Category Archives: Literary adaptations

Review: The Night of the Iguana (1964)

iguana
The Night of the Iguana, adapted from the Tennessee Williams play by director John Huston and Anthony Veiller, is simultaneously lighter and more opaque than other Williams adaptations like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or A Streetcar Named Desire. The action follows a disgraced clergyman, Rev. Shannon (Richard Burton), who has been reduced to curating bus tours in Mexico. His past starts to catch up with him when the hostile leader of a tour group (Grayson Hall) discovers his dalliance with Charlotte (Sue Lyon), an underage girl under her charge. In an attempt to stall his ruin, Shannon waylays the group at a rundown hotel near Puerto Vallarta which is run by Maxine (Ava Gardner), an earthy American woman who harbors feelings for the erstwhile man of God. The arrival at the hotel of itinerant painter Hannah (Deborah Kerr) and her aged poet grandfather (Cyril Delevanti) adds to the chaos of the scene, even while Hannah attempts to smooth everything over. The meat of the film is an emotional night of breakdowns and soul-searching conversation, climaxing in the completion of the poet’s last poem. Ultimately, The Night of the Iguana has something of a happier ending than one would generally expect from a Williams piece, although not without some ambiguity.

It sort of sounds like a wacky rom-com, doesn’t it? There are certainly moments where the drama almost seems to be played for laughs. At first glance, Burton’s “defrocked” priest is an over-the-top caricature: often drunk, wide-eyed and indignant, feigning innocence when caught red-handed. Even in despair, he seems to be playing a part rather than truly suffering. It is in his quiet moments that Burton peels back the layers to reveal Shannon’s pain. Though boorish on the outside, he’s really a deeply faithful man who loves God and all his creations, but who sees humanity’s hypocrisy as the ultimate disappointment. He is a keen observer of human nature, able to cut others to the core when he lashes out. It is up to Maxine and Hannah to restore his faith in humanity, and they both make the attempt in highly individual ways that would seem to represent the struggle between emotion and reason. Maxine is a hedonist, but she has a good heart and seems to genuinely care for Shannon. Meanwhile Hannah is more aloof, but it is her cool rationality and quiet faith that brings Shannon back to himself. Both Gardner and Kerr fill these roles memorably; it was fascinating to watch two actresses, a little bit beyond their prime, use their age and experience to truly provide their characters with the right sensibilities. Gardner in particular is riveting as a woman who knows she is no longer young, but still relies on her sexual appeal and presents a facade of independence while fearing the loneliness of growing older. Kerr is perfectly cast as her polar opposite: Hannah is not without feeling, but she has made her peace with being a “spinster,” and fills her life with travel and experience instead of companionship.

The Night of the Iguana is something of a departure from the typical “play-turned-film.” There is a fair amount of movement and action in the first half of the movie, during which the tour group is traveling through Mexico. Even when the location settles on Maxine’s inn, something about the direction and the performances of the three leads manages to seem more dynamic than many theatrical adaptations. Although shot in black and white, Huston still manages to capture the lush vegetation and beauty of his location, and indeed is credited with putting Puerto Vallarta on the map as a tourist destination. The scenery adds to the heat and passion of the production; it’s easy to imagine the sultry night bringing out ugly truths and revelations. In the final estimation, the film belongs to its three leading performers, however. Burton does seem to be chewing the scenery at times, but I think that this behavior is a part of his character: Shannon enjoys the dramatics and is even called out for it by Hannah at one point. Kerr and Gardner are a match for Burton, and all three are greatly entertaining to watch. As with most Williams, there’s a lot going on here, and it feels as though multiple viewings might be needed in order to truly understand the depths that the film is trying to reach, but for good direction, cinematography, and excellent performances, you really can’t go wrong here.

Review: Les Miserables (2012)

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Translating a stage musical (let alone a wildly popular one) into a screen musical can’t be an easy task. There are all the issues of how faithful an adaptation one wants to make, and the use of Hollywood actors versus stage actors, and a myriad other questions that ultimately won’t matter because half of your audience is going to think you ruined the show, regardless of how hard you work at it or how well the other half thinks you’ve done. Tom Hooper took on all those challenges in bringing Les Miserables to the screen. He apparently chose to adhere very faithfully to the original show, albeit with some necessary cuts here and there. He opted for mostly known actors. And, to up the ante, he decided to film the singing live, as opposed to working with a pre-recorded soundtrack, in an effort to bring a new level of introspection and personality to the characters. Predictably, it’s proving to be a polarizing film in many ways.

