There’s something magical about seeing the characters you’ve only imagined in your head come to life on screen. And nothing kills that sensation quicker than an interpretation of that character that is wrong.
It should be hard to generalize this category, since no two books are the same. From romance novels, to epic sic-fi adventure, to horror, a variety of books have had their turn to be made into a film or show, but usually wind up heavily criticized.
The first book-to-movie adaptation I remember seeing was Madeline. Based on a series of children’s books by Ludwig Bemelmans, I have very fond memories of this experience, and watched it many times over the next few years. I was around five or six when I first saw it with my friend (we are still lifelong friends actually). The movie was filled with the scenarios of the book series we were familiar with, plus an added plot where Madeline’s neighbor is kidnapped and held for ransomed. While that was not from the original story, the characters themselves were as true as they could be to their creations. Watching them come to life was engaging, especially as a child. In my humble opinion, this one stands as a faithful and charming adaptation.
That’s where my good experience of book adaptations stopped, for the most part. (I’m not counting The Lord of the Rings because I haven’t read those books. I know, shame on me).
Ella Enchanted is one that stood out to me. This movie seems to be liked okay, though by the looks of it I don’t think it was a box office success. Still, if someone were to go into this movie without having read the book, they would probably like it as a quirky romantic comedy, with some fun magic and creative world-building, a lot like Stardust.
But as a book adaptation, it is insulting.
My copy of Ella Enchanted was worn, torn, and in bad shape thanks to the many, many times I read this wonderful take on the classic tale of Cinderella. Gail Carson Levine has written several unique fairy tales, and I recommend checking out her books. The novel Ella Enchanted takes you into the mind of the witty, cursed, and smart Ella, who finds out her godmother is a fairy, gains two horrible stepsisters, falls in love with a prince, and runs away from a finishing school- all while being cursed to obey every single command given to her. There are ogres, gnomes, elves, giants, and fairies. The comedy, unlike in the movie, comes from Ella’s wit, and finding humor in nearly every situation. The characters are all seen through Ella’s unique perspective, and we feel the grief of how much she misses her mother, and the pain brought on by her curse from a fairy named Lucinda.
The movie is not that, by any means. Sure, when I was in middle school it made me and my friends laugh. But I kept going back to the book, and found something else, something new, that stood out every time I re-read it. While the highlight of the movie, was the part where a giant farts and it knocks an elf off a bench. Bravo.
Now, while I’m not all that bitter (I’m really not. The books still exists and I’m okay with people loving the movie. It’s possible to let people like things), it still irks me that some people may dismiss the book either because they feel that watching the movie was enough, or maybe it was too silly for them. See, the issue with the interpretation from the film, was not necessarily the characters. Anne Hathaway still pulled off a witty Ella, Joanna Lumley portrayed a perfectly annoying Dame Olga (the stepmother), and the visuals are inviting and interesting. Ella’s friend Areida (Parminder Nagra) wasn’t bad either. The issue was their target audience. Someone must have thought “It’s a children’s book for teenage girls, so we want their boyfriends to like it too. And Cinderella is really dull, so we’ll add a plot with the Prince’s evil Uncle to up the stakes.” And that’s why it wasn’t a good adaptation. The book is beautifully executed without a plot to kill the prince, no evil villain (though of course I love Carey Elwes), and no silly elf side character.
Now, I know I just said I didn’t have a problem with this in Madeline. And I don’t. The difference was that overall, these interpretations are completely different. In the movie Madeline, Madeline stops on a bridge to look at a man painting (I think he’s painting the Notre Dame). He asks her opinion of what she thinks of it, a very interesting moment. A talented artist wants the opinion of a random child. I like that moment. But one thing Madeline says is, “You’ve really captured it!” He’s not painting an accurate portrayal of the Notre Dame. But she knows that. She sees that he captured the spirit of it.
That’s the issue. The spirit of Ella Enchanted was Cinderalla, not an adventure movie. The spirit of Madeline is Madeline herself, and how she handles situations. The movie captured that. That is how I feel, at least.
There are some more adaptations to get to, and I will in part 2, and probably a part 3. In fact, I will probably have another post just on Ella Enchanted. It was a big part of my childhood, and may be one of the reasons I’m an author today.