I grew up on the 1960 Disney Pollyanna with Hayley Mills, which I like very much, but it is not very close to the book and I like the book, too. However, last week Andrea Lundgren introduced me to the charming, heart-warming and quite accurate Pollyanna, which was seen in America on Masterpiece Theatre in 2003.
There are not that many truly faithful adaptations of books out there, but I think this Pollyanna deserves to be ranked among them. There is only one major change. Because the film was made in Britain with a British cast, Eleanor Porter’s setting of her novel in Vermont is changed to the English countryside…which threw me for a moment. But as soon as the accents and the costumes are accepted, the story proceeds very much in the same way as the novel.
Pollyanna Whittier (Georgina Terry) comes to Beldingsville as an orphan to be taken care of by her Aunt Polly (Amanda Burton), who is not a warm-fuzzy, to put it mildly. She is strict, stubborn, has a strong sense of duty and is generally prickly and undemonstrative. Pollyanna, however, comes bouncing into her life with happy naivete and enthusiasm and a belief that everyone she meets is basically good at their core, which Aunt Polly finds a bit overwhelming.
Also in Aunt Polly’s house is the maid, Nancy (Kate Ashfield), who instantly warms to Pollyanna and is angry that Aunt Polly is holding Pollyanna at arm’s length and won’t let Pollyanna speak about her father – who Aunt Polly did not like; she was dismayed when he married her sister, Pollyanna’s mother. Meanwhile, Pollyanna begins to melt the hearts of everyone in the village. There is Mrs. Snowe, an invalid (Pam Ferris, absolutely hilarious) who has been contrary so long she has to unlearn old habits to be able to say one nice or positive thing. There is Jimmy Bean, the orphan boy who Pollyanna determines to find a home for, asking practically everyone in Beldingsville if they will take him in. Mr. Pendleton (Kenneth Cranham), is a crusty, cranky and bitter man who used to love Pollyanna’s mother, but was turned down by her to marry Pollyanna’s father. The vicar worries about his congregation (David Bamber, a much nicer and less slimy clergyman than he played in Pride and Prejudice as Mr. Collins). There is Dr. Chilton, who is kind, but a bit sad (Aden Gillett). He was engaged to Aunt Polly, but when they argued and went separate ways, it made her hard and him slightly melancholy and fifteen years later he still regrets it.
Pretty much all Pollyanna’s interactions with these people from the book are transposed to the screen. A slight change is that Nancy is given a romance with Tim (Tom Ellis), the gardener’s son (Tom Bell). The gardener, Tom, is the one person who remembers how happy and lovely Aunt Polly was (which comes as a bit of a surprise to Nancy) and who does not seem to have any personal issues of his own. Tim is the chauffeur (he loves automobiles to distraction and has the slightly awkward way of courting Nancy by talking about cars) There is no romance in the book, but since Eleanor Porter’s sequel to Pollyanna, Pollyanna Grows Up, says that Nancy married Tim, it is a perfectly reasonable addition to the film. The romance is also sweet and brings out the theme of young love, which Aunt Polly missed out on with Dr. Chilton and Mr. Pendleton missed with Pollyanna’s mother.
One of the things I liked best about the film is the portrayal of Aunt Polly. Her relationship with Pollyanna becomes the central one in the film and it is clear that Aunt Polly is the person Pollyanna most wants to be loved by and connect with and play the Glad Game with, but is also the one she is having the most difficulty with. The film shows how Aunt Polly gradually softens towards Pollyanna, subtly and without her even knowing it. She lets Pollyanna take in a stray dog (and cat), worries that she’ll get wet when it rains, lets Pollyanna play with her hair, listens to Pollyanna’s enthusiastic readings of romances (Pollyanna’s rendition of Pride and Prejudice is something to hear, she practically makes Mr. Darcy’s line to Elizabeth “You cannot have a right to such very strong local attachment. You cannot have been always at Longbourn” sound like a violent accusation; poor Elizabeth must have been shrinking in her char). I also like how Burton plays her with a hint of a sense of humor so that you can see that inside she is not entirely unyielding or unsympathetic, letting her face soften every so often in response to things and bringing a hint of sadness.
Another feature of the 2003 adaption is that the focus is more generally spread around to the adult characters whereas in the Disney film, Hayley Mills is unquestionably the star and focus. It’s not that Georgina Terry is underwhelming – she’s excellent. She’s adorable and has the right amount of bounciness without seeming impossible (she still grieves for her father). Though she is occasionally a bit too knowing about what the adults are thinking (in the book, Pollyanna is completely unaware of all the adult dynamics swirling around her, part of the reason why her sunny temperament is so effective).
The film is a good example of how to adapt a book to film (admittedly a short book, but The Hobbit wasn’t very long, either, and look what happened to that). The characters are established quickly in their first scene, demonstrate how they change through facial expressions and their changing reactions to Pollyanna, there are no unnecessary added scenes to unnecessarily underscore character’s feelings, the pace is upbeat (until the end, when it slows down a bit in reaction to Pollyanna’s accident) and the film clocks in at a very reasonable 99 minutes. Why can’t more filmmakers take this unpretentious approach to adapting a book? The result, in this case, is delightful.