Les Miserables tells the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a released French convict who breaks parole in order to start a new life for himself. He’s become the well-respected mayor of a small town, but he finds his steps dogged nonetheless by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), whose single-minded purpose is to bring Valjean to justice. When another man is captured in his place, Valjean comes forward, and must flee from Javert, even while he attempts to fulfill a promise to a dying fallen woman. Fantine (Anne Hathaway) has lost everything in attempting to care for her daughter Cosette, and Valjean promises to retrieve the girl and raise her as his own. To do this he must not only dodge Javert, but also deal with the Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), crooked innkeepers who have been looking after Cosette. Valjean manages to settle down quietly with his new charge for many years, but on the eve of the 1832 Paris Uprising, everything comes to a head. Javert is back on Valjean’s scent, and to complicate matters, Cosette, now a young woman (Amanda Seyfried), has fallen in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a young revolutionary. The second act deals with the failed revolution and its aftermath, in which many will die, and some few will find a happy ending.

Les Mis is an intense experience. It’s almost entirely sung, and well, the title translates to “the miserable.” It’s not a happy story for the most part. The music, however, is transcendent and makes the whole thing utterly worthwhile. To take that music and attach it to a big-screen film is a heady experience. The film, while not always beautiful, is visually stunning and sticks close to all of the iconic images that fans of the musical expect. There are, of course, technical complaints about the camerawork, particularly with regard to the practice of extreme close-ups during big solo numbers. I myself didn’t take issue with this, but I can see where it could be annoying to others. My main interest in a dramatic film is typically the acting, and since the camerawork was designed to heighten the performances, it worked for me. More problematic in my opinion was the heavy use of green-screen. It’s an epic show, and a few huge set-pieces and sweeping panoramas are not out of scope. I only wish they’d been slightly more realistic. However. Let’s get back to the performances.

With an oft-performed show like Les Miserables, it is to be expected that every single production will be different. Every actor has his or her own interpretation of the role, and every actor brings his or her own set of limitations. I found the performances across the board to be excellent. Much has been made of the performances of Jackman and Hathaway, and for the most part, the praise is deserved. Hathaway in particular maximizes her time on-screen and puts everything she has into the tragic role of Fantine. Because she has a smaller role, she is more able to find the right balance of melodrama and subtlety required. Similarly, the roles of Marius and Cosette and the Thenardiers don’t require a great deal of range, and as such Seyfried, Redmayne, Cohen, and Carter do a fine job. Samantha Barks (the lone stage actor) as Eponine, Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, and Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche are also worthy of mention, and provide some of the best singing.

Because of the size of their roles, Jackman and Crowe seem to have a much more difficult task in bringing the characters of Valjean and Javert to the screen. Jackman, of course, is an accomplished stage performer and was the only suitable option for the role of Valjean; I would argue that the same is true of Crowe. They seem to have chosen two different approaches to their roles here, with varying success. Jackman sinks his teeth into his musical numbers and nails them, but I found his acting to be a little too melodramatic and unnatural at times. It’s as though you can see the work he’s putting in. Crowe, on the other hand, gives a much more subtle performance. He does not have as robust a singing voice as might be wanted, and so his interpretation of the character of Javert is much quieter and introspective. Although it is a slightly different take on the character, I found it to be no less enjoyable or effective. It was an appropriate decision given his vocal abilities, and his acting is such that he carries it off well, if a bit too understated for the musical genre. His is the most natural and nuanced performance of the film.

While there are things that could be criticized (the afore-mentioned cinematography, a certain awkwardness of transition sequences, a few slow moments here and there), the overall effect is exactly what a fan of the musical would hope for. The decision to sing live, I think, paid off for the film as a whole, and for most of the cast (Crowe perhaps being the exception). It’s a much less polished sound that one would expect, but it fits so well with the story and its themes. Les Mis is a strange entry into the genre: the story (based on the novel by Victor Hugo) is highly dramatic and character-driven; characteristics that do not necessarily lend themselves well to the bombast and spectacle of a stage musical. What Hooper and his actors have tried to do here is bring the focus back around to the individuals and their lives. It makes the film somewhat uneven overall, but ultimately extremely satisfying.

