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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Little Women Smackdown Part 1

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is a rare book in that it attracts ardent fans from both sides of modern American Culture Wars. On the one hand, it’s considered something of a pioneering feminist book for focusing largely on the relationships between women and having its heroines be motivated by earning their self respect rather than the admiration of men.[1]When asked how they can reconcile this take on the book with its claim that “to be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman,” most … Continue reading But it’s also beloved by many conservatives for its celebration of such values as hard work, diligence and modesty, and its positive, though not quite idealized beyond recognition, portrayal of an ordinary family,[2]I know I’m supposed to say either traditional family or nuclear family, but I refuse. Traditional is a hopelessly stodgy and unreal way to describe a family and nuclear makes it sound like a … Continue reading In the interests of honesty, I’d better lay my cards on the table. I’m less attached to Little Women than I am to any of the books whose adaptations I’ve analyzed on the blog so far. I don’t even consider it Alcott’s best book.[3]I prefer Eight Cousins, but that’s never been adapted. In fact, until recently, I’d never sat down and read the whole book, only bits and pieces of it. (I’d like to thank my paternal grandmother, for whom the book is a favorite, for lending me her copy.) But it’s no mystery to me why many people are attached to it. It captures many of things that people, at least lower middle class people like myself, deal with growing up. Chores. Envy. Peer pressure. Artistic ambitions. Getting friend-zoned. Losing a loved one. And anything that can unite liberals and conservatives in these tribalistic times is worth celebrating.[4]The only other thing I can think of that does it is despising the Oscars, which I can’t credibly do without sitting through them, so that’s a no go. So I’ll be looking at each of the movie adaptations of Little Women to determine which I consider the best, even if my perspective isn’t as important as that of less causal fans.

I should probably be looking at television adaptations since the book lends itself to that medium more than to film, but I’m not because, like I said, not that big of a fan.[5]I have seen the 2017 miniseries, and my memory is that it had its moments, but was rather meh on the whole, rearranging events in a way that didn’t make sense and feeling contrived in its … Continue reading And anyway, the very fact that Little Women doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a movie makes the movie adaptations interesting. There were two silent Little Women films from 1917 and 1918, but I haven’t been able to watch them.

Little Women (1933)

Little Women 1933 Katharine Hepburn Joan Bennett | Katharine hepburn, Woman  movie, Joan bennett

This was the first “talkie” of Little Women. It was directed by George Cukor (David Copperfield, Gone With the Wind) from a script by Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman.

Pros

From the first ten minutes, a series of scenes showing what each March woman’s “burden” in life is, it’s clear that this is an adaptation made by fans for fans. All the characters feel like they’ve stepped off the page. Even when the dialogue isn’t drawn from the book, it sounds like it could have been. There are no attempts to make it sound more modern.

The acting is all great. Well, great on its own terms. See the cons for more information.

The relationship between Beth March (Jean Parker) and Mr. Laurence Sr (Henry Stephenson) is well developed and quite touching.

The almost-but-not-quite-romantic relationship between Jo March (Katharine Hepburn) and Theodor Laurence AKA Laurie (Douglass Montgomery) is probably the most fully developed in this version, so if that’s your favorite part of the book, this may be the adaptation for you.

Beginning with the 1949 movie, future movie adaptations would make Jo’s actual love interest, Prof. Bhaer (Paul Lukas) younger and hotter to varying degrees.[6]The 2019 movie would probably go the furthest in this direction, understandably so since it had less time to developing him than the other movies and needed to establish him as a possible romantic … Continue reading This professor, with his unconventionally attractive features and comical accent, feels the closest to the one in the book. While he’s not my favorite character there, Lukas is endearing enough, and has a quirky chemistry with Hepburn, that it makes me think future movies should consider staying truer to the text when it comes his character.

Cons

This movie was made when silent movies were a recent memory and people hadn’t quite figured out what kind of performance style worked best for the more intimate medium. All the acting is very hammy. It’s all high quality ham, but it’s more suited to melodrama than to the down-to-earth drama of Little Women, and the layer of unreality is distracting to modern viewers. On the other hand, this theatricality makes things like the twenty-three year old[7]and pregnant! Joan Bennet playing the adolescent Amy March work better than they otherwise would. If you’re in the right mood, the dated acting is great.

While I’ve praised how well this movie develops the Jo-Laurie relationship, it kind of hogs the movie. It gets more time than Jo’s relationship with any other character, except for Beth. Robin Swicord, the screenwriter for the 1994 Little Women movie, has accused previous adaptations of making the story all about whom the March sisters would marry. I don’t think this criticism is totally fair; there’s plenty of focus in this movie and the 1949 one on Jo as a writer, a sister and a daughter. But I can’t say I don’t see from where the criticism is coming.

In fact, Jo herself kind of hogs the movie, which was clearly intended to be a vehicle for Hepburn. It feels like it should have been titled Little Woman. But even ignoring the title, the beginning of the movie feels like it’s going to be an ensemble like the book was. Then halfway through, if not before, it just stops being one. Meg (Frances Dee) is a supporting character during the first act, suddenly becomes the focus of a dramatic scene when she stands up to Aunt March (Edna Mae Oliver), and then gets almost completely dropped by the wayside. Laurie’s romance with his eventual wife, Amy, is almost entirely offscreen. If the acting weren’t so good in its dated way, this would come across as ridiculous given how much time is spent on his ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of Jo. I can’t say I entirely blame the screenwriters for this. The main thing that makes Meg’s struggles as a young wife and mother, in the book’s second half, entertaining is Alcott’s humorous prose, which the movie wouldn’t have, rather than the incidents themselves. And Amy’s romantic adventures in Europe, while technically well written, aren’t even that entertaining. For most readers, Jo is the most fun of the four heroines and I’m not about to argue with them.[8]I’m an aspiring author with anger management issues and a dislike of Society. Of course, Jo is my favorite! But the movie ends up coming across as extremely random in its structure. (The book may have been episodic, but it didn’t feel random.)

The script focuses on the moments from the book, which are either the most fun, like the amateur play the Marches put on for their neighbors, or the most dramatic, like Jo selling her hair to help her father. After the first handful of scenes, it doesn’t really show the day-to-day grind of living, which was arguably the heart of the book. (To be fair, that first handful really does do a great job of capturing that.) It also leaves out nearly all the book’s sermonizing, which for many viewers may be a relief, as the most common criticism of Little Women is that it’s too preachy. But while this makes the movie less didactic, it also means it lacks the original’s philosophic and thematic depth. I’m reminded of this quote from a blog post about a Roger Rabbit cartoon, of all things. “Imagine a ten year old boy watching Star Wars for the first time and it instantly becoming the only thing he ever wants to watch, or talk about, or think about for the rest of his life. And you give that boy the money and crew he needs to make his own Star Wars. That movie would just be wall to wall spaceship battles and lightsabre duals and it would last ten hours and be absolutely unwatchable. Because the boy knows that those are the parts of the movie that he enjoyed the most but doesn’t understand that the talky bits were what gave narrative and emotional context to those battle scenes which is what makes them satisfying on more than a surface visual level.” This Little Women adaptation is very far from unwatchable. But it’s not so much a retelling of the story as a Greatest Hits Version of it. On that level, it works.

Traditions Started

The 1949 Little Women would be as much a remake of this one as a fresh adaptation of the book. Mason and Heerman would even get screenwriting credit for it.

The 1949 and 2019 movies would, like this one, have Amy be the one to get in trouble for drawing a caricature of her teacher in class. (In the book, she credits this to a classmate.) This fits in with her being an artist and is easier to explain than trading limes[9]See? You want an explanation, don’t you?, which is what she gets in trouble for in the book.

All of the future Little Women movies would have Prof. Bhaer encouraging Jo in what she should write rather than just telling her what she shouldn’t write.[10]In the book, it’s actually ambiguous whether he knows that Jo is the author of the sensational stories he condemns. In the 2018 movie, this would actually define their whole relationship. And all but the 2019 movie, would also end with him helping her get her work published.

Future movies would also all have Jo reject Laurie’s proposal before she meets the professor. I’m not sure if this is a good idea, as it risks prejudicing Jo-Laurie shippers against him, but I can understand why it’d be difficult to have Jo going continually back and forth between Concord and New York in a movie.

They would also all have Aunt March be the character who takes Amy to Europe rather than the book’s Aunt and Uncle Carrol and Cousin Flo. While it’s debatable how in character such a trip would be for Aunt March, this change means fewer characters to introduce and she’s such a fun crank that the more of her there is in the movie, the merrier.

The 1994 Little Women movie would arguably combine two scenes from this one: Prof. Bhaer translating song lyrics into English for Jo, the romantic nature of which reflects their feelings, and him taking her to the opera.

All of the movies, except for the 2019 one, would start out as being about all the sisters and end up being mainly about Jo, though happily this wouldn’t come across as an artistic problem in any of them as it does here.

Little Women (1949)

Enchanted Serenity of Period Films: LIttle Women (1949)

This Little Women was directed by Mervyn Leroy (The Wizard of Oz, The Bad Seed) from a script by Andrew Solt. It happens to have been my introduction to the story.

Pros

The casting is generally fine. June Allyson kind of comes across as a discount Katharine Hepburn[11]It’s probably less noticeable if you don’t watch the 1933 movie and this one in the same week., but on that level, she’s fine. And I think I like Mary Astor’s Marmee better than Spring Bytington’s, though that may just be because she’s better developed. I don’t like Janet Leigh’s Meg better than Frances Dee’s, but that’s because she strikes me as less the character’s type, not because she’s less charismatic. (The character suffers in both films from being underdeveloped.) While Margaret O’ Brien was obviously too young at eleven to be Beth, she’s endearing in the role and her youth arguably makes the character’s courage in the face of death even more moving. I have issues with Amy in this movie, but I’m not sure how much of them are Elizabeth Taylor’s fault.

This script reinserts a speech from Marmee that wasn’t in the 1933 movie, about what her plans are for her daughters (that they be happy, useful and pleasant rather than rich) and how she’d rather see them as “the happy wives of poor men, or even respectable old maids, than queens on thrones without self respect.” This arguably makes for a nice happy medium, giving this movie more thematic depth than the 1933 one, but being less consistently didactic than the book.

Cons

I distinctly remember being angry, when I first saw this movie as a kid, that Jo didn’t end up with Laurie. Rewatching it as an adult, I’m not sure why I felt that way since Peter Lawford comes across as way too old and stodgy to play the lively young character. Allyson is older than Jo too, so it probably made sense on paper to cast another older actor as her best friend. But to her credit, she comes across as young in a way he doesn’t.

Speaking of Laurie, Allyson’s performance in the scene where Jo rejects him doesn’t quite work the way it should. She doesn’t necessarily play it differently from how the character acts in the book. But the book was slower paced and had the opportunity to establish that Jo sensed this unwanted proposal was coming and had been dreading the sad task of turning her friend down. In the movie, her sadness threatens to come across as her actually wanting to accept but not doing so for….unclear reasons.

For some reason, the young Amy is portrayed as more of a brat here than she is in any other version. She becomes the only one to object to giving the family’s Christmas breakfast to the destitute Hummels (though you could argue that also makes her the most relatable March), and even when she gives in, she stills makes sure she gets some of it. The movie includes a scene from the 1933 movie, in which Amy tearfully begs her teacher not to punish her and then when he relents, pompously boasts to her curious classmates that “he wouldn’t dare” punish her when her mother threatened to remove her from the school. In that movie, the whole thing was played for laughs and Amy’s chutzpah was rather endearing. Here, it’s played weirdly earnestly and her twofaced behavior comes across as simply ungrateful, especially since this movie adds the detail of her teacher being about to cane her, but changing his mind. In the book’s equivalent of this incident, he does cane her and her mother does remove her from the school. Neither Marmee nor Alcott pretend Amy doesn’t deserve punishment, but the overall effect of the book’s scene is to gain sympathy for her. Why was it necessary to change it so much? The overall effect of all this is to make it infuriating that Amy ends up with the story’s most appealing young male character, especially since their romance is entirely offscreen. At least, the 1933 film had one scene of them together, even if it was more about them grieving for Beth. (Actually that’s something else of which this movie could have used more.)[12]All the Little Women movies suffer dramatically from not focusing on Amy’s quarantine at Aunt March’s, which in the book is where her most dramatic character development happens. Without … Continue reading When Jo jokingly says to the adult Amy, “to think you were such a horrid little girl,” it’s hard not to agree with her in earnest.

Traditions Started

The 1994 movie would, like this one, have Prof Bhaer (Rossano Brazzi) come to Jo’s house and, getting the impression that she was married to Laurie, leave without seeing her. In both movies, Jo runs out after him into the rain to clear things up.

Both the 1994 and the 2018 movies would also portray Amy as being more reluctant than her sisters to donate her Christmas breakfast, though happily she wouldn’t come across anywhere near as unlikeable as she does in this one.

Little Women (1994)

This Little Women was directed by Gillian Armstrong from a screenplay by Robin Swicord. For 90s kids, this is The Little Women.[13]I’m a 90s kids but I didn’t actually watch it much growing up. It’s a favorite of my mother’s though.

Pros

This movie probably has the most consistently great casting of any Little Women. That’s not to say every cast member gives my favorite depiction of their character, but there’s fewer nongreat actors than in any other Little Women movie. Winona Rider’s hair is obviously not her “one beauty” but she’s captivating as Jo. This is the first movie to have Amy be played by a young actress in the first half and an older one in the second. While I didn’t have a problem with having the same actress throughout in the previous ones, Kirsten Dunst’s performance as young Amy still feels like a breath of fresh air. She makes the character’s drama queen tendencies and malapropisms charming in a way only a child can. Samantha Mathis, as the older Amy, isn’t nearly as fun, but I blame that on the script, not her.[14]To be honest, I kind of blame it on Alcott. Christian Bale is the best Laurie and Claire Danes is at least one of the best Beths. She’s certainly the best one so far.[15]The record will show I enjoyed both Jean Parker and Margaret O’ Brien in the role, but the former was just a little too smiley and the latter was just a little too grim. Gabriel Byrne’s Prof. Bhaer really does have “the kindest eyes (Jo) ever saw”[16]He’s also the only cinematic Bhaer with a convincingly German accent. The professors in the 1933 and 1949 movies were more Italian, the one in the 2019 movie would be more French and the one in … Continue reading and Susan Sarandon was born to play Marmee. The only major performance I question is Trini Alvarado’s as Meg. She mostly comes across as nervous and unsure of herself, which works great in some scenes, but gets old in every scene. Perhaps since previous adaptations hadn’t focused on this aspect of Meg’s character, this one felt compelled to overcompensate.

The score by Thomas Newman is the best in any Little Women movie and frankly it’s not even a competition.

This movie is also the best looking Little Women to my eyes. On the whole, it does the best job of capturing the warm, cozy feeling we associate with the book.

The script covers new ground by showing more scenes of Amy and Laurie together in Europe. It doesn’t really sell their romance,[17]I’m not even sure if the book manages to do that. but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

Cons

As much as I enjoy this movie’s warm, cozy atmosphere, I sometimes feel it’s too warm and cozy for it’s own good. Despite the best efforts of the cast, which are considerable, moments like Amy nearly drowning in icy water don’t pack the emotional punch they should. It’s hard to believe in something seriously bad happening in the Christmas Card world of the film, though when Beth dies, it does get a little easier.

After the 1933 one, this is the Little Women movie with the least use for the book’s moral themes. While Marmee sermonizes more here than in that one, her philosophy boils down to “be someone you can be proud of.” (Not an exact quote, but a good summary, I feel.) This is certainly what she teaches her daughters in the book, but she was much more specific there about what kind of people should be proud of themselves. This Marmee doesn’t talk much about the need to be hard working or uncomplaining or humble or self disciplined, though, to be fair, she does demonstrate those qualities from time to time. It feels like these filmmakers had so much affection for their heroines and were so eager to affirm/encourage young girls that they couldn’t bring themselves to criticize them or challenge them to be better people.

