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They'll put it on my tombstone: "The book was better." [May. 25th, 2010|09:22 pm]
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But in this case, not as much better as I'd feared.

The book and movie in question are Ballet Shoes, the Noel Streatfeild children's classic. I got it from the library to watch during a workout, on the theory that if it was too painful, at least it would be too painful for free, and in any case it couldn't be worse than Five Children and It's movie adaptation.

It was not nearly that bad. (That really plumbed the depths, though, holy crud.) And really you have to love a movie where the happy ending involves sending a child to Prague in the early thirties. Then I went back to the book and found that while it wasn't Prague, the happy ending of the book involved sending a child to Czechoslovakia when the book came out in 1937. Oh, hindsight, how appalling you can be sometimes.

But anyway: the book had more room to be introspective than the movie, and that mattered a lot in how much I liked it. It also had more room to be domestic, and that mattered to me, too. My favorite characters from the book were Petrova of course, and she was my favorite in the movie, too, and also Dr. Smith and Dr. Jakes and Winifred. The doctors were done well but barely present. Winifred...is the subject of one of my main gripes with the movie Ballet Shoes.

In the book, Winifred is plain--homely, even--but bright, talented, hard-working, and explicitly a very nice girl. She is friends with Pauline. And she is dreadfully poor and needs the money that comes from working in the theater (this is set in the Great Depression in both book and movie versions). In the book, when Winifred notices that it is desperately unfair that Pauline will generally get cast before Winifred because of Pauline's looks, Streatfeild does not pull that punch. It is unfair, she lets her readers know--child readers as well as adult. This is not a fair world she is portraying. Winifred adjusts her expectations to the world she's actually dealing with and pursues a career in teaching, in which she appears to be independent, fulfilled, and happy. But nobody ever suggests that Winifred should say, "Well, gee, it's just peachy-keen that I completely nailed my audition and you bobbled yours but you got the part because you're pretty." In Streatfeild's world, nobody wants or needs her to say that.

In the movie this cannot be abided. In the land of movies, when Winifred snaps that Pauline will always look "right" for the part, the same line is put in a context that shows Winifred to be jealous and pretentious. Because the land of movies cannot face up even for two seconds, even in a movie about performance arts, to its own foibles this way. Emma Watson was cast as Pauline, and she was well cast. She is better known as Hermione Granger. Think about that for a moment: Pauline Fossil, those of you who know Streatfeild's books will recall, is the epitome of a certain type of blonde, pink-and-white prettiness. I went and checked our copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to be sure, and Hermione Granger is first described as bushy-haired and buck-toothed. She eventually cleans up nice, but no one who ever looks at Emma Watson is the least bit surprised that she cleans up nice. She is not a striking girl, not a girl who will eventually surprise us all, not a girl who will grow into herself someday (but probably not tomorrow). She is simply a pretty girl. And I don't believe for a moment that they thought of casting any other type as Hermione, no matter how the character was written. And they can't even admit to themselves that it is a thing that they do. They can't admit that it might be legitimately, reasonably frustrating to a reasonable, pleasant person, or that there is any alternative they might consider.

I don't say this out of some sense of myself as an ugly duckling: while I went through a tolerably awkward stage as most of us do, I have been pretty squarely in the swan category for some time now, which is to say I am pale and bad-tempered and will take out your eye as soon as look at you. But no: I like Petrova because she can do math and mechanical things (and wants to!), not because she's "the plain one" and I think I'm "the plain one." I know I'm not. But the point is, it's all right to be the plain one and a talented, interesting, nice person. The world can have plain ones. The world needn't be divided into beauties, officially designated exotic beauties, and She's Just Jealous. And we needn't pretend that everything is nice and fair in regards to that when really, no, not so much.

I was also absolutely appalled at how fast they showed the girls in toe shoes. It may be that they were not indicating the passage of time very well--they really weren't, the girls' clothing and hairstyles were not used to any effect to make them look any younger or older at a time when they should have looked much younger or older with a few years--but the end result is that it looks like you can just turn up for a ballet class and go en pointe. And no. And that's harmful to actual real-life girls, who don't know better and whose parents don't know better and who damage their feet and legs because disreputable teachers are willing to put them en pointe too early to keep them as students. Bad bad bad.