Trailer: Cloud Atlas

I’m not going to say a lot about this, but it’s something I’m keeping an eye on. David Mitchell’s incredible novel, Cloud Atlas, is a book that will change how you think about literature. It’s an incredibly dense and complex construction, following six stories through time and across the globe, held together by strange threads. They mainly serve to examine the ways in which humanity learns and adapts, and the ways in which it doesn’t.

The Wachowski brothers (they’re responsible for The Matrix) have made Cloud Atlas into a movie. A lot of people, myself included, largely believe that this is a near-impossibility, but the cast is impressive, and now there’s a trailer. I am absolutely reserving judgement, but I wanted to share it with you anyway. Having trouble embedding, so here’s a link.

Cloud Atlas trailer.

Trailer: Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina is an epic Russian romance, written by Leo Tolstoy. It has, naturally, been adapted for film multiple times, since it has all the earmarks of a great, dramatic, ultimately tragic love story. 2012 will see the latest attempt at bringing Anna to the screen, and now we have a trailer! I have to say that all the names attached are top-notch: Joe Wright (Atonement, 2005’s Pride & Prejudice) has certainly proven himself capable of directing period pieces, and Tom Stoppard (a notable playwright) wrote the screenplay. On the acting side, we have Keira Knightley as Anna, Aaron Johnson (Kick-Ass) as Vronsky, and Jude Law as Karenin, with a bevy of other notable actors in smaller roles.

On paper, this adaptation ought to be pretty fabulous. Conceptually, it’s a little harder to imagine that anyone can really do this sweeping novel justice, although I admit I haven’t seen any of the previous film versions. Additionally, as much as I do actually like Keira Knightley, I’m not convinced of her as Anna. Obviously she and Mr. Wright have a successful working relationship, but I still don’t think she’s quite right for the role. Can we talk about Jude Law for a minute, though? While he doesn’t do anything for me personally looks-wise (although I admit he’s very nice-looking), I do think he is one of the most consistently underrated actors working today, and judging from the trailer, he is going to rock this movie. Oh right, the trailer. I should let you watch it, huh?

It looks fabulous. It’s captured something intangible about the book…the sort of dreamy quality, the sense that everything is going to come crashing down to earth any second. It’s definitely going to be quite lovely to look at. And to the best of my knowledge (haven’t seen Mr. Johnson in anything) these are all quite good actors, so it probably won’t be a total waste of time. I don’t know why I remain skeptical about it…I think it’s still just Keira. I daresay Kelly McDonald might’ve made a better Anna. But what do you think? Does this look like something you’ll want to see?

Comparison shopping: Little Women

I had the idea for a compare/contrast piece a while ago, and I am forced to admit that I watched the first of these three movies nearly a year ago. But I’m sure you’re tired of hearing about how busy my year’s been, so let’s just dive in, shall we? I decided it would be fun and interesting to watch all three film adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and to discuss their differences and similarities. I’d seen the modern adaptation before, probably not too long after it came out, but the other two, being more “classic,” were not really on my radar until a few years ago. I greatly enjoyed watching these films, and I would recommend any of them, although I think that they are reasonably different, despite sharing source material.

Little Women is the story of the four March sisters, who are growing up in New England during the Civil War. Formerly wealthy, their circumstances have changed and they must struggle not only to adapt to their new lives, but also to maintain their values and unique personalities in the face of adversity. Their mother, Marmee, and their father, writing to them from the front, teach and encourage them to remember those less fortunate than themselves. Meg, the eldest, struggles most against not having the same opportunities as her wealthier peers, and is concerned with being a proper young lady. Jo, the main character of the story, is tomboyish and independent. She dreams of being a writer. Beth is the sweet one; she’s frail, shy, and loving toward everyone. Lastly, there’s Amy, who is pretty, slightly spoiled, and artistic. The story follows these “little women,” as well as their friend Laurie, “the boy next door,” as they all grow up and discover themselves, each in her own unique way. Alcott’s novel has always been popular, with its simple realism, moral message, and engaging characters. It’s no surprise that it’s been adapted for film multiple times, and that each adaptation has chosen to highlight certain aspects of the characters and their story.
1933