While it may not be preachy when it comes to the things the book was preachy about, this Little Women is plenty preachy about other things, mainly gender and racial equality, and not to good effect. When we cut from Marmee decrying restrictive corsets to Jo complaining about her skirt, it’s safe to say that subtlety has been killed. But that at least makes sense. Amy’s negatively portrayed teacher, Mr. Davies, is quoted as saying it’s “as useful to educate a woman as to educate a female cat.” If that’s his opinion, why is he teaching a school for girls? Instead of making me hate him more, this line actually makes me feel sorry for the man since he’s apparently slaving away at a job he considers a ridiculous waste of time.[18]Adding a bit of tragedy to a minor antagonist would be interesting, but I don’t believe it’s what the movie had in mind with that line. Then there’s Meg’s boycotting silk made with child labor…yeah, that relates to the story.[19]Ironically, we don’t get Amy helping with a benefit for freedmen, something from the book! Most of this comes across as the filmmakers feeling guilty about positively representing people from a culture where racism and sexism were prevalent. I’m not asking for a gritty Little Women with the Marchs using the N word, but these constant assurances that the main characters aren’t sexist or racist, like they realistically would be, tend to awaken my cynicism rather than quiet it, especially when they feel tacked on and don’t connect to the story at all.[20]To the movie’s credit, a scene discussing the Women’s Suffrage Movement does a nice job of developing Prof. Bhaer’s character. While another man advocates giving women a say in … Continue reading The 2019 Little Women would also incorporate modern liberal/feminist commentary[21]Both movies would even have Prof. Bhaer intend to go West because people there would be more openminded about his immigrant status, but would happily do so with more craft.

Probably no one cares about this besides myself, but at one point, Jo refers to the character “Smee in Nicholas Nickleby.” There is no character called Smee in Nicholas Nickleby. Smee is the name of a character from Peter Pan![22]I can only assume she meant to say, Smike.

Traditions Started

The 2018 and 2019 movies would generally choose the same episodes from the book as this one to adapt, including all the Pilgrim’s Progress themed chapters (Jo Meets Apollyon, Meg Goes to Vanity Fair, etc) of which, only Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful was included in the 1933 and 1949 movies.

The 2018 movie would copy this one by having Marmee tell one of her daughters that “the workings of her mind” are more important than her physical appearance, though it would be a different daughter and in a different scene. It would also have Beth be given her new piano at Christmas after her initial recovery rather than earlier.

The 2019 movie would also have Amy initially reject Laurie’s advances on the grounds that he’s really still in love with Jo and she doesn’t want to be his consolation prize. Laurie would also be depicted as falling into drinking and flirting while moping over Jo. (In the book, he’s mostly criticized for being lazy at this point.)

This movie, the 2018 one and the 2019 one would all end with Jo writing a book about her life and her family, which takes the function of the much praised magazine story she writes towards the end of the book, and which is all but stated to be Little Women itself.[23]It’s an open secret that Alcott based on Jo on herself and the other Marchs on her family, but it should be noted that the events and the supporting characters of the book were fictionalized. … Continue reading The similarities between how the writing of the book is staged in this film and the 2018 one are particularly noticeable.

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)

Roller Coaster Rabbit (1990) | unshavedmouse

References

References
1 When asked how they can reconcile this take on the book with its claim that “to be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman,” most feminist fans would say that Alcott had to write things like that because Society demanded it, not because they represent her real opinions. And there’s good biographical evidence that this is true. The contentedly single Alcott was irritated by fan letters asking “who the little women marry, as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life.” However, the aspect of the book I just described as feminist was also something forced upon Alcott by her editor. Like Jo, her most beloved heroine, she preferred boys to girls, except for her sisters, and didn’t want to write a book about the latter. I guess if ever a classic was written in spite of its author, it was Little Women.
2 I know I’m supposed to say either traditional family or nuclear family, but I refuse. Traditional is a hopelessly stodgy and unreal way to describe a family and nuclear makes it sound like a dangerous science experiment. I expect the term was coined to be a polite slur.
3 I prefer Eight Cousins, but that’s never been adapted.
4 The only other thing I can think of that does it is despising the Oscars, which I can’t credibly do without sitting through them, so that’s a no go.
5 I have seen the 2017 miniseries, and my memory is that it had its moments, but was rather meh on the whole, rearranging events in a way that didn’t make sense and feeling contrived in its attempts to be different from previous adaptations. The 2019 movie, which managed to be different from previous adaptations in a way that felt natural and closer to the book, rather put it to shame.
6 The 2019 movie would probably go the furthest in this direction, understandably so since it had less time to developing him than the other movies and needed to establish him as a possible romantic partner as soon as possible.
7 and pregnant!
8 I’m an aspiring author with anger management issues and a dislike of Society. Of course, Jo is my favorite!
9 See? You want an explanation, don’t you?
10 In the book, it’s actually ambiguous whether he knows that Jo is the author of the sensational stories he condemns.
11 It’s probably less noticeable if you don’t watch the 1933 movie and this one in the same week.
12 All the Little Women movies suffer dramatically from not focusing on Amy’s quarantine at Aunt March’s, which in the book is where her most dramatic character development happens. Without it, she seemingly goes from being immature to mature in the blink of an eye. Boy howdy, does this adaptation suffer from that!
13 I’m a 90s kids but I didn’t actually watch it much growing up. It’s a favorite of my mother’s though.
14 To be honest, I kind of blame it on Alcott.
15 The record will show I enjoyed both Jean Parker and Margaret O’ Brien in the role, but the former was just a little too smiley and the latter was just a little too grim.
16 He’s also the only cinematic Bhaer with a convincingly German accent. The professors in the 1933 and 1949 movies were more Italian, the one in the 2019 movie would be more French and the one in the 2018 movie would simply be an American.
17 I’m not even sure if the book manages to do that.
18 Adding a bit of tragedy to a minor antagonist would be interesting, but I don’t believe it’s what the movie had in mind with that line.
19 Ironically, we don’t get Amy helping with a benefit for freedmen, something from the book!
20 To the movie’s credit, a scene discussing the Women’s Suffrage Movement does a nice job of developing Prof. Bhaer’s character. While another man advocates giving women a say in government, he’s the only one who bothers to include Jo, an actual woman in the room, in the discussion.
21 Both movies would even have Prof. Bhaer intend to go West because people there would be more openminded about his immigrant status
22 I can only assume she meant to say, Smike.
23 It’s an open secret that Alcott based on Jo on herself and the other Marchs on her family, but it should be noted that the events and the supporting characters of the book were fictionalized. Little Women wasn’t as strictly autobiographical for Alcott as it is for Jo in these movies.
Posted in Comparing Different Adaptations, Remakes | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Peter Pan: The Modern Movie

OK, I’m cheating a little bit with the title. 2003 isn’t what I’d call modern, but The Modern Movie sounds more exciting than The Most Recent Movie and a lot of the changes made by this adaptation do reflect a modern sensibility as opposed to the old fashioned spirit of the original and other adaptations.

In my last post, I described J. M. Barrie as a fundamentally ambiguous writer.[1]I’m far from a Barrie expert, but I have read some of his works besides Peter Pan which is more than many can say. It’s hard to pin down his perspective on the issues he raises. Like his most famous character, he has a way of changing sides in a fight if it seems like he’s winning too easily.[2]Another British playwright, William Shakespeare, had a similar tendency. Take the central question of Peter Pan, which is whether growing up or never doing so is the real tragedy. If you only know the story from cultural osmosis[3]Or if you know about it from Finding Neverland, a movie about the creation of Peter Pan, which feels like it was written by people who never read a word of Barrie, you probably assume its perspective is that childhood is fun and magical and adulthood is dull and boring, but this is quite the oversimplification. Barrie portrays children as charming in a way adults aren’t and they’re shown to be capable of exhilarating experiences no longer available to their elders. But children are also portrayed as callous and cruel in a way adults aren’t. Barrie describes them in the book as “the most heartless things in the world…but so attractive.” On the other hand, this callousness gives children an invulnerability that adults lack, so maybe youth really is the ideal state. But then again, isn’t it better, morally speaking, to be unselfish and vulnerable than selfish and invulnerable? Barrie sends mixed signals. In the end, he describes the Lost Boys as “goats” for not staying in Neverland and living out their exciting lives there. But he also tearjerkingly describes familial love as “the one joy from which (Peter) must be forever barred.” If adaptations, like the musical, lean in one direction more than another, it’s usually that childhood is the superior state. Universal’s 2003 Peter Pan movie is a rare adaptation that takes the opposite point of view.[4]Whether the 1953 movie takes a stand one way or the other is hard to say. It ends with Wendy cheerfully telling her father she’s now ready to grow up, but he assures her there’s no hurry.

Peter Pan Movie Poster | Peter pan 2003, Peter pan movie, Peter pan

The biggest change this adaptation makes-and there are plenty of them, but this one is overarching-is reimagining Peter Pan as a tragic love story between Peter and Wendy.[5]If a romance between children strikes you as gross, for whatever it’s worth, the actors were around fourteen at the time of filming. While Wendy certainly had a crush on Peter in the book and the play, he, not being interested in or capable of growing up, saw himself as her “devoted son” at most. In this version, the implication seems to be that Peter (Jeremy Sumpter) does have romantic feelings for Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) but suppresses them. When she tries to Define the Relationship here, he still doesn’t give her the answer she wants, but he doesn’t call himself her “devoted son” either.

The fact that growing up means the ability to fall in love, something mostly latent in the source material, becomes blatant in this movie from the second scene, in which Aunt Millicent (Lynn Redgrave) pronounces Wendy “almost a woman” because she has a first kiss “in the righthand corner of her mouth.”[6]Mrs. Darling is described as having a kiss in the same place in the book, but it’s explicitly not a romantic kiss. Who’s Aunt Millicent? Well, this adaptation splits Mr. Darling (Jason Isaacs, who doubles as Capt. Hook) into two characters. Aunt Millicent is given all his imperiousness and the actual Mr. Darling is given all his insecurity.

In keeping with modern sensibilities, this Wendy is an action heroine. In the nursery, she delights in telling pirate stories to her brothers. Her “unfulfilled ambition is to write a great novel in three parts about (her) adventures,” unlike her original counterpart whose seemingly only ambition was to be a mother, though this one still ends up taking on that role for the Lost Boys. Aunt Millicent does not approve of this and insists that Wendy spend more time with her, learning to be a respectable lady, and have a bedroom of her own. If that last part reminds you of the Disney movie’s initial setup, you’re on to something. This film takes several cues from that one. Wendy, not her mother, is again the one to see Peter Pan on the night he loses his shadow. Michael (Freddie Popplewell) brings a teddy bear along with him to Neverland, which is the subject of some amusing sight gags. A character visibly blushes when Tiger Lily (Carsen Gray) kisses him. Hook manipulates a jealous TinkerBell (Ludivine Sagnier) into betraying Peter and then locks her up, only for her to escape in time to save him. And both movies level the playing field between Hook and Peter for their final battle, though they do so in opposite ways. And I’m not even making an exhaustive list here.

But this adaptation takes far more dialogue from Barrie than the 1953 movie did, and it does so without sacrificing creativity. Many lines are given to different characters and reimagined in different contexts.[7]In this way, it reminds me of Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland. It captures the book and play’s whimsical yet cynical sense of humor better than any other Peter Pan. Director P. J. Hogan and his co-screenwriter, Michael Goldenberg, clearly had a lot of respect for J. M. Barrie. They also had a lot of ideas of their own however, some of which, like the Aunt Millicent stuff described above, work better than others…

Jeremy Sumpter, with his innocently evil smile, is a great Peter Pan. He gives probably my favorite performance as that character. (Some find him too tanned and American, but Peter Pan as a California kid makes sense to me.) And Rachel Hurd-Wood, with her infectious enthusiasm, gives probably my favorite performance as Wendy.[8]Though I may be biased in her favor because she reminds me of one of my cousins in this movie. I may not entirely approve of this movie’s romantic take on their relationship, but the way they bounce back and forth in their first conversation between Peter being unnerved by Wendy and her aggressively pursuing him, and Peter actively seducing Wendy and her fearfully drawing back is both true to the original characters and feels weirdly believable.

Jason Isaacs plays Hook as a much creepier and more intimidating villain than other actors do. Whether this is true to Barrie’s intentions is a complicated question. While he wrote both the stage play and the novel, and gave Hook the same basic personality and much the same dialogue in both, Barrie portrayed him as a more clownish figure in the former and a more serious one in the latter. To confirm this, check out Hook’s soliloquy at the beginning of Act 5 in the play and then read the beginning of Chapter 14 of the book. Since I grew up reading the book, not watching any production of the play, Isaacs’s creepy Hook is my favorite, and when the script does give him a humorous line, he makes the most of it. Richard Briers’ Smee is also great, though he doesn’t stand out as much. (Smee is always great, except arguably in the 2014 Pan, which I blame on the script, not the actor.) And Olivia Williams is wonderful as Mrs. Darling. I can’t think of a single other actress who’s captured the character half as well as she does.

In fact, there’s only one member of the main cast who doesn’t give my favorite take on their character. Ludivine Sagnier’s TinkerBell is very broad and cartoony, more cartoony actually than the 1953 Pan‘s animated Tink! While you want an actress in a non-dialogue role to be expressive and a little over-the-top, there are so many closeups of TinkerBell that there was really no need for her to be this hammy. To be fair though, my lack of enthusiasm for this version of the character may be less to do with Sagnier’s performance than it has to do with the decision to have her language consist of chirps and squeaks rather than the tinkling of bells.

Speaking of TinkerBell, this adaptation is notable for how it handles her brush with death. The 1924 Peter Pan basically replicated the play, with debatable success, by having Peter look into the camera and ask the audience to save her by clapping to express their belief in fairies and the 1953 one completely reimagined the scene, so that it was apparently Peter himself who saved Tink if she was in danger at all. [9]For the 2014 Pan, viewers were apparently supposed to tweet their belief. This movie takes its cue from the novel, in which Peter is able to telepathically communicate with children dreaming of Neverland. While the resulting scene goes on too long and is kind of silly, it contains one of my favorite original ideas in this adaptation. If you want it spoiled for you, click the footnote. [10]Not only do children save TinkerBell by expressing their belief in fairies, but so do Mr. and Mrs. Darling and even uptight Aunt Millicent. Not only is this heartwarming, but it involves the adult … Continue reading

At this point, you may be saying, “wow, Stationmaster, there are so many things about this movie that are your favorite in any Peter Pan adaptation!” And I haven’t even gotten to the supporting cast, James Newton’s Howard’s soundtrack or Roger Ford’s production design.

So do all those things make this my favorite Peter Pan movie? Well, I did tell you that not all of its ideas worked that well, didn’t I? Most of the ones that are crazy or don’t make sense come in the second half. For example, in one scene, Peter banishes Wendy for wanting to grow up. The movie makes a big deal of this. And then a few scenes later we see her in the Home Under Ground with the Lost Boys as if nothing’s happened. Neither she nor Peter ever acknowledges the recent banishment. Maybe this is supposed to reflect Peter’s forgetfulness, but if so, that’s one of the character qualities that make him unfit for the part of romantic lead in which this movie wants to put him.

