Why Clueless Is Clueless About Jane Austen’s Emma

A while back I watched a YouTube video called Is It OK to Like Pride and Prejudice 2005? in which the YouTuber earnestly lamented the snobbery of some Jane Austen fans who disparage other fans for liking certain adaptations. It was a good video and there were many comments agreeing with the sentiment, including one who cited fans who sneered at screenwriter/director Amy Heckerling’s 1995 comedy, Clueless, which transplants Jane Austen’s Emma to a (then) modern high school in Beverly Hills. So, I feel a bit bad for writing a blog post condemning the movie. But I don’t feel very bad, because my experience is that it’s usually given more credit than it deserves rather than less.

Not only is it well liked by casual moviegoers, but a large number of Jane Austen fans, and scholarly ones too, regard it as the best adaptation of Emma. In an essay in Jane Austen Goes Hollywood, Nora Nachumi praises Clueless for being “the only one of the non-BBC films to recognize and replicate the most profound of Emma‘s ironies.” Richard Jenkyns in his book, A Fine Brush on Ivory: An Appreciation of Jane Austen, writes that Clueless is the movie which understands the book, in particular its heroine, the best. [1]Of course, since they’re comparing the movie to adaptations they dislike, rather than their ideal nonexistent adaptation, this is damning with faint praise to an extent. But their tones of … Continue reading This is incomprehensible to me. It’s not that I have an objection to the idea of reimagining Emma as a contemporary high school-themed comedy. I think it’s a potentially great idea. My longtime readers may remember that my favorite adaptation of Little Women was just such a modern updating. [2]Of course, that movie only changed the time period, not the country in which the story takes place… And it’s not like this is the worst movie ever. There are enough funny lines that I can understand people enjoying it if I concentrate hard enough. It follows Emma‘s plot closely enough to be interesting. I appreciate that just like Jane Austen turned the romance novel conventions of her day on their head in the book by having the protagonist be an arrogant wealthy woman with no need to marry up rather than a poor governess, Hecklerling turned high school comedy conventions on their head by having the protagonist be a popular, good looking, rich girl rather than an (allegedly) unattractive, frumpy, bookworm. And the movie certainly conveys its source’s message that it’s not enough for rich people to go through the motions of using their wealth and influence to help people; they also have to do so intelligently and with an eye for what the recipients of their charity really need, not just what makes them look good or feel good about themselves. But from where I stand, Clueless is the adaptation that least understands what made the heroine and the story of Emma work dramatically. I even have a problem with the title! Clueless would be a better epithet for Harriet Smith or Mrs. Elton. Emma Woodhouse’s flaw is not much that she doesn’t have a clue but that she ignores any clues she comes across that don’t fit with her plans for the world.

The first sentence of Emma describes the (anti)heroine as clever as well as rich and handsome. One of her harshest critics (in-universe) describes her as the cleverest person in her family, though that’s admittedly more of an aspersion on them than a compliment to her. For all the terrible, selfish mistakes she makes, they’re the mistakes only a smart person could make. Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone), the protagonist of Clueless, on the other hand, is portrayed as self-absorbed idiot from the opening moments of the movie. Listening to her and her friends obsess about celebrities, clothing and makeup, with their constant “as ifs” and “not evens” is enough to drive me up the wall. Part of this may just be because I find Alicia’s Silverstone’s voice and mannerisms annoying. She can be tolerable in some roles though. She’s like nails on a chalkboard when delivering (deliberately) inane lines these though.

“What that man needs is a major boinkfest. Unfortunately, there was a total babe drought at our school”

“Let’s blow off seventh and eighth, go to the mall, have a calorie fest and see the new Christian Slater.”

“I am totally bugging. I feel like such a bonehead.”

Argh! Can you imagine a whole movie where most of the main characters talk like that? Apparently, Clueless fans are capable of not only imagining it but enjoying it.

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I can hear a lot of people getting upset already and protesting that being interested in stereotypically girly things, like shoes and shopping, doesn’t make girls dumb. But here’s the thing. The movie itself feels like it wants us to view Cher and her entourage as ditzes for loving those things. How else do you explain the comedic bit where Cher says she needs to find a sanctuary to regain strength and we then cut to her at a mall? (The only time I can remember Emma Woodhouse shopping in her book portrays her as being less interested in the merchandise within the shop than about speculating about the people walking by the shop.) The film pulsates with contempt for teenage girls with cash to burn, whom I assume to be a sizable portion of its target audience, quite different from Austen’s sharp but subtle satire of the idle rich in Emma, which begins by making Emma appear admirable, even enviable, before revealing the negative effect her life of ease has had on her character. In Clueless, even the backstory of how Cher’s mother died has an “oh, these stupid rich people” feel to it. (She perished in a botched plastic surgery operation.)

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Emma Woodhouse may be an infamously easy protagonist to dislike. [3]Legend has it that Jane Austen described her as “a heroine whom no one but me will much like.” I haven’t been able to confirm this, but I’d love for it to be true as it sounds … Continue reading But the opening chapter of her book establishes that she and her father take an interest in the lives of the servants whose welfare depends on them. (They arranged a good job for their coachman’s daughter, and a later chapter depicts Emma visiting an old servant of hers when she has some free time on her hands.) We’re later told that she also helps out the poor in her neighborhood and that she “entered into their troubles with ready sympathy and always gave her assistance with as much intelligence as good will.” Cher, meanwhile, mentions that she gives her old clothes to her middle-aged maid, Lucy (Aida Linares) and in her debate class, compares the plight of Haitian refugees to unexpected guests at one of her parties. (To the movie’s credit, that last speech is one of its comedic highlights.)

Cher charms most of her teachers into giving her better grades, which corresponds nicely to Emma’s being a bad student as a child and her beloved governess, Miss Taylor, being too lax of a disciplinarian. (Though it should be noted that Emma is described as always planning to do a lot of reading without ever following through on it. Cher doesn’t even do that.) But the way she gets around her debate teacher, Mr. Hall (Wallace Shawn-probably the movie’s biggest asset), is an insult to Emma. When Miss Taylor leaves the Woodhouses to get married at the beginning of the book, Emma is sad to lose one of her few close friends but is happy for her and hides her regret as well as she can. This is contrasted to her needy father, who transparently projects his misfortune in losing Miss Taylor onto the woman herself and shows that as selfish and controlling a friend as she later acts, Emma is capable of selflessness. [4]Richard Jenkyns commends Clueless for being the only adaptation to understand that Emma’s father is a villain. I see no evidence for this at all. If anything, the character ends up playing a … Continue reading Even the weirdly dark and unpleasant 1996 made-for-TV Emma movie (not to be confused with cinematic one from the same year) got this right. But Cher sets Mr. Hall up with another teacher, Miss Geist (Twink Caplan), solely to get herself a better grade.

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To be fair, afterwards she becomes more genuinely altruistic, taking an awkward transfer student from Jersey named Tai (Brittany Murphy) under her wing, though, as her older stepbrother, Josh (Paul Rudd), points out, this is largely so she can have someone follow her around and worship her. I don’t mean that as a criticism of the movie by the way. That accurately summarizes Emma’s relationship in the book with Harriet Smith, the parlor boarder at a common school. And the subplot of Cher aggressively steering Tai away from the lowly stoner/skateboarder (Breckin Meyer), who is actually nice to her and shares her interests, towards Elton (Jeremy Sisto), a popular guy, who couldn’t care less about her, is very close to what happens in the book and therefore the part of the movie that works the best comedically and dramatically.

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But let’s get back to that older stepbrother Josh character. As those familiar with Emma will have guessed he corresponds to Mr. Knightley, Emma’s sister’s husband’s brother, her eventual love interest (Emma’s, I mean, not the sister’s) and one of the few people in her life who finds fault with her. She seems to find this a nice change of pace and enjoys verbally sparring with him. This is an indicator that for all her pride and vanity, she doesn’t demand mindless support from everyone. It’s one of the things that keeps her from being too unlikeable.[5]It also should be noted that for all that Mr. Knightley is ultimately proved to be in the right in all their arguments, Emma gets in a few good points too. Her assertion that they shouldn’t … Continue reading So why does Cher complain about her dad inviting Josh over to their house in the very first scene? When he arrives the two of them rag on each other with no affection or appreciation. Even when they start to warm up to each other halfway through the movie, Ruud and Silverstone have no chemistry. Why did this movie feel the need to keep the pseudo incestuous element of Emma and Mr. Knightley’s romance and the age gap between them, but left out what made their relationship appealing?

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Clueless includes as many story beats from Emma as it can, sometimes even minor ones like the Harriet character burning silly mementoes of her former crush once she’s over him or the Emma character disapproving of the Mr. Knightley equivalent not dancing at parties. But it often doesn’t seem to understand the function that they had in the original. It includes a Frank Churchill character in Christian (Justin Walker), a new student to whom Cher is attracted, and who has a secret that makes him unavailable. (In Emma, Frank is secretly engaged to a poor governess of whom his guardian would disapprove. In Clueless, Christian is gay.) But he never leads her on or to the extent that he does, this isn’t portrayed as reflecting negatively on him. There’s no Jane Fairfax character whom he hurts by flirting with Cher, making an already low stakes story even sleepier. Nor does she hurt anybody by flirting with him. Her failure to pick up on his lack of real interest in her doesn’t indicate any moral failing on her part. It’s just another example of her being, well, clueless.

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The movie includes a scene of Christian rescuing Tai, presumably since its Austenian equivalent was the closest thing in Emma to an action scene.[6]It was actually only described after it happened in the book, making it something the reader heard about rather than experienced. But it weirdly places it after Cher has learned Christian’s secret, so she never imagines him and Tai as a couple, arguably rendering the whole character pointless and his subplot padding. The scene isn’t even that great as a random bit of action.

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It also includes Tai deciding late in the story that Josh is the boy for her, leading to Cher realizing her own feelings for him. But then it has her transferring her affections back to her stoner/skateboarder suitor, of whom Cher initially disapproved, before Josh confesses his love for Cher. Thus there is no reason for her to be worried that he’s actually going to confess his attraction to Tai, and an already predictable romantic finale has even less suspense.

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There’s an underdeveloped Mrs. Elton character in Amber (Elisa Donovan), a classmate who serves as a negative foil for Cher. It’s never clear why we’re supposed to consider her worse than Cher since they’re written in exactly the same way, as obnoxious stereotypical valley girls. (I guess Cher is just a better obnoxious stereotypical valley girl.)

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Speaking of things being underdeveloped, the scene where the Emma character is rude to someone lower on the social ladder than her, and Mr. Knightley upbraids her for it is included, but it goes by so quickly, I wonder why they bothered. And for once, I’m going to criticize this adaptation for not having its protagonist be bad enough. While what Cher says to the aforementioned Lucy is certainly tactless and ignorant,[7]“I don’t speak Mexican!” Lucy is from El Salvador. it’s honestly not worse than I’d expect from her, and it happens when she’s under stress. She doesn’t publicly insult her as Emma does the (genteelly) poor spinster, Miss Bates, in the book, so naturally Josh doesn’t give her a big speech as Mr. Knightley does. But that big speech was arguably the heart of the book.

“Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance, I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in situation—but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed! You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her—and before her niece, too—and before others, many of whom (certainly some,) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her.—This is not pleasant to you, Emma—and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will,—I will tell you truths while I can; satisfied with proving myself your friend by very faithful counsel, and trusting that you will some time or other do me greater justice than you can do now.”

What kind of adaptation replaces that with “you’re such a brat?”

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The title of this post is perhaps a bit harsh. Clueless does have a few clues. There are a few elements of nuance to the characters. For example, Cher has only watched Hamlet because it starred Mel Gibson, but she apparently paid enough attention to know which character said what line. And an original plot point, where she demonstrates her newfound maturity by helping out with a charity event, is wellconceived. If you want a contemporary American update of Emma, I highly recommend the webseries, Emma Approved, which does well everything that Clueless does badly. I admit I haven’t watched the short-lived revival that went beyond the book’s story, suspecting it would go downhill once it no longer had Austen’s original blueprint to follow. But the first couple of seasons that, more or less, stick to the original plot are great, and, I might add, have the female lead love fashion without having her come across as vapid or shallow for it.

Bibliography

Is It Okay to Like Pride and Prejudice 2005? *Thoughts on Classic Books Community* – YouTube

Jane Austen in Hollywood : Troost, Linda, 1957- : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

A fine brush on ivory : an appreciation of Jane Austen : Jenkyns, Richard : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

The Project Gutenberg eBook of Emma, by Jane Austen

Emma Approved – YouTube

References

References
1 Of course, since they’re comparing the movie to adaptations they dislike, rather than their ideal nonexistent adaptation, this is damning with faint praise to an extent. But their tones of appreciation for Clueless do come across as sincere and enthusiastic.
2 Of course, that movie only changed the time period, not the country in which the story takes place…
3 Legend has it that Jane Austen described her as “a heroine whom no one but me will much like.” I haven’t been able to confirm this, but I’d love for it to be true as it sounds like something Jane Austen would say. It is recorded that she wrote, “pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked” and that she described Anne Elliot, the heroine of her last completed novel, as “almost too good for me.”
4 Richard Jenkyns commends Clueless for being the only adaptation to understand that Emma’s father is a villain. I see no evidence for this at all. If anything, the character ends up playing a more positive role in the heroine’s development than in any other version.
5 It also should be noted that for all that Mr. Knightley is ultimately proved to be in the right in all their arguments, Emma gets in a few good points too. Her assertion that they shouldn’t judge Frank Churchill for not standing up to his tyrannical aunt since they don’t know all the details is reasonable enough, though she doesn’t entirely believe it herself. Her argument that Harriet will never lack for suitors, despite her lowly origins and lack of sense, since all men want in a woman is someone good looking and amiable is at least enjoyably naughty. Disarmingly, when Mr. Knightley proposes to Emma, he reveals that he sees her accepting a lecturing old fuddy duddy like him as a heroic sacrifice. And on one point anyway, Mr. Knightley is the one who comes around to her point of view. Early in the book, he’s dismissive of Harriet, but by the end, he appreciates her virtues. It’s not clear whether we’re supposed to agree with him though, as Emma herself goes from being charmed by Harriet to regretting their whole relationship. Jane Austen’s own attitude toward Harriet Smith seems to have been a strange blend of affection and disdain.
6 It was actually only described after it happened in the book, making it something the reader heard about rather than experienced.
7 “I don’t speak Mexican!” Lucy is from El Salvador.
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Remaking Christmas: It Happened One Christmas (1977)

Did you know that in 1977 there was a made-for-TV gender flipped remake of It’s a Wonderful Life? And that they decided to give it the title of a different Frank Capra movie, replacing one of the words with Christmas? According to Wikipedia, far from an infallible source, It’s a Wonderful Life wasn’t quite as iconic a movie in 1977 as it became soon after when it entered public domain and became somewhat omnipresent on television during the Christmas season, so maybe they felt like a Christmas-themed remake of It Happened One Night. That also may have meant that there was less outrage over the idea of a made-for-TV gender flipped remake of It’s a Wonderful Life back then there would be now. Which makes me envy people in 1977 a bit. Anyway, while it’s far from an improvement on Wonderful Life, or even close to being its equal, It Happened One Christmas is an interesting alternative version, worth checking out if you’re a fan of the material.[1]Both movies are ostensibly based on the short story, The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren, but It Happened One Christmas is clearly a remake of the earlier film, not a new adaptation of the same … Continue reading

In this reimagining, protagonist George Bailey becomes Mary Bailey (Marlo Thomas), love interest Mary Hatch becomes George Hatch (Wayne Rogers) and ditzy second-class angel Clarence Oddbody becomes Clara Oddbody (Cloris Leachman.) That’s where the gender flipping stops. Having the main character actually be Mary from It’s a Wonderful Life and having her go on an emotional journey like her husband’s would have been interesting, but this movie doesn’t do that. It just makes the George character a woman and calls him Mary. While George Hatch fills the same dramatic role as the original Mary, his personality is changed more than that of the original George. Apparently, screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd feared that an unambitious male lead would be unappealing and adapted the character accordingly. This is a bit unfortunate since Mary’s lack of ambition in Wonderful Life made her more of a foil for George and went some way to explaining why he fought against his attraction to her in spite of her charm and beauty.[2]Couldn’t this remake have called the characters Georgette and Mark? Keeping track of this is very confusing! You could probably write an interesting blog post analyzing the changes made to the story and characterizations and what they say about gender or the filmmakers perceptions thereof.[3]In It’s a Wonderful Life, the dreadful fate that would have awaited the love interest was for her to have been a single glasses wearing librarian. Suffice to say that’s not what would … Continue reading But college made me sick of art analyses that make everything about gender and, to a lesser extent, ethnicity. The only reason I bring gender up so much on this blog is that it’s impossible not to discuss it while writing about how old stories are adapted for modern audiences. I’ll just say that I find it unfortunate that, in this version, Mary’s war hero brother, Harry (here played by Christopher Guest), rich friend Sam Wainwright (Jim Lovelett) and rich enemy Henry F. Potter (Orson Welles) are all men while she’s female. It makes it less obvious that in various ways they each have the life she wishes she could have. Maybe there was no believable way of flipping every character’s gender, given the time period in which the story takes place. And maybe that’s an argument against the whole idea of a gender flipped It’s a Wonderful Life. But I don’t want to make that argument because making the lead a woman is one of the things-maybe the only thing-that keeps this from being the kind of remake that’s just like the original only not as good.

Please forgive the poor picture quality. This was the best I could get.

Let’s get that not as good part out of way as soon as possible. Orson Welles sounds like a great actor to fill Lionel Barrymore’s wheelchair, but, as laughable as this may sound given what an over the top, unnuanced evil rich guy character Potter is, but I feel like he’s too evil in the role. Barrymore brought a sort of sleazy charm and sense of humor to Mr. Potter. Welles is so grim and ruthless that you wonder how the citizens of Bedford Falls can possibly tolerate him.

Marlo Thomas acquits herself well as Mary on the whole, though I was skeptical of her doing this at first. Since It’s a Wonderful Life took a bit of a risk by casting Jimmy Stewart in the somewhat dark lead role, with its mixture of selfishness and selflessness, when he was known for relatively lighter ones at the time, It Happened One Christmas probably felt they should do the same. It doesn’t totally pay off, though it doesn’t blow up in the movie’s face either. Throughout the first couple of acts, in which her every chance of fulfilling her dream of leaving shabby little hometown behind, seeing the world and making her mark on it-or even just going on a vacation-is squashed by her sense of moral obligation to provide decent affordable housing for the poor of Bedford Falls, who would otherwise be living in slums rented to them by Mr. Potter, Thomas comes across as too chipper and generally unphased. Even when she’s angrily denouncing Potter or trying to keep a crowd of terrified people demanding their money under control, she sounds weirdly cheery compared to Stewart, who conveyed his character’s growing frustration and resentment beneath his easygoing surface.

