Sunday, April 7, 2013

A tale of four Saras

As I mentioned, my favorite children's book was Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess.  I could relate to Sara--not classically pretty, really intelligent, introverted, bookish, and living in her own head.  And poor.
While there have been several movie versions of this story, the three most well-known are the 1939 version starring Shirley Temple, the 1986 LWT miniseries starring Amelia Shankley as Sara and Maureen Lippman as Miss Minchin, and the 1995 version starring Liesel Matthews.  I will be comparing all three versions.  Again, there is no scorekeeping; I am only weighing the merits of each.
Sara Crewe: Burnett's character, as I said earlier, is not classically pretty, being thin, dark, and having green-grey eyes.  She loves reading, is really intelligent, and spends her time pretending.  Most of her pretends center around being a princess and trying to act like one, and around her doll Emily, a parting gift from her father.  Sara's father, an army captain, sent her from India to London, where he enrolled her in Miss Minchin's Select Seminary for Young Ladies.  Since he is loaded, Sara gets her own suite, pony, carriage and maid.  However, after her father makes an ostensibly bad investment, loses all his money, and dies, leaving Sara broke, Miss Minchin demotes her from favorite student to scullery-maid.  She must live in the attic, wear old clothes that don't fit, and spend her day working instead of studying.  However, she is expected to keep up with her studies since Miss Minchin wants to use her as a teacher when she grows up.  However, through all of it, Sara tries to act like a princess and not sink to the level of the nasty people around her.
Temple's Sara is easily the weakest of the three.  When she's not mugging for the cameras, she's either relentlessly cheerful or bawling her eyes out.  (I should mention hear that since Sara's father in in the army, she's learned how not to complain--so I guess Temple just missed the memo that said that Sara was supposed to be STOIC?!)  I don't know how much of the the bright, bookish Sara is left in Temple--we never see her read or even attend class, and her favorite subject seems to be horseback riding.  Moreover, her fantasy life centers on her father still being alive--and for an overworked, half-starved maid, she sure has a lot of time and energy to keep checking the hospitals for him.  There's also a subplot where she helps play matchmaker for her teacher and a riding-master--but that was just weird and distracting.
Shankley's Sara is true to the novel, being, if anything, more self-pitying and angrier.  However, that serves to make her more human, since, after all, her world got turned upside-down.  We see more of Sara's character in her than in Temple, as she's constantly reading, speaks fluent French, makes up stories for her classmates, pretends to be in the Bastille, and tries her damndest not to cry in front of anyone.  I also thought the montages of her working until all hours while people laugh at her were really effective in showing how hard her new life was, as were the increasing shabbiness of her clothes, her greasy hair and impetigo. 
Matthews' Sara was stronger than Temple's, but only marginally.  Most of her strongest characteristics (her imaginings, her "princess" belief, and even the stories she told) were fed to her from other people. The only book she seems to like is "Ramayana," and, while we see her mouthing a right answer in class, it's to a multiplication problem--pretty basic knowledge for your average ten-year-old.  Most of the time, particularly in the early scenes, she just sort of wanders around looking blank--or crying.  She's also got a rebellious streak, where she questions Miss Minchin's rules and even plays pranks on her.  This is, again, in contract to Burnett's Sara, whose strong sense of ethics even kept her from telling white lies.  Finally, while Burnett's Sara believes herself to be obligated to act like a princess, Matthews' Sara believes that "all girls are princesses"--even the bullying Lavinia, the scullery-maid Becky, and the nasty Miss Minchin.  Speaking of, let's look at--
Miss Minchin's Seminary--Staff: Miss Minchin runs the Select Seminary for Young Ladies in a London square.  She cares most about money and social standing in her pupils, and sucks up to the wealthiest accordingly.  When Sara loses her fortune, she takes all her nice furnishings and clothes away, and banishes her to a tiny, cold room in the attic.  She then forces Sara to work as a scullery maid.  Both Mary Nash in the 1939 version, and Maureen Lippman in the 1986 version show this very well, with Nash being cold until she realizes how wealthy Captain Crewe is, and Lippman writing in a higher-than normal tuition in the blank check Crewe gives her.  Lippman's performance in particular was effectively understated, with her coming off as more indifferent to Sara's plight than actively abusive to her.  Eleanor Bron, in the 1995 version, took the character in a completely different direction.  A martinet who demanded instant obedience, she and Sara butt heads throughout the entire film.  Unlike the other versions, we never see the conversation between her and Captain Crewe's solicitor (and since the film was set in New York, why such an obvious Britishism?), so turning Sara into a maid may have been more about revenge and less about getting her money back.
