Mary Poppins Returns: My Third Favorite Disney Nostalgia Bait Movie

I have a bit of a strange attitude towards sequel gaps. When a sequel is made to a popular movie that came out, say, ten or fifteen years ago, I’m skeptical that it can recapture its predecessor’s magic. But when it’s a sequel to a movie that came out fifty-four years ago, as in the case of Mary Poppins Returns (2018), and there are hardly any of the same people involved in the production, I’m actually mildly intrigued. The fact that it’s even less likely that the new movie will feel like it takes place in the same world as the old one counterintuitively frees me from the expectation that it will, leaving me more willing to appreciate whatever charms it may have.

Of course, for many people, Disney’s 1964 movie, Mary Poppins, is such a perfect movie that even a sequel made a year after would fall short. Growing up though, I was more of a fan of the books by P. L. Travers. That’s not to say I dislike the movie. In fact, I consider it a good, if imperfect, adaptation, a controversial statement given Travers’s famous unhappiness with it. I’ll go so far as to say I love the film’s first two thirds. The final third is a bit too sappy and preachy for my taste.[1]Incidentally, it’s also the section of the movie that has the least to do with the books. So I’m less scandalized by Disney daring to think they could do a worthy follow-up to the original movie and more pleased to have a fresh take on a character and a world that I love to analyze and enjoy.

Don’t let that give you the idea that Mary Poppins Returns is based more on the books than on the 1964 movie, because it’s obviously not. But it’s not not based on the books if you know what I mean. Most of the episodes in it are adapted from the book, Mary Poppins Comes Back, just as most of the episodes from the original were adapted from the first Mary Poppins book. And just like the original, it includes lines from and references to the other books in the series as well. The names it gives to two of the adult Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw)’s children, John (Nathanael Saleh) and Annabel (Pixie Davies), are the names of two of Jane and Michael’s younger siblings from the books. I wish the movie had been even closer to the books by having Annabel be named Barabara and making youngest child, George (Joel Dawson), a girl called Annabel, but since the character of Mr. Banks had such a big role in the Mary Poppins movie, I understand why the filmmakers felt that one of his grandchildren had to be named after him.

This scene is packed with references to the books-in more ways than one.

Now the easiest criticism to make about this sequel is that it’s highly formulaic. Pretty much every scene, or at least eight out of ten, corresponds to a scene from the original movie. Early on, the head of the Banks family throws away a piece of paper, inadvertently summoning Mary Poppins from the sky. She basically hires herself as a nursemaid, befuddling her ostensible employer. She turns a chore which the children dislike into a fun and magical experience. I could go on like this for the whole plot. The adult Michael takes on the role, more or less, of his father. Jane (Emily Morton) takes on her mother’s role as a foil for him. (Michael is a widower.) His kids take on Jane and Michael’s roles and there’s an obvious stand-in for Bert in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Jack. There’s a Spoonful of Sugar song, a Jolly Holiday song, a Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious song, etc., etc. For some, this may tell against the movie, but I don’t mind since, as I wrote above, I’m a big fan of the Mary Poppins books which were just as formulaic. There were basically seven or eight story ideas, with a few unique to the series popping up (no pun intended) once in a while, and each book would contain a variation or two on each of them. For me, that was part of their appeal.[2]Though I’ll admit it’s kind of annoying that Jane and Michael never guess that the mysterious special guest at the various supernatural celebrations they end up attending is always going … Continue reading The world of Mary Poppins was always new and exciting and also always familiar and comforting. That was everything I wanted out of life as a kid. Come to think of it, it’s pretty much what I want out of life now. So, I consider it appropriate that the Mary Poppins movies should be the same way.

And it’s not like the little details are the same in the books or the movies. Often, they’re delightfully opposite. In the 1964 Mary Poppins, Jane and Michael just wanted to have fun. They needed someone to give them that and to teach them to be responsible, tidy up their nursery and stop running away from authority figures. John and Annabel, by contrast, are almost too adult and serious and need someone to teach them cut loose. Ed Wynn’s Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins was jovial, quite content with his…gravitational disability, happy to see Mary Poppins and needed her to bring him back down to Earth. Meryl Streep’s Cousin Topsy in Mary Poppins Returns is glum, unhappy with her GD, has a sour relationship with Mary Poppins and needs her to get her out of the dumps. And I’m pleased to say that Michael’s character is not just a retread of his father’s as I feared it would be. While the senior Mr. Banks saw his job at the bank as almost a religious calling, Michael sees his as a necessary evil. He’s an artist at heart but there’s no money in that. Instead of being strict and all about precision, he can only just function as an adult. While he objects to Mary Poppins’s “stuff and nonsense”, he’s also quite warm and friendly towards his children, only getting angry with them in moments of great stress and apologizing immediately afterwards.

This is controversial but I like Lin-Manuel Miranda as Jack better than I like Dick Van Dyke as Bert-and I don’t get the hype around Lin-Manuel Miranda![3]I’m not into rap or hip hop. I’m not a fan of the broad, mugging style of comedy[4]Though I make an exception for Donald O’ Connor’s performance as Cosmo in Singin’ in the Rain so I consider Bert something more to be tolerated than enjoyed. The bits of Mary Poppins where he takes the spotlight, such as his dance with the penguins, are among the slower parts for me. He may not be the best thing about the movie but I wouldn’t say Jack is to be tolerated.

Emily Blunt’s Mary Poppins, on the other hand, actually might be the best thing about the movie or at least about the cast. When I first saw it, I thought I preferred her to Julie Andrew’s Mary Poppins since she felt more like how I imagine the character from the books.[5]Though I’d argue the character from the original movie is closer to the literary one than her reputation gives her credit for being. She’s definitely warmer and kinder than the … Continue reading I admit though I find this controversial opinion harder to keep after watching Returns shortly after Mary Poppins. Part of what makes Julie Andrews’s performance so great is that she doesn’t seem like she’s trying to be funny, yet she is. Emily Blunt feels more like she’s trying-and succeeding. Maybe she’s not as great in the role as Julie Andrew but she’s still wonderful. Blunt’s dry, snobby line readings are hilarious. The air of self-possession and I-know-something-you-don’t-know she brings to the character are a delight and very appropriate for Mary Poppins. And she makes the most of her rare moments of vulnerability.

Emily Mortimer is cannily cast as an older version of Karen Dotrice’s Jane from the 1964 movie.[6]Dotrice gets a brief and regrettably contrived cameo in this one. Ben Whishaw doesn’t particularly evoke an older Matthew Garber, but who cares? It’s Ben Whishaw. Julie Walters is also well cast as an older version of Hermione Baddeley’s Ellen the maid. In general, this movie, like the original benefits from a supporting cast of great character actors who are having fun.

The songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman of Hairspray are a slightly mixed bag, but I’d argue that the songs from the original movie by Richard and Robert Sherman were also a slightly mixed bag. Sure, everyone remembers A Spoonful of Sugar and A Jolly Holiday, but do they remember I Love to Laugh or Fidelity Fiduciary Bank? When they’re great, they’re great. I’ll even say I like Can You Imagine That? better than its equivalent from the old movie, A Spoonful of Sugar, not necessarily as a song but as a summary of Mary Poppins’s character. I don’t think anyone would associate finding the fun side of work with her if it weren’t for A Spoonful of Sugar. Dismissing imagination and fantasy while miracles are occurring all around as a response to her presence, on the other hand, perfectly captures the marvelous contradiction that is Mary Poppins.[7]Can You Imagine That? is also thematically reminiscent of the song, Impossible, from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. It’s usually good for a musical to remind me of Rodgers and … Continue reading One of my favorite memories of seeing this movie in theaters is seeing little kids spontaneously rise from their seats and dance in front of the screen to the end credits music. I can’t say I blamed them.

I can’t act like everything about this movie is as good or better than the original though. The comic relief supporting characters are not as consistently funny or well developed, though some of them are great.[8]I really wish more could have been done with the rules-obsessed park keeper (Steven Nicolson), who is a prominent figure in the books and a lot of fun. At least the Mary Poppins stage musical gives … Continue reading The script by David Magee is sometimes heavy handed, having the characters explicitly comment on how the messages of the songs relate to what’s happening to them rather than letting the viewer analyze it for themselves.[9]I realize that kids are this film’s audience and they’re not likely to pick up on that kind of thing right away. But I don’t think they need to pick up on it to enjoy the movie and … Continue reading There’s also some deadwood in the plot with a bland romance between Jack and Jane. Dialogue is less consistently quotable than in the original movie though that doesn’t mean it’s never quotable. The iconic character of Mary Poppins herself is highly so. Part of that is because she gets a lot of lines from the books, but she gets some great lines original to this film too. The script also does a great job capturing what personalities the young Jane and Michael had with Jane being perkier and Michael being more cynical.

While it does allow the sequel to chart its own course a bit, I don’t think it works to have death and mourning be a major theme of a Mary Poppins movie, at least not the way it’s done here. Michael’s climactic revelation that his wife lives on in his children strikes me as obvious and trite. (Aren’t they going to die someday too? How is that comforting?) It’s also pretty obvious from their first scene that he doesn’t need to worry about his children as they’re the ones taking care of him. Then again, I also consider Mr. Banks’s climactic revelation in the first movie that his children need him to lighten up and have fun with them to be trite and obvious from the beginning, though maybe it was less so to English parents in 1910 and American ones in 1964. So, again, this doesn’t strike me as a huge step down from the original film, though I guess that one deserves credit for not biting off more than it could chew thematically.[10]And to be fair, Mr. Banks’s climactic transformation in Mary Poppins was very similar to that of a character in Chapter 3 of Mary Poppins Opens the Door, The Cat That Looked at a King, which … Continue reading

This movie’s action climax is like nothing from the books or the first movie. It’s ridiculous, ethically questionable…and I love it! Seriously, if someone had described this climax to me before I’d seen Mary Poppins Returns, I’d have dismissed the whole thing as stupid. But watching it “unspoiled”, I find the whole thing entertainingly bonkers.

A problem that tends to plague Type B Disney nostalgia bait movies is that they’re playing to nostalgia for a genre that is still basically being made today.[11]In my next post though, I’m going to write about a piece of Type B Disney nostalgia bait that I love. The great thing about Mary Poppins Returns is that it really is a kind of movie that doesn’t get made today. Nowadays special effects in big budget releases are all about giant action scenes and explosions. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Here, director Rob Marshall perfectly captures the sense of fun and innocent wonderment that characterized the books by P. L. Travers, the 1964 film, and Disney’s initial attempt at duplicating its success, Bedknobs and Broomsticks. If you’re nostalgic for any of those, I can’t guarantee you’ll love Mary Poppins Returns, but I certainly recommend you check it out.

If this sequel had been released soon after the original, as Disney would have no doubt wished, I’d probably have been more cynical about its formulaicness. But there’s something fitting about the history of Mary Poppins on the big screen. She comes and goes when she pleases. P. L. Travers didn’t want her books to be adapted into a Disney movie, but adapted into one they were, as if even she couldn’t control her creation. After the movie was such a success, Disney would have loved to have made another one, but Travers wasn’t having that. Mary Poppins wouldn’t come back to cinemas until 2018, a stressful year in my personal life. She came when I needed her most.

References

References
1 Incidentally, it’s also the section of the movie that has the least to do with the books.
2 Though I’ll admit it’s kind of annoying that Jane and Michael never guess that the mysterious special guest at the various supernatural celebrations they end up attending is always going to be Mary Poppins. You’d think they’d figure it out eventually.
3 I’m not into rap or hip hop.
4 Though I make an exception for Donald O’ Connor’s performance as Cosmo in Singin’ in the Rain
5 Though I’d argue the character from the original movie is closer to the literary one than her reputation gives her credit for being. She’s definitely warmer and kinder than the books’ Mary Poppins, whom the author apparently described as being like Kali, the Hindu goddess of death. (For those more familiar with Western culture, such dread goddesses as Hera, Athena and Artemis might be good points of comparison.) But she’s much more aloof and strict and less oppressively cheery than cultural osmosis remembers her as being. (Her line, “I am never cross” can be interpreted as a comedic lack of self awareness.) Although her goal is to brighten Jane and Michael’s lives with fun, magical experiences, she initially objects to all of them, only agreeing in a spirit of martyrdom, which is part of what makes her so interesting.

6 Dotrice gets a brief and regrettably contrived cameo in this one.
7 Can You Imagine That? is also thematically reminiscent of the song, Impossible, from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. It’s usually good for a musical to remind me of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
8 I really wish more could have been done with the rules-obsessed park keeper (Steven Nicolson), who is a prominent figure in the books and a lot of fun. At least the Mary Poppins stage musical gives him his due.
9 I realize that kids are this film’s audience and they’re not likely to pick up on that kind of thing right away. But I don’t think they need to pick up on it to enjoy the movie and having it be subtext creates a nice “eureka!” moment for them when they’re older.
10 And to be fair, Mr. Banks’s climactic transformation in Mary Poppins was very similar to that of a character in Chapter 3 of Mary Poppins Opens the Door, The Cat That Looked at a King, which the Disney company adapted into an animated short in 2004.
11 In my next post though, I’m going to write about a piece of Type B Disney nostalgia bait that I love.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Mary Poppins Returns: My Third Favorite Disney Nostalgia Bait Movie

A Mild Defense of Disney’s Recent Line of Nostalgia Bait

It’s no secret that the Walt Disney company has been relying on remakes of their more popular older movies a lot lately. 2019 saw not one, not two, but four of them! (Aladdin, The Lion King, Dumbo and Lady and the Tramp.) These are typically referred to as live action remakes since the original movies being remade were animated, but considering how much CGI they use, it’s more accurate to describe them as photorealistic remakes. Actually, that’s not the best label either as many of the films that get lumped into discussions of this trend, reasonably so, aren’t so much remakes as spinoffs, sequels, prequels or Perspective Flips of old Disney properties. And at least one of them, Mary Poppins Returns (2018) is of a (mostly) live action movie. For my money, the best description of these films is nostalgia bait movies.[1]Pete’s Dragon (2016) is another recent remake of a live action Disney movie, but while it is part of the trend of Disney doing almost nothing but remakes, there’s not enough cultural … Continue reading

It’s also no secret that the internet is less than pleased with Disney’s recent line of nostalgia bait. Searching for Disney Remakes on YouTube gives you a long list of video essays proclaiming them all to be terrible. You don’t have to be a Disney hater or a Disney lover to hate Disney nostalgia bait. Ardent fans of the original movies tend to despise them for daring to even attempt improving on them and people who are indifferent or even hostile to the originals despise the trend out of an aversion to remakes in general. Both parties consider it pathetic that the Disney company has come to rely so much on repackaging old material again and again as an easy way to make money.

If you’re familiar with this Disney-produced movie, you’ll get the joke.

And that’s a very valid accusation to make. In the past seven years or so, I’ve made and laughed at my share of jokes about the death of originality at Disney. But having watched most of these nostalgia bait movies, I think all this criticism and cynicism deserves some pushback.[2]I haven’t watched all of them and I have no wish to do so. That’s why I’m doing this post now before too many more come out. It’s certainly pathetic for a major studio to rely on nostalgia bait to this extent, and it’s a pain to always have to clarify what you mean now by Disney’s Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, etc, but that doesn’t mean everything about these films is pathetic. Not all of them are great, but plenty of talented artists had a hand in them, as well as bean counters, and they’re hardly the unending trainwreck the YouTube critic community would have you believe. You can probably guess from the fact that my blog is about adaptations that I don’t demand every piece of art I enjoy to be an original concept. Humanity has probably been retelling stories as long as it’s been telling them. It’s common knowledge that most of the old Disney movies getting the nostalgia bait treatment were already based on something else. Whatever may be truly said against the producers who greenlit all of these remakes/spinoffs, for at least some of their directors the originals seem to have been a real inspiration. That doesn’t automatically mean they’re good of course.[3]For that matter, it doesn’t mean the nostalgia bait movies that the directors did solely for a paycheck are automatically bad. But enough thought and effort went into enough of them that I think they deserve a little defense.[4]I should clarify that when I speak of defending Disney in this post and the following three, I speak of defending their movies from an artistic perspective. I’m not trying to defend any immoral … Continue reading

Firstly, the idea of photorealistic remakes of hand drawn animated movies is not without an appeal. Maybe it’s a dumb appeal, but it’s a real one. Usually, when people do a film entirely in animation, it’s because that film tells a story that could only be done that way. Isn’t it exciting that special effects have the reached the point where they can bring the fantastic imagery of old Disney animated movies to life in such a real-looking way? Try to put away your anti-remake bias and pretend there hasn’t been such a glut of Disney nostalgia bait lately. Doesn’t the idea sound cool? At least to the little kid inside you?