However, once the story reaches the point where it looks like all of Mary’s sacrifices will have been for nothing due to a stupid mistake, leaving her wishing she’d never been born, Thomas’s performance becomes effectively chilling. And after Clara shows her a horrifying alternate reality where her wish is all too true, and she returns to her life with a newfound appreciation, well, she won’t make you forget Stewart’s awesomely hamtastic performance, but her relief and joy are pretty heartwarming on their own terms.[4]If you don’t like ham, maybe you’ll actually prefer it.

Actually, it’s not just Thomas’s performance that gets better halfway through the movie. Everything does. The biggest problem with the first half is that it’s far too fast paced compared to the original movie. The section focused on Mary’s childhood feels particularly rushed. While It Happened One Christmas is only about twenty minutes shorter than It’s a Wonderful Life, you really feel those the absence of those twenty minutes. I wouldn’t say that, for example, taxi driver Ernie Bishop (here played by Archie Hahn) or Italian immigrant Mr. Martini (Cliff Norton) were fully developed characters in the original, but here they’re only introduced right when they’re necessary to the plot. This somewhat cripples the movie emotionally since Mary’s concern for the people of Bedford Falls, mainly the poor, is such a big part of her motivation. It’s hard to properly empathize with her when the script has so little interest in those characters. In particular, the scene in the alternate reality of Pottersville where Mary tries in vain to get her mother (Doris Roberts) to recognize her is awkward since we’ve only seen her mother once, maybe twice, before. This is too bad since Roberts is great in the scene.

The turning point where the movie starts to get more good than bad is the montage of World War II. In It’s a Wonderful Life, this mostly served to show how patriotic all the characters were, even Mr. Potter. Here the focus is more on the protagonist’s personality, and it brings out something latent in the original. Instead of being told through narration from Angel Joseph (voiced in this incarnation by Charles Grodin), this part of the story is mostly told through letters to Mary from her loved ones on the front. Considering how she’s been wishing to leave Bedford Falls and have adventures, it’s easy to imagine these letters making Mary envy the writers, despite the terrible circumstances. And for the first time in the movie, the gender flipping adds a new element to the story. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey was ineligible for service because he was deaf in one ear. This is not the case with George Hatch, and it leads to a frightening separation of him and Mary for some time. (In real time, I mean. In the movie, it just lasts for a montage, but it’s an effective one.) While a wife/mother having to hold down the fort at home while her husband is at war, wondering whether or not he’ll return, is far from original dramatic material, it is new ground for Wonderful Life.

At its best, It Happened One Christmas even improves on the classic original movie. the framing device of the angels briefing Clara on the protagonist’s life is funnier than it was in It’s a Wonderful Life, partly because of the writing and partly because of Grodin’s hilariously annoyed performance as Joseph. The scene where a despondent Mary blows up at her children actually benefits from tighter pacing. Their questions come so fast, compared to those of George Bailey’s more decorous offspring, and are delivered so much more annoyingly, that you can really empathize with her being so harsh to them. That isn’t to say I can’t understand George’s behavior in the equivalent scene in Wonderful Life under the circumstances. I do. But I understand Mary’s in One Christmas even better. And I like what it does with her younger daughter, flower loving Susan (Linda Lee Lyons.) In the original, the scene with her, before that big blowup, basically amounted to a bit of comedic relief/padding. Here her loud complaints that her mother isn’t fixing her damaged bloom add to Mary’s overwhelming feelings of helplessness.

The movie makes good use of color, something It’s a Wonderful Life didn’t have, mainly in the contrast between the flashy, menacing lights of Pottersville and the warm, inviting lights of good old Bedford Falls.

And there’s a nice gloss on the iconic joyful run through the town near the ending. When she wishes a merry Christmas to building and loan, Mary stops running first and gazes with appreciation on the place that she’s resented as a ball and chain through so much of her life. If you believe that It’s a Wonderful Life is so perfect that any attempt at another version is pointless, I can understand that logic. But, as someone who thinks lesser versions are still interesting, I found It Happened One Christmas rewarding in a modest way. If it sounds intriguing to you, try to check it out.

Attagirl, Clara!

References

References
1 Both movies are ostensibly based on the short story, The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren, but It Happened One Christmas is clearly a remake of the earlier film, not a new adaptation of the same source material.
2 Couldn’t this remake have called the characters Georgette and Mark? Keeping track of this is very confusing!
3 In It’s a Wonderful Life, the dreadful fate that would have awaited the love interest was for her to have been a single glasses wearing librarian. Suffice to say that’s not what would have happened to the love interest in It Happened One Christmas.
4 If you don’t like ham, maybe you’ll actually prefer it.
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Remaking Christmas: Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

Of all the remakes of George Seaton’s 1947 movie, Miracle on 34th Street, only the 1994 one was released in cinemas. Fittingly, it’s the best of them or at least the most interesting. I don’t consider it anywhere near as good as the classic original. But considering what a classic the original is, this remake really holds up well-well enough to make me wish it was even better, but any way…

Both movies center around an old man known as Kris Kringle, living in a nursing home in New York City, who, depending on how fantastical your interpretation of the material is, either believes himself to be Santa Claus or actually is him. (Either possibility raises as many questions as it answers.) Right before the giant Thanksgiving day parade put on by a major department store (Macy’s in 1947, the fictional Coles in 1994) is about to start, he notices that its Santa Claus could use some instruction on how to crack a whip. He happily gives it and is indignant to discover that the man is drunk on the job. Also not happy with this discovery is Doris Walker, the department store employee in charge of the parade. [1]She’s mostly called Dorie in the remake, but I like Doris better. Desperate, she asks Kris to fill in for him. For the sake of the eager children watching, he agrees and is such a hit that the store hires him to be the official Santa Claus for their toy department. Doris returns home to her apartment to find that her six-year-old daughter, Susan, is in the apartment of her friend and Doris’s wouldbe boyfriend, since she can get a better view from there. Said wouldbe boyfriend is an idealistic young laywer, who is named Fred Gayly in the 1947 movie and Bryan Bedford in the 1994 one. We learn that Doris, stung by the memory of her divorce, has raised Susan not to believe in Santa Claus or fantasies in general as she believes it will only set her up for disappointments later.

Kris goes to work as the department store’s Santa, wearing his own Santa suit, which is much better than theirs. Shockingly, he only recommends parents shop at the store if it has what they want at a reasonable price. If there’s a better bargain on a toy their kid desires at a rival’s, that’s where he sends them. When Shellhammer, his superior, finds out about this, his initial instinct is to throw Kris out on his fat behind. But when multiple grateful parents tell him they’re going to be regular customers from now on, he changes his mind. This eventually becomes the official store policy and Kris becomes a minor celebrity.

Fred/Bryan, not approving of Doris’s anti-fantasy stance, takes Susan to see Santa. She’s impressed by his warmth, real beard and command of foreign languages. Doris is annoyed by this and gets out his personnel file to show her daughter that he isn’t really Santa Claus. She is horrified to read it and find that the man she has hired to regularly interact with children is apparently a lunatic. She wants to prudently let him go but Shellhammer insists they retain him since he’s so popular.

Thanks in part to Fred/Bryan’s machinations, Susan gets to spend more time with Kris. Wanting to believe in him, but still skeptical, she proposes a test. If he can get her a house like the one in an old magazine clipping that she cherishes, then she’ll believe he’s Santa Claus. Kris tells her he probably can’t but that that doesn’t mean there’s no Santa Claus. Seeing how important it is to her though, he promises to try his best.

Just when everything seems to be going well, a villainous character enrages Kris, in part by implying that anyone who enjoys playing Santa Claus does so for selfish reasons. He hits them over the head and said villain pretends to be injured worse than they actually are. Kris is taken to Bellevue and, devastated by what’s happened, he deliberately fails his mental examination. Fred/Bryan gives him a speech that helps him out of his funk and becomes his lawyer, “proving” in a widely publicized hearing, through means that wouldn’t work in an American court outside of a movie, that he really is Santa Claus. In some point in all of this Doris and her beau have a fight and break up, then they get back together. On Christmas morning, Susan is disappointed to see that Kris apparently hasn’t gotten her that house she wanted, but it turns out he has arranged for her to have it through not-explicitly-magical means, and all ends happily.

You may have noticed that my synopsis got much vaguer during that last paragraph and that wasn’t because I was avoiding spoilers, which I seldom do. (I understand why people don’t want the endings of the stories spoiled, but if you’re talking about how they’re adapted, I feel like changes made to an ending are the most interesting and I don’t know how I’d do this blog if I couldn’t discuss them to some extent.) The second half of the 1994 Miracle on 34th Street takes far more liberties with the original plot than the first half does. Few of them work that well, in my opinion, but let’s not start off with the bad stuff.

Some good stuff-great stuff at its best-is the casting. Sir Richard Attenborourgh’s portrayal of Kris Kringle, which holds up very well next to Edmund Gwenn’s performance. Young Mara Wilson is just as good as Susan as young Natalie Wood was. If anything, she’s better!

Elizabeth Perkins is sadly not better than Maureen O’ Hara was as Doris, a character who could have easily been an uptight joyless prude, but who, in 1947, at least partly thanks to O’ Hara, came across as fun, attractive and good humored in her cynicism. Perkins doesn’t come across as unappealing per se, but she doesn’t avert it as hard as O’ Hara did. Dylan McDermott as Bryan is the only actor I feel is downright miscast, coming across as vaguely smarmy where he’s supposed to be down to earth and inviting.[2]John Payne as Fred in the original movie gave my least favorite of the lead performances in that movie, so maybe it’s kind of fitting.

The script by John Hughes is usually good when it tries to be witty. It’s not as funny as the original was, especially the courtroom antics, but I can watch it and laugh with it without constantly thinking about that. Here’s a sample.

Customer: My kid just asked Santa for a barf gun and the Santa said he’d get it for him.
Shellhammer: I hope the boy likes it. They’re over there by the elevator.
Customer: And they’re ninety bucks without batteries or barf.
Shellhammer: Prices do go up.
Customer: Apparently not at Bargain Village. Fifty two fifty and they throw in the batteries.
Shellhammer: I find it hard to believe Coles could be undersold by that much. Where did you get your information from?
Customer: From your Santa Claus.

Unfortunately, when it tries to capture the original’s emotional aspects, it flounders. Compare this speech from the 1947 movie with one from this.

Fred: It’s not just Kris that’s on trial. It’s everything he stands for. It’s kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles.

Kris: I’m not just a whimsical figure who wears a charming suit and affects a jolly demeanor, you know. I’m a symbol of the human ability to suppress the selfish and hateful tendencies that rule a major part of our lives.

Both may be sentimental, but the 1947 speech is good quality sentimentality while the 1994 one, which Attenborough, to his credit, delivers like a trooper, is clunky and overwritten as if the movie itself doesn’t believe what it’s saying. (Who exactly insists on their importance by calling themselves a symbol?) But if Hughes and director Les Mayfield were embarrassed by their source material’s sentiment, they evidently decided to blazon it out by outdoing George Seaton in earnest melodrama rather than by backing away from it, failing to realize that it was the 1947 movie’s very restraint that served it so well.

One example of this is how anti-commercialism message is handled. The main villain of the 1994 movie is Victor Lamberg (Joss Ackland), a ruthless businessman seeking to buy out Coles and threatened by the success of their new Santa Claus.[3]Albert Sawyer, the unliscensed psychiatrist with a grudge against Kris, who was the villain of the original movie, is absent here, understandably so since department stores didn’t usually have … Continue reading This character is so over the top I’m not sure if he’s supposed to be a parody of evil businessmen characters or if we’re supposed to take him seriously. “These small seemingly insignificant sentimental anachronisms can be surprisingly potent,” he says of Kris early in the movie, “I don’t want my plans damaged by an elderly cherub in a red suit.” Seriously. That’s an actual line of dialogue from the film. I liked that in the 1947 Miracle, there wasn’t a good store vs. an evil store plot. Both Macy’s and Gimbel’s were indicted in the rampant commercialism surrounding Christmas, and both were willing to do something nice as long as it benefited them.

Something else that’s less nuanced about this version is the character of the prosecuting attorney, here played by J. T. Walsh. In 1947, he was disarmingly portrayed as just a public servant doing his job, unpleasant though it was. Here’s he’s in Lamberg’s pocket and accuses Kris in court of “masquerading as…a figure of benevolence and generosity…solely for profit” and whose freedom puts children at risk, baiting him to get violent in front of everyone. Though, in keeping with the movie’s overall spirit, he turns out to be not such a bad guy in the end.

In general, this Miracle plays the courtroom scenes much more for drama where the original played them for laughs. Remember that line from the 1947 movie about “kindness and joy and love.” That was something Kris’s lawyer says in a private conversation, not in the courtroom where he calmly makes the crazy argument that his client is really Santa Claus. Here he gives big emotional speeches about how Kris shouldn’t be locked up just as the prosecuting attorney gives one about how he should. The last of these pro-Santa speeches ends with the question, “which is worse: a lie that draws a smile or a truth that draws a tear?” which isn’t a sentiment I can get behind, though to be fair, it’s an idea that was never totally absent from Miracle on 34th Street. [4]It’s highly unlikely that Fred or Doris ever literally believe that Santa exists, but for what it’s worth, Kris actually agrees with Doris’s policy of always telling her daughter … Continue reading In both movies, the heroic lawyer’s strategy involves getting public sympathy behind Kris, pressuring Judge Henry X. Harper (here played by Robert Prosky) into ruling in his favor. But in 1947, this was played for wry laughs. This movie has a montage of businesses showing their support and a crowd of people outside the court, eagerly awaiting the outcome and celebrating when it’s a good one. We’re clearly supposed to be inspired by the spectacle of a judge being pressured into giving a ridiculous verdict out of fear of an easily manipulated mob. I’m sorry but I don’t find that inspiring.

The culmination of the attempts to make the courtroom plot more serious-and maybe the ultimate example of how instead of cleverly finding a way around viewers’ cynical defenses, this remake tries to knock them down by directly ramming its head against them, leaving itself with a major headache-is the loophole used to declare Kris Santa. Rather than the comedic post office-related one from the original, here its stated that since the US mint “guided by the will of the people” puts “in God we trust” on dollar bills without any proof, the court can put its faith in Santa Claus without proof. This was probably meant to appeal to theists, but as one myself, I find this offensive, implying that belief in God is the equivalent of believing in Santa. And it makes the movie needlessly pretentious.[5]There’s actually a weird element of religious awareness woven into the script. Bryan has a tradition of saying Grace before Thanksgiving dinner while the Walkers only do it when Susan’s … Continue reading I can appreciate the dramatic irony though that Bryan gets the inspiration for this strategy right after lamenting that money is what destroyed Kris Kringle

I don’t really get the way the movie restructures Doris’s character arc. In the 1947 Miracle, she and Fred break up when she objects to his quixotic defense of Kris. Here he proposes to her, and she turns him down before the Bellevue drama starts. Once Kris is in trouble, she’s the one who reaches out to him and asks him to help. To the movie’s credit, having Doris immediately throw her weight behind Bryan and Kris leads to a great scene that wasn’t in the original where she berates her superiors at work for their statement disassociating themselves from the scandal.[6]She does sort of stand up to her coworkers in the original when she refuses to tell Kris he needs to take another mental exam on the grounds that it would hurt him. But since this ended up crushing … Continue reading But it takes away what little suspense there was in the story’s final section after the hearing as there’s no question whether or not she and Bryan will end up together. Most notably, Doris never encourages Susan to keep believing no matter what when Kris has apparently failed to bring her the present she requested since she’s so clearly a believer at this point that such a scene would feel overindulgent. But without that character beat for her mother, the shaking of Susan’s newfound faith feels pointless and overindulgent anyway. In the original, it was arguably the real climax rather than the court hearing.

Speaking of Susan’s request, another way this Miracle tries to outdo the original in drama is by having her ask not only for a house but for a dad as well, though you could argue that her wanting her a more intact family was always the subtext of that wish. This means that Kris and the script have to contrive a way to have Doris and Bryan marry on Christmas Eve specifically, which they do on a whim without any of their friends or family present. Because that makes sense.

I’m sorry that the main body of this blog post has been about criticizing this movie in the sense of pointing out all its problems and shortcomings because I honestly do enjoy it. In fact, I try to watch it every Christmas, though that’s partly because the season puts me in a forgiving mood. It’s one of those works of art whose virtues are easily summarized, but whose faults take a while to explain, making it sound worse in analysis than it actually is to watch. The second half may be a bit of a mess, but the first half holds up to the classic original pretty well. If only it didn’t try to top it.