The first film version was helmed by George Cukor, and starred Katharine Hepburn as Jo in an early leading role. She is joined by Frances Dee as Meg, Jean Parker as Beth, Joan Bennett as Amy, and Douglass Montgomery as Laurie. It won the Oscar for Best Writing, Adaptation, and received nominations for Best Director and Best Picture as well. The first thing to be said about this particular adaptation is that Katharine Hepburn is utterly perfect in the role of Jo. She was just made for it. Everyone else acquits themselves perfectly well (I seem to recall that Jean Parker’s Beth was particularly effective), but the story belongs to Jo, and there never has been and never will be (in my opinion) anyone who could play the part as well as Hepburn. Beyond that, I think this movie is the strongest adaptation. It’s black and white, which accentuates the simplicity of the story, and it highlights very faithfully most of the key scenes of the movie. It steers away, somewhat, from the more “sensational” plot points, but I think that must reflect on its place in history. That it chooses to focus more on the close-to-home struggles of the Marches, and their efforts to help the less-fortunate, probably resonated quite loudly in 1933, as opposed to scenes of fancy parties and travels to Europe. It’s a straightforward and emotive movie, very earnest and honest in its treatment of the source material. As such, I found it the most enjoyable, but in retrospect, I suppose it could be seen as a little boring. It’s absolutely worth a watch for Katharine Hepburn, though, so if you’re a fan, this movie is a must.

1949

I call this one the “pretty people version”. It was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, and starred June Allyson (Jo), Janet Leigh (Meg), Margaret O’Brien (Beth), Elizabeth Taylor (Amy), and Peter Lawford (Laurie). The movie plays like a shinier version of the original, in that it’s in color and everything is just a little more attractive and, well, “more,” but it mainly follows the same arc as the 1933 version. June Allyson is very boisterous, but fails to match up to Jo’s more understated moments, while Janet Leigh’s Meg comes off as positively bitchy. Margaret O’Brian was a popular child actress at the time, and is the obvious choice for Beth, but she’s a little much sometimes. The star here, unsurprisingly, is Taylor. She is perfect in the role of the simpering Amy. All in all, I think this version was intended to evoke the earlier, but really is “bigger” in a sense. Bigger names, Technicolor effects, and so forth. It’s great fun to watch Taylor, and Lawford’s certainly easy on the eyes, so I don’t wish to imply that it’s not a worthwhile film, but the 1933 version remains superior. This adaptation was one of the highest-grossing movies of the year, but I find it telling that while the former won an Oscar for screen-writing, this one won for art direction. That sums up the differences in many ways.

1994

The third and final adaptation makes some marked departures from its predecessors. Obviously, the first two are not so much in recent memory, and the world’s a pretty different place, so this version reflects that. Directed by Gillian Armstrong, it features Winona Ryder as Jo, with Trini Alvarado (Meg), Claire Danes (Beth), and Kirsten Dunst/Samantha Mathis as Amy. It is notable that this is the only time Amy is portrayed by two different actresses. Christian Bale stars as Laurie, and Susan Sarandon appears as Marmee, in a much bigger role than in the previous movies. The role of Marmee is actually the vehicle that powers the major differences between this adaptation and the first two. This version attempts to inject a fair amount of biographical information about Louisa May Alcott’s life into her story, and focuses less on her moral message than on the more subtle shadings of feminism that occur in the novel. It also features those more “dramatic” scenes that were omitted in the first two, and overall has a more melodramatic feel to it. While all of the actors are quite capable, I have to say that they are largely unimpressive and/or poorly cast. In particular, the petite and elfin Winona Ryder as boyish Jo, and Claire Danes as a sickly Beth who towers over her sisters and frankly, looks older than most of them, really detract from the film overall. Susan Sarandon makes an excellent Marmee, but doesn’t deserve the often-saccharine dialogue. Interestingly, Trini Alvarado shines as Meg – her character is developed the most and she plays it well. Despite winning some awards and receiving a Best Actress nomination, in my opinion Winona Ryder really isn’t strong enough to carry this movie, and her casting overshadows the entire ensemble for me.

When I started this project, I admit that I assumed the earliest version would be the best, and the latest version wouldn’t stand up. While I do still believe that to be true, I think that I have found things to appreciate in each version. The main achievement of Little Women is in its characters, and while the movies are inconsistent within themselves, there are performances in each that really bring the March sisters to life. The 1933 version, operating under the maxim that “less is more,” succeeds the most in bringing the story to life, but one has to give some credit to the 1994 version for what it tries to do. There’s a lot more meat to it, and it’s obvious that a great deal of thought went into the details, but the dialogue and the performances don’t (for the most part) match up, making it wildly uneven. The 1949 version is the most “entertaining” in its way. Bright, attractive people giving good performances within a charming story … what’s not to like?

