A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 497 – A Little Princess (1986)

A Little Princess (1986) – July 10th, 2011

I first saw this adaptation when I was a young girl. I saw it on television as part of the Wonderworks series on PBS and I instantly fell in love with it. This afternoon when we put it in (it’s quite long, so we started it early) and the Wonderworks music came on and there was a trailer for the BBC adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and then the music for this movie started. Suddenly I was transported right back to my childhood, watching this on my parents’ tv and re-enacting it with my Playmobiles on the bed. What? I had the Victorian Playmobiles. They were awesome and it was a lot more fun than just watching the movie.

I’m not sure exactly what it is that drew me into this version, specifically. I’ve also got a favorite version of The Secret Garden, though I didn’t see it on Wonderworks (it was a Hallmark special, oddly enough). There was just something about it that drew me in. And as an aside, I loved everything I ever saw on Wonderworks. This, the Narnia specials, The Box of Delights, How to Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days and the bizarre Konrad. Thinking about it now, those are all based on books. And from what I can remember of the ones I haven’t seen recently and what I know of the ones I have, they’re all fairly faithful adaptations of the books. So too with A Little Princess. The biggest change I can think of off the top of my head is that Sarah is a bit older in this than she is in the book. But since I love Amelia Shankley’s portrayal of her, I’m willing to let it slide.

I hadn’t read the book when I first saw this special, actually. I did read it later on and found it far more twee than the movie was and decided I preferred the movie a bit, though I did enjoy the book. It might have been seeing all the period costumes, or it might have been the performances. It might have been that the movie is just a touch less precious than the book is, and therefore a little easier to stomach. Because it’s a sad story for a good chunk of time and making the beginning too cutesy and precious and twee just takes away from the sadness and bittersweetness later on.

It’s really not a complicated story and it’s not terribly twisty either. It begins with young Sara Crewe and her father in India, where they live. Sara’s mother died when she was a baby and she and her father are extremely close. So you know right then and there that he’s doomed. Sara’s sent off for boarding school but not before Captain Crewe gives an old friend, Mr. Carrisford, all of his money to invest in a new diamond mine. You can probably guess where that goes too. So Sara ends up at boarding school, where her father has instructed the headmistress to provide his daughter with everything she could possibly want. And when the inevitable happens and it all comes crashing in, well, Sara is left with nothing and Miss Minchin, the headmistress, puts her to work to try and recoup some of the money she’d spent out of pocket on the assumption that Sara’s wealthy father would repay her. It’s all very tragic, obviously.

What follows is the sad tale of how horribly Sara is treated after her fall from grace. Despite her overall cheerful and thoughtful demeanor, the assumption that she was terrifically wealthy and all of the trappings her father lavished on her resulted in Miss Minchin, the servants (except the scullery maid, Becky) and some of the other students seeing Sara as a snob. Not that she ever truly was, but that doesn’t make a difference when you’re dealing with jealousy. So the cook and head maid treat her horribly and Miss Minchin never misses an opportunity to remind her that she controls Sara’s life now. The jealous students get their digs in and Sara finds herself isolated, tired, hungry and cold, with only her doll, a rat and Becky for company. And when things seem to be at their worst the unimaginable happens and Sara finds herself the beneficiary of some seemingly magical charity from a mysterious gentleman who’s moved in next door. Oh, wherever could that lead? Hint: It leads to diamond mines and Carrisford and Sara leaving Miss Minchin’s forever.

The twists and turns aren’t the reason for watching this. And they’re not the reason for reading the book either. They’re not so much twists as predictable but still emotional ups and downs. You know that Sara’s pampered time at the school can’t last forever or what’s the point of the story? And you know that her misery as a destitute orphan can’t last forever either because these sorts of books always have somewhat happy endings. The purpose for watching is to see how it all comes to pass. To see a bit of a Cinderella story, set in a Victorian London boarding school. And for me it’s to watch something so familiar and comfortable that I could recite it from memory, all three hours of it. I know precisely what is going to happen at each and every moment of this story. I know the intonation used by Miss Minchin to berate Sara and I know the nasty looks given to Sara by students Lavinia and Jessie. I could have described Sara’s early room and the attic she ends up in and I can recall every dress she wears. It’s that sort of movie for me.

The trick with a movie that’s a very faithful adaptation of a book is that it’s difficult to critique the movie without critiquing the book as well. After all, I don’t want to just nitpick the differences between the two – not that there’s much to nitpick aside from character ages and spans of time – but I also don’t want this to be a critique of the book. After all, it’s the movie I’ve just watched (and loved again). But it’s difficult, because as with The Merchant of Venice, many of the issues I have with this movie are rooted in the source material. I love the performances here, with the pinched and sour Miss Minchin and the thoughtful and imaginative Sara. And I hold a special place in my heart for Carrisford, who is played by Nigel Havers and is likely the source of my thing for men with prominent and handsome noses. The cast is excellent, and peppered with people that I recognize from other television shows and BBC serials. I was amused to realize that Jessie – the lackey of school bully Lavinia – is played by Joanna Dukes, who is the fantastic Maria in The Box of Delights. Amelia Minchin is played by Miriam Margolyes, who’s had probably the most visible role from this cast as Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter films. Lavinia herself is in another movie we own, The Worst Witch, again playing a bully. Poor girl was typecast in only two roles. But they’re all spot on perfect in my opinion. I believe every emotion on display here, even with the noticeable ADR work done on some of the girls during the classroom scenes. I suspect that Amelia Shankley was a large part of why Sara’s age was changed here, because she is perfect for Sara but clearly older than seven.