References

References
1 She’s mostly called Dorie in the remake, but I like Doris better.
2 John Payne as Fred in the original movie gave my least favorite of the lead performances in that movie, so maybe it’s kind of fitting.
3 Albert Sawyer, the unliscensed psychiatrist with a grudge against Kris, who was the villain of the original movie, is absent here, understandably so since department stores didn’t usually have their own shrinks in the 90s.
4 It’s highly unlikely that Fred or Doris ever literally believe that Santa exists, but for what it’s worth, Kris actually agrees with Doris’s policy of always telling her daughter the exact truth. He just disagrees about what the truth about Santa Claus is.
5 There’s actually a weird element of religious awareness woven into the script. Bryan has a tradition of saying Grace before Thanksgiving dinner while the Walkers only do it when Susan’s grandparents are present. Kris asks if he’s supposed to put his hand on a Bible when he swears to tell the truth in court. Like I said, pretentious.
6 She does sort of stand up to her coworkers in the original when she refuses to tell Kris he needs to take another mental exam on the grounds that it would hurt him. But since this ended up crushing him worse than explaining the situation to him herself would have, it demonstrates weakness more than strength on her part.
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Mending Maleficent Part 2

6. Give Stefan a Reason for Entrusting his Daughter to the Pixies

After the fateful christening, Stefan gives Aurora to Knotgrass, Flittel and Thistlewit to guard from spindles and spinning wheels until the sun has set on her sixteenth birthday and the curse will have been cheated. OK, I’ve got to admit this didn’t really even make that much sense in the original Sleeping Beauty. Why would the princess be better protected in a cottage in the middle of nowhere with three disguised fairies not allowed to use their magical powers than in a castle full of bodyguards? But at least those fairies were famous for being benevolent and the whole thing was their idea. Here the pixies come from an enemy kingdom with no prior relationship to Stefan. He even seems slightly suspicious of them when they meet! They also show themselves to be clearly incapable of fighting Maleficent when she shows up. (Flora, Fauna and Merryweather apparently couldn’t stop Maleficent from cursing Aurora either, but at least they could neutralize the curse afterwards.)[1]If all you know about the original three good fairies is that they’re comedic supporting characters, you might be surprised by how competent they can be. It’s true that they all had their … Continue reading Why would Stefan hand over his only child to them for sixteen years?[2]In the leaked script, Stefan was worried about the pixies revealing that he’s half fairy and wanted them as far away from his subjects as possible. This made more sense but it also made Stefan … Continue reading For all her knew, they could be secretly working for Maleficent! They could just turn around and hand the baby to her. (Actually, that’s pretty much what they do unintentionally.) And if he was so worried for his daughter, why would he hide her in a cottage within walking distance of Maleficent’s domain?[3]Technically, the cottage was that in Sleeping Beauty too since Maleficent and her soldiers captured Phillip there and brought him back to her fortress within a night and with time to spare. It was … Continue reading

7. Make Stefan a Better Villain. Seriously.

A problem with Classic-Villain-Is-Really-The-Hero stories is that stories are often designed so that the antagonist is more powerful or intimidating than the protagonist. When you flip the roles of villain and hero, it’s hard to make the one for whom we’re now rooting an underdog without being ridiculously contrived.[4]That’s probably why the Shrek movies eventually gave up and just had traditional storybook antagonists, like Rumpelstiltskin, be the bad guys. Maleficent proves to be a case in point. There are only two scenes in the movie, one of them the second to last, in which Stefan is a real danger to Maleficent.[5]During that one, he mocks her for being a “fairy creature without wings,” which is probably a holdover from when his character was supposed to be a half fairy outcast. In the final movie, … Continue reading She’s so clearly more powerful and threatening than he is that it’s impossible to be scared for her for most of the runtime. All she has to do is stay in the fairy kingdom behind the barriers she creates and she’ll be safe.

Of course, an unintimidating villain can still be an interesting villain. But Stefan’s character is just a mess! He can’t bring himself to kill Maleficent when she’s unconscious and is implied to feel guilt over crippling her instead. A few scenes later, he’s completely obsessed with finding and destroying her. What happens in between is, naturally, the curse. But afterwards, he’s portrayed as totally indifferent to his family. As mentioned before, he sends his child away for sixteen years of her life and when she finally shows up at his castle, he stares at her blankly for a matter of seconds, then coldly sends her away and returns to planning Maleficent’s doom. Why is he so obsessed with killing his childhood sweetheart if he doesn’t care about Aurora? Or does he care? Because when she actually pricks her finger and falls asleep, that same day, he’s upset. Then when she wakes up, he doesn’t even notice.

This could have been a really interesting character arc, having Stefan’s desire to avenge his daughter swallow up his love for her. But the movie doesn’t give him an arc so much as flip a switch, even more so than with Maleficent. We do get an early indicator that he’s not as devoted a father as he should be in the christening scene. When Maleficent makes him beg for his child’s life, he visibly hesitates, despite the desperate situation, to do so in front of everyone. (If you’re wondering about his queen (Hannah New), she just stands there awkwardly at this moment. At least her animated 1959 counterpart grabbed her baby and yelled, “No!”) It could be that this, not the curse, is what kills any love he has for Maleficent and motivates his attempted revenge, another interesting idea. But after this moment, we don’t get anymore indications that Stefan’s fatal flaw is wanting everyone to respect him. We don’t even get much indication of that before. His desire to be king seems like it’s more about greed than pride. All we get of him during the movie’s middle section are repetitive scenes of him monologuing to Maleficent’s wings and ranting at his underlings, which tells us nothing about Stefan’s motives or inner life except that he’s crazy. I guess the script just wants insanity to be the explanation for all his actions. It doesn’t make for a very interesting villain. He comes across as more pathetic than anything else in that section.

It could be that Stefan blames himself for not killing Maleficent when he had her helpless and that he can’t stand Aurora’s presence since he feels he’s failed her. This would, again, be a really interesting subtext, but if it’s an implication in the script, that’s all it is. A good actor in the role could have injected it into his performance. I haven’t seen Sharlto Copley in anything other than this, so perhaps I shouldn’t judge him as a bad one. But I can’t say he comes across as a good actor here.

8. Have Maleficent’s Relationship With Aurora Be More Complicated

To be fair, this is the least of my criticisms of the movie, mainly because Angelina Jolie elevates the material with her eloquent facial expressions, conveying her character’s deeply conflicted feelings towards Aurora. But as written, those feelings go from hatred to grudging affection to love far too easily.[6]The idea that Maleficent accidentally bewitched herself, when she stated in her curse that Aurora would be “loved by all who meet her,” is amusing, but can’t be accepted as canon … Continue reading The scene where Maleficent saves the toddler Aurora from falling off a cliff is staged by director Robert Stromberg in a ridiculously unexciting way for such a pivotal moment. It might have been interesting to have Maleficent’s motive at that point be that she wants to see Aurora die by pricking her finger on the spindle and she can’t have her perish before that. Then through a sort of reverse Stockholm syndrome, she would feel that she has some stake in Aurora and her protective feelings would grow genuinely benevolent over the years. And when Aurora would finally get to speak to Maleficent, she would thank her for saving her life all those years ago, leaving her stricken with guilt. The dramatic possibilities are intriguing.

9. Find a Better Twist for the True Love’s Kiss Scene

The design for Aurora’s pillow really is beautiful. It’s the main reasons I complimented this movie’s visuals. Now on to the actual content of this scene…

The day before Aurora’s sixteenth birthday, she meets the handsome Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites) in the woods and the two of them seem to be attracted to each other. When Aurora returns to her father’s castle and falls victim to the enchanted sleep the next day, a desperate Maleficent brings Phillip there in the hopes that his kiss can awaken her. He tries but to no avail. Once she’s alone with Aurora, Maleficent makes a speech of apology and kisses her on the forehead, unintentionally breaking the spell. This combines the climactic twists from Enchanted (2007) and Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), in which the nontraditional love interest awakens the sleeping beauty after the handsome prince character fails to do so, and ABC’s Once Upon a Time, in which true love’s kiss ends up representing parental love rather than romantic love.[7]I’d argue that Disney’s Sleeping Beauty already ended up being largely about maternal love, even if that’s not what the writers intended, and didn’t really need this update, … Continue reading So basically anyone who’s interested in modern spins on Disney fairy tales, a good chunk of this movie’s target audience, will have already seen this twist! I can tolerate predictable plot points when they aren’t trying to be anything else, but I hate a predictable twist. It’s a testament to the soundtrack and Jolie’s moving performance that I can tolerate this scene as well as I can.

I actually feel sorry for Brenton Thwaites, whose role in this movie is almost impossible to pull off. He can’t be unappealing and has to have some kind of chemistry with Aurora or else the twist will be too obvious. Plus the movie wants to leave the possibility of a future romance between them on the table for viewers who like the idea. The script clearly wants Phillip to be a positive figure, even having him be the one to say that just because he’s physically attracted to Aurora, it doesn’t mean he’s in love with her, and that it would be inappropriate for him to kiss her while she’s unconscious. But on the other hand, he can’t be too appealing and can’t have too much chemistry with Aurora or else the twist won’t make sense and viewers will be dissatisfied that his kiss doesn’t wake her up. I don’t know what actor could have pulled off this balance.

Moreover, while this twist is very predictable in the sense that it can be seen coming from a miles away, given how Maleficent is the only character with whom Aurora has a meaningful relationship, it’s not predictable in that it satisfyingly resolves Maleficent’s character arc. After all, it was romantic love in which she lost faith, not maternal love. Neither was it ever in question whether she herself was capable of love, just other people. And this twist would just confirm her in her cynicism rather than disprove it to her. I feel like rather than make Maleficent a better person, she’d realistically be crueler and more self righteous than ever, believing that she and possibly Aurora were the only ones in the world capable of real love.[8]To its credit, the 2019 sequel, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, portrays her as still suspicious of humans after the original’s events and hostile towards the idea of a marriage between Phillip … Continue reading In general, if it’s not combined with a general benevolence towards humankind, I don’t really buy the idea that loving just one person is enough to make you a good person. In fact, obsessive love for a single individual can be the motive for horrifying acts.[9]Read Great Expectations and Till We Have Faces. Seriously!

I think having Phillip be the one to break the spell would actually have resolved Maleficent’s character arc better, though the movie would have had to add more depth to his relationship with Aurora and added some obstacles to keep him being able to reach her.[10]By that point, incidentally, the plot would start to look like that of Alex Flinn’s Sleeping Beauty-inspired YA novel, A Kiss in Time. What would have been more satisfying and less predictable than either, would have been to have Maleficent somehow fall under the sleeping curse and Aurora be the one to awaken her, proving that she wasn’t like her father. I admit I have no idea how this could be contrived. But the not-twist is the thing that really puts this movie past my tolerance threshold, so I couldn’t leave it out of things about it that need fixing.

10. Improve the Climax

After the kiss scene, Maleficent is caught in a trap set by Stefan. Aurora runs into a room which just happens to be where Maleficent’s wings are kept as a trophy. (As ridiculously convenient as this is, I have to give the script credit for including a scene earlier in which Maleficent gave Aurora a specific physical description of the wings.) She frees them and they magically reattach themselves to their owner. Maleficent is now able to fight off her attackers and Stefan ends up dying. Aurora inherits his throne and Maleficent also crowns her as queen of the fairies, uniting the two rival kingdoms. The end.[11]Incidentally, the earlier script had Aurora turn into a fairy at the end. As in, she sprouted wings on her back and could do magic. Because if your father is the illegitimate son of the fairy king, … Continue reading

I can’t help but note how less exciting this action scene is compared to the awesome climax of the original Sleeping Beauty. But I guess I can’t think of ways to make it more exciting without changing the plot setup. (Of course, I don’t really like the plot setup that much.) So instead of focusing on it as an action scene, I’d like to examine how it resolves the characters. Personally, I feel it would have been better character development for Maleficent to have learned to be content without her wings, as much as a handicapped person can be content. But I see the appeal of having Aurora be the one to undo her father’s wrong, so I’ll allow it. Where I feel this ending really drops the ball is the relationship between Stefan and Aurora.

It strikes me as a huge missed opportunity not to show Aurora’s reaction to learning that her father is a horrible person. She seems really excited when told he’s alive and that she’s not a foundling. In fact, she’s so eager to meet him that she runs away to his castle without waiting for the pixies to bring her there, though that may be to get away from Maleficent, of whose past actions towards herself the pixies have just informed her. Imagine how devastating it would be for her to discovering that the biological father, she’d believed dead, was actually evil right after learning that her mother figure was also evil. You have to imagine it because all we get in the movie is Aurora’s smile falling when Stefan immediately dismisses her upon their reunion, and her being dragged away by one of his soldiers when Maleficent is caught. Picture this. At the climax, Aurora falls to her knees and begs Stefan to let Maleficent go, telling him that she’s the one who saved her. Stefan could hesitate briefly then, push her roughly away and proceed in his attempted vengeance. This would really solidify him as the villain, demonstrating that his desire to avenge his daughter has completely swallowed his love for her, and make Aurora herself more interesting too. While I don’t mind the idea of Stefan dying in the end, I think it would have been more interesting to have his punishment be that Aurora leaves him to live with Maleficent because she’s disgusted by him. After the re-winged Maleficent flew away, Stefan could try to reach out to his daughter, but she would angrily and tearfully tell him off and march out of the castle. Our last image of him would be of him sitting alone and devastated on the throne he’s betrayed his loved ones to get.

I have one more proposal as to how this movie could have been better, which I suppose should have been number one, as I’ve been trying to do present the suggestion that would change the overarching story the most first and then go on to smaller plot points. But I know that many people would immediately stop reading in disgust if I led with this idea. Hopefully, I’ve won their respect by this point and they’ll be able to read the following with somewhat open minds. Is everybody ready?

11. Just Do a Remake of Sleeping Beauty

I realize lots of people are disgusted by much the Disney company has come to rely on live action/computer animated remakes of their hand-drawn classics. It is really pathetic.[12]Though I believe internet critics greatly exaggerate how bad these remakes (supposedly) are. Maybe someday I’ll do a blog post defending them. But I honestly think seeing the story of the 1959 film brought to life with modern special effects would be fun. (And if it were released in the year 2014, we would all have been less blasé about photorealistic remakes of old Disney animated features.) Also being a straight remake wouldn’t mean the movie would have to simply recreate Sleeping Beauty beat for beat and line for line. As much as I love it, there are things it doesn’t do. A remake could add more depth to the relationship between Phillip and Aurora. It could develop the characters of their parents more. I’m not even necessarily averse to the idea of giving Maleficent a more complicated motive for her curse, though I feel outrageously petty villains can be fun. All of this probably wouldn’t make for a movie that I’d actually prefer to the original Sleeping Beauty. But it’d make for a fun movie that would annoy me less than Maleficent does. And the sad thing is that if they kept the same actresses in the corresponding roles, they would still be very well cast, though the male actors would probably have to be replaced. Honestly, Imelda Staunto playing Flora for real would be awesome.

What really seals my opinion that a plain old remake would be better than this movie are two of its scenes, Aurora being cursed and the curse being fulfilled. The first one has very similar dialogue to its Sleeping Beauty counterpart. The second is staged very similar to its counterpart with the princess walking through the castle in a trance, a spinning wheel materializing in front of her, and characters who love her desperately trying to reach her to no avail. And these are two sequences that work the best artistically. If the whole thing had been like them, it’s hard for me to imagine it being a step in the wrong direction.

Bibliography

Maleficent.pdf (thescriptsavant.com)

References

References
1 If all you know about the original three good fairies is that they’re comedic supporting characters, you might be surprised by how competent they can be. It’s true that they all had their weaknesses, Fauna being naive, Merryweather hotheaded, and Flora somewhat oblivious to the fact that Merryweather didn’t appreciate her leadership, and their bumbling moments. But the they were able to postpone the fulfillment of Maleficent’s curse to the point where she was pretty desperate and a careful analysis of the climax reveal that they played an equal or bigger role in her defeat than Prince Phillip.
2 In the leaked script, Stefan was worried about the pixies revealing that he’s half fairy and wanted them as far away from his subjects as possible. This made more sense but it also made Stefan too evil too fast, a problem with both scripts.
3 Technically, the cottage was that in Sleeping Beauty too since Maleficent and her soldiers captured Phillip there and brought him back to her fortress within a night and with time to spare. It was easier to ignore there though since it took Maleficent until the second half to find out about it. Incidentally, the earlier script had the pixies pick the cottage out for a hiding place themselves since they’re so stupid. This probably should have stayed.
4 That’s probably why the Shrek movies eventually gave up and just had traditional storybook antagonists, like Rumpelstiltskin, be the bad guys.
5 During that one, he mocks her for being a “fairy creature without wings,” which is probably a holdover from when his character was supposed to be a half fairy outcast. In the final movie, it just comes across as a weird random taunt.
6 The idea that Maleficent accidentally bewitched herself, when she stated in her curse that Aurora would be “loved by all who meet her,” is amusing, but can’t be accepted as canon without ruining the movie’s attempted redemptive storyline.
7 I’d argue that Disney’s Sleeping Beauty already ended up being largely about maternal love, even if that’s not what the writers intended, and didn’t really need this update, but you’re probably already tired of hearing me rant about that. Or if you’re not, you will be once you finish reading this post.
8 To its credit, the 2019 sequel, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, portrays her as still suspicious of humans after the original’s events and hostile towards the idea of a marriage between Phillip and Aurora. To its discredit, it resolves this in the laziest way ever, by having Maleficent witness Phillip save a fairy from another human, and then just abandon her prejudice. Mistress of Evil really is a fascinating movie, one which seeks to address a lot of the dramatic problems with its predecessor and in many ways, is a big improvement on it, yet in other ways, isn’t an improvement at all.
9 Read Great Expectations and Till We Have Faces. Seriously!
10 By that point, incidentally, the plot would start to look like that of Alex Flinn’s Sleeping Beauty-inspired YA novel, A Kiss in Time.
11 Incidentally, the earlier script had Aurora turn into a fairy at the end. As in, she sprouted wings on her back and could do magic. Because if your father is the illegitimate son of the fairy king, that means you’re destined to be the fairy queen, I guess. By my count, Aurora should be one quarter fairy at most. That version of the story leaned harder into the idea that humans, being less close to nature (yawn), were evil, though, counterintuitively, it leaned farther away from the idea that fairies were good. Like the humans, most of the fairies were either bigoted bullies, pathetic victims or both, making it hard to see why Aurora being one of was supposed to be heartwarming. This likely reflected the personal philosophy of screenwriter Linda Woolverton. Two other Disney projects to which she was a major contributor, Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Alice in Wonderland (2010), also portrayed mainstream society as oppressive and the nonconformist heroines had to break away from it to reach their full potential. But in those movies, the pattern was the heroine leaving one group to join another. Despite their ostensibly anti-patriarchal themes, both even gave the heroines loving and equally nonconformist fathers. In the early draft of Maleficent, not only were all fathers villains and all mother neutral at best, there were hardly any positive supporting characters at all. And Maleficent herself, while ultimately sympathetic, was very dark and disturbing. If the original vision had been followed, this movie would have had a bitterness and cynicism just about unprecedented for Disney. That wouldn’t have made it bad art of course. Hey, I tend to be pretty cynical about humanity myself. But I find it harder to forgive a work of art’s flaws when the work itself has such an unforgiving attitude. So I can’t say I’m sorry they toned it down, even if I think the idea that being closer to nature equates to moral superiority is dumb.
12 Though I believe internet critics greatly exaggerate how bad these remakes (supposedly) are. Maybe someday I’ll do a blog post defending them.
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Mending Maleficent Part 1

Fauna: Well, perhaps if we reasoned with her-
Flora: Reason?
Merryweather: With Maleficent?
Fauna: Well, she can’t be all bad.
Flora: Oh, yes, she can!