During her temporary exile, Hook takes Wendy to his ship, charms her with his suavity, and offers her the role of official storyteller to his crew. This is based on three things from the source material: the pirates wanting to make Wendy their mother, Hook offering John, Michael and the Lost Boys the choice of either joining his crew or walking the plank, and the moment in Chapter 13 when Hook offered Wendy his arm and she was briefly fascinated by his “frightfully distingue” manner. At this point, it almost looks like the movie is going for a love triangle between Peter, Hook and Wendy![11]I promise it comes across as less gross than I’m making it sound. What exactly is Hook’s motivation here? Ostensibly, he’s manipulating Wendy so he can track her to the Home Under Ground.[12]In the book and play, he actually discovers this location early on, but only attacks it at the end for whatever reason. But he could have just as easily done that without all this. Presumably, he wants to spite Peter by winning Wendy away from him. But the climax makes a big deal of Hook being surprised by the revelation that Peter really cares for someone other than himself, contradicting this. Wendy considers Hook’s offer and for a moment, it looks like she and Peter are going to be pitted against each other in a duel to the death, but even the movie seems to decide that’s too nutty, and in a single scene, Wendy decides she and her brothers must go home instead. Again, what was the point of all that?

Then there’s the climax in which…well, let’s just say that Hook flies and that’s the least unorthodox thing about it!

So there you are. This film has some of the greatest things in any Peter Pan adaptation and some of the wildest, most nonsensical departures from the source. I can understand fans of the material who find it their favorite and fans who find it their least favorite. At least it ends on a high note with the reunion of the Darling family, the most moving depiction of that scene in any adaptation.

Ultimately, I’m not sure if The Peter Pan Movie has been made yet. Theoretically, I like the 1924 one best. In practice, I rewatch the 2003 one the most. In 2022, a new contender from director David Lowery will be released on Disney+, Peter Pan and Wendy, which will be the first to take the original title of the novelization, Peter and Wendy.[13]I suspect if it were being released in theaters, it would underperform at the box office, the sad fate of recent Peter Pan-themed movies. My instinct is that that film will be of more consistent quality than the 2003 Peter Pan, but that its high points will be lower.

Bibliography

Barrie, J. M. (1995) Peter Pan and Other Plays. New York: Oxford University Press.

Barrie, J. M. (1994) Peter and Wendy: The Original Storybook Version of Peter Pan. New York: Barnes & Noble Inc.

References

References
1 I’m far from a Barrie expert, but I have read some of his works besides Peter Pan which is more than many can say.
2 Another British playwright, William Shakespeare, had a similar tendency.
3 Or if you know about it from Finding Neverland, a movie about the creation of Peter Pan, which feels like it was written by people who never read a word of Barrie
4 Whether the 1953 movie takes a stand one way or the other is hard to say. It ends with Wendy cheerfully telling her father she’s now ready to grow up, but he assures her there’s no hurry.
5 If a romance between children strikes you as gross, for whatever it’s worth, the actors were around fourteen at the time of filming.
6 Mrs. Darling is described as having a kiss in the same place in the book, but it’s explicitly not a romantic kiss.
7 In this way, it reminds me of Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland.
8 Though I may be biased in her favor because she reminds me of one of my cousins in this movie.
9 For the 2014 Pan, viewers were apparently supposed to tweet their belief.
10 Not only do children save TinkerBell by expressing their belief in fairies, but so do Mr. and Mrs. Darling and even uptight Aunt Millicent. Not only is this heartwarming, but it involves the adult Darlings in the climax without having them actually fly to Neverland and fight the pirates or something stupid like that.
11 I promise it comes across as less gross than I’m making it sound.
12 In the book and play, he actually discovers this location early on, but only attacks it at the end for whatever reason.
13 I suspect if it were being released in theaters, it would underperform at the box office, the sad fate of recent Peter Pan-themed movies.
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Peter Pan: The Animated Movie

It sounds crazy to say this now, so many decades since Disney’s 1953 animated movie of Peter Pan, especially when the character of TinkerBell has become such a Disney icon, but J. M. Barrie’s book and play don’t lend themselves to a Disney movie that well. Disney animated movies tend to have very clear cut good guys and bad guys, or at least they did in the 50s.[1]Modern Disney animated movies tend to be a bit more morally complex. For example, while repressing emotion is portrayed as unhealthy in Frozen, giving emotions completely free reign is also depicted … Continue reading Barrie, on the other hand, is a fundamentally ambiguous writer in some of his plays anyway and certainly in Peter Pan. Sure, Peter has the official role of hero and Capt. Hook the official role of villain, but both of them are callous and narcissistic in practice. It’s even possible for audience sympathy to lean more towards Hook in some scenes, given that he’s something of an underdog. His sharp awareness of his mortality, as symbolized by the ticking crocodile, makes him something of a tragic figure. What ultimately secures him the boos of audiences is that he and his crew try to kill children-but the children have no problems with killing them. Both Hook and Peter rack up impressive body counts and both of them have a code of honor. I’m not saying all this to argue that Disney equals bad and Barrie equals good. (In fact, if I had to choose between a world of ambiguous art/stories and unambiguous art/stories, I’d go with the latter.) I’m just saying that an adaptation with Disney’s aesthetic is going to be limited in how much it can capture the spirit of Peter Pan. Still, while this one is certainly simplified compared to Barrie, its characters remain complex enough to keep things interesting.

Peter Pan (1953) - IMDb

The Lost Boys and the Indians no longer try to kill each other. (“When we win, we turn them loose. And when they win, they turn us loose.”) And even the violence against the consistently antagonistic pirates is slapstick rather than deadly. The crocodile’s pursuit of Hook (voiced by Hans Conried, who doubles as Mr. Darling) is played more for laughs here than in any other version of the story. We’re never really worried about it killing Hook any more than we’re worried about Elmer Fudd shooting Daffy Duck. Actually, we’re probably more worried about that since it always rearranged Daffy’s facial structure. Hook actually goes into the crocodile’s mouth more than once, but never seems to suffer anything worse than clothing damage. (Then again, for a dandy like Hook, maybe that is a terrible thing to suffer.)

There’s a more significant way in which the movie softens the story though, one that’s harder for me to accept as a fan. While Wendy (Kathryn Beaumont) expresses concern over her mother’s feelings when Peter (Bobby Driscoll) asks her to go to Neverland with him, a Narnia-style time difference seems to be in effect, so that the Darling children return to their nursery on the exact same night they left. Mrs. Darling (Heather Angel) never even sees Peter Pan. Thus the movie actually cuts arguably the most dramatic part of the story, Mr. and Mrs. Darlings’ grief over their children’s absence and their joy at their return. Speaking of abandonment, while this movie doesn’t have Peter’s explicit backstory, regarding his mother, it seems to be the subtext of a scene where Wendy sings a lullaby to the boys about mothers and Peter sits apart, angry, the only one-besides Hook, ironically enough-not to be moved by it.

On the other hand, this adaptation makes the story more dramatic in one way at least. It involves expanding on a detail which was in Barrie’s novelization of Peter Pan, but not the stage play: The idea that there are many stories in-universe about Peter Pan and that the Darlings were familiar with them before they ever met the boy himself. Wendy (Kathryn Beaumont) is portrayed as “the supreme authority” on Peter and tells stories about him to her brothers. These are stories Peter comes to the Darling house to hear, not Mrs. Darling’s. When these stories threaten Mr. Darling’s appearance at an important party, he declares that Wendy needs to grow up and should have a room of her own instead of sharing a room with the boys. He also chains Nana in the yard in this version on the grounds that the children are getting too old for her. So Wendy’s flight to Neverland becomes a more explicit escape from adult responsibilities and her return becomes a more explicit acceptance of them.

Sanitization probably isn’t this Peter Pan’s biggest drawback as an adaptation. It’s that it has less fidelity to Barrie’s dialogue than any other adaptation, with the possible exception of the 2014 Pan. You may be saying, “Of course, it’s not faithful! It’s a Disney adaptation!” But if you look at Disney’s Alice in Wonderland and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, which seem like good points of comparison as far as source material goes, you’ll sense a lot more respect for the original authors. I know that’s not an uncontroversial claim. Many fans of Lewis Carroll and A. A. Milne would say the Disney adaptations of their work clutter the material up with cartoony slapstick. But I believe an unbiased examination of both films will reveal that while they don’t capture every nuance of their respective source materials, they do contain much of their witty wordplay, and try to have the same kind of verbal humor in their original dialogue.[2]I’d also argue that slapstick and other kinds of visual humor were never totally absent from the Alice and Pooh books, even if the Disney movies went too far in that direction. There were reasons for all this. According to transcripts of the story meetings, Walt Disney was drawn to the imagery and overarching storyline of Peter Pan but disliked the dialogue. I can’t say I feel his movie improved on it. But it’s not like the film’s writing is bad per se. Sometimes, despite the brighter and softer nature of the adaptation, it’s even morbidly humorous in the same way the book is, most notably in a hilarious line from one of the mermaids. (You’ll know it when you hear it.) This movie has my favorite take on those Peter Pan characters.

Bobby Driscoll isn’t my favorite Peter Pan but he’s very good and it is nice to hear a boy’s voice in the role.[3]I understand the technical reasons behind the stage convention of having an actress play the character and, of course, the vocal part in the musical was written for a woman. But it seldom really … Continue reading Kathryn Beaumont as Wendy is even better. This movie does a better job of developing her character than the other adaptations this blog has covered so far. In the musical, she tends to get upstaged by Peter the Diva. And while she’s better in the 1924 movie, the conventions of silent film acting make her come across as more of a type than an individual. Here we get that Wendy is a fangirl, but not a mindless fangirl. She can never completely get over her crush on Peter but when she’s offended by his behavior, she’s more than willing to call him out on it. It’s a surprisingly nuanced characterization.

My favorite vocal performance in the movie by far though is Hans Conried’s lip-smackingly hammy turn as Hook. My next favorite is Bill Thompson’s (the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland and Jock in Lady and the Tramp) as the Kronk-esque Smee.[4]If you know what “Kronk-esque” means, reward yourself with a spinach puff. Smee suffers more slapstick violence at Hook’s hand than in any other version and Hook himself suffers even more at the Smee’s hands and at Peter’s and at the crocodile’s jaws. The rescue of Tiger Lily is a comedic highlight for all four characters, but the whole film is full of great visual gags.

This movie has my favorite version of TinkerBell and I’m not just saying that because she’s smoking hot.

OK, I’m kind of saying it because she’s smoking hot. But beyond that, this Peter Pan really takes advantage of the animation medium to go beyond previous Tinks. The 1924 one had closeups once in awhile. This TinkerBell gets them throughout. She can convey her personality through facial expressions and body language, and she does so to hilarious effect but in a subtler way than the other supporting characters.[5]Though I should stress that it’s wonderful how much personality stage TinkerBells can have with just a ball of light and a sound effect. The one in the Cathy Rigby production is my second … Continue reading The story team clearly had a lot of fun with her because she ends up playing a larger role in this plot than in the original. She’s not the only character to benefit from the animation medium. Nana and the crocodile are more expressive than any costumed actor could be. The latter in particular becomes a hilarious cartoon character.

Peter’s shadow is now not only detachable but has a personality of its own and Peter has to chase it down.[6]This is an idea the 2003 Peter Pan would borrow and improve upon.

And the characters’ flying is much more persuasive than it could be onstage. I love the way Peter causally hovers in the air, cross legged and the way the characters can go under and around objects. The flight over London is a great example.

And I love how ridiculously diverse the flora and fauna of Neverland are, demonstrating how it’s “nicely crammed” without “tedious distances between one adventure and another,” a place where “every kind of beast, and chiefly all the man eaters, live cheek by jowl.”

I regret to say though that this is the least visually impressive of the Disney animated movies from the 1950s. Fortunately, this says more good about the art of those movies in general than it does bad about this one. But it’s a painful admission for me to make since Mary Blair is one of my all time favorite background artists.[7]In her day, women at Disney animation were relegated to the Ink & Paint department, but she ended up being a major visual influence over several movies, most notably Cinderella and Alice in … Continue reading Peter Pan‘s backgrounds are appealing enough but they lack that extra amount of detail and flourish to make them something you’d want to hang on your wall.

This also has, for my money, the least memorable collection of songs from any 50s-era Disney animated movie. For whatever reasons, Peter Pan musicals seldom have really great songs.[8]This musical by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe is an exception. Stiles and Drewe’s Peter Pan – A Musical Adventure (Original Cast Recording) – YouTube At least these songs are better than the ones in the last one about which I blogged. The most famous one is probably You Can Fly, though I suspect that’s more because of the accompanying visuals. My favorite is actually the opening credits song, The Second Star to the Right.[9]Let me take a moment to say that I love the way the opening credits sequences for Disney animated movies in the 50s showed images of their scenes and characters in a different art style from the … Continue reading Incidentally, the address the original Peter gave Wendy is simply “second to the right and straight on till morning” and Barrie says that this was just random nonsense that came into his head. The Disney movie is the first adaptation to make the phrase “second star to the right” and to have it be genuine directions. Other adaptations would follow suit.

The song, What Made the Red Man Red? is pretty memorable but…not in a good way.

Hoo boy!

When discussing the portrayal of indigenous peoples in any Peter Pan, I think this quote from the book should be kept in mind. “I don’t know whether you have ever seen a map of a person’s mind. Doctors sometimes draw maps of other parts of you, and your own map can become intensely interesting, but catch them trying to draw a map of a child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island, for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose…Of course the Neverlands vary a good deal. John’s, for instance, had a lagoon with flamingoes flying over it at which John was shooting, while Michael, who was very small, had a flamingo with lagoons flying over it. John lived in a boat turned upside down on the sands, Michael in a wigwam, Wendy in a house of leaves deftly sewn together. John had no friends, Michael had friends at night, Wendy had a pet wolf forsaken by its parents, but on the whole the Neverlands have a family resemblance, and if they stood still in a row you could say of them that they have each other’s nose, and so forth. On these magic shores children at play are for ever beaching their coracles. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more…When you play at it by day with the chairs and table-cloth, it is not in the least alarming, but in the two minutes before you go to sleep it becomes very real. That is why there are night-lights.”

In other words, Neverland and its inhabitants come from the imaginations of children. While this idea isn’t explicitly stated in the play or any adaptation, it seems to be the subtext in all of them. The Indians are what English and non-Native American children would imagine based on adventure stories they’d read. If they weren’t racist stereotypes to some extent, it wouldn’t make sense. It’s probably wishful thinking to suppose that Barrie would have written them differently if he were trying to portray real people, but if you keep this context in mind, it makes the stereotypes more tolerable.[10]Though some of the descriptions in Chapter 12 are still pretty hard to take. But there’s a line to be crossed and this adaptation races across that line and never glances back.

This is easily the most horrifyingly racist Peter Pan. I’m tempted to defend the cartoony designs of every Indian, save Tiger Lily, on the grounds that supporting characters in animated movies are traditionally cartoonier while the main characters are drawn more realistically. The character designs for the pirates are pretty cartoony too. But there’s no getting around the fact that the Indians are caricatured in a distinctly ethnic way with their leathery, very red skin and their expressions which are either dopey and unpleasant. Then there are their speech patterns with their ughs and their ums and their heap bigs. The dialogue Barrie wrote for them may not have been much better on that score, but at least there was less of it. I don’t blame anyone for finding the movie unwatchable or believing it shouldn’t be shown to kids because of those characters.

I don’t blame anyone for taking that position…but I’d be a hypocrite if I said I did. Because I have enjoyed watching the movie. Several times in fact. I wouldn’t want it to be the only Peter Pan adaptation people see. But as one among many, it’s good.

Bibliography

Barrie, J. M. (1994) Peter and Wendy: The Original Storybook Version of Peter Pan. New York: Barnes & Noble Inc.

Kothenschulte, Daniel. (2016) The Walt Disney Film Archives: The Animated Movies 1921-1968. Taschen Books.