People tend to assume all Disney nostalgia bait movies are the same, but I divide them into four categories.[5]I’m not including the 1996 live action 101 Dalmatians because it was from the 90s and isn’t really an example of modern Disney nostalgia bait culture. Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle … Continue reading

Type A. These are movies like Maleficent (2014) and its 2019 sequel, Mistress of Evil, Christopher Robin (2018)[6]Not to be confused with Goodbye Christopher Robin, the 2017 biopic of Winnie the Pooh creator, A. A. Milne, and his son. Apparently, something was in the air in the late 10s that made people want to … Continue reading, Mary Poppins Returns and Cruella (2021.) They take familiar Disney characters and try to put some kind of a fresh twist on them, usually telling a story that takes place years after the original, or reconstructing the villain as a misunderstood antihero.[7]If I were to include Alice in Wonderland (2010) and its 2016 sequel, Through the Looking Glass, as part of this discussion, I would classify them as Type A nostalgia bait movies. I won’t since … Continue reading

Type B. When people complain that Disney’s recent remakes are lazy reproductions of the originals, these are the ones they usually mean. They’re movies like Beauty and the Beast (2017), Aladdin (2019), (surprisingly) Lady and the Tramp (2019)[8]Or at least that one fits in better into this category than any other. and The Lion King (2019.) They rearrange a few scenes here or there but tend to stick very close to the original movies, including several lines of dialogue from them and most of their musical numbers. Even their scores reuse largely the same themes as the original soundtracks.[9]To be fair, I consider Alan Menken’s score for Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Hans Zimmer’s score for The Lion King (1994), by which I mean the background music, not just the songs, to … Continue reading When critiquing these, it’s easy to fall into the trap of criticizing them for mindlessly recreating what was done before, on the one hand, and then whenever they do something different from the original-as they all do at some point-criticizing the change for making them worse. That’s because all but one of them are remakes of movies from the 90s that hadn’t really aged badly enough yet to cry out for remakes. The main update all of them do is to try to be more feminist-friendly than the originals. Even The Lion King, the most boring and paint-by-numbers of recent Type B Disney nostalgia bait movies, takes a few uninteresting stabs in this direction.[10]I call it boring not only because of the script but because the vocal performances, to an unusual extent, seem like they’re trying to replicate those from the original movie. John Kani sounds … Continue reading For all that can be said against them, there is an argument to be made that they benefit from inheriting strong stories, which can’t be said of every type of nostalgia bait movie.

Type C. These are The Jungle Book (2016) and Dumbo (2019.) They include most of the iconic scenes from the originals, but arguably tell their own stories, even being somewhat revisionist with their endings but nearly as much so as something like Maleficent. [11]Dumbo ends with Dumbo and his mother going back to the wild rather than becoming circus stars and The Jungle Book ends with Mowgli continuing to live in the jungle where he grew up rather than moving … Continue reading They include a few memorable lines from the originals (“They’ll ruin him. They’ll make a man out of him.”), but not as many as Type B remakes do. They also include a few of the songs, but they’re not really musicals. It usually comes across as the characters just singing songs for their own pleasure as people do sometimes in real life.[12]The Bear Necessities in The Jungle Book works very well in this regard. I Wanna Be Like You works less well as it’s harder to interpret it as anything other than a musical number in a generally … Continue reading It can be argued that these films represent the best balance between nostalgia and originality of any of the recent Disney nostalgia bait movies though neither is my favorite.[13]Since the 2019 Dumbo was one of the few Disney nostalgia bait movies to underperform at the box office, probably because there wasn’t enough nostalgia at this point in time for the original, I … Continue reading

Type D. These include Cinderella (2o15) and Mulan (2020.) They feel more like new adaptations of the stories upon which the old Disney movies were based than remakes of those movies. The plot points they retain from them, like killing off Cinderella’s father and giving Mulan a love interest, tend to be the common changes made when adapting these stories. Their costumes are the least interested in evoking those from the original films, and they only use the songs from them in the end credits.[14]Cinderella can briefly be heard singing Sing Sweet Nightingale but that’s easily missed. I wouldn’t classify them as remakes at all if it weren’t for little details like the names of Cinderella’s stepsisters or the mice that help her or the scene where Mulan’s comrades describe their ideal women to her disgust and discomfort or the phrases, “bibbiddi bobbiddi boo” or “honor to us all” or….OK, fine, they’re obviously remakes! But they suffer less from remake-itis than any of the other Disney nostalgia bait movies except for the Type A ones, which aren’t really remakes-and arguably they even suffer from it less than those!

If all these movies feel like they’re coming off an assembly line, they’re not all coming off quite the same assembly line. It’s interesting (to me anyway) to analyze whether a Disney nostalgia bait movie is an example of a Type A, Type B, Type C or Type D. And that’s not the only thing about them I enjoy analyzing.

Clearly with many of these movies the writers looked not only at the old Disney movies but also at the source material for them. Thus, we get things like Cinderella asking her father to give her the first branch he brushes against on his way home,[15]Technically, that plot element came from the Brother Grimm version of Cinderella, Aschenputel, and both Disney movies take the Charles Perrault version, Cendrillon, as their source material. I feel … Continue reading Sleeping Beauty having an evil mother-in-law (in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil), Mulan not being an only child, and Cruella De Vil getting kicked out of school in her youth. As in the fairy tale, Beauty’s family now has a backstory where they have to leave the city to live in a rural area, she asks her father to get her a rose and he invokes the Beast’s wrath by plucking one from his garden. The most notable example of this is The Jungle Book which combines the broad plot, broad characterizations, and some of the comedy of the 1967 movie with the action-adventure elements and a good bit of the worldbuilding of the Rudyard Kipling stories. Considering how opposite the wacky (a detractor might say juvenile) cartoon and the solemn (a detractor might say pretentious) books were, this would seem doomed to failure. But the result is actually a nice happy medium that’s neither too juvenile nor too pretentious and seems to have been one of the more well-liked pieces of Disney nostalgia bait.

Another intriguing trend in these movies is the preoccupation with parents. Most of the original Disney movies getting the nostalgia bait treatment had protagonists with at least one absent parent. Actually, stories in general tend to have protagonists with at least one absent parent. But these nostalgia bait movies seem to want to really explore the implications of this. The death of Jasmine’s mother matters in the 2019 Aladdin in a way it doesn’t in the original and Aladdin’s mother gets a mention, which isn’t much but more than she got in the original.[16]By original, I mean the 1992 movie. In the literary story, she was a major character. The death of Belle’s mother is dwelt on at some length. The Beast’s relationships with his parents are also implied to have shaped the person he’s become, though this addition to the plot is so underdeveloped I’m not sure why they bothered with it. Mowgli’s adopted wolf mother has a bigger role in the 2016 Jungle Book than she had in 1967 and his biological human father makes an appearance. Cinderella’s biological parents are the biggest example. Not only do they get multiple scenes at the beginning of the 2015 movie, but they remain an unseen presence throughout it. The prince’s parents and even the biological father of the stepsisters also play important, if sometimes offscreen, roles.

Neither of these trends automatically makes the movies good of course. But they demonstrate that either Disney executives are giving filmmakers bizarrely specific mandates or that some kind of thought and effort is going into the nostalgia bait.

Speaking of parents, I like the character of Maurice, Belle’s father, better in the 2017 Beauty and the Beast than in the 1991 one. While he’s less obviously comedic, I find him funnier and his relationship with his daughter, which is vital to the plot for both versions, to be more touching. I also think it made more sense in that movie to have Belle be borrowing her books from a learned man in her village rather than from a bookshop. (Having a bookshop in a town where being a bookworm makes you a pariah is really bad business move, especially when the local pariah can’t afford to actually buy the books.) And having her be an inventor makes it more believable that her neighbors would so vehemently dub her odd. (Loving books would certainly get a woman branded as lazy and impractical in that environment, but I doubt she would have really been considered crazy or unfeminine.)[17]Though I think it tells against the movie that this idea apparently came not from the screenwriters, but from the actress. Inventing doesn’t come up much in the plot, which, to be fair, neither … Continue reading I appreciate that the 2017 Beast apologizes for his treatment of Maurice and he tells his household staff that he’s sorry his releasing Belle means they’ll never be free of the curse he brought upon them, so his redemption doesn’t just involve loving one person.[18]To be fair to the 1991 Beast, his reaction to the news of danger to Maurice can be interpreted as empathy for him as well as for Belle and he’s clearly overjoyed for his servants when … Continue reading And it’s nice that the movie tries to be more nuanced in its portrayal of the shallow and bigoted villagers, showing some of them resisting Gaston’s propaganda or becoming disillusioned with him.

Kevin Kline as Maurice

Does any of that mean I prefer Beauty and the Beast (2017) to Beauty and the Beast (1991) on the whole?

Bwa ha ha ha! No. That’s like a really, really big no.[19]I’m writing to defend Disney nostalgia bait, not condemn it, but here’s a quick rundown of the movie’s problems. While the cast is stuffed with charismatic stars, none of them are … Continue reading

But I’m not going to act like the artists that made the 1991 movie were perfect or that those that made the more recent one brought nothing good to the table.

As little as I blame critics for rolling their eyes and throwing up their hands over how the Disney company has come to rely on nostalgia bait for fans of their old hits, looking at recent box office history, I can’t blame Disney much either. So many of their original live action, non-Marvel films, such as John Carter, The Lone Ranger and The BFG, have underperformed at the box office lately.[20]Of course, these movies weren’t original in the sense that they weren’t based on anything but they weren’t remakes of old Disney movies either. And what’s more, they weren’t really beloved by critics any more than the Disney nostalgia bait movies. The choice before the higherups at the studio was between making movies that critics disliked and made no money and making ones that critics disliked but which made money. I can hear a lot of readers scoffing and objecting that I’m leaving out the obvious choice for Disney to make great original movies that draw crowds, but I’d like to challenge those readers to come up with a good original story at the drop of a hat. It’s not easy.[21]The choice I’d probably make if I were in the producers’ position would be to quit producing and get another job. Maybe as a plumber or something.

Maybe we should blame audiences for not taking more risks with their entertainment and financially supporting more non-nostalgia bait movies from Disney…but I’m not even going to do that. I’m not convinced mainstream audiences aren’t enjoying the nostalgia bait movies which they’re paying to see, at least not more than the original ones they’re not paying to see. And they have the right to pay to see what appeals to them. It pains me a bit to say this because I love Disney’s The BFG and I wish it could have been a gigantic hit.[22]I also enjoyed Queen of Katwe quite a bit though I confess I haven’t felt like watching it more than once. But there are plenty of other viewers who didn’t love it. During my theatrical viewing, I noticed a lot of kids in the audience were restless in a way I don’t remembering sensing at any of the matinees for Disney nostalgia bait movies I’ve attended, and I doubt the kids who didn’t see it would have been less restless.

A concern I’ve heard about these photorealistic remakes, with which I really sympathize is that, with hand drawn animation becoming increasingly niche, today’s kids are just going to watch the new versions and not bother with the old ones into which so much work and talent went. You may be surprised by this, considering my first argument in Disney nostalgia bait’s favor was that it was cool to see photorealistic reimagining of iconic hand drawn images, but I love the medium of hand drawn animation. The magic trick of making a drawing come to life enchants me and it pains me to see it on life support. I’m gratified when I hear of a modern kid preferring a classic Disney animated movie over its recent remake. But I think movie fans need to resign themselves to the inevitable changing of audience tastes. Certainly, no one has to agree with the those changing tastes and many of the critics who prefer the originals to the remakes have valid points. But look at how the consensus on Disney animated movies has evolved over time and is still evolving. Critics of the old school tended to consider the first five of them, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi, to be masterpieces and all that came afterwards to be inferior, though some would make an exception for Beauty and the Beast. There are critics out there who still hold this view, but among YouTube critics who are Disney fans the consensus seems to be their animated movies from the 90s were the greatest with The Little Mermaid (1989) sometimes being counted as an honorary 90s movie. I, myself, take the third option that the 50s were the time period with the most consistently great Disney animated movies[23]I’ll grant the first school of criticism that the earliest Disney movies were more ambitious (in some ways anyway) and had more dramatic and emotional range than the ones from the 50s, with the … Continue reading and I imagine the rising generation will revere the ones from the 2010s the most. While it’s true that there might be more people watching the originals right now if it weren’t for the nostalgia bait, I’m not convinced those people would be loving them any more than they are now. Fans can write blog posts and make video essays explaining why they believe their preferred movies to be the best and good for them, but in the end, that’s all they can do.

I know this post hasn’t been up to my usual standards. That’s because I’m arguing that something isn’t particularly bad. It’s hard to make that interesting or convincing. Making a case that something is either great or terrible is easier. I really do believe that the recent line of Disney nostalgia bait has gotten a worse reputation than it deserves though. I just don’t feel nearly passionate enough about this to do analyses of every single entry in it. While that would be the most convincing way to make my case, it would also end up boring both me and my readers. You can only take so much, “it’s not the best thing ever, but it’s not the worst.” What I am going to do is write posts about each of my top three Disney nostalgia bait movies, in order from weakest to greatest, the ones I regard as superior, equal to or only slightly worse than the originals. These are the ones about which I believe people, once the dust has cleared and we can look back on this strange period of cinematic history with something like neutrality, will say, “yeah, those were really good.” (Well, OK, maybe not people in general but some will.) I thought it would be good to do this introductory post first to provide context for the discussion.

Stay Tuned

References

References
1 Pete’s Dragon (2016) is another recent remake of a live action Disney movie, but while it is part of the trend of Disney doing almost nothing but remakes, there’s not enough cultural nostalgia for the 1977 version for me to really consider it nostalgia bait.
2 I haven’t watched all of them and I have no wish to do so. That’s why I’m doing this post now before too many more come out.
3 For that matter, it doesn’t mean the nostalgia bait movies that the directors did solely for a paycheck are automatically bad.
4 I should clarify that when I speak of defending Disney in this post and the following three, I speak of defending their movies from an artistic perspective. I’m not trying to defend any immoral actions or policies on the part of the Disney company, like their infamous cooperation with and implicit endorsement of the CPC in the making of the 2020 Mulan. Stuff like that is above this blog’s paygrade.
5 I’m not including the 1996 live action 101 Dalmatians because it was from the 90s and isn’t really an example of modern Disney nostalgia bait culture. Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1994) is actually more of a remake of the 1942 Korda brothers movie than the 1967 Disney one.
6 Not to be confused with Goodbye Christopher Robin, the 2017 biopic of Winnie the Pooh creator, A. A. Milne, and his son. Apparently, something was in the air in the late 10s that made people want to make movies with “Christopher Robin” in the title.
7 If I were to include Alice in Wonderland (2010) and its 2016 sequel, Through the Looking Glass, as part of this discussion, I would classify them as Type A nostalgia bait movies. I won’t since they’re based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, not Disney’s 1951 animated adaptation. Still, since the 1951 movie is the Alice in the public’s eyes (if any version can make that claim), it’s reasonable to say that the studio was testing the waters for Disney nostalgia bait with it.
8 Or at least that one fits in better into this category than any other.
9 To be fair, I consider Alan Menken’s score for Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Hans Zimmer’s score for The Lion King (1994), by which I mean the background music, not just the songs, to be masterpieces and I can’t blame the movies for thinking they couldn’t be topped-which, of course, brings up the why-do-a-remake question.
10 I call it boring not only because of the script but because the vocal performances, to an unusual extent, seem like they’re trying to replicate those from the original movie. John Kani sounds like a discount Robert Guillame. John Oliver sounds like a discount less funny Rowan Atkinson. Billy Eichner sounds like a discount more irritating Nathan Lane. Seth Rogan sounds like a discount Ernie Sabella. (Though, to be fair, Timon and Pumbaa’s banter is one of the more entertainingly written parts of the film.) Even James Earl Jones sounds like a discount James Earl Jones. To his credit, Chiwetel Ejiofor doesn’t sound like a discount Jeremy Irons, but he doesn’t sound that interesting in his role either.
11 Dumbo ends with Dumbo and his mother going back to the wild rather than becoming circus stars and The Jungle Book ends with Mowgli continuing to live in the jungle where he grew up rather than moving to the man village. (Modern Disney just hates civilization but they love making money off it.) Seriously, I understand the reasoning behind both changes, but I confess a fondness to the ending of the 1967 Jungle Book. It’s kind of nice to see a cartoon movie end with the stuffy adult characters being vindicated rather than the rebellious kid characters. Interestingly, the 2016 Jungle Book still emphasizes Mowgli needing to fight Shere Khan “like a man” rather than an animal and doesn’t have him officially become a member of the wolf pack as was his original wish. The position it seems to take is summed up by a character who opines that Mowgli should “be a man right here (in the jungle),” a character who is weirdly portrayed as less admirable than the characters who advocate him living in the village. Someone who disliked this movie might call it gutless. I enjoy it so I’ll go with “thematically complex,” though I suspect “gutless” is closer to the truth.
12 The Bear Necessities in The Jungle Book works very well in this regard. I Wanna Be Like You works less well as it’s harder to interpret it as anything other than a musical number in a generally nonmusical film, and it doesn’t even fit with the tone of the scene in this version. The use of it in the credits is fun though. Dumbo‘s Baby Mine works fine but not brilliantly. The main problem with its scene is that photorealistic elephants are never going to be as cuddly as the cartoon ones from the 1941 movie.
13 Since the 2019 Dumbo was one of the few Disney nostalgia bait movies to underperform at the box office, probably because there wasn’t enough nostalgia at this point in time for the original, I should stress that I find it to be a flawed but enjoyable.
14 Cinderella can briefly be heard singing Sing Sweet Nightingale but that’s easily missed.
15 Technically, that plot element came from the Brother Grimm version of Cinderella, Aschenputel, and both Disney movies take the Charles Perrault version, Cendrillon, as their source material. I feel like this is worth pointing out since when rightfully describing Disney as sanitizing the stories they adapt, people will sometimes cite Cinderella as an example, which, for once, isn’t fair as Cendrillon already doesn’t feature the gory elements of Aschenputel. But I find it admirable that the makers of Cinderella (2015) looked at different versions of the fairy tale, not just the one they were officially using as source material.
16 By original, I mean the 1992 movie. In the literary story, she was a major character.
17 Though I think it tells against the movie that this idea apparently came not from the screenwriters, but from the actress. Inventing doesn’t come up much in the plot, which, to be fair, neither did reading books in the 1991 classic, though it arguably had thematic significance that mechanics don’t in either film.
18 To be fair to the 1991 Beast, his reaction to the news of danger to Maurice can be interpreted as empathy for him as well as for Belle and he’s clearly overjoyed for his servants when they’re restored to their true forms in the last scene. If anything, he’s more enthusiastic about it than his own transformation.
19 I’m writing to defend Disney nostalgia bait, not condemn it, but here’s a quick rundown of the movie’s problems. While the cast is stuffed with charismatic stars, none of them are as inspired in their roles as the voice cast of the animated movie. The vocals (except for those of Audra Macdonald) and the choreography (except for maybe that of Be Our Guest) aren’t going to make anyone forget the original in a hurry either. Not all of the film’s idea, even the better ones, are executed well. The attempts to make Belle an even stronger heroine, always ready with an improvised weapon or a plan, makes her less relatable. And the portrayal of same-sex attraction and crossdressing (in a subplot) as both completely acceptable and inherently ridiculous might as well have been designed to alienate people on both sides of the issues.
20 Of course, these movies weren’t original in the sense that they weren’t based on anything but they weren’t remakes of old Disney movies either.
21 The choice I’d probably make if I were in the producers’ position would be to quit producing and get another job. Maybe as a plumber or something.
22 I also enjoyed Queen of Katwe quite a bit though I confess I haven’t felt like watching it more than once.
23 I’ll grant the first school of criticism that the earliest Disney movies were more ambitious (in some ways anyway) and had more dramatic and emotional range than the ones from the 50s, with the arguable exception of Sleeping Beauty and maybe Lady and the Tramp at its darkest, and I’ll grant the second school of criticism that the ones from the 90s had the highest number of great soundtracks. But when it comes to Disney animated movies that I love to watch and rewatch, the 1950s had the most consistency. It was also the best decade for Chuck Jones cartoons.
Posted in Remakes | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on A Mild Defense of Disney’s Recent Line of Nostalgia Bait

Top 5 Screenplays Covered by the Adaptation Station and some Honorable Mentions

I’d like to celebrate the first anniversary of my blog by writing about something that interests me, scriptwriting. I’d better make some things clear about the following list.

