapses. Lavinia still makes an appearance, but Jessie appears to be missing or split into several other girls.  With the exception of Lottie, they all appear to be Sara's age, and Lavinia and Jessie are supposed to be older - Lavinia is expressly stated to be 13 when Sara arrives.

I don't have an issue with Becky being black.  Her race actually isn't mentioned in the book.  She is also supposed to be older than Sara, with stress and overwork stunting her growth.  She never had a chance to be a little girl.   The amount of work Becky is supposed to do would be too much for a younger child to accomplish, but this is supposed to represent how evil Miss Minchin is, working a small (black) child to death because who's going to intervene?  Like Labyrinth from the last review, villains in kids' movies must be so blatantly evil that no one gives a second thought to their motives.  Oh, and also racist, to contradict the opening scene where Sara plays with children of various ethnicities.

The movie also downplays Sara's effect on other people by attributing everything to Magic.  "Magic" with a capital M has more to do with The Secret Garden and even there, it's not at all supernatural.  Sara's room is still redecorated while she sleeps, but we don't see anyone do it out of the kindness of their hearts because Sara's purity shines through.  Captain Crewe is the one that flat-out tells Sara Emily is magic and relates the theory that dolls come to life when you're not looking.  Not because Sara herself is imaginative and creative, but "because Magic, that's why!"  No, Captain, this is not an abandoned hedge garden in Yorkshire.  Everything that happens to Sara, good OR bad, is because of who Sara is.   Sara doesn't yell, make sarcastic comments under her breath, or give any lip to adults.  She speaks plainly, and looks into your eyes instead of deferring, which makes Minchin and Lavinia uneasy.  Being a princess doesn't mean being treasured by your father and a karmic recipient of miracles!  It's being a good person, treating others well even if they're horrible to you, rising above hardships and bringing hope to motherless children, mistreated slaves, chronically depressed people who are forced to relive their mistakes, alienated Lascars and put-upon French teachers.  Sara's French speech didn't just show off her knowledge of the language, it made Monsieur Dufarge feel as if he had a friend in a strange place.  Hindustani was the last thing Ram Dass expected to hear in scummy London, but it came from the mouth of a child who treated him like a human being and not a dog.  Sara finds four cents in the street, is given extra rolls because she was polite and honest enough to ask a baker if anyone had lost it, then turns around and gives all but one of them to a beggar child, telling herself that although she's hungry as hell, she's not famished, and her unexpected good fortune should be shared with others.

And of course, there's the ending.

(Part Two)

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