I have a love-hate relationship with the 2014 movie, Maleficent. Well, more like a like-dislike relationship, but it’s a pretty strong like/dislike. The central premise makes me want to groan and roll my eyes. While I enjoy seeing a fresh twist put on a familiar story, having the villain be the hero and vice versa is not a fresh twist. That’s not to say it can’t be done well. One of my favorite books is Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C. S. Lewis does it with the Cupid and Psyche myth. That’s the thing. It’s been done well, badly and everything in between. We’re past the point where such iconoclastic storytelling is interesting. Even if it weren’t already done, the idea has some innate problems, one of which I hope to write about later, another I’m going to explain now. A big part of the reason Maleficent from the 1959 animated movie, Sleeping Beauty, was a marketable enough character to have her own movie was that she represented pure unadulterated evil. So the thought process behind the 2014 film amounts to “You know that character you love? Well, here’s a movie where she’s totally different! No need to thank us. Just pay us.” And even granting the premise, the execution of it leaves a lot to be desired. There’s an over reliance on voiceover narration, a cast of mixed quality and some big dramatic problems.

That being said…I can see Maleficent (2014)’s appeal. The idea of the fairy who cursed Sleeping Beauty growing to love her and regret what she’s done is dramatically intriguing, though I’d prefer they just based it on the fairy tale and didn’t brighten the bad name of the animated Maleficent. I’ll even say the scene of her trying and failing to revoke her spell is a powerful fantastical image of being unable to undo one’s misdeeds. And there’s a difference between a cast of mixed quality and a terrible cast. Angelina Jolie is pretty great in the title role.[1]I’d have liked to have seen a younger Anjelica Huston in it, but oh well. Too obvious maybe. Whatever problems I have with the story, I always believe, watching her, that she found it compelling. She also has fun getting to be a melodramatic cartoony villain, which makes it more frustrating that script doesn’t let her do that in more scenes, but I digress. Elle Fanning is appealing as the Princess Aurora. The musical score by James Newton Howard is pretty good. The eerie theme for the curse and the gentle, lullaby-esque one for Aurora are downright great. Some of the costumes and sets are beautiful too, even if they don’t stand out much compared to those in recent movies with similar settings. And I appreciate that Maleficent’s skin isn’t lime green as it’s sometimes depicted. (In the animated movie, it’s a pale green.) It really feels like this film could have had something! So in this two part series, I’m going to propose ways the story could have been improved.

1. Make the Whole Thing a Prequel to Sleeping Beauty

I should confess something upfront. Sleeping Beauty (1959) is one of my favorite movies and I’d love to see a good prequel to it. My preference would be a story with a younger King Stefan, his unnamed wife[2]Unnamed in the original movie, I mean. She’d be named in this hypothetical spinoff., King Hubert and his hypothetical wife as the heroes, explaining how they met and became so close, and with Maleficent as the villain. She could still start out as a sympathetic character, though I don’t believe she’d have to do so, but her ultimate actions and fate in Sleeping Beauty would still be canon here. She’d simply be more of a tragic villain. Actually, what I’d really love would be a movie about Flora, Fauna and Merryweather. Maleficent may be the coolest character for many people, but to me, the trio of good fairies is what ultimately makes Sleeping Beauty so great. Not only are they my favorite characters in the movie, I consider them to be some of the funniest, most interesting and most complex female characters in Disney animation[3]Probably because they’re some of the few female sidekicks as opposed to heroines or villainesses and I resent that Maleficent‘s premise required them to be made into villains, and not even cool villains but bumbling, petty, minor ones![4]Maybe the screenwriters actually felt this way too since they named their counterparts to these characters Knotgrass, Flittle and Thistlwit. The only other character to be renamed is Prince … Continue reading I’d love to see justice done to the real Flora, Fauna and Merryweather in live action, or at least for the attempt to be made. But if that’s not on the table…

2. Give Maleficent a Different Tragic Motive for Wanting Revenge on Stefan

Let’s look at the story’s first act. “Once upon a time,” intones the narrator (Janet McTeer) in the opening voiceover, “there were two kingdoms that were the worst of neighbors… In one kingdom lived folk like you and me, with a vain and greedy king to rule over them. They were forever discontent, and envious of the wealth and beauty of their neighbors. For in the other kingdom, the Moors, lived every manner of strange and wonderful creature. And they needed neither king nor queen, but trusted in one another.” If you’re rolling your eyes right now, keep in mind that this in movie’s first minutes![5]I’m tempted to go on a rant about how cheesy this film’s narration is. I’m inclined to believe it was written at the last minute by a different writer than the one who wrote the … Continue reading Anyway, despite the tension between their kingdoms, an innocent orphan fairy girl named Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy at this point) and a poor orphan human boy called Stefan (Michael Higgins) become friends and eventually sweethearts. But the ambitious Stefan goes to seek his fortune in the human kingdom, promising to return someday, only to become corrupted by the greed there. Maleficent grows up to become the fairy kingdom’s strongest defender.[6]It’s usually referred to as the Moors, but the landscape doesn’t really look much like a moor. She gives the greedy human king (Kenneth Cranham) his death wound. Before dying, he decrees that the man who kills Maleficent shall marry his daughter and have his throne. Stefan, now a royal servant (and played by Sharlto Copley), overhears this and runs away to the fairy land, ostensibly so he can warn Maleficent, but really so he can seduce and kill her himself. After he’s drugged her however, he can’t bring himself to destroy his former love. Instead he cuts off her big black wings and brings them to the king as “proof” that he’s earned the crown.[7]I’m guessing this betrayal was supposed to be a surprise, but if you remember that the king from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was named Stefan and that Maleficent never had wings in that … Continue reading An embittered Maleficent eventually crashes the christening of Stefan’s firstborn and curses her to die by pricking her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday.[8]Actually, she curses her to sleep forever. More on this later.

Did that last sentence strike you as kind of random? Well, I guess the details of the curse have always been a random part of Sleeping Beauty. But a reimagining like this should make plot points like that less random, not more so. As it is, Maleficent’s choice to take revenge on Stefan by waiting until he has a child and then putting a curse on said child doesn’t make much sense. Why not crash his coronation?[9]By the way, I’m not sure why no one tries to take the throne from Stefan once it becomes clear he didn’t really kill Maleficent. Nobody wanted it apparently? They didn’t want the … Continue reading Or his wedding to the crown princess? Why not raise a magical army to conquer his kingdom? I feel like the most poetically appropriate thing she could do would be to cut off his legs while he was asleep. A better setup would have been for Stefan to be king from the beginning and to have him-and possibly his queen, giving Maleficent a motive to hate both of them-kill Maleficent’s child. Maybe Maleficent is still the defender of the fairy land in this hypothetical version and people are afraid of her breeding. Not only would this make more sense of Maleficent’s method of vengeance, but it would make her begrudgingly developing maternal feelings for Aurora in the second act feel much more natural. Even before she was evil, motherliness was never really part of Maleficent’s characterization. It’s almost like the plot was created by an automatic feminist-themed revisionist fairy tale generator with no regard for making dramatic sense. Having the human king and queen kill Maleficent’s child instead of cutting off her wings would also free the movie from giving Stefan a character arc it doesn’t have time to develop.

Of course, this proposed change would rob the movie of one of its more…memorable aspects: the resonance of Maleficent’s de-winging with date-rape. Honestly, it wouldn’t be much of a loss in my opinion. To the extent that that registers when watching the movie, I find it more tacky than anything else. I’m not necessarily opposed to the idea of metaphorical rape in a PG-rated fantasy movie like this per se, as long as it’s presented as bad, of course, and it certainly is here. But the movie doesn’t really have anything to say about the reality of rape, beyond that it’s bad, or the psychology of rapists or rape victims. It just feels like the filmmakers trying to prove that just because they’re making a Disney movie it doesn’t mean they’re not edgy.[10]It is possible this was a thematic nod to the earliest versions of the Sleeping Beauty story, like Talia, Sun and Moon, in which the heroine is actually raped during her enchanted slumber by her … Continue reading What’s the message supposed to be? Don’t commit rape because your victim will become evil but apparently not so evil that constant exposure to a cute little girl won’t cure her? Is that how rape victims want to be portrayed?

I feel like a female villain becoming evil because she was betrayed by her lover is cliché anyway. Not that it can’t be done well. I’ll fight anyone to the death who says the main villain from Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations isn’t awesome.[11]I think it helps that the book is aware that her reaction to the betrayal is extreme. Maleficent seems to expect us to say, “of course! What woman wouldn’t become evil after that?” But here it just feels trite. I suppose your child being murdered is also a stereotypically feminine motive for turning evil, but at least it’d be one that fits in with the overarching story. If we have to keep Maleficent and Stefan’s backstory as it is though…

3. Have There Be More of a Reason Why Stefan is so Important to Maleficent

Maleficent and Stefan’s romance is shown in a very brief and not very moving montage early in the movie. We only get to see them together as teenagers for a brief, wordless shot before Stefan heads out for the human kingdom AKA the Kingdom of the Cheesy Scottish Accents. Even the scene where he pretends to still be in love with her before cutting her wings off is pretty quick. This makes it almost impossible to see why Maleficent cares so much about Stefan, let alone why we should. The movie relies almost totally on the voiceover narration and Jolie’s facial expressions to express their love. Jolie is somewhat up to it. The narration isn’t.

I admit that this is a criticism that could be and has been made against the original Sleeping Beauty.[12]By original Sleeping Beauty, I mean the 1959 movie. I’m well aware there were other Sleeping Beauty stories before and after that. It also passed over years and years with voiceover narration at the cost of character development. But Sleeping Beauty was never really about character development. The characters were all either good or evil and that’s how they stayed. There was no question of for whom we should be rooting or why. Maleficent‘s first act is dominated by two initially sympathetic characters who then become evil and the rest of the story is about how one of them becomes good again and the other doesn’t. It pretty much demands some slow paced character development. And even if this movie were just making the same mistakes as the original, “it’s just as bad as the original” isn’t a very good excuse.

It’s instructive to look at the earlier draft of the screenplay which was leaked online. In that version, Maleficent was the child of the fairy queen’s sister and a dark fairy spirit[13]This had the virtue of explaining why she would be named something like Maleficent is she wasn’t born evil while Stefan was the illegitimate son of the fairy king and a human woman. Both were outcasts among the fairies and the only friend either had growing up. I don’t want to put this early draft on a pedestal. For one thing, having Maleficent and Stefan grow up to be villains because they were picked on as children is even more of an eyeroll-inducing cliché than…well, most of the rest of the plot. But Stefan’s betrayal leaving Maleficent so crushed that she would try to kill his child made a lot more sense there. It also made Stefan and Maleficent interesting foils for each other. Both were persecuted by the fairies throughout their youth, but Maleficent still takes the position that it would be wrong the humans to conquer them while Stefan is OK with it.[14]I still maintain having Maleficent be as pro-fairy and anti-human made no sense though.

In the movie as it is, there’s no reason why Maleficent couldn’t have gone on to have a romantic relationship with someone besides Stefan. And all the other fairies seem perfectly friendly to her. I realize we’re not supposed to agree with her conviction that true love doesn’t exist, but we should at least understand it if she’s supposed to sympathetic.[15]Till We Have Faces does a much better job of making it clear why the villainous heroine is so strongly attached to a few specific people, leading her to do cruel behavior. I guess it’s true that she seems to be the only humanoid fairy and humans other than Stefan would be presumably prejudiced against her. Perhaps that’s why she considers him her only chance at romance. But if this idea is in the movie, it’s a subtext at the most. It isn’t developed at all.

4. Give Maleficent and Stefan Slower Descents into Wickedness

When we’re first introduced to Maleficent, she’s a sweet, perky, innocent child. Cut to her as an adult and she’s a bit more aloof but still presented as a noble hero. Then after being de-winged by her old sweetheart, she immediately becomes evil. Well, technically she doesn’t immediately do anything more evil than magically wreck a bridge and make her whole kingdom gloomy looking, but watching it, we’re clearly meant to believe that her evil switch has been turned on. This doesn’t make for a great arc. It might work for a fairy tale, but the narrator aggressively pushes the idea that this is the real story behind the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, leading me, at least, to expect more depth.

Again, the earlier script worked better in this regard.[16]I regret that I’m giving the impression that everything about that draft was superior to the final one. I like that the ultimate version of Aurora would end up learning what Maleficent did to … Continue reading As mentioned above, Maleficent in that version had one evil parent and, as in Sleeping Beauty, other characters described her as inherently wicked and incapable of goodness, though naturally this was presented as something only superstitious, bigoted people believed. Her initial personality, while not evil was harsher and more cynical than the young Maleficent’s in the final film. And before Stefan’s betrayal, she already started to dip her toes in the well of darkness[17]I’m trying to be poetic; there’s no magical well in the story. with disturbing but somewhat justified actions. When none of the other fairies will believe her about the humans having ill intentions toward them, she forcibly takes over the kingdom and prevents anyone from leaving. This makes her even less popular and more vulnerable to Stefan’s protestations of love. And she commits other acts of petty vengeance before cursing Aurora, mainly laying waste to the homes of innocent humans. (I guess her destroying the stone bridge was supposed to be the equivalent of that.)[18]Another good idea the earlier script had was an explanation for Maleficent’s evil looking horns. There they were given to her ostensibly as a punishment, something to make her supposedly wicked … Continue reading

Stefan’s becoming corrupted by the human world takes some years apparently, making it more believable. But it’s irritating that something so dramatic and important to the story takes place entirely offscreen. I suppose the movie couldn’t have shown any steps in his descent into darkness without slowing down the pace and taking attention away from the main character. But the result is that he feels more like a plot device than a person.

5. Make the Third Fairy’s Gift Important

In the movie, three flower pixies, Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Flittle (Lesley Manville) and Thistlewit (Juno Temple) come to Aurora’s christening to “foster peace and goodwill” between fairies and humans. The first two give magical gifts for the baby’s future, but before the last one can do so, Maleficent appears and curses Aurora to sleep forever. After humiliating Stefan by making him get on his knees and beg her for mercy in front of everyone, Maleficent mockingly amends her spell so that Aurora can be awoken by true love’s kiss-something neither she nor Stefan believes exists anymore. Thistlewit never gets around to her gift.

My feelings about this are mixed. On the one hand, I like the idea of Maleficent unknowingly defeating herself with her cynicism. And, for the record, this is a good idea that wasn’t in the leaked script. But the final fairy’s gift changing the curse from death to an enchanted sleep is such an iconic part of Sleeping Beauty, not only in the 1959 movie but in various other literary versions before and after[19]It doesn’t play a part in the aforementioned Talia, Sun and Moon, but who exactly is a fan of that version?! that it seems a shame not to use it at all. Also if you’re really not going to do so, why have Maleficent interrupt Thistlewit at all? In fact, why have the pixies give Aurora gifts in the first place? It’s not like she couldn’t be beautiful, etc. on her own.

A compromise I’d suggest would have been to make the gift some kind of surprise twist. Maybe it’s a superpower Aurora pulls out at the climax to defeat Stefan. Maybe she’s the one who turns into a dragon.[20]Before she’s interrupted, it sounds like Thistlewit’s gift is that Aurora find something. Having that thing be true love would have also been a good compromise. That would have probably come across as really silly. But when the premise of your movie is that Maleficent is a sympathetic character, a certain amount of silliness strikes me as inevitable.

To Be Continued

Bibliography

Maleficent.pdf (thescriptsavant.com)

References

References
1 I’d have liked to have seen a younger Anjelica Huston in it, but oh well. Too obvious maybe.
2 Unnamed in the original movie, I mean. She’d be named in this hypothetical spinoff.
3 Probably because they’re some of the few female sidekicks as opposed to heroines or villainesses
4 Maybe the screenwriters actually felt this way too since they named their counterparts to these characters Knotgrass, Flittle and Thistlwit. The only other character to be renamed is Prince Phillip’s father, who becomes King John of Ulstead. I really don’t get it.
5 I’m tempted to go on a rant about how cheesy this film’s narration is. I’m inclined to believe it was written at the last minute by a different writer than the one who wrote the majority of the dialogue, which is usually OK.
6 It’s usually referred to as the Moors, but the landscape doesn’t really look much like a moor.
7 I’m guessing this betrayal was supposed to be a surprise, but if you remember that the king from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was named Stefan and that Maleficent never had wings in that movie, it’s pretty predictable.
8 Actually, she curses her to sleep forever. More on this later.
9 By the way, I’m not sure why no one tries to take the throne from Stefan once it becomes clear he didn’t really kill Maleficent. Nobody wanted it apparently? They didn’t want the bother of another coronation so soon after the last one?
10 It is possible this was a thematic nod to the earliest versions of the Sleeping Beauty story, like Talia, Sun and Moon, in which the heroine is actually raped during her enchanted slumber by her eventual love interest and is awakened when one of her new babies sucks the poisoned piece of fabric out from under her finger. (Seriously.) Maybe Maleficent was supposed to be a critique of the whole Sleeping Beauty idea. But I think that’s crediting the screenwriters with doing way more research than they actually did.
11 I think it helps that the book is aware that her reaction to the betrayal is extreme. Maleficent seems to expect us to say, “of course! What woman wouldn’t become evil after that?”
12 By original Sleeping Beauty, I mean the 1959 movie. I’m well aware there were other Sleeping Beauty stories before and after that.
13 This had the virtue of explaining why she would be named something like Maleficent is she wasn’t born evil
14 I still maintain having Maleficent be as pro-fairy and anti-human made no sense though.
15 Till We Have Faces does a much better job of making it clear why the villainous heroine is so strongly attached to a few specific people, leading her to do cruel behavior.
16 I regret that I’m giving the impression that everything about that draft was superior to the final one. I like that the ultimate version of Aurora would end up learning what Maleficent did to her as an infant, even if that revelation plays out exactly as you’d expect. (Why stop being predictable at that point?) And I appreciate that the Flora, Fauna and Merryweather analogues are a bit more open to sympathetic interpretations in the movie than they were in the leaked script, in which they’re not only callous towards Aurora but partially responsible for Maleficent and Stefan’s evil trajectories. The flipside of that is that they were much more entertainingly written in the older script. Perhaps the writers found themselves liking them in spite of themselves since they gave them an undeservedly happy ending.
17 I’m trying to be poetic; there’s no magical well in the story.
18 Another good idea the earlier script had was an explanation for Maleficent’s evil looking horns. There they were given to her ostensibly as a punishment, something to make her supposedly wicked nature manifest. Later, she defiantly turned them into a symbol of her power.
19 It doesn’t play a part in the aforementioned Talia, Sun and Moon, but who exactly is a fan of that version?!
20 Before she’s interrupted, it sounds like Thistlewit’s gift is that Aurora find something. Having that thing be true love would have also been a good compromise.
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The Storyteller and his Sources

The tale is not beautiful if nothing is added to it.-Italo Calvino, folklorist

Jim Henson’s The Storyteller only ran for nine episodes, which doesn’t really surprise me since its a very niche show. (I like to think it would have done better in the age of streaming.) But being so niche made it special and being so short allowed it to maintain a very consistent quality rate.[1]It had a spinoff about Greek myths which only lasted four episodes. While it’s just as great as the main show, tracing down different versions of classical myths is a more daunting task for me … Continue reading This was largely due to the scripts by Anthony Minghella, which manage to sound both poetic and folksy. They perfectly capture the feel of a folktale without sounding exactly like any written fairy tales I’ve read. Something I think they deserve more credit for is how they adapt the stories on which they’re based. Even the show itself doesn’t give itself enough credit for this. The credits simply say “adapted from an early Russian folktale” or “adapted from an early German folktale,” without even giving the title of those tales.[2]The episode, The Luck Child credits a “Russian folktale” and the costumes certainly set it in that country, but I’ve been unable to hunt down what that folktale might be, so … Continue reading What Minghella often does is take one half of one story and the other half of another and combine them, or take different aspects of similar stories to make an ultimate version.[3]Howard Pyle does much the same thing in his books, The Wonder Clock and Twilight Land. Given how many fairy tales share plot points and how many of them already feel like combinations of different plots, this is something you’d hardly notice if you didn’t do research. He also adds emotional and psychological depth to the characters while still keeping the simple feeling of a folktale. In fact, it captures the spirit of folklore better than any fairy tale themed show I can remember. This post is going to analyze how each episode adapts its source and whether it improves it or not.