These are the top 5 scripts from movies about which I’ve blogged, not my top 5 screenplays ever. They’re not even my top 5 screenplay adaptations.

These are the top 5 scripts from movies specifically about which I’ve blogged. I considered doing scripts from filmed plays and television too, but this seemed simpler.[1]If I had, the scripts for pretty much every episode of The Storyteller would have to be included, but I’m not sure about the libretto for the 2000 staging of Peter Pan. I love it more than the … Continue reading

These are the top 5 scripts about which I’ve blogged, not the top 5 movies. Sometimes a movie will have a great script, but it won’t have a great cast or a great soundtrack or a great visual style. If you want to know my opinions about any of these films as a whole, click on the links I’ve included and be aware that some of them are to posts about two movies, so you have to read carefully to find the one with the top script.

This was an interesting list to make. Previously I would have said that the best adaptations are those in which you can still hear the voice of the original author. But my favorites have turned out to be more like duets where both the original author’s voice and the screenwriter’s voice can be heard, complementing each other.

Honorable Mentions: Love and Friendship (2016) by Whit Stillman and Freaky Friday (1976) by Mary Rodgers

Of all the Jane Austen adaptations out there, Love and Friendship just might do the best job of capturing the tone and style of her writing, though it does suffer from being a bit repetitive. (Count how many times Sir James is described as being “no Solomon.”) It has too many dramatic problems for it to be one of my favorites, but it’s so quotable it had to be included on this list somehow.[2]In Stillman’s defense, the dramatic problems come from the source material, Lady Susan, though another adaptation might have worked around them better. In Austen’s defense, Lady Susan … Continue reading

I may have a number of adaptation issues with Freaky Friday, mainly involving the climax, but it perfectly captures the style of the book’s prose in a way no other adaptation does. Not that that’s a big achievement since they were written by the same person. If I didn’t include it however, this post would give the impression I only love hoity toity Classics with a capital C and while I don’t find this one as interesting as the others on this list, I do consider it great writing of its kind.

5. Peter Pan (2003) by P. J. Hogan and Michael Goldenberg

Wait a minute. In my post about it, didn’t I write that this movie had a lot of problems as an adaptation and even as a piece of storytelling on its own terms? Well…I stand by that. But, like I said, this post is about my favorite screenplays for adaptations about which I’ve blogged, not my favorite screenplays ever. And there’s something about this one that makes me keep coming back to it and feel that it deserves more than just an honorable mention. It captures J. M. Barrie’s style of humor with its blend of childlike whimsy and adult cynicism (or perhaps childish heartlessness) better than any other adaptation I’ve seen. There’s both visual humor for children and verbal wit that adults and older children can appreciate. (“I must become a man that children fear and adults respect.” “If we kill them, they shall think themselves important.”) There’s even some sly social satire. (“Novelists are not highly thought of in good society and there is nothing so difficult to marry as a novelist.”) It’s true that it feels like a modern action movie but even that feels somewhat in the spirit of the original. J. M. Barrie wrote Peter Pan in part as an affectionate parody of adventure stories that his original audience would have been familiar, like Piratical swashbucklers and Leather stocking tales. Why shouldn’t a modern Hollywood Pan be a similarly tongue-in-cheek take on modern adventure movies? It also craftily updates the characters for today’s audiences, so that, for example, the Darling children are less accepting of the ideas of fairies or flying boys than they were originally. But it doesn’t come across as embarrassed by the datedness of its material. The young characters still get excited about Cinderella for example. Its old-fashioned subject matter of pirates, “Indians” and tiny fairies probably doomed it at the box office. But if you want a Peter Pan adaptation that has a contemporary sensibility yet remains niche and nostalgic, this gets the job done nicely.[3]You only have to watch Peter Pan Live (2o14) to see one that tries and fails to meet both goals.

Even some of the script’s flaws reflect its virtues. It takes one dramatic element of the story, Wendy’s doomed love for Peter, and inflates it at the expense of others, such as theme of abandonment.[4]Actually, most of the screenplays on this list can be accused of focusing on some themes and messages of their sources at the expense of others and putting a bit of their own spin on the messages. But at least this feels like P. J. Hogan and Michael Goldenberg have a specific take on the material and aren’t just going through the motions. The same can be said about its much less ambiguous message, which makes it clear that Peter’s refusal to grow up is a tragedy and that Wendy’s acceptance of adulthood is to be applauded. Barrie arguably gave the impression that both were a tragedy or at least left the verdict of which one was up to readers and theatregoers. But then how many mainstream nonsubversive Peter Pan adaptations would even consider the possibility of not growing up being tragic? When I first heard Wendy’s accusation in the movie that Peter’s desire to always be a boy is his “biggest pretend,” I was sure this was Hogan and Goldenberg projecting their own views onto the material. Imagine my surprise to find the line comes straight from the play’s stage directions! This script was clearly written by screenwriters who read a lot of Barrie and put a lot of thought into his work.[5]The draft of the screenplay available for purchase from scriptfly.com even gives Hook some lines of dialogue from another of his plays, Dear Brutus. A crazy and misguided adaptation this certainly may be, but it’s neither a disrespectful nor a lazy one.

4. Little Women (2019) by Greta Gerwig

I sort of hesitate to praise this one too, though not as much as the last one. I don’t like to mention this on here, because it’s going to alienate some people, but I’m a conservative at heart. And Greta Gerwig is a liberal. Of course, pretty much all of scripts on this list were written by liberals, liberals dominating the arts world,[6]Some would say that’s because conservativism is contrary to the spirit of art. I have theories of my own, but they’re uncomplimentary to liberals and artists, so I won’t share them. but, from what I understand, she sees her screenwriting as vehicle to express her beliefs more than the other writers on this list do and attracts a fanbase to match. Part of me wishes to avoid coming across as a member of that fanbase. But another part of me believes in giving credit where it’s due. Gerwig’s script really did the best job of adapting Little Women for the cinema and it’s probably the least obnoxiously liberal movie she’s ever going to make. [7]There’s no Pro-Choice message in it for one thing. That’s because she only includes feminist messages when they fit in with the story or serve to develop the characters in some way. Clearly, she loves and respects the source material too much to do otherwise. She’s even stays true to it by including a few conservative sounding lines. (“I took care to have a few of my sinners repent.”) Maybe that’s because Gerwig’s not a completely braindead liberal just like I’m not a completely braindead conservative.[8]The flipside of that is that if you’re a liberal, it doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to love the script. Some have criticized Gerwig for being too “white” and not radical … Continue reading

Of course, having a lot of affection for the material is nothing uncommon for a Little Women movie. Pretty much all of them were written by people who had that. But this Little Women‘s affection isn’t limited to including a lot of little details from the book, though it certainly doesn’t neglect that. (A few such are Meg being interested in flowers, Beth having a doll called Joanna and Jo having to read Belsham to Aunt March.) It goes beyond them to trying, and largely succeeding, to capture all the nuances of the characters. In the other movies, Jo and, to a lesser extent, Beth are the only ones to be fully developed. Everyone else is just in the background, occasionally getting a random dramatic scene and then fading into the background again. I can’t totally blame them for this. Jo is easily my favorite of the heroines too and since Beth is the sister closest to her, you kind of need to focus on her if you’re going to focus on Jo. Watching the movie, you get the impression Jo is Gerwig’s favorite too. But she clearly loves all the heroines. In fact, she loves all the characters, including the male ones. She even kind of loves the conservative straw(wo)men characters and tries to give them reasonable points to make.[9]Of course, her idea of that is having even the ostensibly conservative characters voice liberal preconceptions (“No one makes their own way, not really” “The whole country benefited … Continue reading Everyone feels just as developed as they should be, everything has some kind of payoff and no one feels like they were included out of obligation.[10]It’s true that the script kind of drops the ball on Beth’s character in the scenes leading up to her death, cutting all the lines from the book about how she, herself, feels and reducing … Continue reading

As much as it loves the characters though, the script’s love is not an overindulgent love that glosses over their faults. It respects the characters enough to explore their dark sides and trusts that they’ll still be lovable. Even the saintly Beth and Marmee are shown as needing to “conquer themselves,” Beth by overcoming her fear of the Laurences and Marmee by controlling her anger over the sad state of the world. It sympathizes with all the characters and the reasons they have to be bitter, and it wants viewers to do so too. But it doesn’t give them leave to wallow in bitterness. Instead, it roots for them rise above it and expects the viewers to do that too.

For all its love and respect for the source material though, this adaptation is no cut and paste job. Gerwig makes shrewd decisions repackaging it for modern audiences. She moves the scenes of the Marches gathering around to read a letter from their absent father and giving away their Christmas breakfast to a poor family, which are in the book’s first two chapters, to later in the movie when sentimentality-averse audiences will (hopefully) be already engaged. But, as I wrote above about Peter Pan, once it has them, it doesn’t come across as embarrassed by potential corniness at all.[11]If anything, it makes the first moment more sentimental than in the book by placing it after the family has just received a Christmas feast from Mr. Laurence and showing that they’re far more … Continue reading The contrasts the cuts between the past and present create are much more thoughtful than the ones in the similarly nonlinear 2018 Little Women although I enjoy that movie more. (Remember this is favorite scripts, not favorite movies.) I may have criticized the subtext behind them in my original post about the movie, as well as the twist given to the ending, which I love in theory but not in practice, and I’ll stand by that criticism. But I can’t quite bring myself to regret their existence. In particular, the ending reflects Gerwig’s love for not only the book itself, but the author and the story behind the book. Some of the lines in the script are actually quotes from Louisa May Alcott’s other writing. (“I can’t afford to starve on praise.” “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.”)

3 &2. Emma (1996) and Nicholas Nickleby (2002) by Douglas McGrath

I love both of these so much I can’t choose between them[12]If it were a matter of choosing between the books that inspired them, I’d go with Nicholas Nickleby, but the fact that I’m less attached to Emma makes me more forgiving of problems with … Continue reading and, despite the great differences between Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, these two scripts from the same screenwriter share a similar spirit and much the same virtues, so it makes sense to praise them as one. It’s true that unlike some of the other adaptations on this list, they don’t even try to do justice to all the plotlines from their source materials. And some characters, such as John Knightley from Emma and Tilda Price from Nicholas Nickleby, lose pretty much all their personality. But this allows them to really give the central plots time to breathe and to really develop the leads. Neither movie feels like a giant story smushed into a short one. If I didn’t know they were based on thick books, I wouldn’t have guessed it from watching them.

It’s true that Douglas McGrath’s style isn’t a perfect fit for Austen or Dickens, being too warm for the former and not quite gritty enough for the latter. But he understands something about them that many other directors don’t.[13]I wouldn’t say screenwriters don’t get it, so arguably this is more about direction than writing. But it’s not unrelated to the script and since the director and screenwriter are … Continue reading They’re fun. More to the point, they’re funny. Too many of their adapters are too focused on Serious Social Critique to capture this vital quality. But these two scripts of McGrath’s are hilarious. They include plenty of the funniest lines from the books, trimming them when necessary, so they have maximum impact for modern audiences. (The best example of this is cutting the reference to Timour the Tartar in Mr. Crummles’s hilarious speech about his pony in Nicholas Nickleby.) They also manage to make them funny in a cinematic way as opposed to a literary way, using such devices as ironic cutaways, while always feeling grounded in the humor of the source material. (The best example of this is the montage of Emma waiting for an invitation from the Coles while maintaining that she’s not going to accept it.) Miss Bates, Harriet Smith, Mrs. Elton and the Squeers and Crummles families have seldom been funnier on the screen. I also love McGrath’s habit of cutting dialogue off midspeech and cutting to either the same character or another in midsentence as if they’re finishing the line from the previous scene. This makes it feel like the scripts are always moving forward. Energy is not something modern readers associate with Dickens or Austen, though their original readers did so. And despite what I wrote about the two scripts having a similar style and that style not being a perfect fit for either Austen or Dickens-perfection is such a high standard-they each feel funny in an Austenian and a Dickensian way respectively.[14]I’d say that Austenian comedy is based on people having to be polite to really annoying people they can’t stand. Few adaptations capture that as well as this Emma. Dickensian comedy is … Continue reading

And, hey, it’s not like being so funny kept the scripts from conveying the serious aspects of the books. Both do a great job of establishing what the protagonists’ problems are at the beginning and getting you invested in them right off the bat. And while both are full of laughs, and Nicholas Nickleby has a good bit of action and suspense too, the stories’ serious messages shine through.[15]Both admittedly put a bit of their own spin on the messages. Emma posits that the romantic leads’ flaws are what make them suited to each other and Nicholas Nickleby editorializes that the … Continue reading At their very best, they even improve on the books dramatically, Emma by having its antiheroine confess to others and not just to herself that she hasn’t been as kind to the Bates family as she’s been pretending to be and Nicholas Nickleby by giving its hero a scene where he proposes to his love interest. (In the book, only two conversations between them are actually recorded and one of them is an argument. All the arrangements for their marriage are done by go-betweens.) These scripts make the material accessible to modern audiences but they also boast some artsy features. I love the “framing devices” they use, a Victorian doll theater with dolls that correspond to characters of Nicholas Nickleby, foreshadowing the hero’s stint as an actor, and the painted globe with images of the places that are important in Emma’s small world, in keeping with the heroine being an amateur artist and suggesting the godlike power and authority she assumes for herself. Just like Austen and Dickens, McGrath achieves both artistic and entertainment value in these scripts.

1.Les Miserables (2012) by William Nicholson and Herbert Kretzmer[16]I’m including Kretzmer since I assume he wrote the English lyrics that are original to this version. I know French lyricist Alain Boulbil worked on the original song, Suddenly, which I … Continue reading

One of my first blog posts was all about how I felt this script improved on the stage musical.[17]I gather that some fans of the musical feel that it was so clearly written for the stage that any attempt to reimagine for cinema feels awkward. That is certainly a valid position to take. For what … Continue reading But I hesitate a bit to list it so high since, judging by the screenplay that’s published online, a lot of the things I love about the movie, such as Fantine impulsively slapping her detestable overseer and then immediately begging for his pardon, were the ideas of the director and possibly the cast. However, the online script does seem like an earlier draft rather than the one used for shooting.[18]Its version of Lovely Ladies, in particular, feels highly experimental and the final movie did well to bring it closer to the stage version. It’s not unheard of for studios to put out drafts of the screenplays out for award consideration rather than the shooting scripts.[19]I don’t get why. Isn’t it like an admission that they were better than the final product? But I’m grateful for the insight these drafts given into the creative process. Even if the online version was used for shooting, many of the movie’s best ideas, such as Valjean lifting a fallen mast and flinging it defiantly in front of Javert in the first scene, the expanded role of the barmaid at Café Musain, and the friendship between Gavroche and Courfeyrac, are already in there. William Nicholson at least got the ball rolling in the right direction, even if others were responsible for the brilliant conclusion.[20]And there are some good things in the online screenplay that didn’t make the final cut like a brief but memorable moment early in the script, with some basis in the book, where Jean Valjean … Continue reading

In my original blog post, I praised the script for all the ways it brought the story and characters back to Victor Hugo’s original book,[21]I didn’t even mention fun little details it includes like the Thernardiers having a cat or Gavroche sleeping in a dilapidated elephant statue. and I’ll stand by that. But I fear I may have given the impression that I only considered the musical good in that it followed the book, which is far from the truth.[22]It’s also worth noting that there’s one way the stage musical is closer to the book than the movie. Part of Hugo’s tragic vision seems to have been a really interesting villain, … Continue reading In fact, if William Nicholson’s screenplay had been solely a literary adaptation and not bothered with the musical, it could not have been half as great. As much as I love how every scene furthers the plot without wasting a moment, it would have been far too fast paced to give us time to get inside the characters’ heads without such awe-inspiring songs as I Dreamed a Dream, Who Am I?, Stars, On My Own or Bring Him Home. They convey in one scene what would normally take several. Most movie adaptations of Les Misérables, as opposed to miniseries, are able to focus on only a few of the many great characters, mostly Valjean and Javert. And even those adaptations often end with Javert’s suicide and Marius and Cosett’s union, completely cutting the book’s final dramatic section. The musical doesn’t include every scene from the book,[23]If it did, probably no one would want to watch it. but it gives a far better idea of the overall story than pretty much any other short adaptation. And while it doesn’t fully develop every major character, few of them feel underdeveloped as they sometimes do. Here the screenplay does the stage libretto one better by properly developing Marius, a character who did feel underdeveloped despite having a good amount of stage time.[24]He’s still not as rounded and interesting a character as in the book, but still definitely a step in the right direction. And while it may not develop Cosette herself more, it does develop her vital relationship with Jean Valjean.