References

References
1 Modern Disney animated movies tend to be a bit more morally complex. For example, while repressing emotion is portrayed as unhealthy in Frozen, giving emotions completely free reign is also depicted as dangerous. In fact, a big part of the problem with restrained emotion is shown to be that when they eventually do break out, it’s with deadlier consequences than otherwise. And while Zootopia has a strong anti-stereotyping message, it goes out of its way to show what an easy trap stereotyping is to fall into, especially when experience seems to be reinforcing stereotypes rather than belying them. I’d still say those movies draw a clearer line between good and evil than Peter Pan does though.
2 I’d also argue that slapstick and other kinds of visual humor were never totally absent from the Alice and Pooh books, even if the Disney movies went too far in that direction.
3 I understand the technical reasons behind the stage convention of having an actress play the character and, of course, the vocal part in the musical was written for a woman. But it seldom really works for me in performance.
4 If you know what “Kronk-esque” means, reward yourself with a spinach puff.
5 Though I should stress that it’s wonderful how much personality stage TinkerBells can have with just a ball of light and a sound effect. The one in the Cathy Rigby production is my second favorite.
6 This is an idea the 2003 Peter Pan would borrow and improve upon.
7 In her day, women at Disney animation were relegated to the Ink & Paint department, but she ended up being a major visual influence over several movies, most notably Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland, anyway because her art was just that awesome! I mention this not to pressure people into liking her work because she was a rare woman in a position of authority, but to demonstrate there’s no need to pressure people into liking it.
8 This musical by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe is an exception. Stiles and Drewe’s Peter Pan – A Musical Adventure (Original Cast Recording) – YouTube
9 Let me take a moment to say that I love the way the opening credits sequences for Disney animated movies in the 50s showed images of their scenes and characters in a different art style from the movies proper. It’s a great way to whet the audience’s anticipation without giving too much away.
10 Though some of the descriptions in Chapter 12 are still pretty hard to take.
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Peter Pan: The Silent Movie

“(Peter Pan) is at the same time a child himself and a child’s dream figure, the archetypal hero both of magical fairy tale and adventure story. Indeed, he is so archetypal that one almost begins to believe Barrie’s assertion about the play that ‘I have no recollection of having written it.’ He seems not just the invention of one writer, but a character from mythology.” Humphrey Carpenter

“(Peter Pan) gets to fly. He gets to fight pirates. It’s what every kid wants.” Jeremy Sumpter

Considering what an iconic story Peter Pan is, it’s kind of shocking to realize that there have only been three Hollywood movie adaptations.[1]I speak of straight adaptations. This series will not be discussing twists on the material, like Hook, Pan or Wendy. Only two of those movies are live action and one of them is so old it doesn’t have sound. As the first Peter Pan movie, and one that was made while J. M. Barrie was still alive[2]He was apparently involved with the production but wasn’t completely happy with the final result., this one gives us an interesting look at what the older productions would have been like. [3]Granted, twenty years had passed between this movie’s release and the first staging of the play.

Peter Pan (1924) - IMDb

Which isn’t to say director Herbert Brenon just filmed a production of the stage play. The first image, apart from the opening credits, is a closeup of a clock. This is both a natural thing to open on when your first scene takes place in a children’s nursery at bedtime, and a symbol for the passage of time, a major theme in the story.

Throughout the film, there’s a mix of traditional stage effects and cinematic effects. In keeping with theatrical tradition, Peter is played by a young woman (Betty Bronson), which works for me better in a silent movie than it usually does onstage, but Capt. Hook and Mr. Darling are no longer played by the same actor.

In long shots, Tinker Bell is portrayed by the traditional ball of light, but in closeups, she is portrayed by an actress (Virginia Brown Faire.)

Nana and the crocodile are played by a costumed actor (George Ali) as they would be onstage. And so are the other beasts we see in Neverland.

The flying effects are much the same as onstage too. But this film also contains bits of movie magic that couldn’t be done in the theatre, most notably having the pirate ship, powered by fairy dust, fly up into the air to take the children home.

Or was there a production of the play that originated that? It isn’t in the book or the version of the play’s script that I’ve read. If this movie came up with the idea, it deserves credit because both of the other cinematic Peter Pan adaptations do the same thing to great effect.

This Peter Pan‘s sets also have much more room to breathe than those of a typical stage production, even the most lavish.

Of course, none of these visuals, whether cinematic or from the stage tradition, look all that convincing now. But weirdly, the movie’s ancient vintage helps this rather than adding to it. The lack of color and spoken dialogue make it easier for me to accept the transparency of the effects in a way that I can’t accept them in a colorful “talkie.”

The screenplay by Willis Goldbeck is in some ways the most faithful adaptation of Peter Pan I’ve seen. It includes the hilarious incident involving Mr. Darling (Cyril Chadwick)’s medicine, which weirdly always gets cut, even by my beloved 2000 version.

The creepy details of how Peter infiltrates Hook’s ship and kills off members of his crew are closest to the original in this movie.

And most gratifyingly, Peter’s final attempt to keep Wendy with him is here. It’s a highly dramatic scene, which oddly only one of the versions I’ll be covering on this blog retains, and that one doesn’t adapt it as accurately as this one does.

By rights, this seems like it should be one of the best Peter Pan adaptations. But there’s a strange phenomenon I’ve noticed with adaptations. Sometimes the ones that have the fewest changes have the most aggravating changes. This is the only Pan I’ve seen that doesn’t include the Mermaids’ Lagoon/Marooners’ Rock scene. It’s possible that it wasn’t generally included in stage productions at the time this movie was made, and since a big part of it involves Peter mimicking Hook’s voice, it might not have worked as well in a silent film.[4]Perhaps for similar reasons, Peter joins forces with the crocodile during the climax, rather than mimicking its ticking himself. But its absence is really felt. Without it, we’re told that the Darlings have been in Neverland a long time, but we’re not given much of an idea about what their adventures there have been like. And Hook (Ernest Torrence) now has only one scene before his attack on the Home Under Ground. We don’t build up any animosity between him and Peter, so it’s hard to get excited about the climactic battle between them. This is definitely the least well developed and least memorable Hook I’ve seen.

While not as big of a problem, I’m annoyed that this Peter Pan replaces all the references to Britain and England with references to America, apparently under the impression that US audiences wouldn’t relate to the characters otherwise. I’m particularly irritated that instead of saying he doesn’t want to grow up and work in an office, Peter says he doesn’t want to be president. (Americans works in offices too, guys!)

But there’s one thing this Peter Pan adaptation does better than any other. It neither tries to sanitize the material, nor make it edgier or more dramatic. In this way, it best captures the original book and play’s strange balance of being both a lark with no real suspense and a serious work of art with depressing and even disturbing themes.[5]Of the other two Hollywood Pans I’ll be analyzing, one arguably leans too far in the first direction and the other leans too far in the second. Since it’s a silent movie, probably none of my readers will seek this one out. I can’t entirely blame them for that. It can be a pain waiting for the characters’ lips to stop moving so we can read what they’re saying. And these kinds of films are limited, to my way of thinking, by having to include music in every single moment when complete silence is sometimes the most effective. But I also think it’s kind of a shame. Because there was an art to making these old silent movies and plenty of talent went into this one. Peter Pan movies got off to a really strong start with this one.

Bibliography

Carpenter, Humphrey, 2012. Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. London: Faber and Faber.

“The Legacy of Pan.” Peter Pan, produced by Universal Studios, 2004. DVD.

References

References
1 I speak of straight adaptations. This series will not be discussing twists on the material, like Hook, Pan or Wendy.
2 He was apparently involved with the production but wasn’t completely happy with the final result.
3 Granted, twenty years had passed between this movie’s release and the first staging of the play.
4 Perhaps for similar reasons, Peter joins forces with the crocodile during the climax, rather than mimicking its ticking himself.
5 Of the other two Hollywood Pans I’ll be analyzing, one arguably leans too far in the first direction and the other leans too far in the second.
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Peter Pan: The Musicals

My original plan was to only write about the theatrical movie versions of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan since, frankly, I like most of them better. But there have been so many filmed versions of Carolyn Leigh and Mark Charlap’s musical that it felt wrong not to discuss them. This musical has probably influenced what many people think of when they hear the title, Peter Pan, even if they haven’t seen it. A series on Peter Pan adaptations that didn’t mention any of these would be incomplete. [1]This post is going to focus on filmed versions of Leigh and Charlap’s musical specifically, so it’s not going to cover the 1976 made-for-TV musical starring Mia Farrow as Peter and Danny … Continue reading

Peter Pan 1960

Peter Pan (1960) - Posters — The Movie Database (TMDb)

There were actually three NBC telecasts of Mary Martin as Peter Pan, one in 1955, one in 1956 and finally this one. Most of them contain the original Broadway cast [2]This one being a slight exception as many of the younger actors had outgrown their roles, but the main parts are still the same and are staged by Jerome Roberts, who adapted the script and was the original director and choreographer. Thus this version gives us a pretty good idea of what that first production of the musical was like. And that idea is that the first production was pretty lousy.

We begin with some voiceover narration, read by Lynn Fontanne, which is actually taken from J. M. Barrie’s dedication to his original play. Ordinarily, I’d love this but the quote, about whether or not we become different people as we age, doesn’t seem to relate to anything. As it involves maturing and growing up, it naturally relates to Peter Pan, but there’s nothing in this version at least to indicate the narrator’s conclusion that we really are the same people no matter how time changes us. If anything, it’s the opposite. This is not the only thing about the script that feels inexplicable, even if there aren’t many.

The sets for this version are very drab and boring. Of course, they’re not going to look realistic in a filmed play like this. But that’s not a reason for Neverland to look like the set of an elementary school play. Or for the costumes, especially the animal costumes, to look like something from an episode of Barney. Actually, I think that description may be unfair to Barney.

Maybe this rather cheap looking visual aesthetic is supposed to represent how Neverland is in Barrie’s words, “a map of a child’s mind.” This could be the reason why Tiger Lily (Sondra Lee) and her Indian braves [3]Normally, I’d say Native American or American Indian, but since the Indians of Neverland are such stereotypes that that just seems like spitting into the wind. I hope to write more about this … Continue readingare obviously Caucasian. They’re what English children of Barrie’s day imagined Indians to be, not any actual tribe, so perhaps it’s fitting that they look exactly like white kids playing dress up. Boy howdy, do they need some kind of excuse now! Even the original audience must have thought this looked a bit stupid.

Seriously. They couldn’t have given her a black wig or something?

There are touches in the set design throughout that suggest this Neverland-as-a-literal playground idea. (The Indians ride around on scooters. Walking the plank of the pirate ship becomes going down a water slide.) I can’t say there was no thought put into it. But I can say the effect is the opposite of magical.

Mary Martin has an impressive Broadway resume. But I can’t stand her Peter Pan! Maybe it’s the result of her trying to make her voice sound masculine, which is understandable because she sure doesn’t look it, but she sounds silly. In fact, her voice coupled with the perpetual dopey grin she sports in this production remind me of nothing so much as Lucy Ricardo drunk on VitaMeataVegaMin.

Come on. Who else sees it?

Maureen Bailey’s Wendy isn’t much better, shrill and one-note. Some of the unpolished acting of the youngest cast members does have a kind of charm to it. But the only really great performance comes from Cyril Ritchard as Mr. Darling/Captain Hook. And even he isn’t going to make my list of all-time best portrayals of those characters. [4]I speak here theoretically. I’m not planning any blog post about my favorite Hooks or George Darlings.

I’ll come out and say it now. I’m not a fan of this musical. I love the parts that are from the Barrie’s stage play and novel. But Leigh’s songs, I find, are instantly forgettable. The best of them are catchy enough but nothing to be humming days after hearing them. And they slow the pacing down more than anything. Why anyone thought the long dialogue scene of Peter Pan and Wendy meeting needed three songs for Peter (I’ve Gotta Crow, Neverland and I’m Flying, the last of which is the best) is anyone’s guess. And one song comes across as just inexplicable in context. On the Darlings’ last night in the Home Under Ground, Peter sings a lullaby, Distant Melody, to his pretend children, in which he seems to be missing his long lost mother. This makes no sense for the character, especially as it’s proceeded by a scene of him stating he has no wish to grow up and have a real family and followed by him refusing Wendy’s offer to leave Neverland with her and be adopted by her parents. Maybe a more nuanced performance could make these sudden changes of mood work. Martin doesn’t. This song takes the place of Wendy’s bedtime story from the original play and Peter’s angry revelation that his mother forgot about him after he ran away. [5]In the novel, Barrie writes, “I do not know whether this was true or not but Peter thought it was.”Apparently, the sheer beauty of the song is supposed to convince the Darlings that they should return to their parents immediately. Frankly, I don’t find the music that powerful, making this important plot point seem random.

Speaking of random, there’s Liza, the Darlings’ maid. In Barrie’s script, he had her briefly appear at the end of Act II when Peter is guarding the little house built by the Lost Boys for Wendy by night. Barrie admitted that this makes no sense and he just did it because she has so little else to do in the play. I believe most productions omit this bizarre cameo. This musical not only includes this moment, it comes up with a reason for her being in Neverland and even tries to give her a character arc. Yet somehow this feels even more random than the nonsensical appearance Barrie gave her.

We first see Liza (Jacqueline Mayro) refusing to play pretend with John (Joey Trent) and Wendy on the grounds that she has “more important things to do.” Just before he flies away, Michael (Kent Fletcher) tosses her some fairy dust. She uses it to journey to Neverland and arrives at the same point Barrie had her appear. She dances a boring ballet interlude and then sees the sleeping Peter but she doesn’t wake him or ask him where the Darlings are or anything. We don’t see her again until the climax where she helps fight the pirates(?) [6]Having the other denizens of Neverland assist Peter during the final battle is one of the few adaptation ideas in this musical I like actually. What was she doing during the untold amount of time the characters were on the island. How come she never interacted with them before? After that scene, she shows herself to be a Peter fangirl and sings a pointless reprise of I’ve Gotta Crow. How exactly did she go from an uptight grownup to this? We don’t see any of the beats. I don’t have a problem with the idea of Liza going to Neverland with the Darlings, but as it is, the character has simultaneously too much to do and not enough.

I will give praise to this musical for including Barrie’s epilogue where Peter meets Wendy’s daughter, Jane. Almost none of the other Peter Pans I’ll be writing about include this. [7]I could quibble that it shows Wendy’s regret upon being reunited with Peter as an adult, but not Wendy happily telling a bedtime story to her daughter moments before, making for a less nuanced … Continue readingThat’s about where my praise ends. Unless you’re a big fan of the material or some of the actors involved, there’s no reason to see the 1960 Peter Pan. It’s clunky, corny and while it only lasts an hour and forty minutes, it feels much longer.

Peter Pan 2000

Peter Pan (2000) - IMDb

Director Glenn Casale revived the musical for Broadway in 1990 and thanks to the A&E network, the production was restaged and captured on film in 2000. We owe them a great debt of gratitude for that because this one blows Jerome Robbins’ production completely out of the water. The choice of text from Barrie to use as voiceover narration makes more sense. The costumes are better. The flying effects are more impressive. The sets are much more detailed and beg to be explored.

No one in the cast pales besides their 1960 counterpart and most are improvements on them. Cathy Rigby brings great physical exuberance and flair to the starring role, putting Mary Martin’s attempts at masculine swagger to utter shame. She also delivers on the moments of deadpan humor and rare moments of vulnerability.

Paul Schoeffler, with his air of perpetually aggrieved dignity, is great fun as both Mr. Darling and Capt. Hook. And Michael Nostrand is probably the most hilarious version of Smee ever, which is no faint praise. He’s so great that he evens get an extra scene, original to this adaptation.