Hans My Hedgehog

In this episode, a woman (Maggie Wilkinson) wishes for a child so badly, she says that she wouldn’t care if it were like a hedgehog. Years later, a king (David Swift) accidentally promises his daughter (Abigail Cruttenden)’s hand in marriage to a half man-half hedgehog creature (Ailsa Berk.)

The episode’s first act sticks relatively closely to the fairy tale canonized by the Brothers Grimm of the same name. But the second half goes in a quite different direction. Instead, this episode takes a page from Peter Christen Asbjornsen and Jorgen Moe’s East of the Sun and West of the Moon, another Beauty and the Beast variant, in which the heroine discloses a secret of her husband’s to a family member, does something forbidden, loses her husband as a result and must go on a quest to find him.[4]This plot dates back to the myth of Cupid and Psyche. The way in which Hans is ultimately freed from his hedgehog form is reminiscent of the ballad of Tam Lin. While this version loses the symmetry of the dishonest king and princess vs. the honest ones, it makes for much better drama than the rather limp ending to the Grimm story in which Hans simply tells his bride how to break the spell over him and she does so.

Fearnot

Nothing scares Fearnot (Reece Dinsdale), a good-for-nothing tailor’s son. So he sets out to learn how to shudder-only to find out how at home.

Just one of the Terrible Things Fearnot encounters on his travels

This episode has the exact premise and structure of The Tale of a Youth Who Set Forth to Learn What Fear Was (Grimm) but changes nearly all the details. [5]Since I’m not super familiar with the different variants of this story, I can’t say which of the incidents come from Minghella’s imagination and which from them. I’d love it … Continue reading The scene that comes directly from the original is that of the man divided in half, who comes down the chimney of the haunted castle and plays nine pens with skulls and bones, to which this retelling adds a fine gloss by giving a different meaning to his being split in half and to his game. The episode expands on the throwaway character of the man the hero meets, who advises him on where to go for a fright, making him the Irish huckster, McKay (Willie Ross), and adding a buddy comedy element to the story. It stays true to the essence of the original ending, in that Fearnot finally gets the shivers because of his love interest (here played by Gabrielle Anwar) and it’s something commonplace rather than any of the fantastic horrors he meets, but it reimagines it as a dramatic scene rather than a comedic one. I wouldn’t say the result of all this is an improvement on the source material, as is Hans My Hedgehog, but it sure doesn’t come up short to it either.

A Story Short

A wandering storyteller (John Hurt) is condemned to be boiled in oil unless he can tell a different story to a king (Richard Vernon) every day for a year. All goes well for him…until the last day when he can’t think of another story.

The storyteller turned into a rabbit

This is the only episode to be adapted from a Celtic tale, The Storyteller in Peril (Joseph Jacobs), and the result is easily the weirdest episode by a long shot! It starts off normally enough by borrowing the familiar story of Stone Soup. This serves to create a different relationship between the storyteller and the king and a much more suspenseful situation. (If the original storyteller couldn’t come up with a new story, he’d just be disgraced, not executed.) It also gives the mysterious beggar (John Kavanagh) more of a motivation for what he does. The surreal adventures on which he leads the storyteller are reimagined and sanitized to an extent. The detail of the storyteller’s wife (Brenda Blethyn) leaving him for the beggar at the drop of a hat, however, is reimagined to make it more tragic, ending the episode on a wry, wistful note about the difference between stories and reality.

The Luck Child

It is prophesied that the seventh son of a seventh son (Steven Mackintosh) will one day be king. The evil reigning monarch (Philip Jackson) tries to get rid of him-but this proves to be easier said than done.

A gryphon the king sets the Luck Child against

This episode takes most of its plot from The Devil With the Three Golden Hairs, but it has the hero’s task be taking a feather from a gryphon, as in the similar Grimm fairy tale, The Gryphon, rather than hair from the Devil, though they make it a golden feather, I suspect, as a nod to the first story. (Maybe since The Storyteller would descend into Hell in The Soldier and Death, they didn’t want to take the trip twice.) It also combines the characters who help the hero at different points of the story (a band of robbers in the first half and the Devil’s grandmother in the second) into one character (Anthony O’ Donnell.) The three questions to which the hero must find answers are whittled down to the one that’s most necessary to the story and the number of feathers is correspondingly reduced to one. This makes for a shorter and less suspenseful climax, but it does have the benefit of eliminating the hero’s one immoral act: he no longer has to lie to the king about how he gets so much gold.

The Soldier and Death

As a reward for giving his last biscuit to a beggar (Walter Sparrow), a poor soldier (Bob Peck) is given a magical set of playing cards and a magical sack. These eventually lead him to a confrontation with Death itself (Alistair Fullerton.)

The soldier plays cards with a pack of devils

Unusually for the show, this episode is quite faithful to one particular story, Arthur Ransome’s The Soldier and Death. Perhaps that’s why it’s not more of a favorite of mine, though of course, folktales being what they are, viewers will recognizes plot points and ideas from elsewhere. [6]Aficionados of the Brothers Grimm will be reminded of Godfather Death, Gambling Hansel and Brother Lustig. And it’s certainly a striking story as it is.

The True Bride

A poor orphan girl (Jane Horrocks) completes three impossible tasks for a cruel troll (voiced by Alun Armstrong) with the help of a magic lion (voiced by Michael Kilgarriff.) Then she must go on a journey to find her missing bridegroom (Sean Bean.)

This is another episode that’s a clear improvement over its Grimm source. It replaces the generic wicked stepmother and fairy godmother figures of the first half with the more interesting troll and “Thought Lion.” And it completely reimagines the second half where the bridegroom forgets the bride and has to be reminded of her[7]Lovers forgetting their betrotheds, either through enchantment or because they’re just stupid, is a surprisingly common plot in Grimm. The version in The True Bride is probably the worst, with … Continue reading, a rather generic variation on Cinderella, with a version of East of the Sun and West of the Moon‘s final act.[8]Actually, there are many fairy tales with that story’s climax, like The Iron Stove or The Singing, Springing Lark. Perhaps I should cite one of them as the inspiration for this episode since … Continue reading But if you’re a fan of Cinderella, don’t be disappointed. The Storyteller would do a better variation in Sapsorrow.

The Three Ravens

Three princes are transformed into ravens by their wicked stepmother (Miranda Richardson.) To break the spell, their sister (Joely Richardson-apparently no relation to Miranda) must go three years, three months, three weeks and three days without speaking a word.

Heroines who must save their several brothers, who have been turned into birds, usually by taking a vow of silence, are in many fairy tales. This episode takes its plot largely from the Brothers Grimm’s The Six Swans, though it uses the same species of bird as The Twelve Brothers and The Seven Ravens. It tightens the story by killing off the dropped character of the princess’s father (Jonathan Pryce) and combining the two evil queens/mother figures into one. The result is my favorite version of the Silent-Sister-With-Bird-Brothers plot, with the arguable exception of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans.

Sapsorrow

To escape being forced to marry her father (Geoffrey Bayldon), Princess Sapsorrow (Alison Doody) must flee. Sometime later, in another kingdom, a strange creature of fur and feathers works in a prince (James Wilby)’s castle-and a mysterious beauty beings appearing at royal balls.

This reimagining of Grimms’ Allerleirauh[9]There’s not really a good translation. It’s something like Lots-of-Different-Furs. sanitizes the incest theme by having the king be required to marry his daughter by an ancient tradition involving a ring rather than him simply desiring her. A bit contrived, but, hey, fairy tales generally are. It also livens up the story with two evil sisters (Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders) who could have come from any fairy tale. The second half of the story is changed to be closer to Cinderella with Sapsorrow leaving a slipper behind at a ball and the prince marrying whoever fits it.[10]This episode is closer to the Grimm versions of Allerleirauh and Cinderella than those by Charles Perrault. The princess’s disguise is made from the fur of many different animals and her … Continue reading Notably, unlike in Allerleirauh where the king forces the heroine to reveal her true nature against her will, here the prince has to agree to marry Sapsorrow while she’s still in her Straggletag disguise. While it’s debatable if this gives the prince enough of a redemption, given what a jerk he’s depicted as initially, it helps make this my favorite variation of Allerleirauh.

The Heartless Giant

A dangerous giant with no heart in his body (voiced by Frederick Warder) tricks young Prince Leo (Elliot Spiers) into releasing him from the royal dungeon. To atone for his mistake, Leo must go on an arduous quest to reunite the giant with his heart.

Asbjornsen and Moe’s The Giant Who Had No Heart in his Body features the familiar fairy tale trope of the animals whom the hero helps along his way coming back later to help him achieve his impossible tasks, and this adaptation adds another familiar device of three sons, princes as often as not, setting out on a mission and only the youngest one accomplishing it. (For the record, I don’t mean that as a criticism. If anything, I’d be disappointed if the show didn’t have an episode like this.) But it completely reimagines the beginning of the story and drops the character of the imprisoned princess, making it much more about Leo’s relationship with the giant.[11]This arguably owes something to Iron Johannes. Maybe that’s the reasoning behind the “early German folktale” credit. The cheerfully cruel, but arguably justified, treatment of the giant in the original’s ending takes on a darker shade here, making for a story about guilt, betrayal and lost innocence, and ending the series on a bittersweet note. By which I mean that the story is a bit sad, not that it’s in any way inferior to the eight wonderful episodes that preceded it.

The show’s titular narrator (John Hurt) and his dog (voiced by Brian Henson) whom I realize I haven’t mentioned in this post even though they’re in every episode. Oh well.

Bibliography

The Project Gutenberg eBook of Household Tales by Brothers Grimm, by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm

The Project Gutenberg eBook of East of the Sun and West of the Moon, by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe.

A Collection of Ballads, by Andrew Lang (gutenberg.org)

The Project Gutenberg eBook of Household Tales by Brothers Grimm, by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm

Stone Soup: Folktales of Type 1548 (pitt.edu)

The Project Gutenberg eBook of Celtic Folk and Fairy Tales, by Joseph Jacobs

The Project Gutenberg eBook of Household Tales by Brothers Grimm, by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm

The Project Gutenberg eBook of Household Tales by Brothers Grimm, by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm

The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Soldier and Death, by Arthur Ransome

The Project Gutenberg eBook of Household Tales by Brothers Grimm, by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm

The Project Gutenberg eBook of Household Tales by Brothers Grimm, by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm

The Project Gutenberg eBook of Household Tales by Brothers Grimm, by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm

The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, by Charles Perrault, et al

The Project Gutenberg eBook of Household Tales by Brothers Grimm, by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm

The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, by Charles Perrault, et al

The Project Gutenberg eBook of East of the Sun and West of the Moon, by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe.

References

References
1 It had a spinoff about Greek myths which only lasted four episodes. While it’s just as great as the main show, tracing down different versions of classical myths is a more daunting task for me than looking at different European fairy tales, so I won’t be covering it.
2 The episode, The Luck Child credits a “Russian folktale” and the costumes certainly set it in that country, but I’ve been unable to hunt down what that folktale might be, so I’m going to just write about the German folktales which strikes me as its inspiration. It’s likely they were part of it anyway, even if the mysterious Russian variant was the main source. The Heartless Giant is credited to a “German folktale” but it seems pretty obviously based on the Norwegian one, The Giant Who Had No Heart in his Body. If any fairy tale experts out there would like to clarify these issues, I’d be happy to edit this post based on their input.
3 Howard Pyle does much the same thing in his books, The Wonder Clock and Twilight Land.
4 This plot dates back to the myth of Cupid and Psyche.
5 Since I’m not super familiar with the different variants of this story, I can’t say which of the incidents come from Minghella’s imagination and which from them. I’d love it if anyone has any information to share.
6 Aficionados of the Brothers Grimm will be reminded of Godfather Death, Gambling Hansel and Brother Lustig.
7 Lovers forgetting their betrotheds, either through enchantment or because they’re just stupid, is a surprisingly common plot in Grimm. The version in The True Bride is probably the worst, with the heroine neither avoiding her beloved after his betrayal or trying to speak to him and being prevented by the false bride. Instead, she visits him three times, only revealing her identity on the last occasion.
8 Actually, there are many fairy tales with that story’s climax, like The Iron Stove or The Singing, Springing Lark. Perhaps I should cite one of them as the inspiration for this episode since the true bride keeps the objects she uses for bargaining in walnuts in them. But the false bride being a troll princess and prisoners in a dungeon being the ones to alert the beloved to his bride’s presence come from East of the Sun and West of the Moon.
9 There’s not really a good translation. It’s something like Lots-of-Different-Furs.
10 This episode is closer to the Grimm versions of Allerleirauh and Cinderella than those by Charles Perrault. The princess’s disguise is made from the fur of many different animals and her slipper is made of gold. But I’ll be including links to all four stories in the bibliography, since the Perrault version of Cinderella is the most iconic and I don’t want people to get confused. Plus it’s interesting to compare how Perrault and Grimm handled the same material.
11 This arguably owes something to Iron Johannes. Maybe that’s the reasoning behind the “early German folktale” credit.
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The Best and Worst Introduction to The Wind in the Willows

The 1995 made-for-television animated movie of The Wind in the Willows was my introduction to Kenneth Grahame’s book as a kid. Looking back, I can see that in many ways it was a better introduction to it than the average adaptation would have been, but in one crucial way it was much worse.[1]I’m probably exaggerating by calling it the worst in this post’s title. I haven’t seen it, but from what I’ve heard, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (1996) is basically a Monty … Continue reading

Most Wind in the Willows adaptations, animated or otherwise, emphasize the comedic elements, which were a real but secondary part of the book, and downplay or don’t bother with the poetic elements. In their defense, those are the elements that are probably the trickiest to nail down.[2]In the introduction to his stage play adaptation, Toad of Toad Hall, A. A. Milne wrote, “Of course, I have left out all the best parts of the book; and for that, if he has knowledge of the … Continue reading But this movie really tries to convey the overall spirit of the book. That it succeeds as much as it does is largely thanks to the voiceover narration beautifully read by Vanessa Redgrave and to the musical score by C0lin Towns, which is often tranquil and relaxing but has an edge when necessary. While much tighter and faster paced than the book, Ted Walker’s script has the same relaxed, episodic feel. Two of those episodes are the often cut Piper at the Gates of Dawn and the even more frequently cut Wayfarers All.[3]The 1983 Rankin Bass movie would also include both-in fact, it would try to combine them. Unfortunately, it would not do so particularly well. While the 1983 stop motion Wind in the Willows was … Continue reading The latter is moved to go between the Open Road and Wild Wood episodes, which I’m tempted to say makes more sense than its placement in the source material.

Many adaptations make Rat (here voiced by Michael Palin, who stills give my favorite portrayal of this character) stuffy and uptight, the better to make him a comedic foil for Toad. This version captures his friendly, easygoing personality from the book. But it also shows that he’s capable of anger and not just directed at Toad (Rik Mayall.) Mole (Alan Bennett-at least one of my favorite takes on the character) is likewise nuanced: shy and humble but, unlike in some other adaptations, occasionally aggressive.

The Badger (Michael Gambon) suffers more from the movie’s faster pacing. But Gambon’s nuanced vocal performance, stern yet somehow friendly, makes up for a lot.

Don’t ask me about his coloring.

Toad, on the other hand, not only lacks nuance. He’s not even likeable!

It’s true that this character has always been devious and egotistical-to say the least. But every adaptation decision this movie makes with him renders those aspects of his personality less tolerable and his good points almost nonexistent. In the book, Toad’s theft of a motorcar comes after his friends have staged an intervention that’s kept him from driving for some weeks, making the motor-mad animals’s actions somewhat understandable, if not justifiable. Here he escapes from his captors immediately after being confined to his own room and his subsequent theft comes across as much more malicious and rather out of nowhere for such an important plot point. This might be forgivable if there were other scenes that showed Toad behaving sympathetically. There really aren’t though. His apology to jailer’s daughter (Emma Chambers) for offending her and his apology to Rat in response to the latter’s lecture against criminal behavior are both cut. I can defend the loss of the first one on pacing grounds, but not the other one. At least, the script keeps Toad chastising himself in prison for not listening to his friends (“O wise old Badger! O clever, intelligent Rat and sensible Mole!”), but it stages this with the camera pulling away from Toad as he says this, making it hard for the viewers to focus on his words, and later undermines it by implying his despondency is partly a ruse to gain the jailer’s daughter’s sympathy.