Nicholson not only includes as many of the best parts of both the book and the stage play as he can, but he also brings great ideas of his own to the table, mainly original staging for the songs. Who can forget Jean Valjean kneeling before an altar in the bishop’s church during the first part of his Soliloquy [25]The final movie would make this even better by having him then angrily stride away from it, and then stop, stricken, perfectly reflecting the powerful struggle between guilt and resentment inside him. or Javert singing Stars from atop a building, overlooking Paris, believing himself to have the moral high ground? Then there’s Cosette having her bedroom window open during the first part of In My Life, Jean Valjean closing it during his part, symbolizing his desire to keep her to himself, and her then going outside by herself to meet Marius. And Javert riding past a group of beggars during the line “the righteous (used ironically) hurry past” and the following ominous verse about “a reckoning still to be reckoned,” foreshadowing the insurrection in the movie’s final act, being defiantly addressed to his back. Both of those would be hard to do on stage (In My Life/A Heart Full of Love traditionally takes place entirely in the garden), but they feel like they were always meant to be that way.

None of which is to say I consider either the book or the stage musical to be defunct now because of this adaptation. After all, I’m more of a fan of the literary medium than the cinematic medium. And while I wouldn’t say I’m more of a fan of theater than the cinema, it’s arguably more interesting. But if I had to choose between recommending the book, the play or the movie to someone who had never heard the story before, I’d go with the last one. And I’m not sure I can say that of any other adaptation on this list. The fact that it’s really an adaptation of two things that were already great makes the feat even more impressive.

Bibliography

love-and-friendship-2016.pdf (scriptslug.com)

little-women-2020-script-pdf.pdf

LM SCRIPT 13TH MARCH 2012.fdx (squarespace.com)

References

References
1 If I had, the scripts for pretty much every episode of The Storyteller would have to be included, but I’m not sure about the libretto for the 2000 staging of Peter Pan. I love it more than the Peter Pan adaptation I am including in this list, but mostly because it brings it closer to J. M. Barrie’s play and further away from the 1950s musical; it arguably doesn’t have a special quality of its own. The 1982 Nicholas Nickleby is one that I’d feel like I should include because it’s such a comprehensive and intelligent adaptation, but somehow I just don’t love it.
2 In Stillman’s defense, the dramatic problems come from the source material, Lady Susan, though another adaptation might have worked around them better. In Austen’s defense, Lady Susan appears to have been a rough draft she never intended to publish.
3 You only have to watch Peter Pan Live (2o14) to see one that tries and fails to meet both goals.
4 Actually, most of the screenplays on this list can be accused of focusing on some themes and messages of their sources at the expense of others and putting a bit of their own spin on the messages.
5 The draft of the screenplay available for purchase from scriptfly.com even gives Hook some lines of dialogue from another of his plays, Dear Brutus.
6 Some would say that’s because conservativism is contrary to the spirit of art. I have theories of my own, but they’re uncomplimentary to liberals and artists, so I won’t share them.
7 There’s no Pro-Choice message in it for one thing.
8 The flipside of that is that if you’re a liberal, it doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to love the script. Some have criticized Gerwig for being too “white” and not radical enough in her feminism. You’d think this would show her that the Left demands just as much rigid conformity as the Right does, but enough of my carping.
9 Of course, her idea of that is having even the ostensibly conservative characters voice liberal preconceptions (“No one makes their own way, not really” “The whole country benefited from the system”) but, oh well, I appreciate the thought.
10 It’s true that the script kind of drops the ball on Beth’s character in the scenes leading up to her death, cutting all the lines from the book about how she, herself, feels and reducing her to an object for the other characters to cry over. And it seems to have rather mixed feelings about Prof. Bhaer, emphasizing some elements of his character to the exclusion of others. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule.
11 If anything, it makes the first moment more sentimental than in the book by placing it after the family has just received a Christmas feast from Mr. Laurence and showing that they’re far more excited about the letter.
12 If it were a matter of choosing between the books that inspired them, I’d go with Nicholas Nickleby, but the fact that I’m less attached to Emma makes me more forgiving of problems with its adaptations
13 I wouldn’t say screenwriters don’t get it, so arguably this is more about direction than writing. But it’s not unrelated to the script and since the director and screenwriter are one and the same, I don’t feel as bad about bringing up the direction in this case.
14 I’d say that Austenian comedy is based on people having to be polite to really annoying people they can’t stand. Few adaptations capture that as well as this Emma. Dickensian comedy is trickier to define, but this Nicholas Nickleby definitely captures it.
15 Both admittedly put a bit of their own spin on the messages. Emma posits that the romantic leads’ flaws are what make them suited to each other and Nicholas Nickleby editorializes that the heroes learned that “family need not be defined merely as those with whom they share blood, but as those they would give blood for.” They’re still a lot of less spin heavy than Peter Pan or even Little Women.
16 I’m including Kretzmer since I assume he wrote the English lyrics that are original to this version. I know French lyricist Alain Boulbil worked on the original song, Suddenly, which I don’t undervalue, but crediting all three seemed too much.
17 I gather that some fans of the musical feel that it was so clearly written for the stage that any attempt to reimagine for cinema feels awkward. That is certainly a valid position to take. For what it’s worth though, I first heard the music long before the movie was being made and when I listened to it, I didn’t imagine a stage production. It always said “movie” to me.
18 Its version of Lovely Ladies, in particular, feels highly experimental and the final movie did well to bring it closer to the stage version.
19 I don’t get why. Isn’t it like an admission that they were better than the final product? But I’m grateful for the insight these drafts given into the creative process.
20 And there are some good things in the online screenplay that didn’t make the final cut like a brief but memorable moment early in the script, with some basis in the book, where Jean Valjean looks in on a peasant family in Digne. “A father at a table by lamplight, his young wife before him, his children on either side. Nothing special and yet everything he’s never had.”
21 I didn’t even mention fun little details it includes like the Thernardiers having a cat or Gavroche sleeping in a dilapidated elephant statue.
22 It’s also worth noting that there’s one way the stage musical is closer to the book than the movie. Part of Hugo’s tragic vision seems to have been a really interesting villain, like Javert or Frollo, will always die, but a regular run-of-the-mill monster, like Thenardier or Phoebus, will get off relatively scot-free. The Thernardiers’ final song in the musical, Beggar at the Feast, reflected this, but the movie version subverted it a little by having the singers be forcibly ejected from said feast. Even the end of the movie’s Master of the House had Thenardier receive a little comeuppance to his wife’s delight. As an admirer of Hugo, I have to acknowledge this, but I also have to admit enjoying it.
23 If it did, probably no one would want to watch it.
24 He’s still not as rounded and interesting a character as in the book, but still definitely a step in the right direction.
25 The final movie would make this even better by having him then angrily stride away from it, and then stop, stricken, perfectly reflecting the powerful struggle between guilt and resentment inside him.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Top 4 Nicholas Nicklebys Part 2

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (2002)

Nicholas Nickleby (2002) - IMDb

The 2002 Nicholas Nickleby movie, written and directed by Douglas McGrath, makes an interesting counterpoint to the 1947 one. It doesn’t include nearly as many of the novel’s characters, but it arguably takes fewer liberties with the ones it does include[1]and one of them is John Browdie (Kevin McKidd)! and with the plot. And while it’s obviously a less complete and comprehensive adaptation than the 1982 televised play, it captures much more of the book’s high spirits, which were somewhat drowned by that adaptation’s gloom and pretension.[2]Not that there wasn’t plenty of gloom in the book or that there wasn’t comedy in the play.

This film easily has the highest number of the greatest character portrayals in any Nicholas Nickleby, starting with Christopher Plummer’s performance as Ralph. I know I said that John Woodvine was the best Ralph Nickleby in my last post. What I meant was that he did the best job recreating the character from the book. Plummer gives Ralph a bit too much of a sense of humor at times, the actor’s own personality is clearly in evidence. On its own terms, I would say Plummer’s Ralph is the greatest.

Jamie Bell is also the greatest Smike, doing a full-body cringe throughout the early part of the movie as if he expects to be beaten at any moment and making every rare time that he smiles heartwarming. I know I said that by giving the character a harder time speaking, the 1982 Nicholas Nickleby actually improved on the source material, so technically, I suppose, David Threlfall’s Smike was the best. But Jamie Bell’s is the best Smike as Dickens imagined him.

still from 2002 production of Nicholas Nickleby, casting Jamie Bell as Smike

Jim Broadbent is also the greatest Wackford Squeers. Too many actors, including the usually great Alun Armstrong in 1982 version, make the character obviously unpleasant, while Broadbent displays a greasy faux charm. Juliet Stevenson is a perfect foil for him as Mrs. Squeers. This adaptation best captures the book’s description of the two. “The fact was, that both Mr. and Mrs. Squeers viewed the boys in the light of their proper and natural enemies; or, in other words, they held and considered that their business and profession was to get as much from every boy as could by possibility be screwed out of him. On this point they were both agreed and behaved in unison accordingly. The only difference between them was, that Mrs. Squeers waged war against the enemy openly and fearlessly, and that Squeers covered his rascality, even at home, with a spice of his habitual deceit; as if he really had a notion of someday or other being able to take himself in, and persuade his own mind that he was a very good fellow.”

Heather Goldenhersh is also great as their daughter, Fanny, and it’s sad that this adaptation doesn’t have time to do more with her.

Nathan Lane is the funniest Vincent Crummles and while I’m not a big fan of having his wife be a cross cast role, Dame Edna Everage AKA Barry Humphries definitely brings a Dickensian flair to it.

Romola Garai and Anne Hathaway vanish into the roles of Victorian-style heroines, Kate and Madeline.

Tom Courtenay brings an almost unprecedented tragic dignity to Newman Noggs while also delivering on spot-on comedic timing when called upon to do so.

This was the best image I could get of him, which tells you how hard it is to find good screencaps of this movie online

As a matter of fact, there’s only one bit of casting that isn’t perfect in this movie and unfortunately, it’s a pretty big one: Charlie Hunnam as Nicholas. He has more trouble than the rest of the cast with the stagy dialogue, something this adaptation embraces unlike the 1947 movie, and comes across as a bit stiff. His best moments tend to be wordless. He isn’t a disaster or anything, but he doesn’t give the definitive take on his character as just everybody else here does.

Longtime readers may remember me praising the 2008 Little Dorrit miniseries for how its sets aided the storytelling and furthered the characterizations. Eve Stewart’s production design in this Dickens adaptation does much the same thing more subtly. Ralph Nickleby’s chilly home/office, the bleak, Spartan Dotheboys Hall, Vincent Crummles’s tacky caravan, and Miss La Creevy (Sophie Thompson)’s cheerfully eccentric abode all reflect the personalities of their owners. As screenwriter and director, McGrath has a gift for economic visual storytelling. In one shot, he memorably conveys Nicholas’s struggle to find a good job, something that takes a number of chapters in the book and would normally take a montage in a movie.

If this adaptation has a major drawback, it’s that, just as in his Emma McGrath underdeveloped Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax compared to Harriet Smith and Mr. Elton, here he underdevelops Kate Nickleby and Madeline Bray’s stories compared to those of Nicholas and Smike.[3]Well, Madeline is arguably made more important to the story in that it’s established very early in the movie that Nicholas is seeking a helpmate, but she’s not developed as much as a … Continue reading Because of this Madeline’s selfish father (David Bradley) loses what nuance and depth he had in the book and other slower paced adaptations.[4]And for whatever reason, his name is Nigel rather than Walter. More substantially, her suppressed inheritance is missing, understandable from a pacing standpoint but it makes the movie’s final third less exciting than the first two, and it means that the Squeers family never gets its ultimate comeuppance. Without the motive provided by the inheritance, Ralph’s motive for interfering in Madeline’s life also becomes solely to spite Nicholas, which seems out of character for such a calculating businessman. [5]The movie suffers a bit here from not being able to include the information given by the narrator in the book that Nicholas reminds Ralph of his brother (Nicholas’s father) who was always … Continue reading Still, what we do get of Kate and Madeline’s plot is very well done. They’re certainly more developed than Mrs. Nickleby (Stella Gonet) who only has a few lines of dialogue. If you’re familiar with the book, you’re probably having a mental breakdown right now over the idea of Mrs. Nickleby not saying much. Miss La Creevy doesn’t have many lines either, but, for the record, I feel she comes across as less generic here than in the 1947 film where she had more screentime. The script at least tries to give her a personality by making everything she says have to do with art somehow, which…all right, it’s not really a personality, but it’s something.

This adaptation may not do justice to every character or subplot from the novel, but the ones it does focus on have ample time to breathe that they don’t always get in more comprehensive Nicholas Nicklebys. Of all the Dickens adaptations, this is one of the most-if not the most-fun and engaging to watch. It’s hilarious, tearjerking, exciting, romantic and heartwarming, everything people should, but too often don’t, expect a Charles Dickens movie to be.

The Life and Adventures of Nick Nickleby (2012)

The Life and Adventures of Nick Nickleby (2012) movie posters

This miniseries, written by Joy Wilkinson and Dominique Moloney (mostly Wilkinson) and directed by David Innes Edwards, that reimagines Nicholas Nickleby as taking place in modern times is arguably less a retelling of Dickens’s story and more its own story, so it arguably shouldn’t be on this list. But I enjoy it too much to leave it out. The starting point is much the same. Nick (Andrew Simpson),[6]I don’t really like that nickname. Nick Nickleby sounds like stuttering. his sister, Kat (Jayne Wisener)[7]Do people not use Kate anymore? and their mother (Bronagh Gallagher) journey from Devon to London upon the death of their father/husband to ask Ralph Nickleby (Adrian Dunbar), the uncle/brother-in-law they’ve never met, to help them buy back their repossessed farm. Outside his office, Kat meets oligarch Vladimir Hawkovsky (Gerry O’ Brien), who learns her identity. Ralph needs Hawkovsky to provide him the capital for a lucrative deal that will put him in charge of every care home in the UK. Privately, Hawkovsky tells him he’ll sign the necessary papers-if he gets to sleep with Kat. (Note that Hawkovsky looks like he’s fifty and Kat is seventeen.) Ralph immediately changes his tune about helping the Nicklebys. He puts Kat and her mother up at his gentlemen’s’ club and, to get him out of the way, gives Nick a job at Dotheolds Hall, his flagship care home in Yorkshire. After seeing the abusiveness of the home, Nick ends up on the run with longtime resident, Mrs. Smike (Linda Bassett.)

The series’ story is much tighter and more suspenseful than the novel’s, with the ticking clock of Nick needing to expose the abuse at Dotheolds Hall before Ralph’s deal is finalized. (With the modern setting, making part of the plot bringing the abuse to the attention of authorities was pretty much inevitable.) In the book, Nicholas’s main goal of finding a way to financially support his family is basically resolved two thirds of the way through, though of course more conflicts keep popping up.[8]Similarly, in Oliver Twist, Oliver’s main problem of needing a good home is resolved two thirds of the way into the book, though his origins still need to be explained and there’s plenty … Continue reading Still, the series does try to include many of the novel’s most memorable scenes and more quotes from the book are included in the dialogue than you’d think, particularly in Ralph’s.

The characterizations are a mixed bag as far as faithfulness goes. Mrs. Smike is much more competent and on-the-ball than Smike ever was, in keeping with modern expectations of how a disabled character should be portrayed. (Along similar lines, three elderly residents of Dotheolds, Mr. Cobbey (James Greene), Mrs. Graymarsh (Barbara Adair) and Mr. Bolder (Howell Evans), whose names come from the book, play an active role in the series’ plot.) I feel like this lessens Nicholas’s heroism in helping her somewhat. There’s a scene where Mrs. Smike offers to part ways with Nick, just like Smike did with Nicholas in the book, so as not to be a burden, but it’s clear that Mrs. Smike is as much an asset to Nick’s journey. Still, I do enjoy her character.