Miss Michin's partner is her sibling, usually portrayed as the overweight, hapless Amelia Minchin.  Miss Amelia is in awe of the younger sister, but has good intentions.  By the end of the book, she finally tells her big sister off about mistreating Sara.  The 1986 version has this conversation, as well as other scenes where Miss Amelia questions her sister's enslavement of Sara (and Miss Minchin usually shuts her up with a reference to Sara's debts.)  In the 1995 version, Miss Amelia is more playful, joining Ermengarde in a ragtime duet on the piano.  She really doesn't deal with Sara very much personally, except for pulling her away from her work during one of Lottie's tantrums (and we'll get to that scene in a minute.)  She is also played more for laughs, with a scene of her eloping with a milkman (and falling on top of him.)  However, we lose the big confrontation scene.  The 1939 film goes in an entirely different direction, with Miss Amelia being replaced by two characters--Bertie, Miss Minchin's brother, who used to work in music halls and openly sides with Sara over his own sister (including leaving the school over Miss Minchin's treatment of her, and disbelieving an accusation of theft--again, we'll get to that later.), and Miss Rose, a teacher who was once a charity case and now teaches for free.  She never stands up to Miss Minchin, but defies her in secret by marrying the riding master.
In three of the media (the book, 1939 movie, and 1986 movie), the servants are openly hostile to Sara, order her around, and punish her by denying her meals.  In the 1995 version, the servants do not interact with Sara at all, so we never really get the sense that her life is horrible beyond endurance.
Miss Minchin's Seminary--Students: Ermengarde is Sara's best friend.  She's overweight, a slow learner, and hates reading, but loves Sara because of Sara's intelligence and imagination.  After Sara's downfall, she routinely sneaks upstairs to visit, including bringing up a hamper full of food once.  The 1995 version shows some of the "slow learner" aspects by having her miss a multiplication question in class, but it's Ermengarde who creates an elaborate plan to get Sara's locket out of Miss Minchin's office.  The 1939 version makes Ermengarde almost a throwaway character who only has a few lines.
Lottie, Sara's adopted "daughter" is the youngest pupil in the school.  Although she adores Sara, she is really too young to understand all of the changes in Sara's life.  Her childishness is expressed in everything from her frequent tantrums to ratting out Ermengarde's plans to sneak a feast up to Sara.  However, in the movies, this role is considerably lessened.  In the 1995 movie, Lottie is "in" on a plot to steal back Sara's locket, by having a tantrum that distracts Miss Amelia (this is where Sara gets pulled away from her work).  In the 1939 movie, she is absent.
Which brings us to Lavinia, and her evil sidekick, Jessie.  Lavinia is a nasty bully.  This is shown in about a hundred ways, such as teasing Sara about her princess status, (and in the 1986 film, she continues to do so after Sara loses her wealth), to making petty requests of Sara and teasing her about her poverty (in the 1939 movie), to walking across a freshly mopped floor and dipping Ermengarde's hair in an inkwell (the 1995 movie.)  However, the 1995 movie shows her and Sara embracing, which kind of came out of nowhere.  Also, the 1995 movie all but eliminates Lavinia's foil, Jessie.  Jessie is described as "not as ill-natured as she is silly."  The 1986 movie shows Jessie trying to stop Lavinia from ratting Ermengarde out about the hamper--so I guess they agreed.  (Although she wasn't the nicest person--Jessie, after all, said about Sara's father in the 1986 version, "He may be rich, but he's still, only, a captain.")  However, the 1939 version shows her joining in the bullying of Sara to the point where Sara (Shirley Temple) just gets fed up and dumps a scuttle full of ashes on them.
And then, there's Becky.  Although technically staff, not student (she's the scullery-maid), Becky's youth and relationship to Sara put her more in this category.  She's an uneducated cockney who is petrified of Miss Minchin and adores Sara.  She is also overworked, working not only as the scullery maid, but as everything else besides.  She "blackened boots, and grates, and carried heavy coal-scuttles up and down stairs, and cleaned windows, and scrubbed floors, and was ordered about by everybody."  In all versions, she is helped by Sara when she is wealthy--Sara gives her cake in the book, meat-pies in the 1986 movie, satin slippers in the 1995 movie, and an Egyptian scarab in the 1939 movie.  After Sara loses her wealth, Becky is her friend and fellow-sufferer, keeping her from getting lonely in the attic and helping her with the work downstairs.  The 1995 movie, however, shows her help Sara dump ashes on Miss Minchin's head and distracting Miss Minchin before she can discover the Locket Subplot--so how scared could she have been?