Of course, Toad’s moments of contrition in the book were always short lived and of debatable sincerity. But it turns out that even short lived, debatably sincere repentance goes a long way to make the character work. And Mayall’s energetic but largely charmless performance doesn’t do much to make up for its absence. It’s hard to see why Mole, Rat and Badger are friends with Toad at all in this movie, let alone why the climax should be them restoring him to his ancestral home. Toad’s indignant and arrogant response to hearing that the Wild Wooders have taken over Toad Hall in his absence is included, but not his first two failed attempts at reclaiming it singlehandedly and his ensuing despair, which makes it hard to care about the underdeveloped situation. Maybe that’s the price to pay for including The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Wayfarers All. Oh well.

I find this version of Toad most enjoyable when he’s being humiliated, like when he’s thrown off the barge or when his friends put a stop to his planned program of self congratulatory speeches and songs at his victory banquet. The latter scene, however, is kind of an insult to its emotionally complex counterpart in the book. There both we and his friends feel sorry for Toad, but know it’s for his own good. Here we feel nothing but satisfaction that someone’s finally put the irritating bore in his place. Bizarrely, the movie only tells us about Toad’s shockingly modest behavior afterwards through narration as if utterly refusing to show the character being likeable.[4]Considering how much of Rik Mayall’s schtick as a comedian revolved around being obnoxious and off-putting, maybe I should be grateful his Toad is as tolerable as he is.

All this is very frustrating and inexplicable since every other adaptation I’ve seen manages to make Toad likeable, if not as loveable as he is in the book. But the things this Wind in the Willows gets right are enough to make it well worth seeking out for Kenneth Grahame fans[5]And certainly not everyone is going to agree with me about how Toad comes across., mainly its beautiful portrayal of Mole and Rat’s friendship.

Bibliography

Toad Of Toad Hall : Milne A. A. : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

References

References
1 I’m probably exaggerating by calling it the worst in this post’s title. I haven’t seen it, but from what I’ve heard, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (1996) is basically a Monty Python movie with a cast of characters with the same names and species as those in The Wind in the Willows and some similar plot points.
2 In the introduction to his stage play adaptation, Toad of Toad Hall, A. A. Milne wrote, “Of course, I have left out all the best parts of the book; and for that, if he has knowledge of the theatre, Mr. Grahame will thank me…it seemed clear to me that Rat and Toad, Mole and Badger could only face the footlights with hope of success if they were content to amuse their audiences.”
3 The 1983 Rankin Bass movie would also include both-in fact, it would try to combine them. Unfortunately, it would not do so particularly well. While the 1983 stop motion Wind in the Willows was unable to include them, its spinoff series adapted them as memorable episodes, as well as a hilarious Toad scene that had also been cut. Someone on YouTube made an edit that incorporated them into the movie, but I don’t think it works very well.
4 Considering how much of Rik Mayall’s schtick as a comedian revolved around being obnoxious and off-putting, maybe I should be grateful his Toad is as tolerable as he is.
5 And certainly not everyone is going to agree with me about how Toad comes across.
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Davies Does Dickens: Little Dorrit

Both Charles Dickens’ novel, Little Dorrit, and Andrew Davies’ 2008 miniseries adaptation of it tell the story of Arthur Clennam (Matthew Macfadyen), who returns to England after two decades of exile, working on the family business in China. He tells his stern mother (Judy Parfitt), a sort of proto-Miss Havisham, bitterly secluded in her home, that his father has died, burdened by some terrible guilt. Clennam wants to know what this guilt was, so that he can make any amends he can. But his mother angrily refuses to admit anything.

Clennam is intrigued by Little Dorrit (Claire Foy), the meek young woman who now attends Mrs. Clennam, mainly because his mother is kind to her, something she never is to anyone. He investigates and finds that Amy Dorrit is the youngest daughter of William Dorrit (Tom Courtney), a once wealthy man who has been in the Marshalsea Prison for debtors since before her birth. Partly as a coping mechanism, he takes a pride in having been imprisoned for so long, calling himself “the Father of the Marshalsea.” His anger and humiliation keep coming to the surface, however, as does his longing to be free. Though he has two other children, Little Dorrit is the one who does all the work of taking care of her father. She gets no help from her lazy, selfish older brother, Edward (Arthur Darvill) or her proud, vain older sister, Fanny (Emma Pierson.) In fact, they wouldn’t be working to support themselves if it weren’t for her.

In my last post, I praised the cast of Davies’ Bleak House, with the exception of Anna Maxwell Martin as the heroine. Well, Little Dorrit‘s cast is even greater and Claire Foy, far from being the weak link, is a highlight. She’s helped by the fact that this miniseries has better ideas for how to update the heroine than Bleak House did and by the fact that Little Dorrit doesn’t need as much updating as Esther Summerson.[1]I don’t hate Esther by the way. I’d argue she’s a great character but a bad narrator. Generally, I don’t hate Dickens’ self-effacing heroines as some do, but I concede that few of them are the best characters in their stories. I’d argue that the virtues Dickens praised in these heroines, of quietness, gentleness, humility, patience and forgiveness, are genuine virtues and if they aren’t always the most useful virtues for every situation, well, neither are the virtues of Dickens’ male heroes. But there’s a case to be made that Dickens himself was too loud, too bombastic, too egotistical, too impatient and too bitter to really make these virtues appealing. Little Dorrit, in my opinion, is an exception. Her humility feels like genuine humility rather than the showy humility of Dickens’ other heroines at their worst. And something this adaptation builds on is that she’s hardly unaware of how wrongly her family treats her. But, as it also emphasizes, she’s just as aware of how unhappy they make themselves. Her love and compassion are what keep her from resenting them. Despite having to be quiet and demure for most of her scenes, Claire Foy commands the viewers’ attention whenever the camera is on her face. She brings an unpretentious dignity to the role that puts the competitive jostling for respect of the other Dorrits to shame, and exemplifies the story’s message that, in the words of the New Testament, the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven must be the servant of all.

Little Dorrit: Part 2 | Sight to Behold

The most notable Dorrit jockeying for respect is Little Dorrit’s father of course. Tom Courtney is masterful in what in any other miniseries would be the juiciest role, a sort of Dickensian King Lear.

See the source image

But this miniseries is so full of juicy roles that a blog post about it threatens to be a list of them. So that’s what I’ll do.

John Alderton is perfect as Mr. Casby, one of the most underrated Dickensian villains and as his daughter, Flora Finching, Arthur Clennam’s old flame, Ruth Jones is as goofy and comedic as you could wish but also shows the character’s tragic side. Annette Crosbie as the senile aunt of Flora’s dead husband steals every scene she’s in with her angry non-sequiters.

Speaking of scene-stealers, there’s Eddie Marsan as Pancks, Mr. Casby’s rent collector and amateur detective. Though for some reason, he’s portrayed as bald and lacks his literary counterpart’s wiry hair, he totally captures the character’s personality.[2]Eve Myles as Little Dorrit’s mentally retarded friend, Maggie, meanwhile has too much hair.

And speaking of characters who are both comedic and tragic, there’s Russell Tovey who balances dorkiness and dignity as the prison turnkey with an unrequited passion for Little Dorrit. I appreciate that this miniseries keeps his odd habit of fantasizing about inscriptions for his tombstone, which might easily have been cut for being too weird.

This adaptation captures Dickens’ satire of high society with Mrs. Merdle (Amanda Redman), that “high priestess of Society” and her ditzy, Wooster-esque son by her first marriage, Edmund Sparkler (Sebastian Armesto)[3]If you don’t know what Wooster-esque means, check out the Jeeves stories by P. G. Wodehouse. Seriously. Do it.

and his satire of bureaucracy as symbolized by the Barnacle family of the meticulously unhelpful Circumlocution office.

Robert Hardy as Tite Barnacle and Darren Boyd as Tite Barnacle Jr.

And the Cratchit-esque Plornish family goes some way to making up for the lack of the Bagnets in Bleak House.

Rosie Cavaliero and Jason Watkins as Mr. and Mrs. Plornish

The only performance I question-not that I dislike it, mind you, I just question it-is that of Andy Serkis as the villainous blackmailer, Rigaud. He’s so cartoony in the role that it’s kind of distracting. Not that cartooniness is a bad thing when playing a Dickens character but when you compare Serkis to his fellow cast members playing similarly cartoony characters, such as Ruth Jones or Jason Thorpe as Italian immigrant, Cavalletto, he feels like he belongs in a different miniseries. Since Rigaud is a pretty one note character, a literally hook-nosed villain[4]Well, not literally. He doesn’t have an actual hook for a nose., maybe Serkis and the series directors, Dearbhla Walsh, Adam Smith and Diarmuid Lawrence, felt the only way to make him interesting was to have him be as over the top as possible.

This miniseries does a better job of capturing its characters than Bleak House did. The only major personality change I can think of is that of Frederick Dorrit (James Fleet), Little Dorrit’s uncle, who is more assertive and critical of his brother here than he is in the book. (Perhaps this series felt Mr. Dorrit was such an annoying character, there needed to be someone onscreen to criticize him more often.) But he’s still the same pathetically bewildered soul.

Little Dorrit’s brother loses his few redeeming qualities and becomes completely unlikeable, not that it’s much of a stretch, and while her sister has the exact same personality as in the book, she comes across as more of a comedic character than a dramatic one, but I find I don’t mind this.

There are no disappointments like Skimpole or Boythorn or even Caddy Jellyby. Davies has gone on record as preferring Dickens’ Little Dorrit to Bleak House and I think his adaptations of them reflect that.

In my post about the 2005 Bleak House, I wrote that I applauded the creators’ idea of making the camerawork and sound mixing feel modern, but I found the results a tad obnoxious. Such is happily not the case with Little Dorrit. Here the stylizations do a great job helping viewers feel what the characters are feeling, mainly William Dorrit’s PTSD. Another improvement over Bleak House is the music. While both scores were composed by John Lunn, the musical themes for this miniseries are memorable while the ones from the other were simply functional. Also better than functional are the sets, which do a great job of establishing the characters who inhabit them, from the crumbling decrepitude of Mrs. Clennam’s house

to the oppressive cutesiness of the Casby residence

to the claustrophobic opulence of the Merdles’.

I also wrote in my last post that I feel Andrew Davies has a juvenile preoccupation with sexuality. This was happily held in check with Bleak House[5]The dialogue is a bit more explicit than the book was, but that just feels like making things clear for audiences less familiar with the euphemisms of Dickens’ culture. but rears its horny head a bit in Little Dorrit. The landlady, who in the book can’t decide whether or not Riguad is handsome, evidently makes up her mind quickly here and the two of them have an implied sexual encounter.[6]It’s also implied he murders her. I’m not sure why. Maybe he suspects she’s getting too close to his identity. Maybe the miniseries just felt it needed to make it clear … Continue reading One of Flora’s lengthy, digressive speeches has a line about private parts tucked away in it, which makes no sense for the character or the situation. What annoys me most is a throwaway line about Arthur Clennam being able to have “one or two girls” while he was in China. To be fair, he implies he could have had them rather than actually had them, but it makes no sense for his virginal character. Still, there’s nothing here as gratuitous as the erotic dream scenes in Davies’ Northanger Abbey (2007) or Les Misérables (2018.) Where he might have been expected to go craziest is the relationship between frustrated attendant, Tattycoram (Freema Ageyman) and the mysterious Miss Wade (awesomely creepy Maxine Peak.) But the miniseries is actually pretty much true to the book in that you can interpret the connection between them as homoerotic if you wish to do so, and you can just as easily not interpret it that way. The main focus is the psychological similarity between them.

However, the mention of the characters does bring us to some problems with the adaptation. As in Bleak House, Davies actually fixes some of the dramatic issues of the source material, mainly by introducing Little Dorrit herself earlier and making it clearer just what this story is going to be about, but here he also exacerbates some of them. While added scenes of Tattycoram’s growing resentment towards the Meagles family, who have taken her in, are well written, they add to the impression that the Miss Wade-Tattycoram plot is more interesting than the main plot of the Clennam and Dorrit families, in which its main function is to be something of a red herring. And having expanded on the subplot initially, the miniseries then underdevelops the rest of it compared to the book. Miss Wade’s backstory is trimmed down, understandably so since it takes up a whole chapter in the text, but the result is anticlimactic. We have a much less clear idea of what her psychological problem is.[7]A strength of Dickens, however, is that even when I don’t understand the psychology of some of his characters, like Rosa Dartle from David Copperfield or Estella from Great Expectations, I … Continue reading Tattycoram’s quarrel with her from the same scene is cut, which makes her decision to return to the Meagleses in the last episode come a bit out of nowhere. For modern readers, of course, that was always going to be a bit unsatisfying since modern society takes a dim view of adopting someone to be your servant and shares Miss Wade’s suspicion of condescension.[8]In my more cynical moments, I suspect that modern society shares Miss Wade’s paranoia of condescension. Personally, I prefer it when adaptations of classic stories stay true to dated aspects like that and try to find ways to make them work for modern audiences, rather than taking the easy way out and completely reimagining them. So I give this Little Dorrit credit for that, though I feel like there was a better way to do it, possibly by having both Tattycoram and the Meagleses apologize to each other.[9]I do think Dickens wanted us to sympathize with Miss Wade and Tattycoram’s fears to an extent. He certainly wrote a number of self righteous, patronizing do-gooder characters, such as they … Continue reading

The added scenes of Miss Wade in the early episodes are in keeping with Davies’ tendency in his adaptations to try to balance all the different characters and storylines, instead of just following the point-of-view characters from the source material. Sometimes this works well, as in his Pride and Prejudice (1995) and Bleak House (2005.) Others times less well, as in his Sense and Sensibility (2008.) In Little Dorrit, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The added scenes of Fanny Dorrit and Edmund Sparkler in the last episode are hilarious. (The book describes what happens to them in broad terms at that point in the narrative, but not in detail.) I especially love Fanny’s line about her penknife, which is original to this adaptation, yet sounds exactly as if it were written by Dickens. But added scenes throughout of Mrs. Clennam and Rigaud again exacerbate an annoying part of the book’s plot. We’re continually reminded that Mrs. Clennam has a dark secret, one connected to Little Dorrit somehow. But rather than gradually revealing it, the story waits until the climax to the dump the entire thing out. What’s more this Little Dorrit phrases part of it so that it sounds as if the romantic leads had the same father. (They don’t.) Gina Dalfonzo’s excellent Charles Dickens related blog did a post after the miniseries was aired explaining the secret and it’s hilarious how many grateful comments from confused viewers it has.[10]I’m including the post in the bibliography, trusting none of my readers will look at it before reading the book or watching the series.

You’ll notice that both of the previous paragraphs criticize the adaptation in the final episode and this isn’t an accident. As in Bleak House, the climactic episodes are the ones that take the biggest liberties to make the story more exciting and with debatable success. As a fan of the book, I’m disappointed that it omits Cavalleto’s role in forcing Rigaud to come out of hiding, especially since it plays up his fear of him so much. It would have been really satisfying to see the tables turned.(I don’t mind Pancks’s role being cut as much, since he still has plenty of awesome moments.) Affrey Flintwinch (Sue Johnston) finally standing up to her abusive husband and employer is happily kept, but is much less dramatic than in the book.

Then there’s the decision to have Arthur Clennam learn the aforementioned family secret. (In the book, he is only told about it years after the story’s main events, if ever.) On the one hand, I appreciate this change. It’s a bit annoying in the novel how the story is set in motion by Clennam’s search for the truth, but we never see his reaction to it. But this renders a major plot point, regarding Little Dorrit’s financial state, which was already a bit confusing, even more so.

But there are also a lot of things about the last episode to love, both things from the book, such as the powerful scene between Little Dorrit and Mrs. Clennam, and original things, such as the aforementioned material with Edmund Sparkler and Fanny Dorrit. As melodramatic as the story gets, and Little Dorrit has some of the wildest plot points in Dickens[11]Maybe not as wild as the spontaneous human combustion in Bleak House, but close, the actors really sell them, especially Judy Parfitt, and for me, the series still manages to go out on a high note despite its blunders.

Of Andrew Davies’ Dickens adaptations, Bleak House seems to be the most well remembered. But while Little Dorrit may have bigger dramatic problems, I also feel it has greater strengths and it’s the one to which I return more often.[12]Actually, that’s pretty much how I feel about their source materials. Both of them rank among the best Dickensian miniseries, warts and all.[13]They’re certainly better adaptations than Susannah Phelps’s revisionist Oliver Twist (2007) and Great Expectations (2011) in which every character is reimagined in some way. While Jane Austen may be more his thing, Charles Dickens seems to bring out the best in Davies and it’d be great if he were to adapt another of his books for the BBC. He’s described Our Mutual Friend as a favorite of his. Perhaps that one would do.

Bibliography

Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens (gutenberg.org)

Robert Giddings Reviews Andrew Davies-BBC-1-Bleak House (charlesdickenspage.com)

Dickensblog: The Clennam family secret: FAQs (typepad.com)

References

References
1 I don’t hate Esther by the way. I’d argue she’s a great character but a bad narrator.
2 Eve Myles as Little Dorrit’s mentally retarded friend, Maggie, meanwhile has too much hair.
3 If you don’t know what Wooster-esque means, check out the Jeeves stories by P. G. Wodehouse. Seriously. Do it.
4 Well, not literally. He doesn’t have an actual hook for a nose.
5 The dialogue is a bit more explicit than the book was, but that just feels like making things clear for audiences less familiar with the euphemisms of Dickens’ culture.
6 It’s also implied he murders her. I’m not sure why. Maybe he suspects she’s getting too close to his identity. Maybe the miniseries just felt it needed to make it clear Riguad’s a bad guy. I feel Serkis’s performance rendered that unnecessary.
7 A strength of Dickens, however, is that even when I don’t understand the psychology of some of his characters, like Rosa Dartle from David Copperfield or Estella from Great Expectations, I still believe in them as human beings, whom I happen to not understand.
8 In my more cynical moments, I suspect that modern society shares Miss Wade’s paranoia of condescension.
9 I do think Dickens wanted us to sympathize with Miss Wade and Tattycoram’s fears to an extent. He certainly wrote a number of self righteous, patronizing do-gooder characters, such as they suspect their benefactors are. But he also saw how a fear of being condescended or patronized to could ruin someone’s life by blinding them to genuine kindness, even from flawed people.
10 I’m including the post in the bibliography, trusting none of my readers will look at it before reading the book or watching the series.
11 Maybe not as wild as the spontaneous human combustion in Bleak House, but close
12 Actually, that’s pretty much how I feel about their source materials.
13 They’re certainly better adaptations than Susannah Phelps’s revisionist Oliver Twist (2007) and Great Expectations (2011) in which every character is reimagined in some way.
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Davies Does Dickens: Bleak House

Apart from his work on House of Cards, screenwriter Andrew Davies is most famous for all the classic literature he has adapted, mainly for television. Whenever his name is mentioned in press releases for a new BBC miniseries based on a classic, there are people who take notice-more notice, I sometimes think, than he actually deserves. That’s because when he’s mentioned, his most popular adaptations, the 1995 Pride and Prejudice and the 2005 Bleak House, are also mentioned. That’s perfectly reasonable of course. It wouldn’t make sense to mention things people are less likely to have seen or remember. But it gives the impression that his quality is more consistent than it is. His Pride and Prejudice may certainly be one of the best adaptations of Jane Austen’s writing to another medium, but his resume is less impressive if you factor in his so so Sense and Sensibility (2008) and Northanger Abbey (2007) and his weird, creepy, Bronte-fied Emma (1996).[1]Not to be confused with Douglas McGrath’s Emma, which was released the same year.