Madeline Bray (Caitlin Joseph)’s ailing father (Ranjit Krishnamma) now actively pleads with his daughter not to get married just to support him. This is obviously a monumental about-face for the character, but it makes thematic sense given how this version makes Dotheboys Hall an abusive home for the elderly rather than an abusive boarding school for boys, turning a good-young-people-vs-evil-old-people story into one about the responsibilities of youth towards their elders, though it’s true enough to the source material that there’s still a lot of young heroes pitted against old villains. (You’d have to be really, really unfaithful for there to be none.) Mrs. Nickleby is also a much more competent guardian to her children, relatively speaking, but she’s funny and annoying in the same way she is in Dickens. Maybe not as funny, but funny enough. There’s a family called Khenwigs in the series, but they don’t really correspond to the Kenwigses from the book and there’s a character called Verishopht (Laurence Kennedy), but it would have been more accurate to name him Snawley.

The most distracting changes to a character, for me as a Nicholas Nickleby fan, involve Kat who is far less idealized than Kate. She’s less inclined to believe her brother when he defends himself against charges of criminal behavior and is more easily manipulated by the villains. Kate, actually, wasn’t manipulated at all unless you count her being more inclined than Nicholas to initially give their uncle the benefit of the doubt. At one point, it even looks like she’s going to give her predator what he wants if it will help her family, something Madeline Bray might have considered in the novel, but definitely not Kate Nickleby. I’m less upset over this literary character assassination than you might think I’d be though, because I understand what the miniseries is doing. As Charles Dickens was writing about how women were sexually objectified at too young an age in his culture, this adaptation is exploring how that is a problem in our modern culture, where young girls are sometimes manipulated into associating sexual objectification with glamour and independence, even when, as in this case, it’s really not what they themselves desire.

Happily, there are plenty of characters who are just like their literary counterparts. Adrian Dunbar makes a great Ralph Nickleby.

In fact, all the casting is great despite, or perhaps because of, a lack of big-name actors. The various grotesques feel like they could have stepped right off the page. Mark McDonnell is actually my second favorite Wackford Squeers, Jim Broadbent being first. For the sake of simplicity, all of Squeers’s family members are combined into one, his daughter, Frannie (Hollie Taylor.) Fortunately, she’s more than up to the task.

Gratifyingly, Andrew Simpson’s Nick perfectly embodies Dickens’s impetuous but noble hero. Madeline Bray-or Maddy Bhray as they call her-also feels just like the book character[9]Well, Dickens wouldn’t have had her have a child out of wedlock since such a thing would be considered very immoral in his culture, but apart from that, I mean. and so does her love-at-first-sight romance with Nick.

My biggest problem with this adaptation is the way it has Ralph be framed for a crime he didn’t commit in the climax. The equivalent of this plot point in the book was an actual crime he committed being unearthed. For what it’s worth, it’s the more ambiguous characters who do the framing, not the heroes, but it does seem like we’re supposed to be rooting for them at this point. (In neither the book nor the series is Ralph actually arrested.) Speaking of which, an even bigger problem might be that if the series wanted to redeem Ms. Knag (Anna Wilson-Jones), a character named after one from the book but who is original for all practical purposes, it needed a lot more time to do so than it gives itself, considering what she almost does to Kat towards the end of Episode 3, something that frustratingly is worked into the plot too well for me to imagine a version without it.

For all the liberties it takes with the story and even the characters, I had to rank this Nicholas Nickleby as one of my top 4. It’s a fairly easy parlor trick to take a Dickens book and reimagine it taking place in the modern day. People do it regularly with A Christmas Carol and it’s been done a couple of times with Great Expectations. The themes of greed and selfishness vs. generosity and selflessness are universal. But it’s not so easy to make something that actually feel like it’s what Dickens would write were he living today. This reimagining actually accomplishes that in a way none other I can recall does. Its humor, its sentiment, and its melodrama all feel Dickensian yet modern. For that, I believe it deserves a wider audience than it’s gotten.

Conclusion

Which of these four Nicholas Nickleby adaptations is my favorite? The 2002 one.

It may not include as much from the book as some, but it’s the only one that I recommend to those who aren’t already fans of the material, confident that they’ll enjoy it and just maybe be inspired to give the novel a try. All four of these adaptations do a great job of conveying Dickens’s message, which is best summarized by the following quote from 1999 miniseries Arabian Nights written by Peter Barnes.[10]That may seem like a really random thing with which to end, but Dickens was actually a big fan of One Thousand and One Nights growing up. OK, it is random, but this is my blog, my rules.

…The world (is) an inferno, full of darkness and wickedness and there (are) two ways of dealing with it, one easy and wrong, to accept it and become part of it, the other harder and right, to fight it and recognize those who aren’t evil and help them endure.

References

References
1 and one of them is John Browdie (Kevin McKidd)!
2 Not that there wasn’t plenty of gloom in the book or that there wasn’t comedy in the play.
3 Well, Madeline is arguably made more important to the story in that it’s established very early in the movie that Nicholas is seeking a helpmate, but she’s not developed as much as a character in her own right.
4 And for whatever reason, his name is Nigel rather than Walter.
5 The movie suffers a bit here from not being able to include the information given by the narrator in the book that Nicholas reminds Ralph of his brother (Nicholas’s father) who was always compared favorably to him.
6 I don’t really like that nickname. Nick Nickleby sounds like stuttering.
7 Do people not use Kate anymore?
8 Similarly, in Oliver Twist, Oliver’s main problem of needing a good home is resolved two thirds of the way into the book, though his origins still need to be explained and there’s plenty of drama with the other characters. Most adaptations change this.
9 Well, Dickens wouldn’t have had her have a child out of wedlock since such a thing would be considered very immoral in his culture, but apart from that, I mean.
10 That may seem like a really random thing with which to end, but Dickens was actually a big fan of One Thousand and One Nights growing up. OK, it is random, but this is my blog, my rules.
Posted in Comparing Different Adaptations | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Top 4 Nicholas Nicklebys Part 2

Top 4 Nicholas Nicklebys Part 1

Charles Dickens’ third novel, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, is one of my favorites though that’s not a universally held opinion. Many critics, while commending the book’s youthful energy, deride its stock characterizations and meandering, melodramatic plot. I adore it, in large part, because of those very things. This book contains just about everything that makes Dickens so much fun. Underdog heroes. Not one, but two ruthless old misers. Two saintly, longsuffering heroines, one of whom is devoted to her unappreciative father. Two or three merry, generous old gentlemen. One merry, generous old woman. A lot of kooky, flamboyant supporting characters. Satirical depiction of child abuse. Dramatic revelations about parentage. Amazing coincidences. A tearjerking deathbed scene. Good rewarded. Evil punished. All it needs is an angelic child, preferably an orphan who dies tragically, to be the ultimate Dickensian thrill ride. It’s also one of the funniest things he wrote, much funnier, in my opinion, than the more consistently comedic Pickwick Papers. And for those who prefer their classics to be “relevant,” this one’s theme of sexual harassment gives it a special interest for modern readers.

As much as I love it though, I’m not going to look at all of the filmed adaptations in this series. There are too many of them for that and not all of them are readily available to watch. I’m just going to write about the four that have endeared themselves to me the most. Please note that I’m going through them in the order they were released. While I know which one I consider the best, it gets harder for me to rank them after that, so this is the most practical. With no further ado…

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1947)

Nicholas Nickleby : The Film Poster Gallery

Like the book, this film from French-Brazilian director Alberto Cavalcanti tells the story of a young country gentleman, Nicholas Nickleby (Derek Bond) whose father dies, having lost his money through bad investments. Nicholas, his mother (Mary Merrall), and sister, Kate (Sally Ann Howes) are forced to turn for help to said father’s brother, Ralph (Cedric Hardwicke), a ruthless moneylender in London, whom they have never met. Ralph pulls some strings to get Nicholas a job working at Dotheboys Hall (pronounced do-the-boys), a boarding school in Yorkshire run by Wackford Squeers (Alfred Drayton.) Nicholas soon finds the school is a miserable place where parents send embarrassing sons whom they never want to see again who are abused by Squeers and his wife (Sybil Thorndike.) He befriends a pathetic, mentally crippled young man called Smike (Aubrey Woods) who has been left at the school for most of his life. Nicholas and Smike end up fleeing Dotheboys Hall together and Nicholas searches for a way to support himself and his family without his uncle’s help.

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1947 film) - Alchetron, the  free social encyclopedia

Naturally, the plot of the seven-hundred-plus page novel is simplified and reconstructed for the under-two-hour film. While Ralph Nickleby’s fellow evil moneylender, Arthur Gride (Lawrence Hanray) appears, he mainly serves as a device to allow Ralph to give exposition about his plans. It’s Ralph himself who takes over his actions. [1]Gride is the character most likely to be combined with another in Nicholas Nickleby adaptations. While he plays a major part in the story, he’s introduced very late, and it makes sense to have … Continue reading More problematically for me as a fan, Ralph’s clerk who aids Nicholas, Newman Noggs (Bernard Miles, whom Dickens fans may remember as Joe Gargery in the 1946 Great Expectations movie)[2]They may also recognize James Hayter, who here plays both Cheeryble brothers as the lead in the 1952 Pickwick Papers movie. is combined with Brooker, another character with a vendetta against Ralph. This makes him much darker and less likeable than in the book.

Caftan Woman: THE 2020 CLASSIC LITERATURE ON FILM BLOGATHON: Nicholas  Nickleby, 1947

Generally, though John Dighton’s screenplay stays very true to its source. Well…sort of. While the story and most of the characters are faithful to what Dickens wrote, the dialogue, for the main characters anyway, tends to be original. Some may consider this an improvement as the dialogue Dickens wrote for Nicholas Nickleby tended to be very florid and artificial. But as a big Dickens fan, I cannot agree with this. However, there have been enough adaptations that did try to include a lot of the original dialogue or at least keep the spirit of it that I don’t mind this one doing something a bit different. I imagine a lot of the reasoning behind it was to fit as much as possible into the runtime, which would have been hard with so many big hammy speeches. And the script certainly isn’t badly written.

The villainous and the comedic characters, two categories that overlap but are not interchangeable, tend to get more of their memorable lines from the book than the heroes do, or at least work in their catchphrases. With them though the movie almost feels like it’s trying too hard to be true to the book. Mr. and Mdme. Mantalini (Cyril Fletcher and Fay Compton), who at one point employ Kate Nickleby, Miss Knag (Cathleen Nesbitt), who also works for them, Mr. Gregsbury MP (Michael Shepley), the politician to whom Nicholas applies for the position of secretary, the Kenwigs family for whom he (Nicholas) briefly serves as a tutor, and Mr. Lillyvick (John Salew), their self-important uncle, are all given a ridiculous amount of characterization considering they each appear for one scene, making it very obvious that this film has been adapted from something much longer.[3]Gregsbury only has one scene in the book too, but it’s a longer scene. In particular, Mr. Lillyvick’s cameo gives new meaning to the word, gratuitous.

The Mantalinis

On the other hand, Miss La Creevy (Athene Seyler), the Nicklebys’ friendly landlady, who is actually one of my favorite characters in the book despite not doing much, and her love interest, the irascible Tim Linkinwater (Roddy Hughes, Fezziwig in the 1951 Scrooge), get a great deal of screentime, but don’t really show any personality beyond being amiable. John Browdie, the hearty Yorkshireman, another of my favorite characters, only gets a brief allusion and doesn’t appear at all. I know it’s hypocritical of me to first criticize this adaptation for including characters without developing them and then complain about it cutting others for time, but it’s hard not to do that when discussing Nicholas Nickleby adaptations! The only comedic figure, besides Squeers, who feels like he’s given neither more nor less screentime than he needs is Vincent Crummles (Stanley Holloway), the theater manager with whom Nicholas and Smike fall in for a time.

Ah, Crummles! He could easily be written out of the story, but he and his troupe are so much fun that no adaptation, however short, does so.

While the movie clearly bites off more than it can chew, as a fan of the material, I can’t blame it for wanting a big bite. The bit characters of Nicholas Nickleby are all so vivid and so much fun; speaking more as a Dickens lover and less as objective analyst, I enjoyed every pointless cameo. And some characters are arguably better developed than they were in the book, mainly Frank Cheeryble (Emrys Jones) whose romance with Kate was entirely implied in the novel. And Nicholas’s love interest, Madeline Bray (Jill Balcon), exchanges some dialogue with him in the (relatively) early scene in which she’s introduced. We then follow her and her father (George Relph)’s story alongside that of the other characters rather than having it all explained when she and Nicholas reconnect in the last act.

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1947) Review | The Digital Fix
Kate and Frank
Nicholas Nickleby (1947) – FilmFanatic.org
Nicholas and Madeline

The sets, costumes and, for the most part, the look of the actors are quite reminiscent of the original illustrations by Hablot K. Browne, giving this a vintage Dickensian feel. Apart from their looks, everyone in the cast is at least good and some of them great. Jill Balcon is one of the most striking Madeline Brays I’ve seen, and Mary Merrall gives my favorite performance as Nicholas and Kate’s garrulous, self-absorbed mother bar none.

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1947) YIFY - Download Movie  TORRENT - YTS
That’s her in the middle.

Despite the unfortunate, inevitable cramming, many of the book’s most memorable dramatic moments are done effectively. The primal appeal of the story is very much in evidence. (The conflict basically boils down to good looking poor heroes vs. ugly rich villains. You don’t get much more primal than that.)

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1982)

Theatre epic: “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” (1982) – So  few critics, so many poets

In 1980, the Royal Shakespeare Company did an eight-hour play adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby written by David Edgar and directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird. [4]The latter two would later collaborate on another adaptation of a classic novel, the original West End version of Les Misérables. In 1982, a version was filmed for television. While this performance was filmed without an audience, the better to do multiple takes, footage of one from a regular showing is intercut. We mainly see them applauding when one of the baddies is getting some comeuppance. It’s interesting to see which parts they (apparently) responded to the most enthusiastically, but it’s rather distracting. After one of their reaction shots, I’d find myself wondering for several scenes why no one was laughing or coughing or anything. And by the time I’d gotten used to the audience’s absence, they would suddenly appear on screen, taking me out of the experience. Perhaps Jim Goddard, who directed this for television, felt that with so many instances of the actors walking down the aisle or into the audience, it would be odd to see so many empty seats. I’m not convinced that wouldn’t have been the lesser of two evils, but I guess I can understand it.

Anyway, this is easily the most complete adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby I’ve seen.[5]Some of the miniseries I haven’t seen may be more complete. It must be the only to retain the public meeting from Chapter II of the book about the United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company. The subplots of the Mantalinis and the Kenwigses, which barely connect to the main story, are included and fully developed.[6]The original stage production also included the hilarious subplot of the Nicklebys crazy next-door neighbor, who woos Mrs. Nickleby, though it’s sadly been cut here. On the plus side, a … Continue reading Yet the play never feels as slow paced as the book does.[7]That’s not a knock on the book. Slow pacing can have benefits. I just don’t believe the book’s pacing would work in many other mediums. The character arc for Lord Frederick Verisopht (Nicholas Gecks), one of Ralph Nickleby (John Woodvine)’s clients who stalks Kate (Emily Richard), is also better developed than in any other adaptation. In some, like the 1947 movie[8]Or the 2001 miniseries that didn’t make my top four, his redemption comes out of nowhere. In the 2002 movie, on the other hand, it’s obvious from the start that he’s better than the others in his peer group and it’s not very interesting to see him redeemed. Not so here.

At the same time, this is hardly a cut-and-paste adaptation. The order of events is shrewdly rearranged. Different scenes are combined with each other and so are two inconsequential but memorable pompous politician characters, Sir. Matthew Pupker (David Lloyd Meredith) and Mr. Gregsbury. The Cheeryble brothers (Meredith again and Hubert Rees) explaining their benevolent scheme for Madeline Bray (Lucy Gutteridge) to Nicholas (Roger Rees) is done as a split scene with Arthur Gride (Jeffery Dench) explaining his not so benevolent one to Ralph. As should come to no surprise to those familiar with Trevor Nunn, the tragic side of comedic characters, like Madame Mantalini (Thelma Whitley), Miss Snevellici (Suzanne Bertish) and Mr. Lillyvick (Timothy Kightley), is emphasized mostly to good effect in this case. Along opposite lines, the character of Fanny Squeers (Bertish again) is allowed more of the possibility of redemption and her uneasy friendship with the catty Tilda Price (Cathryn Harrison) ends on a more positive note. It’s rare for me to say that any adaptation improves on Dickens, but the halting way in which this Smike (David Threlfall) speaks as if every word were a struggle for him is more heart-wrenching and does a better job of conveying his mental disability than the book where he speaks as eloquently as everyone else.

Theatre epic: “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” (1982) – So  few critics, so many poets

The main reason the Royal Shakespeare Company decided to tackle this particular Dickens novel in so lavish a fashion[9]besides that the ones they preferred were already being staged by others was Crummles (Christopher Benjamin)’s hilarious troupe of actors, and they’re the center of one of this adaptation’s most inspired original ideas: their staging of Romeo and Juliet, the ending of which we see in detail. However, it’s also the most niche part of the play. To fully appreciate it, you have to be familiar with Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s plays in general and how some of his tragedies were adapted for English Victorian audiences.[10]I know the last one from studying King Lear in high school. It’s definitely comedy for theatre people by theatre people. On that level it works and Romeo and Juliet is famous enough that the broad joke should be understandable to most people. Lines from the play are also recalled in a climactic scene to great emotional effect. Preparations for Ralph’s dinner party are also cleverly interwoven with the troupe’s rehearsal, so that dialogue from the latter serves as a commentary on the former. While I’m cynical about why so many Shakespeare allusions are included in this play, they all work.