All in all, I think these three movies stack down in chronological order, but it depends on what you like and want out of a literary adaptation. For faithfulness, watch the 1933, for entertainment, the 1949, and for heightened meaning, go with 1994. Watch Katharine Hepburn play Jo, Elizabeth Taylor play Amy, and Trini Alvarado play Meg. My final recommendation would really be to see all three, especially if you’re a fan of the novel, but I hope I have at least given you enough information for you to choose which one will best suit your interests. Unless you’re waiting for the blockbuster version in which Jo disguises herself as a boy, goes out to join the war effort, and blows lots of stuff up. They haven’t gotten around to that one yet, although I bet Michael Bay has at least thought of it.

Two items of (Shakespearean) note:


I would be remiss if I didn’t mention these two bits of news. One of them is actually old news, but I never got around to posting about it. What can I say? Life’s busy.

 

1. Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous opens this weekend. It’s based upon the Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare authorship, which suggests that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, actually wrote the plays of William Shakespeare. I have to admit to having been a fan of this particular theory, as it has some really good points. However, this piece in last week’s NYT Magazine has shown me the error of my ways. I don’t entirely agree with his take on the movie itself; I don’t think that it’s going to completely change the way people think about who Shakespeare was. I do think it looks a bit ridiculous, but it’s got a good cast, and I support anything that is a starring vehicle for Rhys Ifans, so I hope it does well. I’m sure I’ll get around to seeing it eventually. Anyway, here’s the trailer.

 

2. Apparently, Joss Whedon has completed a “secret movie project”: Much Ado About Nothing. There’s very little information about it; mostly just what appears on the website, there. Now, despite being a fan of Shakespeare, Joss Whedon, and (most importantly) Nathan Fillion, I am a good deal skeptical about this. First of all, I think that 1993’s Much Ado about Nothing (the Branagh version) is a movie that belongs on the “Do Not Remake” list. The problem with that, of course, is that it’s a film adaptation of a play by Shakespeare, and as such is performed over and over and over again. For me, though, having a film version is a little more lasting, and I just don’t believe that the performances (Branagh and Thompson’s in particular) can be improved upon. I do hope (and assume, although maybe not) that Fillion is playing Benedick, which I think is a pretty good fit, but beyond that, most of these people are either semi-minor players in the Whedonverse or complete unknowns, and I’m just not sure how it’ll all play out.
One can probably infer from the picture on the website that this version will have some sort of modernized setting, and I personally wonder if they will be using the Shakespearean text. Something about the vague “Based upon a play” tagline leaves me considering the extent to which this is really going to be Much Ado. Basically, there are lots of questions. I will certainly be keeping an eye out for more news of this, so stay tuned.

Update: Here’s a more detailed story from EW.com. Fillion is not Benedick (boo!), it is definitely “modern,” based on the pictures. Enh?
Update 2: Clearly, I should have done more research. It wasn’t up when I checked yesterday, but now if you click on the movie page, you will be redirected to the press release, which gives a complete cast list. Which is exceedingly disappointing. I fail to understand why you would take what is easily the most recognizable name you have and give them the lousiest role. Fillion probably wanted to play the “clown” part, but Dogberry is, I think, the worst clown in the entire Shakespeare repertoire. Sorry, Whedon. This fan is not on board.

That’s all from the Shakespearean News Desk for now. I’m still waiting for Taymor’s The Tempest to get a DVD release date. And for someone to make my blockbuster, star-studded adaptation of Macbeth. I’m also pondering the fact that Branagh ought to take his breakout star from Thor (that’d be Tom Hiddleston) and get back to his roots. Hmmm. Which play is due for a film version … ?

Trailer: The Pirates! Band of Misfits

Ahoy! Today be International Talk Like a Pirate Day, ye scurvy dogs …

Yeah, no, sorry. Can’t do it. I guess I’m just getting old, but I find most internet phenomenon to be kind of ridiculous, and Talk Like a Pirate Day is no exception.

It is, however, an excellent excuse to post a trailer that I saw a little while back, and then forgot about, despite it being A. based upon a reeeeally funny series of strange little books, and B. totally awesome.  The voice cast is top-notch, featuring Hugh Grant, Salma Hayek, and Jeremy Piven, and, well, it just looks really silly and fun.

Don’t you think?

Six favorite children’s movies (adapted from books), plus a future favorite?