While Davies is a great writer when it comes to things like characterization and pacing, the best dialogue in his adaptations tends to be from the source material. His original dialogue tends to be comparatively generic and cliché, especially the longer his career goes on. Then there’s his juvenile preoccupation with sexuality. This isn’t as annoying in his adaptations of, say, Tolstoy or Hugo as they’re more explicit about sex than other classic authors Davies has adapted, like Austen and Dickens. But even there, it sometimes feels like all the characters’ complicated motivations are reduced to “they want to have sex.” He also tends to give short shrift to spiritual themes from his sources.

But make no mistake. At its best, an Andrew Davies adaptation is a wonderful thing. He can take a demanding, doorstopper of a classic literary work and make it perfectly accessible to modern TV audiences while still keeping the things that made it a classic in the first place. He’s adapted more books by Jane Austen than any other author,[2]Especially if you count the Bridget Jones movies so to go through all of them would give a good idea of his strengths and weaknesses. But instead I’m going to analyze the mere two adaptations he’s done of Charles Dickens works because…well, frankly, because I’m more interested in Dickens than Austen. His two Dickensian miniseries, Bleak House (2005) and Little Dorrit (2008), were interesting in that they were adapted from two of Dickens’ less well known books and were female driven stories, Dickens’ heroines being his most frequently criticized characters. In this post, I’ll take a look at whether those risks paid off in the first of the two.

Bleak House centers on Jarndyce and. Jarndyce, a legal dispute over an estate that has lasted many generations, benefiting no one but the lawyers. According to Dickens, by the time the story begins, it’s “passed into a joke. That is the only good that has ever come out of it.” As a gesture of goodwill, Mr. John Jarndyce (Denis Lawson) invites his orphaned cousins, Richard Carstone (Patrick Kennedy) and Ada Clare (Carey Mulligan), his rival claimants, to live with him at Bleak House, so named because of the tragic fate of its previous owner, who was driven mad by Jarndyce and Jarndyce. As a companion for Ada, he also invites Esther Summerson (Anna Maxwell Martin), an orphan with no memory of her parents, who knows nothing of her heritage except that she was probably born illegitimately.

Meanwhile, Mr. Tulkinghorn (Charles Dance), lawyer to Sir. Leicester Dedlock (Timothy West), suspects that his client’s aloof trophy wife, Lady Dedlock (Gillian Anderson), harbors a secret, probably an illegitimate child. (There’s no prize for guessing how this plot ties in with the other in either the book or the miniseries.) Discreetly, he investigates, ostensibly so he can protect Sir. Leicester’s reputation but really because he takes a sadistic pleasure in torturing others with his knowledge of their darkest secrets.

The biggest draw in any Dickens adaptation is the cast of larger-than-life characters. Bleak House does not disappoint here and its greatest asset may be the cast of actors who bring the characters to life. Not only are their performances great but, with the help of the makeup team, you can tell just by looking at them what kind of characters they are. (This is fortunate since the miniseries is faster paced than the book and has less time to develop them.) Two standouts are Dance and Anderson as the creepy Tulkinghorn and the outwardly chilly but inwardly passionate Lady Dedlock. The cat and mouse game between them is riveting to watch.

Episode 11
Bleak House 1

Dermot Crowley as another evil lawyer[3]There are a number of them in this story, the respectable bloodsucker, Mr. Vholes, looks and sounds like he’s stepped right off the page.

Vholes

While not as showy a role, Denis Lawson is compelling as the noble but world weary Jarndyce.

BBC - Drama - Bleak House Characters John Jarndyce

Special praise goes to Patrick Kennedy and Carey Mulligan as Richard Carstone and Ada Clare, who, again thanks in part to the makeup team, go on a journey from relative innocence and naivety to depression and disillusionment. (It’s a shame I don’t have a really good selection of screencaps on the web to demonstrate this!) This works much better than the 1985 miniseries of Bleak House where Richard looks angry and Ada looks melancholy right from the get go.

Miss Summerson Bleak House - Vtwctr

While some of actors are better than others, there’s only one case of miscasting. Unfortunately, it’s the lead, Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther Summerson. Other characters find Esther so warm and inviting that they confide their biggest problems in her, in some cases on the same day they’ve met her. While Martin’s a great actress, she just doesn’t project this kind of persona. And since the miniseries is faster paced than the book is, she has less time to make this convincing.

I applaud the desires of this show’s creators to make it feel like a modern TV procedural. It’s especially refreshing when contrasted with too many of the miniseries based on classics that the BBC made in the 80s and 90s, which were almost unwatchable in their staginess. But I sometimes find the camera stylizations annoying, mainly all the zooming and whooshing transitions. And the way certain locations (Krook’s shop, Bleak House, Chesney Wold) are introduced in each episode with the three same establishing shots in rapid succession and a bang! bang! bang! sound effect, makes me want to yell at directors, Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) and Susannah White (Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang), “OK! I know what they look like by now!” It’s probably less irritating if you don’t binge watch. But the show’s so good, why wouldn’t you want to binge watch?

While Dickens is one of my favorite authors, I don’t believe Bleak House or Little Dorrit for that matter, were his best work.[4]Though they rank among his most interesting work perhaps. So I’m more openminded about adaptational changes to them than I am to, say, Nicholas Nickleby or Great Expectations. One of my favorite quotes from the movie Ratatouille is “to be a great artist, you must try things that may not work.” Dickens was a great artist and in Bleak House, he tried some things that, well, they didn’t quite work. This miniseries is actually able to improve on it in some notable ways, though I wouldn’t say it’s an improvement on the whole. Davies intercuts between the different groups of characters frequently enough that we aren’t constantly wondering when we’ll get back to any of them. And he cleverly rearranges the story so that we aren’t wondering when something will happen or how one thing will eventually connect to another. He also makes it immediately clear what Tulkinghorn and the ambitious young law clerk besotted with Esther, William Guppy (hilarious Burn Gorman), are trying to accomplish with their individual detective work, most notably Guppy’s interactions with the miserly rag and bone man, Krook (Johnny Vegas.) Some fans, who like this mystery element of the book, may be disappointed by this, but I find it a hurdle as a reader.

A side effect of all this is that there many scenes that aren’t in the book or are significantly different from their literary counterparts. As the series goes on, even the scenes that are close to the book use largely original dialogue, though each character manages to squeeze in their Dickensian catchphrase at least once. I wrote earlier that the original dialogue in Andrew Davies adaptations tends to more generic than the lines from the source material. I’ll maintain that’s true of the original dialogue for Bleak House‘s main characters, but it’s actually not a problem with the supporting characters. A few of them have my favorite lines in Charles Dickens adaptations not to have been written by Charles Dickens. Even the dialogue for the main characters while more generic is good quality generic, if occasionally too heavyhanded about the theme of secrecy for my tastes, and serves its purpose of developing characters and moving the story along. And even as someone who’ll defend Dickens against charges of sentimentality[5]My defense is not so much that he isn’t sentimental as that his is good quality sentimentality, I’ll admit it’s a relief that the cutesy nicknames for Esther and her references to Ada as “her darling” are dropped.

The depiction of Esther’s love interest, the noble surgeon, Allan Woodcourt (Richard Harrington) is also something of an improvement on the text. In the book, most of his scenes are narrated by Esther[6]Half of the book is narrated by her and the other by a third person narrator. It’s one of those “things that might not work” in Bleak House. who is clearly too embarrassed to describe their relationship. I can certainly understand that. I wouldn’t want to go into detail about something so personal to countless unknown readers. But it sure doesn’t make for very good storytelling. Woodcourt still doesn’t come to life as a character the way you’d wish, but he and his romance with Esther are still better developed than they are in the source material.

Richard Harrington Bleak House | Bleak house, Harrington, British period  dramas

Not all characters benefit from this adaptation though. The pugnacious but ultimately benevolent Lawrence Boythorn (Warren Clarke) loses all his most hilarious lines and ends up being a perfectly fine but unmemorable character. Davies has said that he “was never quite sure about the manic exuberance of (Dickens’s) comic characters” and this probably reflects that.

The minor character of Caddy Jellyby (Natalie Press) loses a bit of depth. In the book, she’s painfully aware of what a bad parent her mother is, but is completely taken in by the cant of Mr. Turveydrop (hilarious Matthew Kelly), her beloved Prince (Byran Dick)’s selfish father. Here she’s just as angry and disgusted with him as she is with her own parent. This change is understandable. With the miniseries’ faster pacing-which I consider a good thing, however my individual points may seem to contradict that-there’s less time to develop the Turveydrops , so it makes sense to have her be able to give exposition about them and their relationship.[7]In the book, exposition is given by a random background character, which would have meant casting another actress for a single scene. But it makes Caddy a much more one-note character and makes it hard to believe she could be happily married to Prince when he’s so pathetically devoted to Mr. Turveydrop sr.

See the source image
See what I mean about being able to tell what exactly what types of characters these are at a glance?

The character of Sgt. George (Hugo Speer) is a bit darker in this adaptation to make him a more plausible suspect in the climactic murder mystery. I’m not a fan of this in theory. But in practice, I actually enjoy both the character from the book and the character in the miniseries.

BBC - Drama - Bleak House Episode Guide Episode 5

The character who suffers most in the adaptation process is Harold Skimpole (Nathaniel Parker.) The miniseries emphasizes and even ramps up his villainy, which I don’t mind, while conveying none of his disarming charm. As his with his foil, Boythorn, none of his most amusing lines are included and the original lines given to him by this adaptation make it transparent that his professions of unconcern with money are an act. It’s hard to see why Jarndyce likes him initially and it’s almost boring how obvious a phony he is.

See the source image

Another character whose villainy gets more screen time than in the the book is the ratlike moneylender, Smallweed (Phil Davis), which makes it rather annoying that he gets less comeuppance than in Dickens.[8]Inspector Bucket (Alun Armstrong) still takes him down a peg, but he doesn’t undergo the humiliation of being betrayed by his grandchildren, though Louise Brealy as Judy Smallweed does a great … Continue reading Skimpole, on the other hand, does get more comeuppance in a satisfying reimagining of his final scene from the book.

See the source image

Smallweed is so nasty in the miniseries that his scenes threaten to become unwatchable. This is in part because it doesn’t include his senile wife, though his memorable insults of her are included and directed at other characters. Most of the comedy in his scenes from the book comes from her. She’s not the only member of the story’s unwieldly cast to be cut, understandably so[9]Bleak House can be very frustrating on a first read since Dickens is still introducing characters and subplots at the halfway point and it takes a long time to see how they’re all important. though some omissions are still to be regretted. Tony Jobling, Guppy’s sidekick/victim, isn’t missed much, but Sgt. George’s friends, the Bagnets, are. If I were to choose, I’d unhesitatingly say they’re more fun than Phil Squod (Michael Smiley), the character from the book who takes over their roles here.[10]Ironically, while this miniseries softens the book’s antifeminist message, in cutting Mrs. Bagnet, it loses one of the more feminist friendly characterizations. Still, it’s not like Phil Squod is a bad character and it’s understandably cheaper to have one actor to fulfill a dramatic function than multiple actors of various ages.

See the source image

The biggest changes to the plot involve the climax. The logistics of how the murderer’s identity is revealed in this version don’t make sense to me, but I can see how it makes the scene even more suspenseful. I don’t mind changes to Dickens adaptations to make the plot more exciting as much as to some authors, since he always seemed like he aimed to please the masses who like things like action scenes.[11]I don’t say that to disparage Dickens as an artist at all. In the words of one biographer, “Dickens stands first as a defiant monument of what happens when a great literary genius has a … Continue reading But the changes made to ensuing search make it less exciting. I can only assume it was adapted this way because the BBC wouldn’t give them enough time or enough money to do it the way the book did.

When I started writing this post, I didn’t expect to devote roughly as much space to criticizing this miniseries as I have to praising it. But now that I see I’ve done so, I’m not necessarily surprised. In all honesty, I do sometimes feel this adaptation is overrated. But there’s a big difference between overrated and bad. It’s still one of the best miniseries based on a Charles Dickens book out there, one that’s both pleasing to fans, with how well it brings (most of) the characters to life, and accessible to people who would never get into the source material.

Bibliography

The Project Gutenberg eBook of Bleak House, by Charles Dickens

Robert Giddings Reviews Andrew Davies-BBC-1-Bleak House (charlesdickenspage.com)

Charles Dickens: (1906) by Gilbert Keith Chesterton: Chapter 5 (online-literature.com)

References

References
1 Not to be confused with Douglas McGrath’s Emma, which was released the same year.
2 Especially if you count the Bridget Jones movies
3 There are a number of them in this story
4 Though they rank among his most interesting work perhaps.
5 My defense is not so much that he isn’t sentimental as that his is good quality sentimentality
6 Half of the book is narrated by her and the other by a third person narrator. It’s one of those “things that might not work” in Bleak House.
7 In the book, exposition is given by a random background character, which would have meant casting another actress for a single scene.
8 Inspector Bucket (Alun Armstrong) still takes him down a peg, but he doesn’t undergo the humiliation of being betrayed by his grandchildren, though Louise Brealy as Judy Smallweed does a great job conveying that she’d like to betray him through her facial expressions.
9 Bleak House can be very frustrating on a first read since Dickens is still introducing characters and subplots at the halfway point and it takes a long time to see how they’re all important.
10 Ironically, while this miniseries softens the book’s antifeminist message, in cutting Mrs. Bagnet, it loses one of the more feminist friendly characterizations.
11 I don’t say that to disparage Dickens as an artist at all. In the words of one biographer, “Dickens stands first as a defiant monument of what happens when a great literary genius has a literary taste akin to that of the community…Dickens did not (just) write what the people wanted. Dickens wanted what the people wanted.”
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Little Women Smackdown Part 2

Little Women (2018)

Little Women' Review: Louisa May Alcott's Book Gets Modern Adaptation |  IndieWire

This Little Women was directed by Claire Niederpruem who cowrite the screenplay with Kristi Shimek.[1]This independently produced movie was distributed in part by Pureflix, a Christian company. However, no secular Little Women fans should be turned off by this. From what I can tell, the movie … Continue reading It resets the story in modern times and uses nonlinear storytelling, intercutting Jo’s life after leaving home with flashbacks of her childhood.

Pros

In my opinion, this has the greatest casting choices for the March sisters ever. They all feel like regular teenage girls who might live next door, not like actresses playing regular teenage girls, something even the best actresses from other Little Women films can’t completely shake off. Sarah Davenport captures the blustery, unsentimental spirit of Jo perfectly. Allie Jennings smiles sweetly throughout most of her role as Beth, but always feels like a real person who is sweet, not a caricature. Melanie Stone, unlike Trini Alvarado, makes Meg a girl who is nervous about people not liking her, but is capable of standing up for her beliefs and of having fun. Elise Clare Jones can whine with the best of them as the younger Amy, but also brings a vulnerability and insecurity to the character which no other actress does. While she has little screen time, I find Taylor Murphy more appealing as the older Amy than either Samantha Mathis or Florence Pugh of the 2019 movie.

This is the only adaptation to show that part of the Pickwick Club is for the March sisters to challenge each other to be better people, though sadly it does so by cutting the literary aspect of the club. See cons below for more on this.

This adaptation does the best job portraying Meg’s wealthy friends. In the 1994 movie, they’re so obviously snobby and condescending that it’s hard to understand why Meg would want to be friends with them. In the 2019 one, they’re so friendly that they don’t really register as negative characters at all. Here their friendliness feels genuine, but their worldliness and calculation come across as unappealing next to the more innocent Meg.

This movie also does the best job developing the relationship between Jo and Beth. We really get a sense of how, though they seem like opposites as far as personalities go, they fit together perfectly as people who don’t care what others think about them, unlike Meg and Amy, and would be lost without each other. All of which makes Beth’s death more heartbreaking in this version than in any other. And that’s no faint praise since that plot point is usually well done.

This film, the 1994 one and the 2019 one all have Jo and Prof Bhaer have an argument before she goes to take care of Beth to create suspense about their relationship. This is the only to have her apologize to him upon their reunion, which serves to demonstrate her character development very well.[2]The 1994 movie, I fear, loves Jo too much to admit she needs character development and while the 2019 one doesn’t have that problem, it has so many other plot threads to which it seeks to do … Continue reading

This is something that’s specific to me and won’t be a draw for many viewers, but as a homeschooler myself, I really appreciated this movie’s positive portrayal of it. And it’s not just that they portray it positively. I feel that this film really gets homeschoolers, with their roleplay, their camaraderie and their (generally) cheerful lack of coolness. In fact, it made me realize that Little Women is the ultimate pro-homeschooling story. Characters outside the home are only portrayed positively if they’re willing to adapt themselves to the Marchs, like the Laurences, instead of trying to get the Marchs to adapt to the outside world, like the Moffats.[3]This is true of the 1994 and 2019 movies but they feel the need to apologize for homeschooling by stressing the low quality of schools for women during the time period.

Cons

While the actresses playing the four March sisters are all my favorites in their roles, none of the other actors really are. That’s not to say any of them are bad. They’re all very good, but few, if any, strike me as definitive portrayals of their characters. Lucas Grabeel as Laurie, I feel, clearly has just friendly chemistry with Jo, which is arguably good since that’s exactly the kind of chemistry Louisa May Alcott wanted them to have, but so many readers have felt that they should end up together despite this that it feels wrong for their friendship not to feel like it could turn into romance.

