Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Little Princess

"It's all very well to suppose things if you have everything," said Lavinia. "Could you suppose and pretend if you were a beggar and lived in a garret?"

One of my favorite books is Frances Hodgson Burnett’s riches-to-rags-to-riches story A Little Princess. It hooked me from the start, where seven-year-old Sara Crewe, meeting the greedy headmistress of her new boarding school for the first time, wonders why the woman is calling her beautiful. Sara is self-assured and intelligent, but doesn’t have any opinion whatsoever of her own looks.

And interestingly, this isn’t a chance for the author to show that Sara really is a beauty without knowing it. In fact, the story explicitly states that she looks like a Shetland pony when her dark hair falls around her face rather than being tied back, and her only really notable features are her eyes. That’s a great contrast to the titular character of Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy, who’s as flawlessly perfect on the outside as he is in every other way.

I couldn’t stand him, but I liked Sara right away, especially after reading about her love of books, her imagination – vividly revealed in her telling of stories, her generosity and her courage in the face of adversity. Even after her father suddenly dies, leaving her a pauper and a servant in the boarding school, Sara struggles to remain a princess on the inside – kind to those who have less than she does, polite and proud and self-controlled, despite her hot temper and the harsh treatment she receives. She has no money and no hope of a future, but she has character, and that has been very appealing to a lot of readers.

So it’s no surprise that A Little Princess has been filmed – more than once, and there’s a televised version as well. I tried watching the 1939 film, but there were too many changes made to the original story (such as Captain Crewe being found alive), and Shirley Temple as Sara just did not work for me.

Then I watched the 1995 film. I’ll list its positives first.

1. The soundtrack includes a wonderful song called “Tyger Tyger”, with lyrics taken from the William Blake poem.

2. The plot of the film is interwoven with a story from the Ramayana, which was a very realistic touch, given that Sara grew up in India.

That was pretty much it, unfortunately. Everything else the televised series does better. But I’ll list a few of the problems I had with the film.

1. Someone seems to have told the actress who plays Sara that the way to project an expression of innocent wonder is to have one’s lips constantly parted. It’s a cute look for perhaps five seconds, but after that it comes off as mouth-breathing. In fact, “cute” is the most charitable way to describe this Sara, whereas in the book she seems more of an old soul, quaint and amusing but dignified.

2. In the novel, Sara befriends a scullery maid called Becky and buys food for her when she (Sara) has money. After she loses everything, Becky continues to be her friend and keeps treating her like a lady. I like that steadfast loyalty. In the end, when Sara regains her wealth and status, she sends for Becky and offers her a position as lady’s maid.

Now in Victorian England, that would have been a huge step up for Becky. Sure, she would still be one of the working class, but she would be in relatively easy service to a well-off young lady who would treat her more as a friend than a servant. The movie, however, tries to bring 1990s attitudes to a bygone age. Therefore Becky is black, but Sara sees beyond her skin color. I thought Sara was egalitarian enough already without her tacking racial issues.

And at the end, Sara and Becky become sisters. Perhaps it just wouldn’t have been as modern if Becky had become her personal maid.

3. Captain Crewe is found alive.

The first turning point of the novel is when Captain Crewe dies, leaving Sara an orphan and destitute. Sara believes her father’s best friend, Tom Carrisford, is responsible for this, since Carrisford convinced Captain Crewe to make some risky investments and then disappeared when the investments turned out to be worthless. In the novel, the investments eventually turn out to be very valuable. And Carrisford, now an invalid, tries to assuage his guilt as he searches for Sara.

That’s what I liked most about the happy ending of the book – the fact that Mr Carrisford and Sara slowly build a warm relationship. He provides for her and becomes a father figure, while she forgives him and helps him recover. There’s a sense that even though terrible things happen and beloved parents die, one can still pick up the pieces and be happy eventually.

To have Captain Crewe found alive is to negate all that. It presses a reset button and wraps everything up oh-so-neatly. And then the film has to show why he, aware of Sara’s whereabouts, didn’t help her sooner. So he’s given amnesia that’s cured right after he finds Sara, which is very convenient plot-wise.

4. Sara is not an action heroine.

I can’t stress this highly enough. In the novel Sara is a very strong person, but that’s courage and fortitude, not physical feats.

In the movie, she uses a plank as a makeshift bridge to cross over to another building – high above the ground, with the rain pouring down and the police after her to make the scene even more exciting. Then she slips. The plank falls. Sara catches the edge of the wet roof with her fingertips and hauls herself up. This is so far from Burnett’s heroine that I wouldn’t have been too surprised if she’d leapt into the air and kicked out while the camera revolved 360 degrees around her.

I like the subtlety of a person who fights back by making a deliberate effort to remain who she is and who she wants to be. There’s no need to give her a death-defying rooftop escape from the police. And they’re an addition of the movie as well, since it’s unbelievable that anyone would send four to five policemen after one eleven-year-old girl.

I guess the police knew she was an action heroine too.

5. "There are not many princesses, Miss Minchin, who are richer than your little charity pupil, Sara Crewe, will be.”

At the end of the novel, Miss Minchin learns that Sara is now wealthy again and of course, will not be returning to the boarding school. To lose such a source of income, and to perhaps have parents learn of how she treated Sara, is a huge blow for her.

So of course the movie had to turn drama into melodrama. At the end, Miss Minchin loses her entire establishment and becomes a chimney sweep, laboring along with a boy to whom she was cruel when she was the headmistress. The irony. I’m also not sure why she has a white skunk-streak in her hair. Coupled with her personality, it keeps reminding me of Cruella De Vil.

The best version of A Little Princess that I’ve seen is a 1986 TV serial that’s extremely faithful to the source material. It’s available on YouTube and I recommend it to anyone who loved the book.


Anonymous said...

I loved, "A Little Princess" when I was a kid. I've never found a good film version of it.

My favorite book by Burnett was, "The Secret Garden".

colbymarshall said...

love that one...and I love it when movies/tv are true to book. B/c rarely are they as good as the source ;-)

Marian said...

Hey Tasha,

The Secret Garden is good too. I really like Mary's gradual transformation - she's another one of Burnett's not-so-pretty heroines.

A review of the film mentioned that in the book, Sara being a princess is a conscious decision that she keeps making. That belief in her own worth lifts her out of hardship and denigration, in mind if not in body.

Whereas in the film, she's told by either her father or an Indian woman or both that every girl is a princess, and it never has the same power to preserve as it does in the book.

Marian said...

Hey Colby,

Now I want to write a blog post about movies which are better than the source material. :)

I have one right away - Interview with the Vampire.