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Pollyanna (2003) – A Faithful Adaptation

51YMVF68BXLI 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 PollyannaPollyanna 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.

Amanda Burton and Georgina Terry

Amanda Burton and Georgina Terry

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.

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2015 in Movies

 

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Jane Eyre (1943)

jane2I long ago reconciled myself to the fact that no film adaptation can really do justice to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and I’ve seen six of them so far. I think the musical actually comes closest to capturing the character of Jane Eyre, because it allows her to maintain her quiet exterior, yet still express her private thoughts and feelings in song. Which is not to say that I do not enjoy some of the film adaptations, particularly the 2006 BBC miniseries, with Toby Stephen and Ruth Wilson.

And last week I watched director Robert Stevenson’s 1943 Jane Eyre, starring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles and Margaret O’Brien as Adele, and I thoroughly liked it, despite its imperfections. It’s a gorgeous film, with its black and white photography and use of shadows, the fog and mist, the desolate moor, the moody atmosphere. The emphasis is definitely on the Gothic elements of the story, in a way that no color adaptation could ever achieve. Thornfield Hall is even a forbidding, brooding castle that looks like it would be perfectly at home in a medieval story.

One of the elements of the book that tends to get glossed over in most of the movies is the beginning, when Jane Eyre is a child. It is usually treated as a part of the movie to get through quickly because it’s in the book, but you can tell the filmmakers just want to get to the part where she grows up. But in this film, it is actually used to feed into the motivations of Jane Eyre, and even if those motivations are slightly different from what they are in the book, they are perfectly consistent in the film. Peggy Ann Garner plays Jane as a child, with a terrific blend of rebellion and anger with a touching desire to be loved. When Jane’s unloving aunt (Agnes Moorehead) sends her to a boarding school run by the righteously hypocritical Mr. Brocklehurst (Henry Daniell – the best, most memorable Mr. Brocklehurst I’ve ever seen), Jane meets the first person who ever cares about her, Helen Burns (Elizabeth Taylor). I was struck by the scene of the two children laughing and running near the school with the vast waste of the moor all around them; a lovely visual.

Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles

Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles

The movie Jane Eyre is often compared to Rebecca: Gothic story, Gothic house, mysterious leading man, Joan Fontaine stars in both films. They both even begin with a voice-over narration by Fontaine. And when people discuss Jane Eyre, they usually dwell on the similarities between Fontaine’s Jane Eyre and Mrs. de Winter. However, I feel equating all Fontaine’s quiet roles together is like assuming all of Barbara Stanwyck’s femme fatales are the same and it obscures real differences in her characterization. Quiet people are not all the same.

Fontaine’s Jane is certainly quiet (though Jane appears quiet to most people until they get to know her), and perhaps less rebellious, but she is not weak. She does what she intends to do and she speaks her mind, something Mrs. de Winter would never have dreamed of doing. She’s just not flashy about it. Her eyes don’t really flash with inner fire, either, but I’m not sure too many cinematic Jane Eyres manage that trick. Interestingly, the film doesn’t try to pretend that Jane Eyre is not pretty (since Joan Fontaine is clearly not plain). At an inn, a man openly admires her and in preparing to marry Mr. Rochester, several other people comment on her looks. Her own assessment of not being as beautiful as Blanche Ingram, though, is not inconsistent with a person who is neither fashionable in manner or in dress and who is used to being called drab. But she’s not a shrinking violet and she’s fairly no-nonsense; she’s just not spunky in the way we visualize heroines today. Mrs. de Winter has an entirely different ethos going on: intimidated, insecure, very young and naive.

Orson Welles is perhaps one of the more unexpected Mr. Rochesters in film. Not conventionally romantic (though Mr. Rochester isn’t supposed to be in the book), he makes for, at times, an intimidating presence, as he towers over Jane. With his fur-lined cloak, striding through his castle with his dog at his heels, he looks like a medieval lord. His Mr. Rochester could very well be dangerous, and yet when he’s not being volcanic and peremptory, his eyes suddenly turn pleading and tender. What threw me is how young he looks (he’s in his late twenties, Mr. Rochester is supposed to be in his late thirties). He’s the youngest Mr. Rochester I’ve ever seen and his face does not match his voice or his presence.

EYRE-JP-3-popupOne weakness of the film is that Welles and Fontaine seem like a slightly odd romantic fit and they don’t quite click. What they both do bring, though, to the film is a palpable desire and longing to be loved, which partially covers their lack of chemistry. That desire to be loved is the theme most prominent in the film, apart from the general Gothic mystery and sense of weird danger.

I did gain a new insight into the book while watching the movie. I always thought it was rather insensitive of Mr. Rochester to pretend to make love to Blanche Ingram and try to make Jane jealous, but I finally understood why (and I should have realized before). He is not sure if she loves him and he’s not really sure if anyone could love him. And he can’t tell because of how calm she is and he’s trying to elicit a reaction, any reaction, from her that would indicate how she feels. That’s why he keeps asking her questions and teasing her about her feelings on leaving Thornfield. In many ways, he’s more insecure than Jane is. She longs for love, but she’s fundamentally comfortable with who she is.

The ending is bit abrupt (I’ve always been slightly disappointing with the movie endings of Jane Eyre), but they don’t make the mistake of trying to rush through the portion where she meets her cousin, St. John Rivers. They wisely remove that entirely, turn her cousin into a Dr. Rivers and do not have him romantically interested in her at all, which keeps the movie fairly taut and consistent and prevents the film from having new characters introduced in the last fifteen minutes. In fact, the entire film is well paced and I liked how they adapted it, purist objections aside. I’ve been becoming more broadminded. Several years ago, I would have ranted about all the differences. Now, I think it is a lovely film that stands quite well on its own.

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2015 in Movies

 

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