Nicholas Nickleby - John Napier Stages

This adaptation also does the best job of updating the heroines without making it feel like people from a modern story have been randomly inserted into a Victorian one. This is mainly done by having them faint less and give more defiant speeches, transferring a number of Nicholas’s angry lines to Kate.[11]I’d argue she, unlike Madeline, didn’t really need that much updating. The play does miss a trick though. In the book, when Kate asks Ralph to tell his business clients to stop harassing her and he refuses, she says that she and her mother cannot accept his charity then and are going to leave the house he’s given them as soon as possible. Here, she just says, “Uncle, you have been selling me!” and runs out of the room, crying.

You’re probably thinking, “Wow, Stationmaster, this sounds like your favorite Nicholas Nickleby adaptation!” Well…no. It’s true that it’s one of the most complete and thoughtful as far as the plot goes, but I’m not always a fan of how it adapts the dialogue. I understand that it would be impossible to fit so many plotlines into nine hours without some trimming, but it seems a shame to cut Ralph’s response to Mrs. Nickleby (Jane Downs)’s lament that the death of her husband was “no common loss.” “It was no uncommon loss, Ma’am. Husbands die every day…” That brief exchange perfectly captures both their characters. It’s hard for me to imagine an adapter not wanting to include it somehow or other. Another example is the dialogue about Mrs. Crummles (Lila Kaye) being “the original blood drinker” onstage. Here’s how it goes in the book.

“Was she indeed?”
“Yes. She was obliged to give it up though.”
“Did it disagree with her?” asked Nicholas.
“Not so much with her, as with her audiences,” replied Mr. Crummles. “Nobody could stand it. It was too tremendous.”

And here’s how it is in the play.

Nicholas: No, I didn’t know that. No.
Mrs. Crummles: Yes, I was obliged to give it up, however.
Nicholas: Oh, I’m sorry. Why was that, Ma’am?
Mrs. Crummles: Oh, the audiences, sir. They couldn’t stand it. It was too tremendous.

Did they really have to change or cut the funniest bits there? And from the perspective of newcomers to the story, the exposition isn’t always as clear as might be wished.

More damningly, I don’t really like Roger Rees as Nicholas. I understand that it would be impossible to have an actual nineteen-year-old in such a big role and that actors being older than their characters is a common theatrical convention. But I first discovered Nicholas Nickleby when I was eighteen myself, and part of its appeal for me was the hero being a normal guy around my age who went around standing up for his convictions, saving people in need, supporting his family and beating up bullies. It’s important to me that he come across as a quite young adult. Roger Rees in 1982 wasn’t exactly Mr. Lenville,[12]Read the book to get that joke. but he neither looks nor feels young here. For the record, I have less of a problem with Emily Richard’s Kate, even though she’s supposed to be even younger, which leads me to think he just wasn’t a great choice for the part.

100 television stage plays: [8] 1982-1990 | SCREEN PLAYS

Other than that, all the actors do a fine job though I don’t find many of them to be great in their roles-or, more accurately, with so many actors, out of necessity, playing double or triple roles, and some of them doing a better job of disguising themselves than others, I find them to be great in some of their roles but not all of them. For example, Bob Peck is great as Sir. Mulberry Hawk, the dissipated rake who persecutes Kate, but just OK as John Browdie. And Lila Kaye is simply one of many great Mrs. Squeerses, but she’s the best Mrs. Crummles ever. Besides her, the only character portrayals here to be the best of any adaptation are John Woodvine’s steely Ralph and Edward Petherbridge’s seemingly pathetic, secretly crafty Newman Noggs. David Threlfall as Smike deserves praises for sheer commitment, contorting his face and body language every second he’s onstage, even going so far as to drool in one scene.

Rather than having a single actor be the narrator, the entire company adresses the audience and provides narration, with even the actors who are the central focus of a scene stepping out of character to describe themselves in third person, though they (sort of) retain their personas for comedic or dramatic effect. It’s very theatrical and I don’t want to criticize a stage play for doing something that only a stage play could do. Actually, I highly approve of this one’s use of soliloquies which allow it to get inside Ralph’s head in a way that the book does, but most adaptations can’t. And the ensemble narration leads to one of this Nicholas Nickleby‘s most powerful moments, a shortened version of the passage from Chapter LIII of the book about “how much injustice, misery and wrong there was, and yet how the world rolled on, from year to year alike, careless and indifferent.” I suppose if I were a “real fan” of the play, it would be part of the appeal. But it means that the audience is very aware of the play as a performance and I can’t really get lost in a world when I watch it, the way I do with the source material or most other adaptations.[13]The fact that the same actors play the background characters in every location, meaning that the boys at Dotheboys Hall are all adults, at least one of them a woman, and at least one of the women … Continue reading There are also a few instances, thankfully not too many, where the narration strikes me as really gratuitous. We don’t need to have Nicholas the narrator tell the audience that he “looked out the window and sighed.” The actor could just look out the window and sigh.

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1982) | MUBI

My biggest beef with this adaptation actually has to do with the very last scene. While Dickens’s endings typically reward most of the good characters and punish most of the bad ones, he semi-frequently has the last paragraph, or at least the second-to-last one, be about someone we like who has died at some point in the story, reminding us that life isn’t always so fair for everyone. It’s great that this play picked up on that but what they do strikes me as not just balancing out the overall happy ending with sadness but overwhelming, even subverting it. The final tableau implies that the terrible things he’s witnessed will prevent Nicholas from ever being completely happy, which isn’t the impression given by the book. [14]Since David Edgar was a Marxist and I’m anti-Marxist in my thinking, I’m tempted to blame all the things I don’t like about this play on his views. But that would be irrational and … Continue reading

While all this keeps the play/TV serial from being the ultimate adaptation it feels like it should have been, every fan of Nicholas Nickleby, or Dickens in general, should see it at least once.

To Be Continued

Bibliography

Dickens, Charles. (2011). The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. London, UK: Arcturus Publishing Limited.

The Life & Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby 1947 : SANWAL : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

Edgar, David. (1982). The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. New York: Nelson Doubleday, Inc.

References

References
1 Gride is the character most likely to be combined with another in Nicholas Nickleby adaptations. While he plays a major part in the story, he’s introduced very late, and it makes sense to have someone else fulfill his role. It’s also possible adapters consider him uncomfortably similar to the stereotypical evil, groveling, moneygrubbing Jewish moneylender.
2 They may also recognize James Hayter, who here plays both Cheeryble brothers as the lead in the 1952 Pickwick Papers movie.
3 Gregsbury only has one scene in the book too, but it’s a longer scene.
4 The latter two would later collaborate on another adaptation of a classic novel, the original West End version of Les Misérables.
5 Some of the miniseries I haven’t seen may be more complete.
6 The original stage production also included the hilarious subplot of the Nicklebys crazy next-door neighbor, who woos Mrs. Nickleby, though it’s sadly been cut here. On the plus side, a hilarious description of the conflicting demands of rising actress Miss Snevellici’s patrons, which was apparently not in the original production, judging by the published script, is included here.
7 That’s not a knock on the book. Slow pacing can have benefits. I just don’t believe the book’s pacing would work in many other mediums.
8 Or the 2001 miniseries that didn’t make my top four
9 besides that the ones they preferred were already being staged by others
10 I know the last one from studying King Lear in high school.
11 I’d argue she, unlike Madeline, didn’t really need that much updating.
12 Read the book to get that joke.
13 The fact that the same actors play the background characters in every location, meaning that the boys at Dotheboys Hall are all adults, at least one of them a woman, and at least one of the women working at Mdme. Mantalini’s is a guy, also does this, though that’s basically inevitable, so I don’t want to complain about it too much.
14 Since David Edgar was a Marxist and I’m anti-Marxist in my thinking, I’m tempted to blame all the things I don’t like about this play on his views. But that would be irrational and unfair, especially since this adaptation weirdly goes out its way not to be Marxist in the end, stressing that some of the characters are rich and that doesn’t make them bad people.
Posted in Comparing Different Adaptations | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Top 4 Nicholas Nicklebys Part 1

Love and Friendship-or Not

When I first heard a Jane Austen movie called Love and Friendship was being made, I was thrilled. Love and Friendship is the title of a short novel Austen wrote as a teenager,[1]Actually, she titled it Love and Freindship, but I don’t feel obliged to replicate her typos. which was only published after her death when she was famous and there were people who wanted to read every last thing she wrote. It’s actually my favorite thing by her. It’s pretty different from the typical Austen work, being much more over the top in its humor, and focusing largely on negative characters. The romantic tropes it satirizes are still very familiar today and it’s hilarious. Check it out if you can. So, naturally, I was highly annoyed to learn that it was actually based on another novella by Austen, which was only published after her death, Lady Susan. (I guess screenwriter/director Whit Stillman just thought Love and Friendship was the catchier title.) While I hadn’t read Lady Susan at the time, from what I’d heard, it wasn’t nearly as much fun as L & F. But now that I have read it, I have to say it’s a relatively great book, albeit one that, not surprisingly given how it was published, still feels like a rough draft. And Love and Friendship (2016) is a relatively great movie too.

Like the literary Love and Friendship, Lady Susan is rather atypical of Austen’s books but for somewhat opposite reasons. Both have negatively portrayed protagonists, but while Love and Friendship is possibly the silliest thing she ever wrote, Lady Susan is the darkest and most dramatic. The title character is probably the most melodramatic villain in Austen outside of Mansfield Park.[2]I don’t mean that as a criticism, I assure you. I love me some good melodrama! How many Jane Austen stories feature a mother and daughter as romantic rivals? Actually, how many stories in general feature that? It begins with Lady Susan Vernon (here portrayed by Kate Beckinsale) being kicked out of Langford, the estate where she’s been staying since her husband’s death, for seducing two unavailable men. She goes to stay with her brother-in-law, Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) and his wife, Catherine (Emma Greenwell.) She intends to bag Catherine’s brother, Reginald DeCourcy (Samuel Xavier) for her husband and realizes the way to do this is through affecting sincere humility rather than being her usual flirtatious self. Meanwhile, she keeps her daughter, Fredericka (Morfydd Clark) at a miserable boarding school, the better to make her desperate enough to marry the moronic Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett.)

LaF_0009.jpg
Lady Susan and Fredericka

After reviewing Kate Beckinsale’s performance as the lead in one of the 1996 movie adaptations of Emma, I was intrigued to see her, years later, play an Austen character who could be described as Emma Woodhouse on steroids. Both are charming, vivacious, witty, beautiful, manipulative control freaks, but while Emma has a conscience and eventually repents, Lady Susan is rotten to the core, a villain you love to hate, worse than Emma ever was. You’ll remember that I wanted to like Beckinsale as Emma, but I felt that her somewhat obvious evilness overwhelmed her charm. That’s no problem here. Watching Beckinsale, it’s no mystery why so many characters are charmed/fooled by Lady Susan, but neither is it a mystery whether we’re supposed to root for her. If anything, I wish Beckinsale had brought a little more of the edge she did to Emma in some of Lady Susan’s scenes, ironically enough.[3]Heh. Irony. Jane Austen. So perfect. But better that than the viewers thinking Reginald as stupid as Sir James for falling for her.

LaF_0729.jpg
Reginald DeCourcy and Lady Susan
LaF_0881.jpg

While Lady Susan is the juiciest role in the movie, there are other fun ones and the whole cast is great or at least good, even the ones in the less fun roles. I do wish that Greenwell made more of an impression as Catherine, since she’s arguably the heroine. But it’s not like she’s bad at all.

LaF_2097.jpg

Whit Stillman is a great fit for Jane Austen. You’d swear that some of his original dialogue was from the book. (“What a mistake you made marrying Mr. Johnson,” Lady Susan says sympathetically to her sidekick, Alicia (Chloe Sevigny), “too old to be governable, too young to die.”) In fact, without discounting the many great screenplays that have been adapted from Austen, I think he does a better job of capturing her style than any of them.[4]Mind you, this doesn’t mean I consider the movie a better piece of storytelling than any of them. One of the only things that feels off about is that Sir James Martin feels like too broad of a caricature. Of course, by “feels off” I mean that this feels inaccurate to Austen’s writing style. As a piece of comedic characterization in its own right, he’s great fun!

LaF_1113.jpg

Ironically, I feel like the very things that make Lady Susan different from your average Austen novel are what allow Love and Friendship to capture the feel of her writing better than other adaptations. Generally, modern Austen-inspired screenplays, including some of the great ones, feel obligated to be more explicitly feminist and egalitarian than their source material. And all of them are forced to come across as more romantic. Of course, romances are major parts of Austen’s plots, and other positive relationships are too, but she underwrites them compared to the comedic or satirical parts or the explorations of psychology/morality. She rarely includes a romantic proposal in its entirety as opposed to summarizing it, and that applies even more strongly to teary, joyful acceptances.[5]Persuasion is the exception that proves the rule. Of course, you can’t just imply such critical dialogues in movies, and to not include romance would be even more untrue to the stories. It’s a real catch 22 situation.

Lady Susan/Love and Friendship features one, count it, one positive romance[6]Not counting the happy marriages of Charles and Catherine and Catherine and Reginald’s parents (James Fleet and Jemma Redgrave), neither of which is ever in jeopardy., but it’s really an afterthought. There are also enough sympathetic characters to keep it from being simply unpleasant, but they’re mostly on the sidelines of the narrative. Wit and a cynical, though not misanthropic, view of human nature and society aren’t just a side dish to a love story here. They’re pretty much the movie’s main course. And far from trying to update the material for modern audiences, it arguably goes too far in the opposite direction, bombarding the viewer with period cultural references and coming across as more dated than the book was. That’s the other thing that feels not perfectly Austenian about the writing.

I was slightly shocked/titillated to find that rather than being more feminist than Lady Susan, the 2016 Love and Friendship arguably comes across as anti-feminist. Many modern feminists fear that sexy, flirtatious, good-looking women are demonized by society. Lady Susan claims to suffer from this, and other characters are quite willing to believe this and defend her. The movie actually makes a bigger deal of this than the book does. In the end, the message is clear: she really is as evil as her reputation makes her out to be. It’s pretty common for a film set in this time period to have a female character lament her lack of financial security and how her only choice is to marry a rich guy. How many of those speeches are given by a horrible villainess in the context of either browbeating her poor abused daughter or manipulating a dupe into seeing her as a tragic victim?[7]I guess it’s fairly standard to have such a speech be a mother giving her daughter the hard facts of life, but most of those mothers are more sympathetic than Lady Susan, not that that’s … Continue reading When Alicia Johnson’s husband (Stephen Fry) threatens to punish her for helping Lady Susan, rather than be disgusted by the patriarchy, the audience is expected to cheer. If all this sounds horrifyingly misogynistic to you, consider yourself warned. For what it’s worth, the movie also features a negative male character who pontificates that for a man to cheat on his spouse is natural while for a woman, it’s impossible, though the implication is more that he’s being naive about women than that he’s being too easy on men.[8]Realistically speaking, of course, he’s being both.

LaF_1837.jpg
Alicia Johnson

Love and Friendship (2016) also arguably comes across as anti-Christian in a way the literary Lady Susan wasn’t. In a scene where she bullies her daughter, Lady Susan specifically invokes the Biblical commandment to honor one’s parents. (This is original to the adaptation as the book didn’t contain any actual dialogue between Lady Susan and Fredericka.) Later Fredericka consults an amiable but rather oblivious curate (Conor MacNeill) about the application of this commandment. The advice he gives isn’t obviously terrible-he doesn’t tell her that, yes, it is her duty to marry Sir James-but it’s utterly irrelevant to her situation.[9]Though he does unknowingly reveal in his speech that Lady Susan is not the devout Anglican as which she poses. How true this is to the spirit of Austen is debatable. She certainly created even more negative clerical characters than this in Mr. Collins of Pride and Prejudice and Mr. Elton from Emma. But she condemned them more for their character defects than their religious views, about which, indeed, the books say little. And her oeuvre also includes some positive clerics, most notably Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey and Edmund Bertram of Mansfield Park. Again, if this part of the film sounds offensive to you, consider yourself warned. And, again, for what it’s worth, a few of the positive characters also make biblical allusions, one of which is to compare Lady Susan to “the serpent in Eden’s garden.”

LaF_1523.jpg
The curate

There’s one major reason I can’t recommend this movie as highly as I’d like to do and, ironically, it’s Jane Austen’s fault. You see a great analogy for the character of Lady Susan is Shakespeare’s Richard III in the play that bears that name. Both are villainous protagonists you love to hate.[10]I know I’ve used that phrase before, but it really does give you the idea. Both masterfully manipulate the people around them, posing as good people who are the victims of slander.[11]I’m very proud of myself for not saying “fake news.” I weary of political catchphrases whether they’re from the Right or the Left, and “fake news” arguably comes … Continue reading Both are highly entertaining in how frankly remorseless they are in their private correspondence/soliloquies and can leave readers/playgoers with a guilty admiration for their sheer competence-at first anyway. In his book, Shakespeare’s Political Drama, Alexander Leggatt argues that the audience goes through an emotional journey watching Richard III, going from being delighted by his brazen villainy to being disgusted by it. “It is in fact dangerous to feel secure with Richard,” he writes. “The illusion of complicity with (him) that (three of his victims) have in their different ways may reinforce our superiority over them, but it should also be warning…the cast of the early scenes fall into two categories-Richard and his dupes. Faced with this choice, we naturally go with Richard, especially since he is so frank with us. But it seems to Richard’s victims that he is being frank with them.” Much the same could be said of our relationship with Lady Susan.[12]Though it should be noted that there are characters in the early scenes of Lady Susan and Love and Friendship (2016) that do see through her. Disconcertingly, Reginald, who almost ends up being completely deceived by her, starts out expecting to be entertained by her villainy and pat himself on the back for seeing through her, unlike others, which is exactly the attitude the reader brings to the book! But Richard III functions as something of a revenge fantasy. We grow more and more appalled by Richard until the end when we cheer to see him defeated as he deserves. Lady Susan/Love and Friendship (2016) follows this pattern-right until the end.