I recently read 2008 Caldecott winner The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick, which is a gorgeous historical novel for children. It’s sort of half text and half illustration, and it’s just a really lovely and interesting book. It’s also about to be a major motion picture, directed by (of all people) Martin Scorsese. Yes! A kid’s movie! It looks beautiful, and has a bang-up cast. Take a look:

It looks great, if a bit different from the novel, but that’s how adaptations go, right? Anyway, it got me to thinking about children’s movies, and about some of my favorites in particular. I realized after a while that most of those are adapted from kid’s books. I know, total shocker. And so, five of my favorite kid’s movies adapted from books. I have to admit that the list is a little old, but well, it’s been a while since I was a kid. I tried to include some more recent selections, but mostly I’m interested to hear what your favorites are. I had to narrow my list down, so I know that there are dozens of great movies/books that are not represented here. Check these out (in no particular order), and then weigh in!

Mary Poppins (1964)

Please. Mary Poppins is on everyone’s list, I would hope. This movie made a star out of Julie Andrews, and has been delighting children (and adults) for nearly 40 years now. I remember well my mom bringing it home, and insisting to me and my brothers that we’d love it. We were highly skeptical, and sat down grumbling. As soon as the credits started to roll, we turned around, looked at Mom, and said “Can we watch it again?” You might not have known that the story of the magical nanny is based upon a series of children’s books by P.L. Travers. I haven’t read any of them, but they sound fantastically imaginative … maybe I’ll check them out when my daughter’s old enough to care that we’re reading to her, eh?

How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

This surprise animated hit is a truly delightful film. It bears little resemblance to the book of the same name (again part of a series) by Cressida Cowell, but I have to imagine that it got the feel of the characters and the stories right. The film boasts an impressive voice cast and some really stunning animation, and a sequel is due out in 2014. You can read my review of the movie here, and if you haven’t seen it yet, I still highly recommend it.

The Harry Potter franchise (2001-2011)

For the past ten years, audiences have flocked to see J.K. Rowling’s amazing world of witches and wizards come to life. The three young stars (Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint) will likely be famous for the rest of their lives, and their supporting cast was pretty much everyone who is anyone in British acting circles. Through several different directors, all with different visions, these movies have managed to remain hugely successful, and the grand finale this summer was a fitting end to the franchise as a whole. I don’t think any list of kid’s books-turned-movies would be complete without them.

The Sword in the Stone (1963)

This is possibly one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s just perfect. It’s based on the novel by T.H. White, which is part of a larger series about the life and times of King Arthur. The Sword in the Stone is about Arthur as a boy growing up and not really knowing who he will become. He encounters Merlin the Magician, who takes it upon himself to educate the boy who will become king of all England. There are fun adventures and animated animals (I love Archimedes!) and some good songs, too. After all, it is Disney. I might need to go home and watch this, now. Seriously, love.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)

You may be surprised to learn that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is by Ian Fleming. Yes, that Ian Fleming. It’s the story of two children, their father (a somewhat-failed inventor), and a magical car. The film version stars Dick Van Dyke and is a joyous and colorful musical. It’s another one my brothers and I loved as children, and, like Mary Poppins, it’s on my shelves today. I think I probably know all the songs by heart, and my favorite scene is when they invade the castle disguised as toys. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Watch the movie!

Black Arrow (1985)

I was unable to find a good picture from this last movie. Black Arrow is based on a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson (best known for Treasure Island, probably), and is about two young people caught in the midst of the War of the Roses in England. The movie was made by Disney, and IMDb says that it was made for television, although we always rented it from the local video store. It breaks my heart, but it’s not available on DVD at all, and seems pretty hard to find even on VHS. It’s a great dramatic movie, though, with some good action, a fiery heroine, and some excellent acting, courtesy of Donald Pleasence and Oliver Reed. Maybe if I can drum up enough interest in it, we can write to Disney and ask them for a DVD release, eh? Seriously, it’s so good.

That’s my list! There are so many other movies I could have included, but I tried to stick with ones that are near and dear to my heart. Yes, I suppose this list ages me a little, but that’s ok. I’m sure I will be up-to-date on all the latest kid’s movies in the next 10 years or so, and then maybe I’ll revisit this list. But for now, tell me: Which are your favorites?

Trailer: Coriolanus

FINALLY. Shakespeare. Ralph Fiennes directing and starring. Also starring: Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain. Woo-freaking-hoo. No, seriously.