But! I was heartened by the fact that they didn't make Posy any less of a jerk. If anything, more of one: they didn't have enough time for her dances making fun of people to be affectionate, so there was just the one being a snot about Winifred. And we didn't actually see her breathing, eating, and sleeping dance, just talking about it. They don't really try to justify that she is being a jerk about Mme. Fidolia towards the end of the movie. They don't give her bullshit rationalizations. And that's good. I think one of the things on which Streatfeild doesn't pull punches is how hard it is to be the crazy prima prodigy level in some fields and still a nice, decent human being. And I was afraid the movie would go into But Her Art, Her Great Great Art, and it didn't really.

Gratuitous romantic subplot for Sylvia: eh, whatever, it's a movie, I expect it. Having the guy who played Danny in Hustle in that role was weird, and it was a stilted, obvious sort of subplot. But it was no worse than it absolutely had to be. Well, maybe a little worse. Not much, though. Better, at least, than having gratuitous romantic subplot for Pauline or Petrova, which would have made me hurl, possibly something across the room or possibly just hurl.



Do you see that this is not Darby O'Gill? Yes. So do I. I lost my nerve. Tomorrow. Really.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: txanne
2010-05-26 02:32 am (UTC)

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Ugh, ugh, ugh, you have saved me from killing my television machine! Ballet Shoes was such a comfort book (and still is, now that I'm Garnie's age). I watched this version as often as they showed it, which in the 70s was every pledge drive. It must have kept the spirit of the book or I wouldn't have loved it. Therefore all versions which are not that one are abominations...and it sounds like this one is particularly hideous.
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-05-26 02:41 am (UTC)

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I really seriously thought it was going to be worse. I thought they were going to screw up Petrova majorly, for one thing. I will endure a lot for decent Petrova. The Midsummer Night's Dream scene, though...well, I think it made it easier for the viewer to see why Petrova could not for the life of her figure out how to do "And I" as the director wanted, but on the other hand it was at the expense of making the director look like an utter loon, and it was less horrible-funny than in the book.
[User Picture]From: txanne
2010-05-26 02:47 am (UTC)

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But...mustard-coloured combinations? He *was* an utter loon! My inner nine-year-old remains firmly with Nana on that one. (And now I wonder if that scene had anything to do with the development of my embarrassment squick. Poor Petrova.)
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-05-26 02:55 am (UTC)

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Completely different kind of loon. They were actually dressed as fairy-fairies. The kind the QoA&D would smite with a flick of her wrist.
[User Picture]From: txanne
2010-05-26 03:21 am (UTC)

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What? But...but...without the non-fairy combination costumes, the "and I" staging doesn't make sense!

(it is just barely possible that I'm entirely too steeped in the theater history of the era.)
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-05-26 11:44 am (UTC)

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"Sometimes the director will want to do something you think is utterly mad, but you have to be a professional about it if you want to keep working," is a more complicated lesson than this movie wanted there to be.
[User Picture]From: txanne
2010-05-26 12:20 pm (UTC)

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That's a pity, because it always bears repeating.
[User Picture]From: swan_tower
2010-05-26 02:33 am (UTC)

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I have been pretty squarely in the swan category for some time now, which is to say I am pale and bad-tempered and will take out your eye as soon as look at you.

<hearts this line>

Aside from that, very good points, even though I know neither the book nor the movie in question.
[User Picture]From: swan_tower
2010-05-26 02:35 am (UTC)

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BTW, I just noticed the text of your cut-tag. Dude, I'll always show up to watch you rant, and I suspect I'm not the only one. :-)
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-05-26 02:42 am (UTC)

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Well, see, that's why I try to tag accordingly!
[User Picture]From: swan_tower
2010-05-26 02:47 am (UTC)

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BTW, if it weren't for the fact that I generally save my swan icon as the equivalent of the conservative black dress (i.e. I use it for formal and/or sad occasions), I would be sorely tempted to get an animated version that has some adaptation of your text.
[User Picture]From: cissa
2010-05-29 04:06 am (UTC)

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I love swans. They are so beautiful and nasty-tempered. :)
[User Picture]From: carbonel
2010-05-26 02:53 am (UTC)

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I was going to make some comments on the movie version I saw, but I realized it couldn't possibly be the same one because it was considerably older. In fact, Netflix informs me that it dates from 1975, so it's probably the one txanne mentions.