Despite the updated setting, the writers wished to reference the same books as Alcott did, The Pilgrim’s Progress and The Pickwick Papers. But they didn’t wish this strongly enough to actually read either of those books or even skim them. Thus the Marchs give the name Apollyon to a completely unrelated Pilgrim’s Progress character and, even more cringeworthily, make the Pickwick Club an army platoon rather than a literary group. Fortunately, despite my love of Dickens, I’m not a huge fan of either of those works, but I still wince a little at the stupidity of these mistakes. A glance at Wikipedia could have cleared them up![4]Along similar lines, a quote decorating Jo’s wall about storytelling restoring through imagination is credited to Walt Disney. I’m pretty sure it was only said by the fictional Walt … Continue reading

This movie borrows a scene from the 1994 Little Women in which young Amy worries she’ll die before being kissed and Laurie assures her that won’t happen. I can understand the appeal of this bit since there’s not much else to foreshadow a romance between the two characters. But it really doesn’t work well with other changes made to the story. In the 1994 film, both Amy’s father and sister were in danger of their lives, the latter with a contagious disease, and it made sense for her to start worrying about her own mortality. Here with only Beth being sick (with leukemia rather than scarlet fever), she comes across as selfish for worrying about herself instead of her sister.

Some viewers may be disturbed by the way this adaptation changes the time period, but keeps the dated detail of having the love interests for all the sisters be significantly older than them, Meg’s less so than the others. In particular, some may raise their eyebrows over Prof. Bhaer (Ian Bohen) being Jo’s actual professor at college. For what it’s worth, their relationship doesn’t become romantic until it seems Jo is no longer a student. I actually think the actors do the best job of selling the romance than any other Little Women movie, but your mileage may vary.

In general, some fans of the source material may feel the fact that this adaptation is set in the wrong time period disqualifies it from ever being the best. I can certainly understand that though I feel it allows the movie to focus on the story and characters without the burden of establishing a historical context. Still, some plot points do get lost, like Jo opening Plumfield Academy, which was arguably her main achievement in the book rather than any literary success or her marriage to Bhaer.[5]Actually, the 1933 and 1949 movies drop this plot point too despite having less of an excuse.

Traditions Started

The scripts for this movie and the 2019 one were being written independently of each other around the same time, so technically we can’t say one was influenced by the other. But there are a number of similarities between them by coincidence. Most notably, they both use nonlinear storytelling, intercutting the adult half of the book with flashbacks to the teenage half.

Both begin, or nearly begin, with the older Jo presenting her work to a professional editor and being told it needs to have a love story in it to make it marketable.

Both would also have an early scene of Aunt March (Barta Heiner in this movie) scolding Jo for her being too idealistic in her plans for the future and not practical enough.

Jo and Prof. Bhaer attend a Shakespearean comedy together in both, tying in with the volume of Shakespeare’s complete works he gives her. This movie has them see As You Like It and the 2019 one Twelfth Night.[6]I’m guessing this is a nod to Jo’s wish to be a boy since the heroines of these comedies are able to impersonate young men so convincingly that women fall in love with them. But Twelfth … Continue reading

When Jo and the ailing Beth are at the seashore, both films have Beth encourage Jo not to give up on her writing, even after she(Beth) is gone.

In both, Jo is portrayed as being less comfortable with Laurie and Amy’s relationship than she is in the book, though both scripts draw on the book for this part.[7]The 2018 takes inspiration from Jo wondering “why one sister should have all she asked, the other nothing.” The 2019 takes inspiration from Jo saying, possibly with her tongue in her … Continue reading

Little Women (2019)

LW_2019_0749.jpg

This Little Women was written and directed by Greta Gerwig.

Pros

This movie has the best screenplay of any cinematic Little Women or at least the one that’s the most fun to analyze.[8]The fact that it cuts back and forth between the past and present storylines more frequently than the 2018 one may turn some viewers off. It requires you to pay closer attention than the other movies … Continue reading It uses far more dialogue from the book than either the 1994 or the 2018 scripts, but it also feels more creative than any of the Little Women movies, with the arguable exception of the 2018 one, and more personal than any of them bar none.

A big appeal of this adaptation for fans of the book is that it tries to give equal attention to all the sisters. In the other movies, Meg (here played by Emma Watson) is pretty much finished as a character once she puts aside all chances of marrying into money and gets engaged to a poor tutor. Here we see her deal with the reality of life after her wedding. This not only makes her a more interesting character but also makes Aunt March (Meryl Streep) more interesting since her dire predictions about the marriage aren’t totally wrong though they certainly aren’t totally right either.[9]I’d rather have seen the incident of Meg’s failed attempt at making jelly, which would have actually fit in perfectly with this movie’s overarching theme of “life’s … Continue reading

This is the adaptation that really, really tries to sell the romance between Amy (Florence Pugh) and Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) and to the extent that it fails, I’m inclined to blame this more on the acting choices than the writing.[10]I do sometimes wonder if it was a mistake to have them argue so much since the most specific reason we’re given that a marriage between Jo and Laurie would be a bad idea is that they fight too … Continue reading It uses nonlinear storytelling to shrewd effect, introducing them as a potential couple early on, and developing their love story alongside the relationship between the youthful Jo (Saoirse Ronan) and Laurie. This gets around Little Women‘s inherent dramatic problem of spending so much of the first half developing Jo and Laurie’s relationship only to have them end up with other characters.[11]In the book’s defense, friendship doesn’t always translate into romance, being fun to be with doesn’t translate into being a good spouse, and there’s nothing unrealistic about … Continue reading In general, this is the script that does the best job keeping Amy’s sympathetic and admirable qualities in focus, even if it arguably cheats by emphasizing the Jo-like (her struggles as an artist) and Meg-like (the pressure she’s under to marry into wealth) aspects of her character.

Speaking of romance, this movie does the best job making Meg’s eventual husband, John Brooke (James Norton), an appealing character.[12]For my money, the 2018 one does the second best job. Not that he’s unlikeable per se in the other films, but it’s hard to disagree with 1994 Jo’s assessment of him as being “dull as powder.” Here we get a sense of his own struggles with poverty and his compassion for the March family. This also makes Meg herself a more engaging character as we understand what she sees in him.

I love the way this movie humanizes Marmee (Laura Dern), showing that she’s not just a supermom. This is the first Little Women movie since the 1933 one to show her needing Jo to comfort her over Beth (Elizabeth Scanlen)’s death.[13]The 2018 one does show her crying, but it’s not a big focus of the scene and it’s her husband, not her daughter, who comforts her. It’s also the only to include her confiding in Jo that she struggles with the same anger issues that she does.[14]Though Susan Sarandon’s Marmee does show this controlled anger in the scene where she writes to Amy’s teacher. Including Jo’s dialogue leading up to this, in which she fears that her seemingly uncontrollable fury may someday ruin her life, is also a plus as it shows a dark side to the beloved character that the other films don’t.[15]The 1994 and 2018 movies include the conflict between Jo and Amy that leads up to this, but they focus on their heartwarming reconciliation rather than Jo’s guilt over her grudge endangering … Continue reading

What the movie does with the ending is kind of brilliant. (Skip this paragraph if you don’t want it spoiled.) When she wrote the first half of Little Women, Alcott imagined Jo growing up to be “a literary spinster” like herself. When the public demanded she wrote the second half, literary convention also demanded she give Jo a romance. Right before this movie’s version of the romantic finale between her and Prof. Bhaer (Louis Garrell), it cuts to a future discussion between Jo and her editor. (Remember that tradition I mentioned in the last post of these movies ending with Jo writing Little Women and getting it published?) She argues that it would be out of character for her heroine to ever marry, but he convinces her it’s the only way the book will sell. Only then do we see the Under the Umbrella scene, implying it’s fictional. This allows the movie to pay tribute to Alcott’s original conception of Jo while still (theoretically) pleasing fans of the story as it is and to get in a rant about writers being forced to include romance in their stories to make them marketable. As an aspiring author myself, I relate to that.[16]The 2018 Little Women also humorously raises the question of whether Jo getting married is out of character in a more subtle way and includes some other pleasingly meta jokes.

Cons

You’ll notice that all my pros for this movie have to do with the script, not with the music or the cinematography or any of the other aspects. None of those things are outright bad, but none of them are particularly inspired either, including the cast. Saoirse Ronan is probably the blandest cinematic Jo and Timothee Chalamet is definitely the most wooden Laurie, though he does have his moments, mainly the scene of Jo rejecting his proposal. In fact, he does that scene-and that scene only-better than any other Laurie. Florence Pugh is good as the older Amy and brings an entertaining gusto to the younger Amy, but she’s about as convincing as a twelve-year-old as I’d be playing a goldfish. Having an adult actress play the character throughout worked for me in the 1933 Little Women because of that movie’s generally theatrical feel. It doesn’t work with the realism for which this film strives. The younger Amy never feels real and since she’s in so much of the past storyline, this becomes a pretty major distraction. A scene of her in a classroom with a bunch of actual young girls, who are supposed to be her peers, looks especially ridiculous. I wish I could praise Eliza Scanlen since she’s the least famous actress with a major role in this movie. I will say that her facial expressions convey her character’s crippling shyness better than previous Beths have done. But they don’t really convey anything else. Only Laura Dern’s Marmee and Emma Watson’s Meg are candidates for the best cinematic versions of their characters and in the case of the latter, that’s more a comment on how underwhelming Meg usually is onscreen than on how good Watson is in the role.

Even the script isn’t perfect. As great as it is to see justice done to characters who are usually underdeveloped in Little Women movies,[17]In addition to the ones I’ve already mentioned, there’s Mr. Laurence Sr (Chris Cooper). the downside is that Beth gets the short end of the stick. In particular, we don’t get a sense of her close relationship with Jo until she’s dying and even then the focus is almost entirely on Jo’s character, not Beth’s. Gerwig the screenwriter does give Beth plenty of good dialogue, but Gerwig the director doesn’t seem to know what to do with her. In the scenes of the whole family together, the camera avoids focusing on Beth specifically as much as possible. The impression we get is of her being perpetually pushed into the background by her three livelier sisters. Maybe they should have gotten another Big Name actress to play this part, if only to attract the audience’s attention to her somehow. This would all be less of a problem if she wasn’t the character the movie really wants us to cry over. It basically succeeds in this, but because of the audience’s investment in the characters who care about Beth, not Beth herself. It’d have been nice if we could have mourned the character for her own sake.[18]Then again, given her selfless personality, maybe Beth wouldn’t have had it any other way.

While the ending is kind of brilliant, it’s also very frustrating. (Again, skip this paragraph if you don’t want too many spoilers.) Alcott may not have originally wanted Jo to have a love interest, but when she resigned herself to it, she clearly prepared for it with Jo feeling lonely and depressed at being the only woman in her family who’s not, in this movie’s words, married or dead. And the movie doesn’t cut any of this setup. In fact, it depicts Jo’s desperation more dramatically than any other adaptation. Arguably more dramatically than the book does. So if Jo isn’t really married to Bhaer at the end, we’re left wondering just how happy she is. (It’s hard not to read the apparently fictional romantic scene as, not only a concession to the market, but wish fulfillment on her part.) It’s perfectly possible for someone to feel desperate to be married at one point and sometime later to decide that they’re really better off single. But since we don’t see any of this implied character arc for Jo, it’s not very satisfying. If that’s even supposed to be the implication. Maybe we’re meant to assume in retrospect that the scenes of Jo being lonely and in love with Prof. Bhaer were just part of her book. If so, it’s annoying that we spent so much time on them.[19]On some level, the film’s ending is a critique of the book’s conclusion. It’s an oddly harsh one for such an affectionate adaptation. Prof. Bhaer in the book was less of a … Continue reading And this isn’t the only thing that this ending throws into question. Since the final scene at the school Jo opens features Bhaer, we aren’t sure if Jo was able to accomplish that either. Since it’s also our final glimpse of Meg, Amy, Marmee and their husbands, we don’t know if their happy endings are real either. This even undoes some of the goodwill this adaptation has earned by giving equal weight to the protagonists besides Jo, as the only triumph we can ultimately be sure of in the movie is hers. Not even all of hers actually. Just the one specific triumph of writing Little Women and getting it published. I don’t have a problem with ambiguous endings in theory. But as there’s pretty much nothing ambiguous about this movie until the end, it feels like a betrayal.

There is one thing that foreshadows that the scenes set in the past may not be entirely accurate. They tend to have bright, warm, inviting art direction while the scenes set in the present are duller looking. The contrasts created by the cuts back and forth between the past and present emphasize this. (For example, we go from Meg enjoying herself at the Moffats’ ball to her worrying about finances with her husband.) While I’d say it’s true that the first half of the book was more fun and the second half was more serious, this is a bit of an exaggeration. It’s not as if everything was perfect during the first half or nothing bad happened then like, I don’t know, the American Civil War. The idea behind this, that the happiest memories in life are only happy because they’re memories, also strikes me as hysterically morbid.

Conclusion

So which Little Women movie is the best? For me, it’s…The 2018 one.

Little Women (2018) - IMDb

I know it’s not a classic from the golden age of cinema or an Oscar darling or even particularly nostalgic. But this is the Little Women movie I find most satisfying on the whole and I believe it deserves a wider audience then it’s gotten.

It’s true that being set in a different time period disqualifies the movie from being an ideal introduction to the story for newcomers, but I’d argue that none of the movies are that. The 2019 Little Women has the most thoughtful script, but it ends up being as much of an interpretation of/commentary on the book as a retelling of its story, making it better for openminded fans.[20]The same could be said of the last Peter Pan movie I covered. In general, the fact that the three most recent movies are more modern in their female empowerment themes than the book may leave some newcomers disappointed when they read the source material. And the two older movies end up distorting the text in other ways. But what all the Little Women movies capture is the appeal of the Marchs themselves. They’re personalities are clearly differentiated from each other, but they feel like real people, not types. They have high ideals yet also feel like fun people with which to hang out. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a family like that?

Bibliography

Alcott, Louisa May. (1947) Little Women. New York, Grosset & Dunlap Inc.

Rioux, Anne Boyd. (2018) Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters. New York, W. W. Norton & Company.

ship_manifesto | Some Things Never Change: Jo/Laurie (Little Women) (dreamwidth.org)

References

References
1 This independently produced movie was distributed in part by Pureflix, a Christian company. However, no secular Little Women fans should be turned off by this. From what I can tell, the movie wasn’t made for Christian audiences specifically. The studios just felt that it was too clean to be marketed to anyone else and just dubbed over any offensive language, incidentally making it closer to the spirit of the book. If anything, secularists should be more turned off by the source material which has Beth worrying she’ll even be homesick in Heaven. Here she just refers to “other side.”
2 The 1994 movie, I fear, loves Jo too much to admit she needs character development and while the 2019 one doesn’t have that problem, it has so many other plot threads to which it seeks to do justice that it doesn’t have time for Jo to apologize to Bhaer.
3 This is true of the 1994 and 2019 movies but they feel the need to apologize for homeschooling by stressing the low quality of schools for women during the time period.
4 Along similar lines, a quote decorating Jo’s wall about storytelling restoring through imagination is credited to Walt Disney. I’m pretty sure it was only said by the fictional Walt Disney of the (excellent) movie, Saving Mr. Banks, written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith.
5 Actually, the 1933 and 1949 movies drop this plot point too despite having less of an excuse.
6 I’m guessing this is a nod to Jo’s wish to be a boy since the heroines of these comedies are able to impersonate young men so convincingly that women fall in love with them. But Twelfth Night was totally the wrong choice since Viola, its heroine, hates having to pretend to be a man. As You Like It‘s Rosalind has more fun with it and has a personality more like Jo’s, but she doesn’t appear in the scene we see Jo and the professor watch. Go figure.
7 The 2018 takes inspiration from Jo wondering “why one sister should have all she asked, the other nothing.” The 2019 takes inspiration from Jo saying, possibly with her tongue in her cheek, “perhaps if Teddy had tried again, I might have said yes, not because I love him anymore, but because I care more to be loved than when he went away.”
8 The fact that it cuts back and forth between the past and present storylines more frequently than the 2018 one may turn some viewers off. It requires you to pay closer attention than the other movies do, but if you’re willing to pay that attention, it pays off.
9 I’d rather have seen the incident of Meg’s failed attempt at making jelly, which would have actually fit in perfectly with this movie’s overarching theme of “life’s never going to be as perfect as you want, but it can still be pretty great,” adapted rather than the less fun incident of the greatcoat. But I can see how the latter fit in with the contrast this movie seeks to draw between the “childhood” part of the story and the “adult” part. See the cons for more on this.
10 I do sometimes wonder if it was a mistake to have them argue so much since the most specific reason we’re given that a marriage between Jo and Laurie would be a bad idea is that they fight too much. Here it doesn’t seem like Amy and Laurie fight any less. Still, the lack of conflict is arguably what makes the Amy-Laurie relationship less interesting than the one between Jo and Laurie in the book, so I can’t blame this movie for wanting to emphasize how they challenge each other.
11 In the book’s defense, friendship doesn’t always translate into romance, being fun to be with doesn’t translate into being a good spouse, and there’s nothing unrealistic about Jo marrying someone she meets as an adult rather than someone she’s known from before then. On the other hand, realism doesn’t always make for satisfying storytelling.
12 For my money, the 2018 one does the second best job.
13 The 2018 one does show her crying, but it’s not a big focus of the scene and it’s her husband, not her daughter, who comforts her.
14 Though Susan Sarandon’s Marmee does show this controlled anger in the scene where she writes to Amy’s teacher.
15 The 1994 and 2018 movies include the conflict between Jo and Amy that leads up to this, but they focus on their heartwarming reconciliation rather than Jo’s guilt over her grudge endangering her sister’s life.
16 The 2018 Little Women also humorously raises the question of whether Jo getting married is out of character in a more subtle way and includes some other pleasingly meta jokes.
17 In addition to the ones I’ve already mentioned, there’s Mr. Laurence Sr (Chris Cooper).
18 Then again, given her selfless personality, maybe Beth wouldn’t have had it any other way.
19 On some level, the film’s ending is a critique of the book’s conclusion. It’s an oddly harsh one for such an affectionate adaptation. Prof. Bhaer in the book was less of a conventional romantic hero than he is here and the scene of him and Jo confessing their feelings to each other was less of a romantic cliché.
20 The same could be said of the last Peter Pan movie I covered.
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