Review: Mansfield Park (1999)


I have a really important rule that I try to stick to when watching movies. If it’s an adaptation of a book, don’t expect it to be anything like. It’s like being a pessimist. If you always expect the worst, sometimes you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Same with an adaptation: if you expect something to be completely different and then it’s mostly the same, you’ll think it’s brilliant. I generally try not to even be irritated if a movie is way off-base … it’s just not really worth it. Usually, things fall somewhere in the middle. They get a lot of things right, but they screw up a lot, and it all evens out. Such a movie is Mansfield Park.

Loosely based on the novel by Jane Austen (with additions from biographical material, apparently), Mansfield Park is the story of Fanny Price (Frances O’Connor), a poor girl who is sent away to live with wealthier relations. She grows up with her extended family at Mansfield Park and reaps the benefit of upbringing and education, but is still always reminded of her lower station. As she grows up, she falls in love with her cousin Edmund Bertram (Jonny Lee Miller), but understands that she can never hope to marry him. The Bertram family is turned upside down by the arrival of Henry and Mary Crawford (Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz), a charming pair of siblings. Henry pays court, to some degree, to all of the young ladies of the family: Maria, engaged to be married; Julia, the younger sister, and Fanny herself. Mary and Edmund strike up a friendship as well. After Maria marries, Henry turns the larger part of his attention to Fanny, eventually proposing marriage to her. She is mistrustful of his advances, and rejects him, which gains her the disapproval of Sir Thomas, her uncle, who exiles her back to her poor family.
Ultimately, Fanny’s assessment of Henry’s character is proven correct when he runs off with Maria. This crisis brings most of the family together again, causes Mary to show her true colors as well, and rids the Bertrams (all except Maria) of the Crawfords for once and for all. And, as you’d expect, Fanny eventually gets her happy ending.

First of all, I’d like to say that there were a lot of good things about this movie. It’s lovely to look at, and all of the acting is very good. Of particular note are Nivola and Davidtz as the charming but “modern” Crawfords. I enjoyed the inclusion of various subtexts from the novel, especially the anti-slavery message delivered through the contention between the oldest son, Tom, and his father over their plantations in Antigua. The addition of biographical material relating to Austen herself was harmless, and actually added a bit of cohesion through Fanny’s acting as narrator.

I do, however, have some issues to discuss. Big surprise, right? Here’s what I don’t understand. If you want to make an adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, you should do so. If, on the other hand, you want to make a “period drama” with lots of fairly anachronistic sexy bits and some extra romance thrown in, well, I’d imagine there are plenty of screenwriters out there with a story to sell. I guess the reason you’d take an Austen novel and add in the sex and romance yourself would be because people are more likely to see something “based on the beloved novel by Jane Austen,” or whatever it is the movie blurbs say than just some random period piece. But for someone who’s read Austen, and a fair amount of Victorian novels besides, it’s just sort of weird, offputting, and confusing.

I mean, there’s no sex in Jane Austen. Oh, it’s there, obviously, particularly when a young man and woman run off together and her reputation is consequently ruined. But it’s always implied, and never spelled out. But here, we’ve got Mary putting the moves on Fanny during a play rehearsal in order to fluster her audience (Edmund) and Maria and Henry actually being caught in bed together. Not to mention Fanny kissing both Henry and Edmund. I will grant you the kissing at the very end, if I must, but mostly, I guess I just like my Austen to be pretty sexless. You don’t see anyone smooching in Ang Lee’s marvelous Sense & Sensibility, now, do you? And would you say that movie wasn’t romantic enough? Not if you want to remain my friend, you wouldn’t. (Just kidding.)

I guess the main thing I would say is that the director/screenwriter Patricia Rozema had a good understanding of her source material, but wanted to play up the more “modern” and “sophisticated” aspects of the Crawford’s sensibilities. In my opinion, she went a bit too far, so that they ended up seeming overly anachronistic, as though they were really time-travelers from the twentieth century who stumbled into 1803, or whatever. Not only in those few examples, but overall in terms of their behavior and dialogue. And unfortunately, it threw off the entire feel of the movie. I think that it could have been a very lovely and true adaptation had those few tweaks not been made. I’m sure that’s just me, though, and I know others who love the movie. So take the review for what it’s worth. I thought it was a good movie with a major failing at its heart, but I think it’s worth watching if you like period dramas. It was just … a little too spicy for me.