And here, for once, the work is not atypical of Austen. While her writing makes it clear she had strong moral convictions, she was also too cynical to believe that wickedness is always punished in this world. The worst punishment her villains usually get is not ending up with the heroine (or the hero if the villain is female.) While Lady Susan is thwarted in what have been her main goals throughout the story, in the end she’s basically well off and contented. The reader/viewer can only take consolation in the fact that the two of her victims we care about the most are now free from her influence, no small relief admittedly. But Lady Susan is about the villain in a way few of Austen’s books are and, in particular, it’s about making us root for the villain’s downfall. The lack of it leaves the reader frustrated, especially since Lady Susan’s wickedness is so over the top, you can’t really just shrug your shoulders over it and say, “life’s not fair.” Rather than changing this, Love and Friendship actually makes it worse. In the book, Reginald breaks off with Lady Susan once he learns the full extent of her evil. He undergoes the same disillusionment here, but she’s now the one who preemptively breaks up with him, saying she loves him passionately but can’t marry a man who doesn’t trust her. The script makes it explicit that she doesn’t simply do this to save face, but to guilt him into changing his mind. Then she changes her own mind and, at another’s suggestion but of her own accord, turns her attentions to another man with lower standards. Presumably, this was done to make the climax more suspenseful, but it makes the resolution even more anticlimactic and means Lady Susan gets even less of the comeuppance up to which the story feels like it’s been building.

LaF_2557.jpg

While the movie on the whole is less than the sum of its parts-a cliched expression but an accurate one-it’s still well worth watching for Austen fans who feel like adaptations of her work are too touchy-feely and not blisteringly satirical enough. It may even win over a few-a very, very specific few-who have been previously dismissive of them.

I still say someone should make a movie of Love and Friendship though!

References

References
1 Actually, she titled it Love and Freindship, but I don’t feel obliged to replicate her typos.
2 I don’t mean that as a criticism, I assure you. I love me some good melodrama!
3 Heh. Irony. Jane Austen. So perfect.
4 Mind you, this doesn’t mean I consider the movie a better piece of storytelling than any of them.
5 Persuasion is the exception that proves the rule.
6 Not counting the happy marriages of Charles and Catherine and Catherine and Reginald’s parents (James Fleet and Jemma Redgrave), neither of which is ever in jeopardy.
7 I guess it’s fairly standard to have such a speech be a mother giving her daughter the hard facts of life, but most of those mothers are more sympathetic than Lady Susan, not that that’s a huge accomplishment.
8 Realistically speaking, of course, he’s being both.
9 Though he does unknowingly reveal in his speech that Lady Susan is not the devout Anglican as which she poses.
10 I know I’ve used that phrase before, but it really does give you the idea.
11 I’m very proud of myself for not saying “fake news.” I weary of political catchphrases whether they’re from the Right or the Left, and “fake news” arguably comes from both.
12 Though it should be noted that there are characters in the early scenes of Lady Susan and Love and Friendship (2016) that do see through her.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Love and Friendship-or Not

Emma Movies That Aren’t Clueless

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, not one but two movie adaptations of Jane Austen’s Emma came out in 1996. This makes them rather a pain to talk about since while both follow the book’s plot fairly closely, they take very different approaches, and you don’t want to get them mixed up. Since one was made for cinemas by Miramax and the other for television by the BBC, I could call them Cinema Emma 1996 and TV Emma 1996 or Miramax Emma 1996 and BBC Emma 1996, but that strikes me as unwieldly. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to call them 1996 A and 1996 B. Hopefully, that’ll work.

Emma (1996) A

Amazon.com : EMMA (1996) Original Movie Poster 27x40 - Dbl-Sided - Gwyneth  Paltrow - Ewan McGregor - Tini Collette - Denys Hawthorne : Home & Kitchen

This Emma, written and directed by Douglas McGrath has the greatest cast, on the whole if not in every single part, that I’ve seen, starting with Gwyneth Paltrow as the lead. With her sometimes friendly, sometimes impishly provocative smile, she manages to make the notorious antiheroine as charming as she is frustrating.[1]I’m not sure why Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice fame doesn’t get as much as flack as Emma. Both characters are good looking and filthy stinking rich, take good care of their family … Continue reading Is she maybe a little too likeable in fact?

I say, nay.

Well, OK, maybe a little bit.

The script does pull a few punches. This Emma doesn’t flirt with Frank Churchill (Ewan McGregor) after she’s decided she doesn’t really want to marry him and should set him up with someone else. It’s also he who suggests the idea to her that there may be a scandalous relationship between Jane Fairfax (Polly Walker) and her best friend’s husband, Mr. Dixon. [2]I suspect both of those changes were made more for the purposes of tightening the pacing than sanitizing the character. When manipulating Harriet Smith (Toni Collette) into turning down the lowly Robert Martin (Edward Woodall), she no longer says that they could no longer be friends if she accepted him. And her initial motives for befriending Harriet is framed less in terms of her being bored and lonely in the absence of her recently married governess, Mrs. Weston (Greta Scacchi), as in other adaptations, than because she wishes to mentor someone just as Mrs. Weston did her.

But I’d argue that more generous motive was always in the book even if adaptations haven’t always emphasized it (reasonably enough.) While Emma does think of Harriet in dehumanizing terms in Austen, calling her “exactly the something which her home required.” (Emma’s home, that is.) But part of Harriet’s appeal for her is that she’s “one to whom she could be useful. For Mrs. Weston, there was nothing to be done; for Harriet, everything.” Condescending to her social inferiors, Emma certainly is. (Jane Austen, in her classism, took the position that she could be nothing else.) But she’s also genuinely altruistic in her self-serving way. A scene of her visiting a poor sick woman might seem like it was invented to keep her from being too unlikeable, but it actually comes straight from the book, and this is the only Emma movie to include it. This adaptation understands that while Emma cares too much about herself, she does care very much about others, including her social inferiors. It does the best job of dramatizing her guilt over raising Harriet’s hopes for a proposal from Mr. Elton (Alan Cumming) only to dash them.

And it’s not like it shies away from Emma’s faults in general. She’s still childishly eager to rub it in Mr. Knightley (Jeremy Northam)’s face when it looks (to her) like he’s been proved wrong and she right about Mr. Elton. The detail of her nearly falling off the bandwagon right after she renounces matchmaking is included. Her hypocrisy is highlighted in a hilarious montage of her eagerly checking the mail for an invitation while insisting she’d never accept it and her resentment of Jane Fairfax becomes a great running joke. A good portion of the laughter this movie generates is at her expense. [3]Does all this comedy undermine the story’s moral seriousness? I’ll argue not later.

But back to the cast. Jeremy Northam is the warmest and most appealing Mr. Knightley. I wish he had more competition to make his victory more impressive.

Juliet Stevenson is the funniest Mrs. Elton, and she does have some real competition for that honor.

Toni Collette is both funny and endearing as the ditzy Harriet. It’s easy to empathize with Emma’s patronizing affection for her.

Greta Scacchi is wonderfully maternal and appealing as Mrs. Weston. [4]She also provides opening and closing voiceover narration. The claim that the story takes place “in a time…when the actions at a dance excited greater interest than the movements of … Continue reading Her character is given an expanded role as Emma’s confidante and mother figure. This arguably makes it harder to get a bead on where Emma’s character problems come from. In the book, it’s blamed on nobody criticizing during her childhood other than Mr. Knightley. Here Mrs. Weston is less overindulgent and acts just as much her conscience. Still, I’d be sorry to lose her presence in the movie. She probably makes the movie feel warmer than an adaptation of Jane Austen has a right to be. But, for all her aloofness and cynicism, Austen did include warm, intelligent, positive older characters in her books, like the Gardiners in Pride and Prejudice and the Crofts in Persuasion, even if they weren’t the characters she was most interested in writing. This version of Mrs. Weston would fit in well with them, and arguably the literary one would too, despite her faults.

Sophie Thompson is hilarious as the annoyingly chatty Miss Bates for most of her screentime. The one time she isn’t is near the end when Emma casually insults her in front of her friends where her pained reaction makes you wince if it doesn’t break your heart. Some may find this transition a bit out of nowhere and prefer portrayals of the character that lay the groundwork for it earlier. But I feel the very surprise of the moment is the whole point. Watching the scene, we’re prepared to laugh with Emma at Miss Bates and are shocked to be made uncomfortably aware that she’s a person with feelings.

Mrs. Bates (Phyllida Law) and Miss Bates

This is easily the funniest of the Austenian movies in my experience. Even the angsty romantic part towards the end where Emma is worried that she’s lost Mr. Knightley to another woman is played for (big) laughs. Some fans of the book may not approve of this, but I think Douglas McGrath deserves great praise for understanding that Jane Austen is supposed to be funny. What’s more she’s supposed to be fun and engaging. It’s amazing how some directors fail to pick up on this obvious fact. Ang Lee’s 1995 film, Sense and Sensibility, is a particularly tragic case in point. It has a very funny and engaging script, courtesy of Emma Thompson, which can happily be read at the Internet Movie Script Database, but the actors, except for those playing the completely comedic characters, deliver the dialogue in such soft, serious tones that not a single punchline lands.[5]It’s particularly frustrating to hear Thompson, normally an actress of great comedic timing, delivering the witty lines she herself wrote, so badly. The whole thing is a tastefully drab, joyless, unengaging viewing experience.[6]The 1995 Persuasion is much the same, though I cut it some slack since it’s supposed to be a sadder, less funny story. McGrath’s comedic timing, by contrast, is perfect.

What is this image and why is it so funny in context? You’ll have to watch the film to find out.

Almost all of the movie’s jokes come in some way from the book-and even those that don’t are great[7]I like to think Austen herself would have enjoyed Miss Bates’s line that a sermon of Mr. Elton’s left her speechless and that she has not stopped talking about it since.-but he effortlessly translates the distinctly literary humor into cinematic humor with devices like ironic cutaways. An early montage showing everyone in the small town of Highbury talking about a letter from the elusive Frank Churchill like it’s most interesting thing in the world does a great job of showing how dull life there can get. McGrath also does a better job of finding activities for the characters to do to keep their many dialogue scenes visually interesting than any other director of an Emma adaptation I’ve seen. And I haven’t even mentioned Rachel Portman’s beautiful soundtrack!

If this adaptation has a major drawback, it’s that it under develops Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax compared to the book.[8]A minor drawback might be that Mr. Knightley is a little too eloquent for my taste in his big proposal. In the book, he says, “I cannot make speeches…if I loved you less, I might be able … Continue reading In particular, given how much Emma has resented Jane throughout the film, I would have liked to have seen a final scene of them reconciling and shedding light on her enigmatic character. The ending could stand to be clearer in its stance on Frank too. To be fair, Austen’s portrayal of the character was complex and just how far he could be redeemed was an open question. No two-hour movie could do justice to it while still giving the other characters their due. But it’d be nice to know whether the movie was being intentionally ambiguous about him or accidentally so.

For me though, the adaptation’s strengths more than make up for that. And I’d argue the comedic emphasis doesn’t detract from the story’s drama or moral seriousness. It just allows them to sneak up on the viewers as they do on readers of the book. In one way, I actually believe the movie improves dramatically on the novel. When Emma’s father (Denys Hawthorne) praises her for her charity to the Bateses, she voluntarily confesses that she hasn’t deserved it, even going so far as to say that they have been the ones to be patient with her. (In the equivalent scene in the book, Emma just feels and looks guilty.) This allows her to demonstrate her newfound humility instead of it just being something we’re told she’s acquired, and Mr. Knightley’s response is one of the most heartwarming moments in any Emma adaptation.

Emma (1996) B

Emma (1996) movie posters

I’ve mentioned this movie before on this blog twice, both times in a negative way, calling it weirdly dark and creepy. I’d like to stress that I don’t have a problem with Emma or Jane Austen’s oeuvre in general being seen as dark. They certainly are in that they take a cynical view of humanity and show just how nasty law-abiding citizens in mainstream society can be. It’s just that I feel that the way director Diarmuid Lawrence and screenwriter Andrew Davies (both of the 2008 Little Dorrit) go about emphasizing that, strikes me as forced and heavy handed. It’s as if they’re embarrassed to be doing a chaste romance about rich people from the eighteenth century and are overeager to assure everyone that they can still be edgy. They even end up making one character dark who definitely shouldn’t be so.

But I’d also like to stress that there’s a lot to like, even love, about this adaptation. The ability Davies displayed in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries of writing dialogue that blended with Austen’s or making Austen’s dialogue blend with his is still in evidence here. (It was nowhere in his 2007 Northanger Abbey and his 2008 Sense and Sensibility.) He manages to include just about every major moment of the 500-page book in under an hour and forty-six minutes of screentime, and every character whom Austen gave a personality gets amble opportunity to show it off, without feeling crammed. The movie’s first moments, which show thieves robbing a henhouse, struck me as really random on my first viewing, but they turn out to be setting up a minor plot point from the novel’s last chapter, a plot point which is cleverly reimagined here to give Emma (Kate Beckinsale) a chance to use her manipulation skills in a good cause for once

This is also the Emma movie with the best idea of how to get into the main character’s head, a challenge for anyone who adapts the psychologically driven book for a visual medium. The other 1996 Emma sometimes used diary entries, which worked but were hardly creative, and sometimes used Mrs. Weston as Emma’s confidante and conscience, which, as I wrote above, worked but distorted the characters somewhat. The 2020 Emma would mostly rely on the actress’s facial expressions which might have worked if she’d been up for it. (She wasn’t in my opinion.) This Emma uses semifrequent daydream scenes, which establish the protagonist as an “imaginist,” to use the book’s term, who is somewhat bored with her life and craves excitement, more effectively than anything in the other films. These fantasy sequences are often amusing and even become dramatic towards the end.

Mr. Dixon’s rescue of Jane Fairfax as imagined by Emma

I want to like Kate Beckinsale as Emma. It’s nice to see a brunette in the role and at times, she displays a mischievous smile and at other times, a languid haughty tone of voice, which serve the character well.

But she also tends to frown a lot as if the sun were in her eyes all the time. Part of the problem may be the script which makes Emma more unlikeable than she has to be. Not that it cuts her good qualities, such as her patience when dealing with her demanding, hypochondriacal father (Bernard Hepton.) But whenever she does something bad, as, to be sure, she often does, the movie tends to overemphasize it. The scene of her politely blackmailing Harriet Smith (Samantha Morton) into refusing Robert Martin (Alistair Petrie) plays out like a mafia member threatening to off someone.

When asked about Jane Fairfax (Olivia Williams) by Harriet, she says, “Jane Fairfax is a penniless orphan who has been brought up in some style by Col. Campbell as a companion to his daughter.” To the script’s credit, this does a better job of establishing Jane’s situation in life than anything in the other two movies. But was it necessary to make Emma sound as snobby as possible here? It’s instructive to look at the equivalent scene in 1996 A where she says with tight lips, “there’s not much to be said for her. When pressed, I say she is elegant.” Not only does this imply Emma’s resentment of Jane Fairfax while still having her be relatable, it’s much funnier.[9]There’s a great subtle callback to this in a later scene. When Emma invites Mr. Knightley to praise her (Emma’s) piano playing, he slyly says it’s “very elegant.”

Here’s what Emma says in the book when Harriet asks how she can stand the prospect of being an old maid like Miss Bates (Prunella Scales in this movie.)

“That is as formidable an image as you could present, Harriet; and if I thought I should ever be like Miss Bates! so silly—so satisfied—so smiling—so prosing—so undistinguishing and unfastidious—and so apt to tell everything relative to everybody about me, I would marry to-morrow. But between us, I am convinced there never can be any likeness, except in being unmarried.”

1996 B just has her say, “if I thought I should be like Miss Bates, I would marry tomorrow.” I certainly wouldn’t expect or desire her whole speech to be kept. But why, when trimming it, did this movie have to take out everything witty and engaging about it, leaving only the meanest sounding part?

What this adaptation does to Mr. Knightley (Mark Strong), the hero, is inexcusable. Watching him, you’re more likely to root for Emma to get him a restraining order than for her to end up with him. To make his character more dramatic, I can only assume, they emphasize his jealousy of Frank Churchill (Raymond Coulthard) to the point of ridiculousness. When he hears that he’s gone to town solely to get his hair cut, he reacts as if Frank has gambled away the family fortune.

When he’s admiring Jane Fairfax’s piano skills, he also stares at her, weirdly entranced. Presumably, this is to make her a bigger romantic red herring for him, but since he ultimately isn’t in love with her, its awkward and inexplicable. Could he be feigning attraction to make Emma jealous? That wouldn’t be in character for the literary Mr. Knightley.

In the book and other adaptations, the fact that Knightley is decades older than Emma is established once and never mentioned again. This adaptation seems to find it hot somehow.[10]What might be happening is the creators not wanting anyone to accuse them of sanitizing this potentially controversial element and going to far in the opposite direction. Mr. Knightley is compelled to make up with Emma after their quarrel about Harriet when he sees her holding her niece, and says, “I held you thus once.” Later, after she agrees to marry him, he exclaims rapturously, “I held you when you were three weeks old(!)” “Have I improved since then?” Emma asks playfully.