The only performance I have a slight issue with is Elisa Sagardia’s Wendy, who doesn’t show as much range as the role allows. Her Wendy is either charmed or saddened by Peter. We never see her get angry with him. Still, if not the greatest Wendy, she’s a solid improvement on Maureen Bailey.

Casale’s adaptation brings back several elements from Barrie that were either cut specifically from the 1960 Pan or were never in the original Broadway production at all, and basically all of them improvements. The expanded role of Liza (Dana Solimando, who doubles as Tiger Lily) is cut. Wendy and Peter have their misunderstanding about kisses. [8]In the scene where Wendy takes her leave of the Home Under Ground, this gets a rather emotional callback. We get the amusing explanation for Lost Boy Slightly’s name and Peter’s “chivalrous” reaction to being told Wendy’s brother despises girls. Instead of tying her to a tree, the pirates try to strand Tiger Lily on Marooner’s Rock in the Mermaids’ Lagoon. The song where Peter tricks Hook by pretending to be a Mysterious Lady is cut. I can understand why some fans of the original musical might regret that one since it was rather hilarious. But I can’t say I’ve ever noticed its absence with a pang while watching the scene. There was also a hilarious bit of dialogue original to Jerome Robbins’ adaptation, which was infuriatingly cut from the 1960 telecast, that gets reinstated here. (It comes when Wendy is telling bedtime stories to the Lost Boys. You’ll know it when you hear it.)

There is one way in which this production strays farther from Barrie than the original did rather than hearkening back to him. Hook’s lament in the middle of Captain Hook’s Waltz that no little children love him is cut. As a fan of the source material, I might have liked to have seen it kept. But, honestly, it fit so poorly with the triumphant tone of the song that I can’t blame Casale for cutting it.

Ah, yes, the songs. While I still don’t love them, they don’t bore me here as they do in the 1960 version, thanks to the better orchestrations and more entertaining choreography. And Distant Melody at last makes sense. Here, Wendy starts out as the one singing it. [9]For one of the main characters, Wendy is given ridiculously little singing to do in this musical. Peter joins in as she goes on. The memory of home seems like something awakened in him just now, not something that constantly haunts him. And his wistfulness comes across as part of a private reverie, not something he’s deliberately sharing with others, which would make no sense if he wished to keep Wendy and the Lost Boys with him. In one of this production’s most notable reinstatements, he follows this up by confiding in Wendy about his mother.

This moment of seriousness is handled just as well as the show’s many, many lighthearted moments. Just about every scene contains some entertaining bit of stage business. It speaks to how engaging the production is that when Peter begs the audience to save TinkerBell by clapping to express belief in fairies, they oblige in seconds. Of course, that could be because the footage was edited to have the applause start sooner. Or because they were prompted by the director beforehand. Or because they knew what they were expected to do when going to see a Peter Pan production long before they entered the theatre. But seriously! This is such a wonderful and exhilarating show that I wouldn’t be surprised if the audience reaction was perfectly spontaneous.

Peter Pan 2014

Peter Pan Live Poster With Christopher Walken and Allison Williams

NBC aired Peter Pan Live in 2014 as part of their recent line of live television musicals, largely aimed at family audiences. They clearly spared no expense trying to make it a big event. Though the wires are distractingly visible in some of the flying shots, this Pan‘s elaborate sets and colorful costumes are much more eye-catching than anything in the 1960 version. The miniature London seen in the opening outdoes that one all by itself. I’m not sure why the Lost Boys wear brightly colored school uniforms instead of animal skins, but they get points for originality. Director Rob Ashford has a strong theatrical background and his choreography has some fun bits, like Peter’s dance with his shadows during I’ve Gotta Crow or the use of paper folding in I Won’t Grow Up.

Peter Pan Live' Recap: Best and Worst Moments – The Hollywood Reporter
Peter Pan live streaming: How to watch Peter Pan musical children's show  for FREE | Theatre | Entertainment | Express.co.uk

Alison Williams is bland in the title role though. She doesn’t annoy me as Mary Martin’s Peter does, but she’s never a quarter of as much fun Cathy Rigby’s was either, though I might prefer her singing voice. Christopher Walken comes across as dull and listless as Capt. Hook. He was probably going for a more serious take on the character than Ritchard and Schoeffler. I approve of that idea in theory [10]More on this in a later post but the new script by Irene Mecchi, who contributed to a number of Disney projects, most notably The Lion King [11]More relevantly to this musical’s target audience, she did the script for the Wonderful World of Disney’s 1999 Annie., doesn’t really give him anything to work with on that score. Neither Walken nor Williams is outright bad in their role, but neither is particularly impressive either. In fact, the same could be said of the whole cast. All of the actors underplay their parts compared to those in the two previous productions. Again, this is good in theory as television is a much more intimate medium than the stage. But in practice, a little campy flair might have been just what this broadcast needed to liven it up.

Mecchi’s adaptation takes more liberties than Casale’s did and they’re seldom to good effect. Occasionally, there’s a great line. (“Let’s show Wendy how sorry we are for almost killing her.”) But when it isn’t quoting from Jerome or Barrie, the dialogue tends to sound overwritten and lacking in snap. I also noticed a good deal of padding. Before sewing Peter’s shadow back on, Wendy tiptoes out of her room to make sure the maid is preoccupied and Peter gives us exposition about Capt. Hook, rather than waiting until we get to Neverland for it. The purpose of this extension seems to have been to show off that this production, unlike others, could take us into the rooms of the Darling House besides the nursery. Understandable, I suppose, except that it already did this when Mrs. Darling (Kelli O’Hara, probably the cast’s biggest asset, for whatever that’s worth) confided to her husband (Christian Borle, who doubles as Smee) why she wanted Nana to stay in the nursery, and that made sense. Instead of capturing them as soon as they exit the Home Under Ground, the pirates inexplicably let the Darlings and the Lost Boys walk through the woods a little before picking them off one by one. At two hours and eleven minutes, not counting the commercials from the original airing, this is longest Peter Pan discussed in this post and it feels like it. Only once, when Hook takes a last farewell of his crew before abandoning ship, does the slower pacing really add anything interesting.

An aim of this reworked script seems to have been to make the musical more serious. As I’m foremost a fan of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, which could get pretty dark, I applaud this goal. But the execution shows a misunderstanding of the characters and even betrays a fundamental distrust in the material. Rather than just wanting to kill Peter Pan and capture Wendy, Hook now has his men planting dynamite all over the island so he can blow up Neverland. (Seriously! That’s the plot.)[12]The climactic moment in the musical and original play when a desperate Hook tries and fails to blow up his ship with all the children on it probably inspired this. Tiger Lily (Alanna Saunders) gets wind of this and tries to convince Peter that they need to join forces to stop this threat. He dismisses this until his rescue of her at Marooner’s Rock, which she reciprocates. “We have much work to do,” he says solemnly. Later, before his final battle against the pirates, he says, “It’s not just a game this time.” No. For Peter, the boy who never grows up, it should be a game, albeit a bigger game than usual, like the championship. Having Peter undergo character development and become more responsible goes completely against his whole character. Even before this, he seems too intense, such as when he chides Wendy (Taylor Louderman) for not taking the island’s dangers seriously enough, and speaking of “a great battle that took place here” in which “many lives (were) lost.” Ashford and Mecchi don’t seem to believe viewers will engage with the story unless there’s something sort of ongoing suspense.

Peter Pan LIVE!: Photos from the Live Broadcast of Peter Pan Live! Photo:  2089196 - NBC.com

As part of this serious tone, two of this version’s four new songs, Only Pretend and When I Went Home, are of a melancholy nature. Of the original songs, only Distant Melody and maybe Tender Shepherd were trying to dramatic. I appreciate that the first grants my wish to have Wendy sing more and the second reinstates Peter’s backstory that was cut from the musical’s original Broadway production. But they’re both boring and don’t mesh with the rest of the soundtrack. The old songs have always been boring in my opinion, but at least they were boring in a consistently lighthearted way. Ironically, my favorite new song from this Peter Pan is Hook’s Vengeance, which is actually the one that’s just trying to be fun. There is one attempt at making the musical more dramatic which does work well: having Distant Melody become a duet between Wendy and her mother, back in London, missing her children. And there’s a good twist regarding the identity of the narrator (Minnie Driver), though I can’t give the script too much credit for that as other Peter Pan adaptations have done the same thing.

I want to praise this production. A live television musical like this is a very difficult, nerve wracking thing to pull off, especially as this one has real dog as Nana (Bowdie) instead of the traditional costumed actor. There are all sorts of things that can go wrong, and nothing major does. It’s clear that everyone involved put a lot of thought and effort into this. But the fact that I feel like I have to stress this arguably tells you everything you need to know.

Conclusion

Do I even need to say which of these I recommend? Not only is the Cathy Rigby version the best filming of this specific musical, it’s one of the best Peter Pans I’ve seen.

Bibliography

Barrie, J. M. (1995) Peter Pan and Other Plays. New York: Oxford University Press.

Barrie, J. M. (1994) Peter and Wendy: The Original Storybook Version of Peter Pan. New York: Barnes & Noble Inc.

peter-pan—libretto.pdf (everythingmusicals.com)

References

References
1 This post is going to focus on filmed versions of Leigh and Charlap’s musical specifically, so it’s not going to cover the 1976 made-for-TV musical starring Mia Farrow as Peter and Danny Kaye as Capt. Hook, though I may give it a post of its own.
2 This one being a slight exception as many of the younger actors had outgrown their roles, but the main parts are still the same
3 Normally, I’d say Native American or American Indian, but since the Indians of Neverland are such stereotypes that that just seems like spitting into the wind. I hope to write more about this topic in an upcoming Peter Pan post.
4 I speak here theoretically. I’m not planning any blog post about my favorite Hooks or George Darlings.
5 In the novel, Barrie writes, “I do not know whether this was true or not but Peter thought it was.”
6 Having the other denizens of Neverland assist Peter during the final battle is one of the few adaptation ideas in this musical I like actually.
7 I could quibble that it shows Wendy’s regret upon being reunited with Peter as an adult, but not Wendy happily telling a bedtime story to her daughter moments before, making for a less nuanced depiction of growing up. But to be fair, the adult Wendy’s actress, Peggy Maurer, does seem rather cheerful when she first greets Peter Pan. Maybe that was an attempt at depth, though it comes across more as a weird acting choice.
8 In the scene where Wendy takes her leave of the Home Under Ground, this gets a rather emotional callback.
9 For one of the main characters, Wendy is given ridiculously little singing to do in this musical.
10 More on this in a later post
11 More relevantly to this musical’s target audience, she did the script for the Wonderful World of Disney’s 1999 Annie.
12 The climactic moment in the musical and original play when a desperate Hook tries and fails to blow up his ship with all the children on it probably inspired this.
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Which Friday Is the Freakiest? Candidates 3 and 4

One Final Attempt to Understand What Goes On in Your Head: Freaky Friday (2003)

Freaky Friday (2003) - IMDb

Only eight years after the 1995 Freaky Friday, Disney released another remake, into cinemas this time, from director Mark Waters and screenwriters Leslie Dixon and Heather Hach. For most people, of my generation at least, this is The Freaky Friday. I’m not convinced it deserves that honor, but I can’t say I don’t see where the reputation came from.

If the 1995 version was a little too specific in its portrayal of the contrasting problems of youth and age and generational conflict, this one feels a little too generalized. The prickly relationship between Anna Coleman (Lindsay Lohan) and her widowed therapist mother, Tess (Jamie Lee Curtis) feels more like a stereotypical punk-teen-conservative-mother dynamic than the one between Annabel Andrews and Ellen. (How many rebellious adolescents would describe their mother, even in private, as “the most beautiful person in the world?”) And what’s more, the characters feel stereotypical in a very marketable way. Compared to Jodie Foster’s endearingly awkward, tomboyish Annabel, Lohan’s Anna looks very much like what kids and teens circa the early 2000s would consider cool and attractive-or, more accurately, what adults circa the early 2000s would think kids and teens would find cool and attractive. To be fair though, the character is sixteen rather than thirteen, so it makes sense for her to be more poised. (Her mother has likewise been aged up.) Her love interest, Jake (Chad Michael Murray) is also more like what one would expect a teenage girl to find attractive than appealingly dorky, adenoidal Boris was. And little brother Harry (Ryan Malgarini) is more like the stereotypical annoying younger sibling than “Ape Face.”

Freaky Friday - Publicity still of Lindsay Lohan & Chad Michael Murray

Of course, comedic stereotypes, including negatively portrayed adult authority figures, have always been a part of Freaky Friday. Honestly, I’d be disappointed to watch a movie with that title and not find some stock characterizations. But it becomes alarming when you to try to think of a character who isn’t a stereotype of some sort. The only candidates I could come up with are Tess’s fiancé, Ryan (Andrew Harmon) and Jake, who arguably is a subversion of the motorcycling bad boy stereotype. Some of the movie’s stereotypes work well enough, like the evil, twofaced popular high school girl (Julie Gonzalo) or the pathetically needy therapy patient. (Willie Garson) [1]Though I believe the movie would have been greatly improved dramatically if Anna had grown to sympathize with the latter and come to respect her mother’s work as a result. Others are irritating and borderline offensive, like the deaf senior citizen, who is always out of the loop, (Harold Gould), and the shrill, chattering Asian who works in a Chinese restaurant. (Rosalind Chao) [2]Though I admit the subtitled argument between the two Asian characters halfway through the movie is a guilty pleasure of mine.

The mention of that restaurant brings me to how this movie combines the body swapping methods of the original book (a mother figure with inexplicable supernatural powers) and the 1995 movie (a Chinese restaurant.) Anna and her mother go there on Thursday night and get into a heated fight [3]Happily, unlike in the 1995 Freaky Friday, their sparring is heated but never too nasty for a comedy. about a scheduling conflict between a once-in-a-lifetime audition for Anna’s garage band and the rehearsal dinner for Tess’s wedding. A mystical old Asian woman (Lucille Soong)(another stereotype) overhears and gives them prophetic fortune cookies, if I can say that without redundancy, which they open at the same time. As in the book, they awaken the next morning to discover their minds have been switched, rather than having it occur after Friday morning is well underway as in the last two movies.

The movie’s biggest asset is the two lead performances. It’s a shame I don’t have a better choice of screenshots to show off their marvelous facial expressions and body language. Lindsay Lohan gives easily the funniest and most convincing adult-in-a-child’s-body performance in any of these movies, bringing an air of fierce dignity to the role, and not even breaking a sweat. In the wackier role of child-in-an-adult’s-body, Jamie Lee Curtis also rises to the top of the pack despite stiffer competition from the other Freaky Fridays. A major inovation of this version is that mother and daughter are actively working together to find the cause of the switch and undo it throughout. This allows Curtis and Lohan to really develop a relationship between the characters and they play off each other really well. The bit where they quarrel over fast food is a highlight.

Image gallery for Freaky Friday - FilmAffinity

It’s amazing how this movie keeps repeating basically the same joke over and over again, of Anna or Tess doing something in the other’s body that would be inappropriate or out of character for them while the other characters look on in bafflement, without getting tired. This is especially so when you consider how the fantastic/comedic premise was nothing new at the time. In addition to the past Fridays, similar themed movies included 1987’s Like Father, Like Son and 1988’s Vice Versa. [4]The latter was a remake of a movie from 1948, which was adapted from a novel by F. Anstey from 1882! The two stellar lead performances have a lot to do with keeping it so engaging, but Waters deserves credit for his direction and Hach and Dixon for their script too. Even the dialogue for the aforementioned annoying stereotypes is amusing and while I may often be nonplussed by the movie when I watch it, I never get the urge to turn it off.

To paraphrase the 1967 Freaky Friday, this movie is a whole lot smarter than you’d hope and a whole lot dumber too. Its biggest flaw is how unbalanced it is in its treatment of mother and daughter. Tess finds that Anna’s problems at school, which she’d assumed to be her child’s own fault, are actually because of others and beyond Anna’s control. The problems in Tess’s life turn out to be either based on misunderstandings on her part or are easily blown off by her daughter. Anna doesn’t enjoy having to fill in for her mom at work, but she’s able to bluff her way through therapy sessions by repeating, “how do you feel about that?” And the one time she really interacts with a patient, her perspective as a teenager gives her insight the real Dr. Coleman wouldn’t have had. The biggest source of stress in Tess’s life seems to be her perpetually beeping pager, which Anna simply turns off and since, as the title dictates, the switch only lasts for a day, this never comes back to haunt her. We finally get a scene where it looks like Anna is going to be in some hot water when she unexpectedly has to go on a talk show to promote her mother’s new book. But this leads to the movie’s stupidest scene. After making a few stabs at impersonating her mother, Anna proclaims that the reason adults are frequently tired is that they worry about “stupid things” like cooking, cleaning and parenting. (That’s not the stupid part. That’s funny.) Tess, watching “herself” on TV, is humiliated, but every member of the studio audience, with the exception of bemused by supportive fiancé Ryan, cheers this sentiment. It even has the effect of endearing Anna to Jake albeit when she’s in the wrong body.

And this isn’t an isolated incident of everyone applauding the daughter except for her mother. In a complete inversion of the book and the original movie, Anna gives her dowdy mother’s body a stylish makeover. Tess is horrified but the other characters compliment her on the hot new look-including Ryan! There is one instance of Tess using her adult knowledge to do something Anna couldn’t in the scene where she stands up to a tyrannical English teacher. Unfortunately, it’s a scenario about as ridiculous as the talk show scene, but it’s such a rare win for the character that I can’t help but enjoy it. Tess’s worldview and perceptions of others are overturned at nearly every point. Anna, on the other hand, is forced to reevaluate her brother and her future stepfather and that’s pretty much it. [5]There is a funny moment when she realizes how hard it is be nearsighted, but this isn’t played for even implicit character development. Ostensibly, she starts to respect her mother late in the movie when Ryan praises her for always putting her kids first, but we sure don’t see any evidence of Tess actually doing this earlier. Anna also gets to enjoy some of the perks of adulthood, like a driver’s license and credit cards, but Tess never enjoys any advantages to being young again. [6]Well, except for the climax where she ends up enjoying filling in for her daughter at the musical audition. But this is presented as her learning to respect Anna’s music, not fulfilling any … Continue reading

The effect of all this is to make this Freaky Friday kid/teen pandering in a way none of the others are. It also limits the comedy of the daughter’s story since it’s less fun to when the character is never totally overwhelmed or receiving comeuppance of some sort. But the movie does end on a high note. The scene where “selfless love” restores Tess and Anna to their true forms is more powerful than it has a right to be, thanks to the sensitive direction and acting. Lohan and Curtis deserve some kind of award for their performances in that scene, the former for coming across as specifically an adult being emotionally vulnerable and self-sacrificing and Curtis for coming across as a child being the same. This makes for the most touching moment in any Freaky Friday movie, so much so that I’m willing to ignore the fact that it doesn’t make sense when you stop to think about it. And the addition of the mother’s wedding to the story does make for a nice finale as the different generations, which have had little use for each other throughout, come together at last to celebrate the same event.

If You Knew What I Go Through: Freaky Friday (2018)

Freaky Friday (TV Movie 2018) - IMDb

This last Freaky Friday began life as an off Broadway stage musical written by Bridget Carpenter of TV’s Parenthood in 2016. She adapted her own work for this Disney Channel Original Movie. It was directed by Steve Carr, who, according to IMDB, has probably the least impressive resume of any Freaky Friday director, but let’s not get too cynical right away. This adaptation combines elements of the original book and the 2003 movie. [7]As in the 1995 version, the mom ends up having to attend a biology and a gym class as her daughter, but that one is so under the radar, I’m inclined to believe those similarities are a … Continue reading The inclusion of the dead father/husband from the latter gives a different resonance to a detail from the former never before included in an adaptation: the daughter’s (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) dislike of euphemisms for death like “passed on.” This mother, Katherine Blake (Heidi Blickenstaff, who played the part in the original play) is, like her most recent counterpart, about to be remarried. Instead of a therapist though, she’s a caterer who is doing her own wedding and is about to be subject of a cover story for a big magazine. Rather than an athletic or musical competition, as in the other movies, the big upcoming event in her daughter, Ellie ‘s life is a scavenger hunt. [8]Don’t ask me why the daughter now has the name of the original mother. After the somewhat lazy characterizations of the 2003 movie, that last adaptation choice feels refreshingly creative.

Another creative detail is how the heroines switch bodies. Instead of fortune cookies, necklaces or plain old Friday the thirteenth, the device used is a magical hourglass, which was a gift from Ellie’s dad. Katherine and Ellie express their mutual wish to trade places while both touching it on Friday morning and, of course, said wish is granted. [9]I guess that’s something the movie borrows from the 1976 version, but the connections between the book and the 2003 movie are much more prominent. This also leads to the hourglass breaking. Katherine once had a matching hourglass, but it’s been sold to an antique store. The goal of the characters, when they aren’t each dealing with the other’s responsibilities, is to track down this hourglass and restore themselves to normal before the wedding.

See the source image

To its credit, the script makes smart decisions as to which elements to borrow from each previous variation of the story. This is arguably the only Freaky Friday in which both main characters have a character arc of equal depth and weight. [10]The mother in the 1976 movie certainly takes her licks and isn’t coddled like the 2003 daughter, but she lacks her daughter’s well designed arc, inherited from the source material, in … Continue reading A scene where Ellie in Katherine’s body breaks down because “everyone keeps asking me questions and I don’t know the right answers” is something the 2003 movie really could have used. But there’s also a feeling of too much borrowing and not enough originality. Maybe it’s less of a problem if you haven’t watched all the Freaky Friday movies in one week, but I couldn’t help notice how many scenes and jokes were variations of old ones. The writing is strong enough that they’re amusing variations, but I also can’t help thinking longingly of the 2003 Friday, which, for all my criticism of it, was able to come up with new jokes from the premise.

One obvious way in which this version does set itself apart from the others is in being a musical. Happily, the songs are a lot of fun and go someway to justify the existence of a new Freaky Friday, though the choreography is sadly nothing to boast about. In particular, Just One Day, an early song establishing the characters and their problems, is great, but isn’t helped by the accompanying dance steps. The lyrics describe how the conflicting interests and growing frustrations of different family members and the music conveys growing intensity and pressure (in an appropriately lighthearted way.) But the choreography looks far too smooth and, well, choreographed to express any of this.

See the source image

Something else that arguably stands out about this Freaky Friday is that its the most family friendly movie with that title [11]Ironically, the original stage play was arguably the raciest thing to be called Freaky Friday. with none of the mildly adult humor of the 1976 and 2003 movies or the occasional swearing of the latter. I don’t entirely approve of this cleanliness myself, being foremost a fan of the book, which could be fairly adult in its content at times. But I guess I can also see the value of a Friday that parents can feel comfortable watching with their youngest children.

In the role of the body-swapped Ellie, Heidi Blickenstaff is hilarious. I wouldn’t say she gives Barabara Harris or Jamie Lee Curtis a run for their money, but she doesn’t disgrace herself beside them and she’s more fun than Shelley Long was in the corresponding role. [12]I don’t think she’s necessarily a better actress than Long. It has more to do with the 1995 Freaky Friday‘s script. This movie is usually at its most entertaining when she’s onscreen. A highlight is the scene where she has to demonstrate her mother’s planned wedding dance for the magazine reporter.

See the source image
See the source image
Please ignore the little white circle, which is supposed to indicate an Easter Egg in this scene, and focus on Blickenstaff.

Cozi Zuehlsdorff regrettably gives the blandest portrayal of a mother in her daughter’s body in any of these films. [13]I note with some annoyance that she’s also noticeably thinner than the actress who originated the part on stage. Not saying that specific actress should have had the role here, but it’d … Continue readingWhich makes it frustrating how this movie is clearly trying to be more of a vehicle for her than for Blickenstaff. I’m particularly miffed that After All of This and Everything, a big emotional song for Blickenstaff, was cut [14]After All of This and Everything (From “Freaky Friday” the Disney Channel Original Movie) – YouTube while What It’s Like To Be Me and At Last It’s Me, the songs bookending the movie, were specifically written for Zuehlsdorff-and the last one is the movie’s weakest song! (After All of This and Everything was apparently cut because the director couldn’t figure out how to have the camera simply focus on the character sitting in a chair and singing to her brother for a whole song. If you’ve read my series on Les Misérables (2012), you know what I think of that.)

See the source image
See the source image

I’ve praised this Freaky Friday for giving both mother and daughter a well thought out character arc, but there’s a price to be paid for that. This is definitely the sappiest of the Friday movies. Now I don’t have a problem with sentiment. One of my favorite authors is Charles Dickens, for crying out loud. And the original book did have some very dramatic material which the first movie left out. But I prefer the way that book and all the movies, except for the 1995 one, start out as pure comedies, and somewhat cynical ones at that, before slowly beginning to introduce emotional elements around the halfway point. Here we get emotional moments as early as the second scene, where Ellie is hurt to find that her mother has sold a gift from her father and Katherine gently explains to her daughter that the family could lose their house if the big magazine cover story about her wedding doesn’t work out. During the movie’s last third or so, we keep getting bombarded with one emotional exchange or revelation after another, some much more effective than others, to the point where they stop having an impact. Still, at least this Freaky Friday‘s attempts at emphasizing drama aren’t as unpleasant as the 1995 movie’s were.

Conclusion

So which is the best Freaky Friday movie? My vote goes to…the 1976 one. I know that isn’t the majority opinion. The first Friday certainly is a very 70s movie and today’s viewers aren’t going to be drawn to it that much. [15]Though I’d argue all these movies are dated in their own ways. But while it doesn’t reach the heights of the 2003 FF, neither does it sink to its depths. Actually, a more accurate description would be that the 1976 movie is great for most of its runtime but has a dumb yet skippable climax and the 2003 movie blends the brilliant and the stupid throughout. The 1995 and 2018 versions are seldom particularly stupid or particularly brilliant. The 1976 adaptation also gets points from me for being the closest to the book, which is really the Freaky Friday I recommend people pick if they can only check out one. It’s a very fun read, breezy and quick but with surprising depth and nuance that rewards rereading.

Children and Young Adult Book Recommendations | BYU McKay School of  Education

References

References
1 Though I believe the movie would have been greatly improved dramatically if Anna had grown to sympathize with the latter and come to respect her mother’s work as a result.
2 Though I admit the subtitled argument between the two Asian characters halfway through the movie is a guilty pleasure of mine.
3 Happily, unlike in the 1995 Freaky Friday, their sparring is heated but never too nasty for a comedy.
4 The latter was a remake of a movie from 1948, which was adapted from a novel by F. Anstey from 1882!
5 There is a funny moment when she realizes how hard it is be nearsighted, but this isn’t played for even implicit character development.
6 Well, except for the climax where she ends up enjoying filling in for her daughter at the musical audition. But this is presented as her learning to respect Anna’s music, not fulfilling any wishes of her own. To be fair to the movie, if there are any advantages to being a teenager, I’m sure they don’t involve high school.
7 As in the 1995 version, the mom ends up having to attend a biology and a gym class as her daughter, but that one is so under the radar, I’m inclined to believe those similarities are a coincidence.
8 Don’t ask me why the daughter now has the name of the original mother.
9 I guess that’s something the movie borrows from the 1976 version, but the connections between the book and the 2003 movie are much more prominent.
10 The mother in the 1976 movie certainly takes her licks and isn’t coddled like the 2003 daughter, but she lacks her daughter’s well designed arc, inherited from the source material, in which the mother’s character development was a subtext at the most.
11 Ironically, the original stage play was arguably the raciest thing to be called Freaky Friday.
12 I don’t think she’s necessarily a better actress than Long. It has more to do with the 1995 Freaky Friday‘s script.
13 I note with some annoyance that she’s also noticeably thinner than the actress who originated the part on stage. Not saying that specific actress should have had the role here, but it’d have been nice to see a chubbier girl in the lead.
14 After All of This and Everything (From “Freaky Friday” the Disney Channel Original Movie) – YouTube
15 Though I’d argue all these movies are dated in their own ways.
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Which Friday is the Freakiest? Candidates 1 and 2

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it.” Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Many more people know the premise of Freaky Friday than have actually watched any of the movies bearing that title. And many more will have seen one of those movies than will be familiar with the original source, the 1972 Young Adult novel by Mary Rodgers. [1]The daughter, incidentally of composer Richard Rodgers. I’m not sure how many people out there even know the book exists. But with four Freaky Friday movies having been released by the Walt Disney Company over the course of forty years, two theatrical and two made for television, society demands a verdict: which is the best take on the source material? Right, Society? Well, OK, mostly I just want to give a verdict. So without further ado…

I’d Like To Be You For a Day: Freaky Friday (1976)

Freaky Friday (1976) - IMDb

The screenplay for the first cinematic Freaky Friday, directed by Gary Nelson, was actually written by Rodgers herself. Perhaps naturally then, its characterizations are the most faithful to that of the source material. Rebellious 13 year-old Annabel Andrews (Jodie Foster), her prim mother, Ellen (Barbara Harris), seemingly goody-two-shoes younger brother, Ben AKA Ape Face (Sparky Marcus), work-absorbed father, Bill (John Astin) and Boris Harris (Marc McClure), the neighbor for whom Annabel carries a torch, are all here, pretty much the same as they are in the book.

The Andrews family, however, has been moved from an apartment building in New York City to a home in an unspecified bayside suburban area. More important is the change to the narrative structure and the circumstances by which Ellen and Annabel swap bodies for the good part of a Friday. The book is entirely Annabel’s story. We’re introduced to her as she wakes up on Friday morning, having had a fight with her mother the night before about freedom, to find her mind is now in her mother’s body. We actually don’t know right away that the two have switched places as the book’s beginning chapters mislead reader and Annabel into thinking that her mind is somehow in both bodies. The whereabouts of the mother are a mystery for most of the story. We follow Annabel as she goes from being ecstatic about getting to experience adult independence to being panicked and overwhelmed as events spiral out of her control. Only then, when she has been humbled, is she reunited with her mother and returned to her old body. Turns out it was the Mom who switched them, which she inexplicably has the power to do, to teach Annabel a lesson.

In the movie, mother and daughter are switched around by, in the book’s words, “a third party.” On Friday morning, while each one is separately recounting the previous night’s skirmish to someone else, they say at the exact moment, “I wish I could trade places with her just for one day.” Apparently, when two people simultaneously express that wish on Friday the thirteenth, the universe is happy to oblige, or so this movie would have it. Far from being in control of the situation, Ellen initially wants to go home, and only commits to posing as her daughter when stung by the assertion that she couldn’t handle “a simple school day.” From that point on, Annabel and Ellen share the role of heroine and Ellen’s idealized view of childhood as “the best time of a person’s life” is deconstructed as well as Annabel’s concept of adulthood as the Promised Land of glamor and independence. So the premise we normally think of when we hear the title, Freaky Friday, was actually pioneered by this movie. [2]The book does have Ellen deal with not being able to purchase cigarettes or use her charge plates without permission. In fact, her experiences lead to her conclude that too many adults treat children … Continue reading

In the bookend scenes of her as Annabel, Jodie Foster perfectly captures the book’s narrator. She manages to convey a girl who is both perceptive enough to intelligently mock every adult authority figure in her life and totally oblivious to the justice of most of the criticism she receives from them. However, she’s not quite as good in the main body of the movie where she portrays Ellen in Annabel’s body. There’s nothing really wrong with her performance. It’s just not the best. Barbara Harris, on the other hand, is both convincing as the ladylike Ellen and natural and hilarious as the brash, blunt Annabel. She more or less carries the film on the shoulders.

