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.

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July 10, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , ,

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