Errr…..

I don’t mind the darker take on Frank Churchill. His sadism here is a bit of an exaggeration of the book’s character, but not a huge one.[11]Emma in this version finds his motive for concealing his engagement, that his aunt would disinherit him if she found out about it, to be selfish. But wouldn’t such a thing be just as bad for … Continue reading And Raymond Coulthard has more of a presence than any of the other actors who take on the role in the other cinematic Emmas.[12]I wouldn’t necessarily say he’s a better actor on the whole than they are. Just that he makes a bigger impression as this particular character. Actually, he has almost too much of a presence in the role. His face is so obviously smug and knowing that you spend all his screen time waiting for the other shoe to drop and his villainy to be revealed. Likewise, Olivia Williams is more compelling to watch than other cinematic Jane Fairfaxes, but her concealed sadness and anger are arguably too palpable. Instead of finding her cold and unappealing, it feels like this Emma should be more intrigued by her and work harder to probe her mystery. A problem with every version of Emma, including the book, in my opinion, is that it’s too obvious that there’s something going on between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill. Boy, is that really a problem here!

Sorry this and a few other images aren’t of the best quality. They were taken from different YouTube videos.

To its credit though, this Emma movie does the best job of the three of portraying Emma’s sister, Isabella (Dido Miles), and her husband, John (Guy Henry.) Small praise since they’re hardly the most important characters, but still somewhat refreshing. In 1996 A, neither of them had any personality. In the 2020 Emma, Isabella would be appropriately silly and John appropriately cranky, but they would come across as much more dysfunctional than in the book. This film manages to convey their nuanced characters very well with only a little bit of screentime.

A notable aspect of this adaptation is its emphasis on the servants and other lowerclass people living in Highbury. On a first viewing, this struck me as a tired attempt to be “woke”[13]Not that people would have used that term in the 90s. since no such people play anything like a major role. Even the Martins, while important to the plot, are effectively noncharacters. But on reflection, this is true to the spirit of the book. While Jane Austen didn’t focus on anyone below her own class as a character in Emma, anymore than in her other books, she did keep them in the back of readers’ minds to an unusual extent for her. The characters mention their servants regularly and a surprising number of them have names, if not personalities. (The Woodhouses’ coachman, James. Mr. Knightley’s man, William Larkins. The Bateses’ maid, Patty.) She seems to have wanted to emphasize in Emma all the different classes and how they all depend on each other.

Emma (2020)

There’s a good argument to be made that this most recent adaptation from Focus Features has the best script of any Emma movie at least as far as restructuring the plot goes. While not as good at writing inconsequential babble for Miss Bates (Miranda Hart) than McGrath or Davies,[14]Or perhaps Hart was just less skilled at improvising than other Miss Bateses. Eleanor Catton does a better job at balancing all the different subplots. In 1996 A, Harriet Smith’s story hogged the movie somewhat and in 1996 B, Frank Churchill’s did. Not so here. Of course, the flipside of that is that there were memorable Harriet moments included in 1996 A and memorable Frank moments in 1996 B that aren’t in this version. Still, the sense of balance is nice. I admire how Frank Churchill (Callym Turner)’s mysterious absence is established as early as possible and the way the ball at the Crown Inn, the rescue of Harriet (Mia Goth), and her subsequent confession to Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) that she has a new crush become one long continuous action. And there are some inspired ideas like the running gag of Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy)’s obsessive fear of drafts, the overelaborate, tacky frame Mr. Elton (Josh O’ Connor) gets for Emma’s painting and the introduction to the character of Mrs. Elton (Tanya Reynolds.)[15]If you don’t mind it being spoiled, when Emma first sees her at Church, she’s sitting in the Woodhouse pew. The audacity!

Mr. Woodhouse, safe from drafts

But if I were to say that this script did the best job at adapting the book, I would have to be talking about the screenplay as published online for award consideration, not the actual movie as directed by Autumn De Wilde. While as written, it’s rather wordy and long and some cuts had to have been made, the ones that were make it less effective as a piece of storytelling and play into the writing’s weakness or potential weaknesses. For example, bits establishing the character of Mrs. Goddard (Anna Francolini) and her school are either cut or moved until after she’s been referred to several times before we have any idea of who she is. While Emma still boasts of her matchmaking prowess early on, she no longer mentions her desire to find a match for Mr. Elton specifically, which makes her quest to set him up with Harriet rather abrupt. Almost all of Frank Churchill’s early dialogue with Emma has been cut. At one point, Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves) excitedly tells Emma that Frank is returning when we’ve never seen him leave. And on less plot important level, a hilarious final line from Mrs. Elton did not make the final cut, though to give credits where it’s due, a lot of great lines for John Knightley (Oliver Chris) were (apparently) improvised onset.

There are also things that weren’t cut but really feel like they should have been. Mainly, a gratuitous scene of Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn)’s bare backside as he’s changing, and a less, shall we say, generous but equally pointless bit of Emma, in the privacy of her room, lifting up all her skirts to warm her bare butt by the fire. Both of these were obviously included just to Avoid the Dreaded G-Rating and come across as eyeroll inducingly tacky. [16]1996 A avoided it by including some swearing in the scene where Harriet is harassed by gypsies. While the profanity was somewhat awkwardly phrased, this worked a lot better. They arguably are part of this Emma‘s odd earthiness. Emma’s baby niece spits up on her and, in the middle of a big romantic scene, she[17]Emma, not the baby, gets a nosebleed.[18]The published screenplay also had Harriet get a bad case of the hiccups at one point. I wish that had been kept; it was funny. While Jane Austen seldom, if ever, wrote about such bodily functions, this aspect of the movie does show an anti-Romantic realism, which is true to her vision.

Less anti-romantic is how this adaptation has Knightley and Emma silently realize their feelings for each other sooner than the book does and almost tell each other in a scene that might have worked on its own terms, however untrue it was to the spirit of Austen, but falls flat because of how little chemistry the actors have.

This brings me to the subject of the cast, which I come to with some reluctance because I risk sounding mean. However charismatic they might be in other parts or in real life, there’s a weird lack of charm to them here. The comedic characters are offputtingly cartoony and caricatured. I can’t believe I’m saying that about a Jane Austen adaptation, especially since I complained about directors not making them funny enough! Whatever its faults, this film is funny, if not as funny as it could have been, mostly due to the ridiculous art direction and hairstyles and the actors’ humorous body language. But, despite our ardent disagreement about Emma adaptations, I agree with Richard Jenkyns that the line between caricature and realistic character study in Austen is not as clearly drawn as you’d think. Some of her adapters have leaned too heavily into romance and emotion but leaning too far into grotesquerie is a possible misstep too. And the extent that Harriet is played as a caricature here, with her little lisp and her puppy dog eyes, doesn’t mesh with the way this adaptation makes her less oblivious toward the end and gives her more emotional range than any other version.

The serious characters, on the other hand, mostly just come across as stiff and boring. It’s especially problematic how dull Callym Turner’s Frank is when he’s supposed to be this dashing, charismatic heartthrob.

Amber Anderson’s Jane Fairfax mostly looks grumpy. The benefit of this is that it’s unusually easy to understand why Emma finds her manners so cold and uninviting. The downside is it’s also unusually hard to understand why everyone else finds her so charming.

The most memorable thing Johnny Flynn brings to the movie is not his performance as Knightley, but the end credits song, My Queen Bee.[19]Seriously. Look it up on Youtube.

I can’t believe I’m saying this but I think Anya Taylor-Joy’s Emma is too haughty. It’s vital, of course, that Emma be arrogant and full of herself, but she’s also supposed to be playful and lively. Taylor-Joy looks disdainful and haughty in almost every scene. This is great when she’s dealing with, say, Miss Bates or Mr. Elton. But it’s nigh impossible to understand why she would befriend Harriet at all, especially since this adaptation portrays Harriet as shyer than normal and includes a higher than average number of scenes of Emma being annoyed with her. (I don’t mind the idea of Emma being annoyed with Harriet sometimes, mind you. It’s arguably true to the book. The movie just needed more friendliness to balance it out.) I don’t want to say she made me miss Alicia Silverstone, but she kind of did.

That being said, in the last act, Taylor-Joy pulls her act together and portrays Emma’s newfound humility more powerfully than Kate Beckinsale and possibly Gwyneth Paltrow did. In particular, the scene of Emma making amends to Miss Bates contains some beautiful acting from both of them. Maybe the purpose of the ultra-haughty Emma was to make her humbling as dramatic as possible. I don’t feel that the gamble paid off though.

A big problem with how inexpressive the leads are in this movie is how much the script relies on quiet moments contemplating their faces. One of the first scenes shows Emma at Mrs. Weston (Gemma Whelan)’s wedding breakfast with no friend of her own age and social class. This is supposed to establish her loneliness and elucidate why she reaches out to Harriet. But Anya Taylor-Joy’s expression conveys nothing of this. In fairness, a good part of the blame falls to the direction. Few, if any, of the other guests are shown talking to each other, so it’s not like Emma stands out, and the music does little to suggest loneliness.

Thus far I haven’t mentioned the element of Emma that is the elephant in the room of any adaptation.[20]Hmm. There’s a tongue twister in there somewhere. Part of the book’s moral, that close relationships between the upper and lower class are unhealthy, is considered as immoral nowadays. Each of the cinematic adaptations is true to this in that Mr. Knightley objects to Harriet’s rejecting Robert Martin on the grounds that he was already above her and she should quit while she’s ahead. He doesn’t claim, as he might have, that social status shouldn’t matter. From that point on though, each film averts or even subverts this aspect of the original. 1996 A keeps Emma being horrified at the prospect of Mr. Knightley marrying Harriet, not only because she loves him herself, but because of the social gap between them, but it has her express this in the most ridiculous way possible (“We know nothing about her parents! They could be pirates!”), making it clear we’re supposed to laugh at her inconsistency (she’d previously insisted that Harriet must be a gentleman’s daughter), rather than feel that she’s finally seen the light. And there’s no indication, as there was in the book, that she and Harriet will grow apart after the latter’s marriage to Robert Martin, though it doesn’t explicitly deny this either. 1996 B goes a step farther. There Emma never expresses a problem with the potential romance between Harriet and Knightley crossing class boundaries at all. Her dismay is only for herself. And she ends up inviting Harriet and her new yeoman husband to visit her. (The Martins are described as visiting her at the end of the book too, but I always assumed that was because they were Mr. Knightely’s tenants.) The movie pointedly ends with a harvest festival to which Mr. Knightley invites both his tenants and the local gentry and only Mrs. Elton objects. Suffice to say Emma (2020) goes even farther than that. The reimagined climax flies in the face of the original book more than anything in previous Emma movies. While I don’t like Austen’s classism[21]In her defense, I think there are practical reasons to be against class crossing relationships as well as snobby ones. Jane Austen valued rationality second only to morality, though she likely had … Continue reading, I find it more interesting when adaptations try to make such dated aspects understandable to modern audiences rather than taking the easy path of completely rewriting them. But I do find this film’s revisionist version of Emma and Harriet’s last conversation really heartwarming. Or I would if this movie did a better job of getting me invested in the characters initially.

Conclusion

I don’t think I really need to say which of these I think is the best. While the dark and edgy 1996 B and the colorful and cartoony 2020 one both have their virtues, they’re mainly going to be enjoyed by viewers who are already fans of the material, or at least fans of Jane Austen and Jane Austen-type stories. 1996 A strikes me as the only one capable of making new converts. It’s the only one to replicate the book’s trick of making Emma “faultless in spite of all her faults.”

Bibliography

The Project Gutenberg eBook of Emma, by Jane Austen

https://imsdb.com/scripts/Sense-and-Sensibility.html

Emma_Script.indd (focusfeaturesguilds2020.com)

References

References
1 I’m not sure why Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice fame doesn’t get as much as flack as Emma. Both characters are good looking and filthy stinking rich, take good care of their family members, are good friends but in a controlling way, care about the welfare of those under them but think meanly of anyone outside their own set, and ultimately fall for one of the few persons in their lives who criticize them. What a character recommends for Emma, that she be “in love and in some doubt of a return” is, of course, exactly what happens to Darcy and proud and prejudiced would be a good description of her.
2 I suspect both of those changes were made more for the purposes of tightening the pacing than sanitizing the character.
3 Does all this comedy undermine the story’s moral seriousness? I’ll argue not later.
4 She also provides opening and closing voiceover narration. The claim that the story takes place “in a time…when the actions at a dance excited greater interest than the movements of armies” is rather inaccurate, by the way, as the Napoleonic wars were going on! But it does a great job of establishing what kind of a story this is going to be.
5 It’s particularly frustrating to hear Thompson, normally an actress of great comedic timing, delivering the witty lines she herself wrote, so badly.
6 The 1995 Persuasion is much the same, though I cut it some slack since it’s supposed to be a sadder, less funny story.
7 I like to think Austen herself would have enjoyed Miss Bates’s line that a sermon of Mr. Elton’s left her speechless and that she has not stopped talking about it since.
8 A minor drawback might be that Mr. Knightley is a little too eloquent for my taste in his big proposal. In the book, he says, “I cannot make speeches…if I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”
9 There’s a great subtle callback to this in a later scene. When Emma invites Mr. Knightley to praise her (Emma’s) piano playing, he slyly says it’s “very elegant.”
10 What might be happening is the creators not wanting anyone to accuse them of sanitizing this potentially controversial element and going to far in the opposite direction.
11 Emma in this version finds his motive for concealing his engagement, that his aunt would disinherit him if she found out about it, to be selfish. But wouldn’t such a thing be just as bad for his wife?
12 I wouldn’t necessarily say he’s a better actor on the whole than they are. Just that he makes a bigger impression as this particular character.
13 Not that people would have used that term in the 90s.
14 Or perhaps Hart was just less skilled at improvising than other Miss Bateses.
15 If you don’t mind it being spoiled, when Emma first sees her at Church, she’s sitting in the Woodhouse pew. The audacity!
16 1996 A avoided it by including some swearing in the scene where Harriet is harassed by gypsies. While the profanity was somewhat awkwardly phrased, this worked a lot better.
17 Emma, not the baby
18 The published screenplay also had Harriet get a bad case of the hiccups at one point. I wish that had been kept; it was funny.
19 Seriously. Look it up on Youtube.
20 Hmm. There’s a tongue twister in there somewhere.
21 In her defense, I think there are practical reasons to be against class crossing relationships as well as snobby ones. Jane Austen valued rationality second only to morality, though she likely had too great an intellect to be immune to snobbery’s temptations.
Posted in Comparing Different Adaptations | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Emma Movies That Aren’t Clueless

Why Clueless Is Clueless About Jane Austen’s Emma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hd4u-clueless-720_0276.jpg

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

hd4u-clueless-720_0193.jpg

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

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

hd4u-clueless-720_0487.jpg

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

hd4u-clueless-720_0924.jpg
hd4u-clueless-720_0968.jpg

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

hd4u-clueless-720_1941.jpg

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

hd4u-clueless-720_1584.jpg

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

hd4u-clueless-720_1697.jpg

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

hd4u-clueless-720_1832.jpg
hd4u-clueless-720_2240.jpg

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

hd4u-clueless-720_0140.jpg

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

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

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

hd4u-clueless-720_1781.jpg

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

The Project Gutenberg eBook of Emma, by Jane Austen

Emma Approved – YouTube

References

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

Remaking Christmas: It Happened One Christmas (1977)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attagirl, Clara!

References

References
1 Both movies are ostensibly based on the short story, The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren, but It Happened One Christmas is clearly a remake of the earlier film, not a new adaptation of the same source material.
2 Couldn’t this remake have called the characters Georgette and Mark? Keeping track of this is very confusing!
3 In It’s a Wonderful Life, the dreadful fate that would have awaited the love interest was for her to have been a single glasses wearing librarian. Suffice to say that’s not what would have happened to the love interest in It Happened One Christmas.
4 If you don’t like ham, maybe you’ll actually prefer it.
Posted in Remakes | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Remaking Christmas: It Happened One Christmas (1977)

Remaking Christmas: Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

References
1 She’s mostly called Dorie in the remake, but I like Doris better.
2 John Payne as Fred in the original movie gave my least favorite of the lead performances in that movie, so maybe it’s kind of fitting.
3 Albert Sawyer, the unliscensed psychiatrist with a grudge against Kris, who was the villain of the original movie, is absent here, understandably so since department stores didn’t usually have their own shrinks in the 90s.
4 It’s highly unlikely that Fred or Doris ever literally believe that Santa exists, but for what it’s worth, Kris actually agrees with Doris’s policy of always telling her daughter the exact truth. He just disagrees about what the truth about Santa Claus is.
5 There’s actually a weird element of religious awareness woven into the script. Bryan has a tradition of saying Grace before Thanksgiving dinner while the Walkers only do it when Susan’s grandparents are present. Kris asks if he’s supposed to put his hand on a Bible when he swears to tell the truth in court. Like I said, pretentious.
6 She does sort of stand up to her coworkers in the original when she refuses to tell Kris he needs to take another mental exam on the grounds that it would hurt him. But since this ended up crushing him worse than explaining the situation to him herself would have, it demonstrates weakness more than strength on her part.
Posted in Remakes | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Remaking Christmas: Miracle on 34th Street (1994)