But that’s not to imply she’s the only good actor in it. There are lots of cameos from fun character actors like Sorrell Brooke, Patsy Kelly, Dick Van Patten and Kaye Ballard.

Despite the liberties it takes with the book’s plot, the movie’s script is witty and engaging, even when not laugh-out-loud funny, in the same way. The forceful personalities of Ellen and Annabel, who are equally smart-alecky in their contrasting ways, keep the movie bouncing along from embarrassing mishap to embarrassing mishap without growing tiresome. Well, for most of the runtime anyway. My only major beef with the script is the overelaborate slapstick climax. While it involves an amusing twist on audience expectations, this climax goes on about five minutes too long and kills whatever suspense the movie had generated as it soon becomes clear there will be no physical repercussions to whatever violence befalls the characters. Was this climax Rodgers’ idea or was she forced to include it since 7os Disney comedies always had set pieces like this? As a fan of the book, I find it disappointing that this replaces that version’s climax which managed to be both dramatically tense and hilarious.

The climax does have value in that the father gets some comeuppance for being such a “male chauvinist pig.” (Annabel’s description.) Throughout the movie, he dismisses his wife’s thoughts and concerns, expects her to prepare a huge meal for his business associates at the last minute and “show up looking beautiful” to said meal in a sexy black dress. We’re clearly not meant to approve of this, but the fact that he never apologizes or tries to change dates poorly. [3]Some also object to the way Annabel’s beloved Boris, in both the book and the movie, only becomes attracted to her after her braces are removed and she receives a girly makeover. I suppose … Continue reading The character in the book also expected his wife to produce a big meal at the last second, but he had more scenes showing him in a more sympathetic or neutral light. What was the point of making him so unlikeable here? The movie’s ending feels like it was setting up a sequel in which the father would undergo his own character development. But, for better or for worse, no such sequel was made. [4]Mary Rodgers would eventually write a literary sequel to Freaky Friday along these lines called Summer Switch. It followed the movie’s lead, rather than the book’s, in having parent and … Continue reading Remakes aplenty, however, were.

Someday You Ought to Try My Life: Freaky Friday (1995)

Freaky Friday (1995 film) - Wikipedia

In 1995, Disney collaborated with ABC to do a TV remake of Freaky Friday directed by Melanie Mayron from a script by Stu Krieger. This is easily the Friday that’s most under the radar, not being on DisneyPlus and, I believe, never having been released on home video. (So no screencaps this time, folks.) If it weren’t viewable on YouTube as I type this, I wouldn’t have included it at all. To put it bluntly, the fact that you probably haven’t seen it is no huge loss. But for those interested in tracing the evolution of this story over the years, [5]By which I mean myself it’s valuable as a “missing link” between the 1972 movie and the 2003 one. [6]In particular, the father figure in this one is interesting in that he’s halfway between the negative figure he was in the first movie and the positive figure he would become in all subsequent … Continue reading

Shelley Long’s Ellen Andrews now has a job outside the home [7]Though in Mary Rodgers’ sequels to the literary Freaky Friday, the character already got a job at a museum. and is trying to overcome her cigarette addiction, though she amusingly falls off the wagon due to the stress of unexpectedly swapping bodies with her daughter, Annabel (Gaby Hoffman) (or Annabelle as IMDB would have it.) An update more important to the story is that she’s divorced. Bill is now the name of her boyfriend (Alan Rosenberg) whom her daughter resents. This is a change that both future remakes would borrow though their mothers would be widowed. [8]Probably just as well since the 1995 movie initially makes a big deal about the divorce, but never really explains how it happened. The whole thing comes across as an undercooked attempt at … Continue reading While it’s still on Friday the thirteenth that the switch happens, this movie introduces another explanation for it: A pair of matching Talismans from a Chinese restaurant that do magic when the wearers’ think the same thought at the same time.

The conflict between mother and daughter is the same as in the 1976 movie, but the tone is weirdly more dramatic. In that movie, the big fight between Ellen and Annabel was related rather than seen. In this one, we see several sharp disagreements between the two during the first twenty minutes or so. They sound like a real mother and daughter fighting, which means they come across as really unpleasant and not particularly funny. The 1976 characters managed to come across as both snippy and likable in a way these two don’t. They do gain audience sympathy after the switch-too much sympathy frankly. The book and the original movie had the characters accept the story’s fantastic premise with surreal ease in keeping with the tongue-in-cheek tone of the work. Here Annabelle and Ellen are realistically freaked out and it’s not a lot of fun to watch them desperately pleading in vain for others to believe them. I’d like to stress that I’m not blaming Hoffman or Long for this unpleasantness. They do what I think the script wants them to do and do it with energy. I’m just not convinced the script has the right idea.

Where the first Freaky Friday movie gave Annabel and Ellen each a number of obligations that made them envy the other and which the other was unprepared to handle upon their transformation, this one gives both daughter and mother one big responsibility. Well, two big responsibilities in the mother’s case. She’s stuck with the roles of firing a nice but useless employee and impressing a prickly client. Annabelle, as captain of her swim team, is given the choice of which of the alternates should replace a teammate for the finals, a choice that could spell social disaster for her as the best candidate is also the least popular among her peers. These specific woes of adulthood and adolescence aren’t mined for wry humor nearly as much as the generalized ones of other Freaky Fridays. They play out more like drama, which I suppose isn’t, by definition, bad. But it’s only occasionally interesting drama. The overall effect is again more depressing than anything else.

When the script decides to be a comedy though, it can be very fun, such as in the scene of Annabelle’s floundering attempt to speak Spanish or Ellen’s impassioned speech in biology class about the “antiquated and sadistic, not to mention sickening, ritual” of frog dissection. [9]Though that one does foreshadow one of the dumbest moments in the 2003 Freaky Friday. And I appreciate that this movie’s revised climax is toned down from the 1976 one. I may have made this Freaky Friday sound worse than it really is, but there are reasons you’ve likely never seen or even heard of it. What are my takes on the Fridays with which you are more likely to be familiar? I hope to discuss those very soon.

To Be Continued

References

References
1 The daughter, incidentally of composer Richard Rodgers.
2 The book does have Ellen deal with not being able to purchase cigarettes or use her charge plates without permission. In fact, her experiences lead to her conclude that too many adults treat children as “deaf, dumb, blind and utterly insensitive.” But the book really isn’t about that.
3 Some also object to the way Annabel’s beloved Boris, in both the book and the movie, only becomes attracted to her after her braces are removed and she receives a girly makeover. I suppose that’s a legitimate gripe, but I’d argue that (a) in his defense, Boris has reasons besides her appearance for being repelled by Annabel, (b) he starts to be attracted to her personality before he sees her new look, albeit while that personality is also in a more attractive, though inappropriately old, body, and (c) while it’s presented as a triumph that Annabel is able to charm the boy who once dismissed her, it’s also presented as a triumph that she reaches the point in their relationship where she no longer grovels before him and even upbraids him.
4 Mary Rodgers would eventually write a literary sequel to Freaky Friday along these lines called Summer Switch. It followed the movie’s lead, rather than the book’s, in having parent and child switch places when they express the wish to do so at the exact same time. I doubt Summer Switch was written with the intention of being adapted by Disney though, given its adult content and mature themes. Incidentally, while Summer Switch and Rodgers’ earlier non-body switch themed follow-up, A Billion for Boris, are well worth reading for fans of the characters, neither is as good as Freaky Friday.
5 By which I mean myself
6 In particular, the father figure in this one is interesting in that he’s halfway between the negative figure he was in the first movie and the positive figure he would become in all subsequent ones.
7 Though in Mary Rodgers’ sequels to the literary Freaky Friday, the character already got a job at a museum.
8 Probably just as well since the 1995 movie initially makes a big deal about the divorce, but never really explains how it happened. The whole thing comes across as an undercooked attempt at topicality.
9 Though that one does foreshadow one of the dumbest moments in the 2003 Freaky Friday.
Posted in Comparing Different Adaptations, Remakes | Tagged , | Leave a comment

An Appreciation of Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables Part 3: A Master Adaptation

For the last part of this series on the 2012 Les Misérables, I want to finally talk about it as an adaptation, and the way it uses elements of both Boublil and Schonberg’s musical and Victor Hugo’s novel. This is an aspect of the movie for which Tom Hooper and screenwriter, William Nicholson, don’t get nearly enough credit, I think. When something has become a beloved institution like Les Mis, the thought of making changes to it makes fans nervous. (For the record, I was a fan of the stage musical long before the movie came out. I did read an abridged version of the book before that, but only by a short period of time.) But I’ll maintain that the movie actually improves on the musical dramatically, though I risk alienating musical theater fans by saying so. Of course, they probably wouldn’t care anything for the opinion of someone who likes the 2003 Music Man better than 1962 one, [1]It’s true that Matthew Broderick is terrible as the lead in that movie, but the supporting cast, I feel, is better, the pacing is snappier and the wordless dance sequences are more fun to watch but if they keep reading, I think they’ll respect my view even if they can’t agree at the end of the day. [2]See what I did there?

Let me stress I’m not suggesting productions of the musical should try to emulate this movie, which is filmed and acted in a very intimate way, inappropriate for the stage. [3]For example, the Thenardiers come across as very deadpan and businesslike in their blatant wickedness here whereas most productions portray them in a much hammier. As a fan of the source material, I … Continue reading What I’m talking about are changes that having nothing to do with performance style, and these a theater company isn’t going to have the right to borrow unless they work out some kind of bargain with Universal maybe. And while I think nearly every adaptation decision made by Hooper and Nicholson is great, some of them were made solely because of the different medium. In theater, when the scene changes, we expect it to stay changed for quite sometime. With a movie, we can expect the scene to change as often as possible. Sometimes when plays are adapted to the cinema, the attempts to hide their theatrical by having characters constantly going to different rooms or outside in the middle of conversations is distracting. But not with Les Misérables. It never feels like we’re trapped in a single location but neither does it feel like we’re needlessly moving around. If I didn’t know the movie was based on a play, I wouldn’t have guessed it. It’s paced exactly how I’d expect a movie to be paced.

Part of that pacing includes trimming down some of the songs. Sad as any cuts must be for fans of the musical’s awesome score, I think that the cuts are wise. All of the major songs for the main characters are intact. (The verse from Javert’s Suicide, I mentioned in the last part, is an unfortunate but forgivable exception.) The songs with the heaviest cuts are Master of the House, Red and Black, Drink With Me and Beggars at the Feast. All of which are great songs but are all sung by and about supporting characters, who are less interesting than the leads. As much as I love Eponine’s A Little Fall of Rain, she’s not one of the protagonists and it makes sense for her death to be less of a big moment. [4]It’s also feels more realistic that she wouldn’t be able to sing the longer and more vocally demanding full version while she was dying. Of course, many people would say that realism and … Continue reading The only song to be entirely cut is Dog Eat Dog, which is easily the musical’s most disposable song [5]It’s great in its own way, but when was the last time you thought, hmmm, I think I feel like listening to Dog Eat Dog? and presents a pacing hurdle in the cinematic medium as it comes right in the middle of an exciting action scene. I wouldn’t want to stage versions to make these same cuts but they really do make sense. And then there are the changes that aren’t just improvements for the change in medium but improvements period.

In the stage show, Javert starts to suspect Jean Valjean’s identity as a parole breaker when he sees him lift a fallen cart that’s crushing an old man. But he immediately dismisses the idea since he believes that particular parole breaker has apparently been rearrested and is soon to be sentenced to life imprisonment. The movie, harkening back to the novel, has Javert keep quiet about his suspicions until he can get more evidence. Then, enraged by Valjean’s going over his head, in his capacity as mayor, to free Fantine, he accuses him to his superiors in the police department. Only then is he informed of the capture of “Jean Valjean.” His response to this is to tell the whole story to Valjean and ask to be dismissed from service as punishment for making a false accusation against an authority figure. Rather than taking him up on it and getting revenge on his enemy, Valjean lets him to keep his job-which Javert finds aggravating. This has the effect of making him both more likable, in that he applies the same harsh standards to himself that he does to others, and more unlikable, given the glee with which he arrests Jean Valjean after the latter has confessed his true identity to save his innocent lookalike. A much more interesting character on the whole. [6]Not that Javert comes across as uninteresting in the stage musical. Far from it.

The aforementioned man whom Valjean saves from the toppled cart is another welcome reintroduction of something from the novel. Onstage, he simply appears randomly to give Valjean a chance to demonstrate his physical strength and heroism and is gone from the story. In the movie and the book, he reappears as a gardener at a convent in Paris, who provides shelter for Jean Valjean and Cosette. This is a great example of both Chekhov’s gun and dramatic irony, as the act of kindness that blew Valjean’s cover also ends up saving him from the law.

The mention of Cosette brings us to one of the most notable additions to the musical, a new song for Valjean, Suddenly. New songs are almost always added to musicals when they are made into Hollywood movies as it gives them a chance to get nominated for and, with luck, win Best Original Song. [7]The 2014 movie adaptation of Into the Woods was going to have such a song but director Rob Marshall ultimately cut it. For that, he deserves credit. I can’t prove Suddenly wasn’t commissioned for this purpose. It probably was. But who cares in this case? Let them have their nomination! I might have given it them were I on the committee. This song does something that I don’t think an added song to a musical adaptation has ever done before: dramatically improve the material, and not in a minor way. In the original novel, the relationship between Valjean and Cosette is one of the most important in the story. But it’s handled in a very perfunctory way in the stage musical. We get the basic idea but it’s only towards the end, when Valjean sadly decides to leave Cosette’s life for her own good, that it becomes as emotional as other parts. The inclusion of Suddenly upon his “adoption” of her in this movie invests us in the relationship right away, making it clear just what a major event this was in Valjean’s life as well as Cosette’s. We see and hear how he cares for her for her own sake. She’s not just a debt he feels he owes to Fantine. [8]Not that this isn’t the idea in the original stage musical, which includes a bit where Valjean laments that Cosette’s cloistered life with him must be so dull for her. But it … Continue reading This also has the effect of making the audience more invested with Cosette. In every version of the story, she’s a character who serves to motivate others (Fantine, Valjean and Marius) rather than move the story along herself. I don’t believe this automatically makes her a bad or unlikeable character. But since the musical, unlike the book, focuses solely on the most dramatic scenes, an actress playing her has to fight an uphill battle to engage the audience’s attention. It’s a battle that can be and has been won by charismatic performers and thoughtful directors, among whose number I count Amanda Seyfried and Tom Hooper. In a vital way, Suddenly makes the battle easier by establishing her importance to the protagonist. Thus she can “borrows” audience investment from him.

Marius is another role that has to fight a battle, though a less difficult one than Cosette, to gain the audience’s interest onstage. The movie remedies this by again reinstating some elements from the novel, mainly the character of Marius’s wealthy grandfather, Monsieur Gillenormand (Patrick Godfrey), who has cut him off because of their political differences. While Gillenormand is little more than a cameo, far from the complex character Victor Hugo created, and we still don’t get Marius’s fascinating backstory, the self-discipline and dedication demonstrated by his voluntary poverty give him interest well beyond just “that guy who’s in love with Cosette.” And his eventual reconciliation with his grandfather gives us a clearer idea of what his future with Cosette will be like, giving them a more satisfying end than the play does.

Another quirk of the musical is that it very much relies on the audience pitying the characters. This is unquestionably an aspect of the book too, but the book also explores the dark sides of characters like Fantine, Marius, Cosette and Jean Valjean, which the musical tends to dance around. (No pun intended.) [9]For that matter, there are moments in the book when we feel sorry for the Thenardiers, which we don’t get in the musical unless we really stop to think about their poverty. To the … Continue reading Eponine is probably the ultimate example of this. In the book, she’s an out-and-out villain albeit a potentially sympathetic and arguably admirable one in the end. She only helps Marius track down Cosette in the hope of getting something from him and when Vajean moves away with her, she hides her whereabouts from him and arranges for him to die at the barricade. But when it actually comes to that point, she gives her life for his. She says this is because she wants to be the one to die first. If the reader wants to do so, they can interpret this as her trying to save street cred and that she really changed her mind and doesn’t want Marius to die. She gives him Cosette’s new address before she dies, but this is because she desires his good opinion and is done supposing that there’s no longer any chance of the lovers being reunited. The musical, by contrast, has Eponine be arguably one of the most self sacrificing characters in the story, one who loves Marius but acts as a go-between between him and Cosette, accepting that “he was never (hers) to keep.” [10]Interestingly, the stage musical does not have Eponine take a gun aimed at Marius and turn it towards herself. Instead she dies making her way to the barricade to see him again though she has the … Continue reading The movie shrewdly combines these two contradictory characterizations. Eponine initially seems willing to let Marius and Cosette be together. But when she has a chance to conceal the latter’s whereabouts from the former, she gives into the temptation. [11]This does lead to a rare adaptation problem for this movie. Marius’s dilemma in One Day More, of whether to follow Cosette or stay in Paris and fight beside his friends, is rendered somewhat … Continue reading Ultimately, she makes the right decision and tells Marius the truth. This creates a parallel between her and Jean Valjean, who also wants to separate the lovers but eventually helps them be united. I hesitate to say that this take on Eponine is the best. I think the versions of her in the book and the play are great in their own ways. But I appreciate how this one makes her more in line with the other main characters, who struggle with doing the right thing, rather than her bringing either entirely selfish and obsessive or a perfect saint.

What I will claim is that the movie’s handling of Jean Valjean’s climactic moral struggle is an unqualified improvement over the stage musical. While the idea there seems to be the same as that of the book, that Valjean can’t stand the idea of anyone taking Cosette away from him, it isn’t stated explicitly at all. (See the above paragraph for how the musical struggles to show the characters’ dark sides.) This makes it a bit baffling for people unfamiliar with the story why Cosette keeps her relationship with Marius a secret from him. It’s up to actors and directors to find a way to show Valjean’s possessiveness through action since the lyrics aren’t helpful. The movie helps out first by the addition of Suddenly, which establishes how important Cosette is to him. Then it has Jean Valjean interrupt A Heart Full of Love and send Cosette back inside the house before looking suspiciously out the gate, then sighing sadly. All of which communicates what’s going on inside him. [12]At the same time, the relationship between Valjean and Cosette never becomes as unpleasant as it does in some other adaptations of the book, like the 1998 film or the 2018 miniseries. Later, when Valjean receives Marius’s farewell letter to Cosette, he gets a soliloquy original to the movie in which he expresses his fear that Marius “will take away the treasure of his autumn days.” We’re not sure whether he goes to barricade to protect his replacement in Cosette’s life or to make sure he dies-until the cathartic moment when he sings Bring Him Home. This seems to have been the intended audience reaction in the musical, given the tense, ambiguous music that heralds his arrival at the barricade. But unless you’re already familiar with the book, it’s hard to tell exactly what they’re implying.

I hesitate to say all this makes the 2012 Les Misérables the best version of the story. That might imply that it has rendered either Victor Hugo’s novel or Boublil and Schonberg’s stage play redundant. I still continue to enjoy both after seeing the movie. But it’s probably the the movie is what I recommend to the most people as an introduction the story. [13]Especially since not everyone is going to get a chance to see a theatrical production of the musical. It really does combine the virtues of the book (the reinstated plot points and character depth described above) and the musical (the powerhouse score and the lack of lengthy digressions.) That’s exactly what I believe an adaptation should do. Nicholson and Hooper have my undying gratitude and respect for this accomplishment.

Vive la France!

References

References
1 It’s true that Matthew Broderick is terrible as the lead in that movie, but the supporting cast, I feel, is better, the pacing is snappier and the wordless dance sequences are more fun to watch
2 See what I did there?
3 For example, the Thenardiers come across as very deadpan and businesslike in their blatant wickedness here whereas most productions portray them in a much hammier. As a fan of the source material, I love this because it’s closer to how their comedy is in the book. But I suspect this subtle acting would come as really, really boring onstage. Hammishness is clearly the way to go there.
4 It’s also feels more realistic that she wouldn’t be able to sing the longer and more vocally demanding full version while she was dying. Of course, many people would say that realism and musicals are incompatible and that this proves a movie version of Les Mis was a bad idea. Yet those people are able to enjoy movies about wizards and monsters, which could also be described as dark and gritty.
5 It’s great in its own way, but when was the last time you thought, hmmm, I think I feel like listening to Dog Eat Dog?
6 Not that Javert comes across as uninteresting in the stage musical. Far from it.
7 The 2014 movie adaptation of Into the Woods was going to have such a song but director Rob Marshall ultimately cut it. For that, he deserves credit.
8 Not that this isn’t the idea in the original stage musical, which includes a bit where Valjean laments that Cosette’s cloistered life with him must be so dull for her. But it doesn’t include much besides that to contradict the debt-to-be-paid possibility.
9 For that matter, there are moments in the book when we feel sorry for the Thenardiers, which we don’t get in the musical unless we really stop to think about their poverty. To the musical’s credit though, it does effectively portray Javert as both contemptible and sympathetic, even admirable in a way.
10 Interestingly, the stage musical does not have Eponine take a gun aimed at Marius and turn it towards herself. Instead she dies making her way to the barricade to see him again though she has the chance to escape. I guess the musical felt it had it made her so heroic that the original scenario for her death was just overkill.
11 This does lead to a rare adaptation problem for this movie. Marius’s dilemma in One Day More, of whether to follow Cosette or stay in Paris and fight beside his friends, is rendered somewhat incomprehensible since he now has no idea what has happened to Cosette. Maybe his lyrics for that song should have been rewritten.
12 At the same time, the relationship between Valjean and Cosette never becomes as unpleasant as it does in some other adaptations of the book, like the 1998 film or the 2018 miniseries.
13 Especially since not everyone is going to get a chance to see a theatrical production of the musical.
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An Appreciation of Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables Part 2: The Part That’s Not Actually Appreciative

It may seem strange that I’m going to devote a whole blogpost to what I consider the shortcomings of Les Misérables (2012), especially when I claimed to be tired of the negativity I sensed towards it on the internet. But I feel that, after all my gushing in the latter half of my last post, I’d come across as a mindless fanboy if I didn’t grant that the movie has imperfections. To coddle it and act like no one can say anything bad about it would be to condescend to it, acting like it can’t stand up to any serious critical scrutiny. I believe it can. So here are what I consider the movie’s flaws. (Most of them are more like missed opportunities actually.)

The Cinematography Some of the Time

I admit it. Some of Tom Hooper’s stylizations don’t really make sense to me. I don’t get the point of the recurring off-center camera angles. Maybe the thought behind it is to make the constant closeups of the characters’ faces less potentially tiresome by having those faces be a little to the right or to the left. [1]If Hooper has ever explained them on a commentary for one of his other works, I’d be interested in hearing what he had to say. I find it’s just confusing visually. You keep wondering what you’re supposed to be looking at over the characters’ shoulders. And it’s really annoying when it pops up during what is otherwise one of the musical’s most powerful moments, Fantine’s song, I Dreamed a Dream. [2]Anne Hathaway knocks that scene out of the park! Her performance in this movie is awesome in general. I didn’t want to write about it too much in my original post because she and Hugh Jackman … Continue reading These camera angles certainly don’t ruin the movie for me but I don’t really have a defense for them either.

Helena Bonham Carter to an Extent

I hate to say this because I really enjoy Carter’s performance as Madame Thenardier. She’s a whole lot of fun to watch and brings great facial expressions and comedic timing to her every scene. But her early scenes with young Cosette lose a little because she’s not the physical type for the role. In the literary Les Misérables, Victor Hugo describes the “Thenardiess” as being incredibly muscular and intimidating. I don’t mind that Carter doesn’t match this description for most of the movie. And we can all understand that a normal sized adult is intimidating to a little child. But the bits where Cosette is bullied by Madame Thenardier would be more powerful if we could empathize with her, not just understand her fear in a theoretical way. The visual contrast between the puny Monsieur Thenardier and his brawny wife would also add to their comedy. [3]While we’re on the subject of the Thenardiers, I suppose I should also mention I’m not a fan of the bawdy comedy of the Master of the House scene. But that comes from the stage version … Continue reading

Stars (No, This Isn’t About Russell Crowe)

In his big solo, Stars, Javert describes the stars in the night sky as an example of the order he sees in the universe. This vital character moment is one of the few times in the musical that Javert explains his personal philosophy in a way that makes it sound remotely appealing. Later, during Javert’s Suicide, he describes the stars as being “black and cold.” The visual contrast between a starry night sky when Javert is confident in his beliefs and a cloudy night sky when his faith is shattered could have been great. It…really isn’t. This is a rare missed opportunity for visual symbolism/storytelling for this movie and the only instance when I feel it would have benefited from a less exclusive focus on the soloists’ faces.

Samantha Barks (Kind Of)

I feel really bad about criticizing Samantha Barks’ portrayal of Eponine. For one thing, she’s one of the few stage actors who gets to reprise their Les Misérables role in this movie [4]There are plenty of other veterans of the stage play in the cast-Colm Wilkinson, Fraces Ruffelle, Hadley Fraser-but none of them recreating their onstage role. and I don’t want to alienate Broadway fans anymore than I have to do so, especially since she manages the impressive vocal act of sounding better to traditional ears than many of her Hollywood costars do while never sounding like she belongs in a completely different movie. For another thing, her performance is really moving and I don’t have the heart to say I dislike it per se. But Barks’ take on the character feels a little off to me. Eponine is supposed to be a cynical, hardened young woman who comes from a dysfunctional family and has been living on the wrong side of the law for quite some time when we meet her as an adult. An actress playing her definitely needs to be emotional and vulnerable during her soliloquies about her unrequited love, but she should come across as somewhat callous and invulnerable during her initial exchanges with Marius and her fellow gang members. This actually makes it even more moving when we see her softer side. But Barks comes across as vulnerable and, for lack of better term, traditionally feminine right from the start. She also did less method acting for her role than Jackman and Hathaway did for theirs. I certainly can’t blame her for that, but neither can I deny that she looks less convincingly wretched than they do. The character still basically works in the movie, but there’s a nagging sense that it could work better.

Some of the Cuts

For the most part, I believe this movie makes great decisions at to what to cut and what to keep from the stage musical. (I hope to go into this at greater length in Part 3.) But as a fan of the score, some of the deletions do leave me a little wistful. I know I just questioned Samantha Barks’ acting choices, but she really is a great actress/singer and I feel like she deserved to do her character’s full death song, A Little Fall of Rain, on the big screen. [5]I’ll defend this cut to an extent in the aforementioned Part 3. Another loss that makes me wistful is that of Valjean and Javert’s duet at the end of Confrontation, in which the former promises to always be there for Cosette and the latter promises to always be there to arrest him. The movie has ample material to still make those ideas clear to the audience though. From a storytelling perspective, on the other hand, I find it a bit odd that Marius’s wondering aloud who rescued him was cut as it sets up a major climactic plot point. As with many deletions, I assume it was for time. There’s only one cut that really, really bothers me though. One of the verses from Javert’s Suicide. [6]Yes, I know this means I want more of Crowe singing in the movie. It’s a verse that marks an important transition in his attitude. The song doesn’t flow well without it. Javert ends up going from defiant to despondent without a pause. I’d love to see an extended cut of the film. Much of it would make the movie too long, but that one retention would be welcome. [7]And other extensions would still be interesting for fans to see and hear, even if they weren’t ultimately improvements.

The Wedding

During the Wedding Chorale, the movie largely focuses on the Thenardiers sneaking into Marius and Cosette’s wedding reception. This is entertaining and gives fans a chance to see something they can’t onstage. But I’m personally disappointed that it takes our attention away from the bride and groom. Marius and Cosette’s romance is one of the few storylines in Les Misérables to have a completely happy ending and this song is one of the few songs in the musical that expresses undiluted joy. It’d have been so nice to be able to enjoy it without distraction.

The Ending Could Be Clearer

The movie’s uplifting finale depicts the spirits of the dead characters on a massive barricade during the 1848 Paris revolution. This is rather an odd event for a Les Misérables adaptation to celebrate since Victor Hugo and Napoleon III were not fans of each other. [8]To put it mildly! But being generally willing to put history out my mind when I watch movies (and even when I’m not watching them), I can see the appeal of contrasting a successful revolution, one with a much bigger and more heavily defended barricade, with the one we saw fail. It’s in keeping with Hugo’s ultimately optimistic message [9]In Les Misérables, I mean. He can be more cynical in other books. that no matter how grim history looks at the moment, the world is gradually improving rather than worsening. But unlike other time skips in the movie, we’re given no captions explaining the political situation or what year it is. (Presumably, this is to avoid distracting from the lyrics.) Adding to the confusion, the deceased characters aren’t dressed any differently from how they were in life. Nor are they noticeably cleaner. [10]There is a good argument to be made that Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) would always be happier in his urchin garb anyway. The movie relies solely on the actors’ facial expressions to communicate the joy and peace their characters have apparently found beyond the grave. I think the actors deliver on that, especially Jackman and Hathaway. But watching the scene for the first time, I was initially confused and wondered if this was a weird flashback. Once you figure what the scene is supposed to be, I think it works wonderfully, but it takes a couple viewings to appreciate.

So can the 2012 Les Misérables be a masterpiece, as I called it in the title of my last post, if it has all these issues? If a masterpiece is defined as work of art with no flaws, then maybe not. But if a masterpiece is defined as a work of art whose strengths render any flaws immaterial, then yes! And, anyway, this story is about showing grace, guys.

References

References
1 If Hooper has ever explained them on a commentary for one of his other works, I’d be interested in hearing what he had to say.
2 Anne Hathaway knocks that scene out of the park! Her performance in this movie is awesome in general. I didn’t want to write about it too much in my original post because she and Hugh Jackman give the film’s most praised performances. I thought it’d be lazy to fall back on them too much and I wanted to praise Isabelle Allen, whom I feel doesn’t get as much credit as she deserves for this movie.
3 While we’re on the subject of the Thenardiers, I suppose I should also mention I’m not a fan of the bawdy comedy of the Master of the House scene. But that comes from the stage version and I’m writing about the flaws of this particular adaptation, not things from the source material, which other fans will expect and not see as problems.
4 There are plenty of other veterans of the stage play in the cast-Colm Wilkinson, Fraces Ruffelle, Hadley Fraser-but none of them recreating their onstage role.
5 I’ll defend this cut to an extent in the aforementioned Part 3.
6 Yes, I know this means I want more of Crowe singing in the movie.
7 And other extensions would still be interesting for fans to see and hear, even if they weren’t ultimately improvements.
8 To put it mildly!
9 In Les Misérables, I mean. He can be more cynical in other books.
10 There is a good argument to be made that Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) would always be happier in his urchin garb anyway.
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