Mending Maleficent Part 1

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

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

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

1. Make the Whole Thing a Prequel to Sleeping Beauty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Give Maleficent and Stefan Slower Descents into Wickedness

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

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

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

5. Make the Third Fairy’s Gift Important

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

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

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

To Be Continued

Bibliography

Maleficent.pdf (thescriptsavant.com)

References

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

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

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

Hans My Hedgehog

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

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

Fearnot

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

Just one of the Terrible Things Fearnot encounters on his travels

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

A Story Short

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

The storyteller turned into a rabbit

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

The Luck Child

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

A gryphon the king sets the Luck Child against

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

The Soldier and Death

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

The soldier plays cards with a pack of devils

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

The True Bride

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

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

The Three Ravens

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

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

Sapsorrow

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

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

The Heartless Giant

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t ask me about his coloring.

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

References

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

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

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

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

Little Dorrit: Part 2 | Sight to Behold

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

See the source image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

to the oppressive cutesiness of the Casby residence

to the claustrophobic opulence of the Merdles’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens (gutenberg.org)

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 11
Bleak House 1

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

Vholes

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

BBC - Drama - Bleak House Characters John Jarndyce

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

Miss Summerson Bleak House - Vtwctr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BBC - Drama - Bleak House Episode Guide Episode 5

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

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

See the source image

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

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

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

Bibliography

The Project Gutenberg eBook of Bleak House, by Charles Dickens

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

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

References

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

Little Women (2018)

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

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

Pros

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cons

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

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

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

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

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

Traditions Started

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Women (2019)

LW_2019_0749.jpg

This Little Women was written and directed by Greta Gerwig.

Pros

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cons

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Little Women (2018) - IMDb

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

References

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

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 or 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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