Story--I've laid out the story in the previous headings, so this section will be used to compare various plot points.  The main difference between the three stories is the way that Sara's fortune is lost and her way out.  In the book and the 1986 movie, Sara's father invests his fortune in a diamond mine scheme with his old school buddy, loses his money, and dies of shock.  The old school buddy gets a case of the guilties and scours Europe looking for Captain Crewe's daughter, not realizing that she is next door.  Meanwhile, his Indian servant fixes up Sara's room out of a combination of pity and awe.  Miss Minchin never finds out about the changed room.  Sara meets the old school buddy, Mr. Carrisford, when she tries to return his pet monkey, and they discover that he has been looking of her.
Both American film versions change three major plot points--Captain Crewe does not die, he is reported killed in whatever war is going on (Boer war in 1939, and WWI in 1995) and Miss Minchin finds out about the changed room, which leads to chase scenes that lead Sara back to her father.  I think the 1939 version has a stronger "loss of fortune" backstory.  In this movie, Captain Crewe goes off to fight in the Boer War in South Africa.  Because his fortune is tied up in South African diamond mines, his investments are seized by the enemy, thus impoverishing him.  The 1995 loss of fortune is weaker.  We never see the conversation regarding the lost fortune, and all we hear is that Captain Crewe's assets were seized by the British government.  Really?  Now there's a plot hole you could drive a truck through.  The British government is going to confiscate the assets of a career military officer who died fighting for his country?  I could just see the recruitment posters for that one.  "Join the Royal Army!  Impoverish your heirs!"  I don't think they'd get a lot of takers if that was their policy.
However, the 1995 version had a better ending--slightly.  While the 1939 movie ends with Sara finding her father (and they're still broke and heavily in debt, so little is resolved), the 1995 version has a little epilogue where it is explained that the next door neighbor helps Captain Crewe get his property back (I don't know why he LOST his property, but OK).  However, the whole Miss Minchin as chimney sweep scene bothers me, as does the Sara and Lavinia hug--a little too contrived. 
Both movies have one similar plot device--Miss Minchin discovers the changed attic, accuse Sara of theft, and calls the cops on her.  In both cases Sara slips next door through the attic (with the cops on her tail in 1995), and in her being chased, stumbles across her father (at the army hospital in 1939, and in the neighbor's house in 1995).  Unfortunately, Daddy's got amnesia, and it takes him a while to realize the little girl screaming at him and crying on his shoulder is his daughter.
However, each of the two movies had its share of subplots.  In 1939, there was some story about how the riding master was the grandson of the wealthy man next door, but he'd fallen in love with and secretly married one of the teachers, and they used Sara to give them excuses to meet--didn't make much sense.  There were also some throwaway lines about Mr. Bertie and his acting career.  In 1995, there was a contrived romance and elopement between Miss Amelia and the milkman.  And then there was the Locket Subplot.  One of Captain Crewe's parting gifts to Sara was a gold locket with Sara's parents' pictures in it.  Miss Minchin tries to confiscate the locket upon Sara's arrival, saying that jewelry is not allowed, but Sara promises to only wear it in her room.  Later, Miss Minchin takes the locket from Sara when Sara goes broke, supposedly because it was valuable.  However, Miss Minchin then...hoards it in her desk.  That makes no sense.  That thing is gold!  Sell it and apply the proceeds against Sara's debt.  Later, some of Sara's friends steal the locket back out of Miss Minchin's office in an elaborately contrived fashion that looks like it came out of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon.  Basically, three of the girls search the office, led by Ermengarde, while one looks out for Miss Minchin, who is our running an errand..  Lottie sits on the steps and has a tantrum to distract Miss Amelia.  When Miss Minchin returns early and is about to catch the girls in her office with the locket, Becky screams, distracting Miss Minchin and giving them a chance to get away.  When Miss Minchin storms into Sara's attic to retrieve the locket, she finds the changed room.  This leads to the chase know the rest.
Closing Remarks--Frances Hodgson Burnett has created one of the most memorable stories of triumph over adversity, and a memorable character in Sara Crewe.  The films lose a great deal in the translation, and the bright, eccentric Sara is only truly discoverable between the covers of the original book.

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