I don't remember enough about it to comment intelligently; I remember liking it, but thinking that the emphasis on money that was always present in the book didn't seem to be there in the movie.
[User Picture]From: truepenny
2010-05-26 03:00 am (UTC)

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I have been pretty squarely in the swan category for some time now, which is to say I am pale and bad-tempered and will take out your eye as soon as look at you.

Like swan_tower, I love this line. I would like to run away to Paris with it and feed it decadent chocolates in a tiny garret apartment in Montmartre.
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-05-26 03:10 am (UTC)

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Well. Decadent chocolates are a good way to go.
[User Picture]From: fidelioscabinet
2010-05-26 11:06 pm (UTC)

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But not absinthe?
[User Picture]From: zalena
2010-05-26 03:02 am (UTC)

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I saw the movie version and while it definitely wasn't the book, it was not bad. Isn't it interesting that in a book about performing arts, in a series of books about child performers, it's still the reluctant performer we all remember and to which we all relate?
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-05-26 03:11 am (UTC)

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And I think Petrova was the most successful of those. Her counterpart Mark in Theatre Shoes, for example, was entertaining but not as memorable.
[User Picture]From: txanne
2010-05-26 03:25 am (UTC)

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She and Winifred were the most professional kids Streatfeild ever wrote, I think. They had a job to do and they did it to the best of their ability. Petrova's also the most English of them, too, I think. She and Lucy Pevensie would have gotten on. And now I am resolutely not thinking of an "evacuated-to-the-country" crossover.
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-05-26 11:43 am (UTC)

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I don't know about the rest of Streatfeild's politics, but it warms me that Petrova is explicitly and implicitly very English in the face of Mme. Fidolia asking after her Russian origins.
[User Picture]From: papersky
2010-05-26 03:21 pm (UTC)

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I think that was pretty much typical of British attitudes pre-1945, there were so few immigrants that their children (whose accents were British) were unquestionably British, even in cases where they were visual minorities. Post-1945 and with the advent of actual significant immigration, things changed for the worse. This is one of the things where Britain is more different from the US and Canada than it's easy to express, because the US and Canada are immigrant countries and have always had immigration, and the majority of inhabitants are immigrants within a measurable number of generations. Britain between 1066 and 1945 had immigrants only on a single family scale. The underlying differences and assumptions on all sorts of issues are huge.
[User Picture]From: dichroic
2010-06-06 04:57 pm (UTC)

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Is that true in all ethnic groups, though?

Because I've just finished reading the Raffles books: Daniel Levy in that one is very explicitly Jewish (and very unpleasantly stereotyped) in the same way I've seen it in the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries and (with less stereotyping) in the Dr. Thorndyke ones.

I've just read a comment in a discussion on another topic entirely where someone of Eastern European descent relates having been consistently 'read' as Jewish in England decades ago, so that may have affected how Petrova was perceived too.

But I know what you mean about children of immigrants being British. I'm back in the Netherlands now, where lots of Dutch people are exercised about Muslim immigrants. As far as I can tell* it's not so much because many are poor, or (mostly) because their skin is darker or even because there are a lot of them; it's mostly because as a group, they have no desire to become culturally Dutch.

* "As far as I can tell" really is a significant limit; this is my perception but I can't swear that I'm not missing something major.
[User Picture]From: ashnistrike
2010-05-26 04:20 am (UTC)

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That was exactly the thing which bothered both of us about the casting of Hermione. And then they had everyone treat her as though she looked the way Rowling described.

-Nameseeker
[User Picture]From: swan_tower
2010-05-26 06:27 am (UTC)

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I wish they'd given Emma Watson false teeth or something for the first film. (Though then they would have had to put in the scene that explains how she got them shrunk, and that isn't the kind of thing that really merits screen-time in the reduced narrative of a film.)
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-05-26 11:41 am (UTC)

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And is prone to Hollywood-style ickiness about magic spells, yes.
[User Picture]From: papersky
2010-05-26 11:20 am (UTC)

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In re Prague, it's mentioned in Curtain Up and The Painted Garden what happened, and I admire Streatfeild for making it realistic. But I also remember L'Engle's The Severed Wasp.

I own lots of very hard to find Streatfeild children's books, by the way.
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-05-26 11:40 am (UTC)

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When The Painted Garden was made into its American version, Movie Shoes, it was apparently significantly truncated, which makes me cranky. But I'll have to reread anyway to see if it's in the abridged version. I do remember in Curtain Up/Theatre Shoes.

Have you got Fearless Treasure? And if you have, might I curl up with it in a corner of your place in August?
[User Picture]From: papersky
2010-05-26 03:15 pm (UTC)

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I haven't got Fearless Treasure, I'm afraid. But you're welcome to look at what I have got and see if you want to read any of it.

What it says about the Fossils in The Painted Garden is that Pauline's working in films but she'd rather be acting on stage, and she's megafamous. Posy is dancing in films, silly dancing, while Manon is trying to get together money to have a ballet company again. And dear Petrova is working on aeroplanes. I have always liked that none of this was perfect. I'm horrified that as well as dumbing down the title they cut the text. Though maybe they just made it a bit less "OMG British people think the US is weird in 1950".
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-05-26 07:27 pm (UTC)

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I think US audiences can do with more "OMG British people think the US is weird in 1950."
[User Picture]From: papersky
2010-05-26 03:24 pm (UTC)

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I have some of the adult books. And I have some kids books that never had US editions AFAIK.
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-05-26 07:27 pm (UTC)

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Oooh.
[User Picture]From: dancing_crow
2010-05-26 01:24 pm (UTC)

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m'eldest daughter (now 16) has a shirt that says "movies - ruining the book since 1920"
[User Picture]From: oursin
2010-05-26 01:29 pm (UTC)

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I recently did a post on Streatfeild's adult novel The Whicharts (yay for Greyladies reissuing policies!), which is like a very, very cynical take in a distorting mirror on Ballet Shoes and largely from the pov of the Petrova character, who has to go on having a performing career (while the Pauline character becomes more or less a high class tart).
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-05-26 01:33 pm (UTC)

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Someday I am going back to Britain just to go book shopping.
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-05-26 01:36 pm (UTC)

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But I'm not finding that post. If you can easily find it, I would very much appreciate it.
[User Picture]From: oursin
2010-05-26 01:52 pm (UTC)

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I thought I'd done a separate post but it was in a reading roundup: http://oursin.livejournal.com/1236296.html
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-05-26 03:03 pm (UTC)

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Thanks.
[User Picture]From: genarti
2010-05-26 01:57 pm (UTC)

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The toe shoes part is an issue in the book too, to some extent -- not that the teachers are that irresponsible, but the first sign that Posy is a ballet prodigy is her wandering around the house barefoot and en pointe. It very nearly threw me out of the book the first time I read it, and I found it very jarring against the book's general realism about the life of child performers.

I haven't seen the movie, but I completely agree with you about Hollywood's refusal to ever cast an actress (except a middle-aged or older character actress, and even that's rare) who isn't extremely conventionally attractive, or to show resentment of that as justified and realistic. I did love the way Streatfield handled that with Winifred in the books -- and with Pauline's realization, and complicated pride-and-guilt that didn't change anything except the way she acted towards people like Winifred who got the short end of the stick there.
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-05-26 03:02 pm (UTC)

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Actually I found that fairly plausible about Posy: every dancer I've ever known has tried to do things they weren't ready for. And gotten scolded for it, if they had good teachers.

One of the things that bothered me about the way this movie redid Winifred and Pauline's roles is that while Winifred and Pauline are not real actresses, Emma Watson and the young woman who played Winifred are. And Emma Watson has Emma Watson's career, and the other young woman...has the part of Winifred, and a part as an extra, and that's it. And it may be that she's really good at chemistry or Japanese or something, and doing that one movie was just a lark. Still, it seems sort of typical that she got cast in one role as a girl who was aware she was not going to get cast in many roles. Sort of a hard thing to look back on as one's moment in the movies.
[User Picture]From: genarti
2010-05-26 06:41 pm (UTC)

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Oh, certainly, if she'd tried it and been wobbling about, or been trying it surreptitiously after she'd been in ballet class for a while, or some such. (And I'm pretty sure she did indeed try out things she wasn't ready for, too, which seems entirely plausible to me too.) It was that, IIRC, she was mincing about en pointe absentmindedly before she'd had a single lesson that got me. But definitely the teachers were much more responsible in the book, from the sound of things.

And ooooof. Poor girl. I mean, I too hope that acting is just a sideline for her, but all the same, that's -- I don't know if "awkward" or "ironic" is a better term for the casting there, but still.