My problems here are problems with the time period the book was written and takes place in. It’s Victorian England and so the class structures are of course going to be an issue and oh yes, it’s all very magical that Sara gets to leave the school and be an heiress, and then she invites Becky to join her! As her maid. Oh boy! Becky is, of course, thrilled! There’s a lot inherent to the story that depends upon Sara always being well-bred and well-mannered in a way that of course no “true” servant could be. That being said, there’s a good lesson here that the people who are in service positions are still people, no matter what their parentage. Sara herself says at the end that she thinks she learned more to appreciate money and what it does. It won’t buy happiness but it will keep you fed and she’s learned not to take that for granted. She wasn’t spoiled, but she was certainly privileged and ignorant of what that meant. It’s just that the time period of the story – and the movie’s faithfulness to it – mean that she’s always going to be upper class and no matter how much she helps those poor unfortunates like Becky, they will assuredly be thrilled to be allowed to wait on her.

None of the class issues really penetrated for me when I was a child and watching this over and over and over. But I think it did impress upon me that everything I had could well disappear if disaster struck, and that I should appreciate what I had. Which is a nice little lesson to teach children, even if it is explicitly spelled out by the heroine. Sledgehammer or no, it’s still a nicely performed and nicely presented film and it definitely sparked my imagination when I was young. I would gladly put it in again to keep me company on a rainy afternoon and since we own it and now know it’s in good shape I just might.

July 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Little Princess (1986)

July 10, 2011

A Little Princess (1986)

I know that there have been many adaptations of this story through the years, and likewise I know that for Amanda there is only one in her heart. This is the three hour Wonderworks version produce originally as a British television miniseries. I have only seen it once before (at Amanda’s insistence) and my recollection of it is vague. Before we put it in tonight I went over the plot in my head, and I couldn’t figure out how it worked out to three hours. It’s a pretty simple plot, really, and it seemed to me that there was no way it could be that long without feeling padded.

This is the story of Sara, a young girl sent by her father to a boarding school in London. He is a captain in the army living in India who seems to be doing pretty well for himself. I don’t know if it’s ever established where it came from but he has a small fortune at the start of the movie. In addition to being able to send his daughter to an exclusive school with her own room, her own French maid, and her own personal coach and pony, he is able to invest heavily in a good friend’s diamond mine.

Sara is not your typical British school girl. Her father is very clearly well off, and she has plenty of pretty dresses and silk stockings and such but it’s a relatively recent happening. She was raised by her father in India amongst exotic animals and people. She is his “little soldier.” As such she is not given to airs. She is a level headed young woman for her age of eleven years old. Some of her peers resent her for “flaunting” her wealth but she does’t really. She is quick to make unlikely friends. She befriends the unpopular girl in school, and a scullery maid, and becomes surrogate mother to a younger girl who like her has no mother.

Then disaster strikes. The diamond mine her father invested in apparently has no diamonds and he is destitute. He is so devastated that he will be unable to keep his daughter in the fine manner that he seems to think she deserves that he dies of a broken heart – or so it is implied. Miss Minchin, the pinched and bitter head of the seminary Sara is attending, feels betrayed that her most profitable student is abruptly penniless and unable to settle her accounts. Miss Minchin wants initially to turn Sara out into the streets to fend for herself, but she is convinced by Sara’s solicitor to keep her on as a servant. Sara is forced to work off her debt in the kitchens, living in an unheated attic room with often nothing to eat.

The key to this story is, of course that Sara is the most kindly, decent, caring and giving person who ever lived. Even when she’s destitute, hungry, tired and cold she still finds it in her heart to help her friends. She takes refuge in books and stories, and in her own imagination. She befriends a mouse, and a monkey and the mysterious Sikh who has moved into the vacant building next door with his reclusive invalid master. Of course this kindness does not go unrewarded in the end and she does eventually find herself able to help all of her friends.

Now, I’m clearly not the target audience for this. Amanda is. It is intended for smart, bookish girls. It’s a moral tale about how if you treat people right and behave properly miracles can happen. It’s a simple little story about good things happening to good people in spite of the horrid nature of the world. I appreciate that message, and I wish it were more prevalent.

Really this is a charming, uplifting tale. It’s beautifully put together and although this is one of the longest movies in our collection I never felt that it was padded or drawn out. Three hours went by in no time at all because it’s just so much fun to watch Sara and her adventures. Of course you could not manufacture anything better designed to appeal to my wife as a young girl, and I appreciate that as well. It’s a perfect gem of a movie and I see why Amanda takes such delight in it.

July 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment