Last month I talked about one of my favorite book to film adaptations, Frances Hodgson’s Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Two short years after that movie came out, Alfonso Cuaron’s A Little Princess was released. It was (to me) a far less successful adaptation. This is not entirely the fault of the screenwriters – they were adapting from a weaker text.
Re-reading A Little Princess, I was struck by how poorly it has held up to the passage of time, especially compared to The Secret Garden. In A Little Princess, there are frequently references to Indian culture that make a modern reader slightly squeamish. Sara refers to all Indians as “Lascars” and fondly reminisces about her Indian “servants and slaves.” More disturbingly, whenever an Indian character appears in the novel, mention is made of their deferential and respectful attitude to their benevolent, white masters. These issues are present in the film adaptation as well. Like in the book, all Indians are shown as deferential, with the added bonus of being wise and mostly silent. Every time Ram Dass appears on the screen, stereotypical Indian music plays softly in the background.
Liberties have been taken with the plot that further decrease the value of this adaptation. The screenplay is riddled with plot holes and suffers from a change in setting. Instead of taking place in England in the 1800′s, the movie takes place in New York City at the start of World War I. It is left to the viewer to decipher why Sara’s British father would send her to school in America where she knew no one and had no assets before going off to war. In the book, Sara is believed to be penniless because her father lost all their money in speculative diamond mines before his death. In the film, the British government seizes Captain Crewe’s assets after his death in the war, leaving Sara completely without funds or family in a different country. Why the British government would take control of his money rather than arrange for his daughter to inherit the funds is again left to the viewer to decipher. As for physical sets, the movie was filmed mostly on back lots, which is both extremely apparent and extremely disappointing, especially when contrasted with the atmospheric, note-perfect setting of The Secret Garden film. Finally, will anyone ever have the courage to make this adapatation with the ending found in the book?
Still, there is a charm to this film. Alfonso Cuaron does a wonderful job at capturing the best part of A Little Princess (and the part of this story I loved as a child) – the power of the imagination. Sara believes in magic and the power of storytelling. Cuaron clearly does too. The feeling of magical realism in this film is perfect. Despite the less-than-stellar backlot sets, the movie is also filmed beautifully, and the costumes are so sumptuous you feel you could reach out and touch Sara’s furs. Cuaron’s abilities as a director really shine in the moments Sara’s belief in her imagination comes out to play, and those are the moments that make this movie (and book) a favorite of children around the world.