Tuesday 19 May 2009

Film: Anne of Green Gables (1985 adaptation)

Kevin Sullivan's adaptation of the first of L.M.Montgomery's classic novels is, in the words of Mary Poppins, "practically perfect in every way." Filmed on location on Prince Edward Island, the novel comes to life, filling in those scenes I couldn't quite visualise from reading the book, and rarely, if ever, "getting it wrong," where I had preconcieved ideas. Watching the film makes me want to catch the next flight to Canada - preferably P.E.Island - and hunt down my very own Gilbert Blythe.

The characters, too, are cast perfectly. Megan Follows is adorable as the precocious red-headed orphan - her eyes alive with wonder and curiosity and spirit, with such a sweet voice (and the pretty nose Anne is so proud of.) Jonathan Crombie as Gilbert Blythe - why, no one else could be Gilbert. In my DVD of the sequel two books, which we will come to at a later date, Gilbert looks like a lesser-known Austen hero - Edmund Bertram, perhaps, or Captain Wentworth - but Crombie stands out from the rest. Mischief, strength of character and decency are written all over his face - and one can see glimpses of the man he will grow up to be, Doctor Blythe, if Sullivan's series would allow it.

I could go on in this way describing every main character. Rachel Lynde - though she could be a little fatter - speaks in just the right voice with, what I, for lack of better knowledge, call a "scoldy Canadian accent," Shy Matthew, though he lacks the beard that does not match his hair, makes up for it letting his eyes, supplemented by a few words, say as much as Anne does with all her chatter. Marilla's outwardly stern demeanor is softened by a twinkle in her eye and the very same "something about her mouth which, if it had been ever so slightly developed, might have been considered indicative of a sense of humour" that Montgomery gave her.

As - despite the attempts of our local newspaper's theatre reviews to prove otherwise - there are only so many ways one can say "this was good, that was good," in one place, I will go onto those few things that bother me slightly about Sullivan's adaptation, that prove that he never was a little girl who was more than half Anne. And yes, this is a bit nit-picky, but one must be fussy if there's nothing greater to find fault with.

The romantic tension between Anne and Gilbert is given a little too much emphasis, which changes the feel of the film from how I approach the book. Yes, it is clear from the very beginning that Anne and Gilbert are made for each other - but Anne really is oblivious to the fact. There is a scene at the "ball" (in the book Anne and Diana attend a concert) when Anne claims that she has the power to make Gilbert do whatever she wants. See, the book Anne, 1. just hated Gilbert at this and refused to acknowledge his existance, 2. had no idea Gilbert liked her, and 3. wasn't the sort of girl who would abuse that power she had over a boy. Similarly, towards the end, Anne realises that Diana is "interested in Gilbert," but said nothing because she thought Anne was in love with him. Again - the girls aren't at that point in their lives. Ruby Gillis is "interested in boys," from an early age and is considered terribly fast and not very nice.

See, for me, Anne of Green Gables isn't a romance. It is a story of girlhood, a pre-romance, if you like. About a child finding her place in the world, getting in and out of scrapes and shaping her character. There are hints of romance to come towards the end of Anne of Avonlea, but that is the future. And though the references in Sullivan's film are subtle, they are not quite subtle enough stand out glaringly to me as a modern insertion.

Other than that, however, my only criticisms are tiny indeed: Sullivan's changing, or more likely missing the significance of, a very very minor character's name. Moody Spurgeon McPherson loses the McPherson and is given Spurgeon as a family name. But in the books, Anne reports that "Moody Spurgeon is going to be a minister. Mrs. Lynde says he couldn't be anything else with a name like that to live up to. " Moody and Spurgeon both being famous preachers, it seems the poor lad was destined for the clergy from birth. And indeed, I cannot think of Moody without Spurgeon nowadays, or Spurgeon without Moody, or either without McPherson.

What Katy Did at School, Susan Coolidge

I know I already named the Malory Towers series as my introduction to school stories, but What Katy Did at School preceded it - I just didn't know that the "school story" was a sub-genre of children's fiction.

What Katy Did at School takes place shortly after the close of What Katy Did, when Katy is recovered from her accident. She is now sixteen, and a very serious, grown-up, responsible young person. Too grown up, her father thinks - she is more like a thirty-five-year-old than a teenager. He decides to send her, with her sister Clover, away to boarding school, in order to remind her what it is to be young, (perhaps Coolidge, too, noticed that Katy had been over-improved by the end of the preceding book.)

Certainly it's not possible for Katy to stay altogether solemn and serious at Hillsover school - or "The Nunnery" as its scholars call it - after meeting the girl in the next bedroom. Rosamund Redding - more commonly known as Rose Red - is full of fun and mischief, one the most irrepressible girls of girls' literature. On walking down to the bath-house, she wears her towel, sponge and soap in a manner that defies my imagination: "There, to be sure, was the long towel, hanging down behind like a veil, while the sponge was fastened on one side like a great cockade, and in front appeared a cake of pink soap, neatly pinned into the middle of a black velvet bow." She is inclined to be melodramatic, writing little notes to Katy and Clover after getting into trouble for some escapade or other, that are hilarious in their tragedy: "My heart is broken," after a severe scolding. But it's impossible to put Rose down for long, and she falls out of one scrape into another.

Sad to say, even at school, Katy is so terribly proper. I suppose she has to be, given the genre of moral writing for girls. Still, though I can sympathise with her frustration with the "unladylike" flirtations of her schoolmates, I can't quite see where she's coming from when she scolds Clover for the crime of sitting at the bedroom window and watching the college boys outside. That may be a sign of the times - but it seems insufferably stuffy to me. Fortunately, Rose is at hand, and when Katy declares she has "a great mind to get up a society to put down flirting," Rose hijacks the idea and makes it a lot more fun than it sounds, an excuse for girls to get together and enjoy themselves. There is a flash of the pre-accident Katy, who shows her old Carr ingenuity by introducing a game involving a random word, a question and an answer in rhyme, which is a joy to read and reminds one of the "valentines" in What Katy Did, before the accident. I once tried to introduce that game to my friends when I was little, but without the success and ingenuity of Katy and co. Perhaps now I am older I will have another go...

The other moment of note is the occasion when Katy and Clover receive Christmas boxes, a never-ending tuckbox containing enough sweets and cakes to feed the entire school. How I used to fantasise over those boxes! The item that appealed to me the most was the "jumble," which Clover, Jack Horner-like pulls out "fitting on her finger like a ring." I always had an idea that jumbles were like cinnamon doughnuts, though Jane Brocket's book Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer revealed that they were a cross between a cake and a biscuit and could be made with a number of different flavourings. I, of course, experimented with flavouring them with cinnamon. I don't know if that recreated an accurate jumble, but it certainly recreated that moment as I knew it.

Monday 18 May 2009

What Katy Did, Susan Coolidge

What Katy Did was probably the first book I read that I would call "girls'" fiction. I was bought the book when I was very small because, of course, the heroine shared my name.

The book is often criticised for being too sugary-sweet and moralising, but that is an inevitable result of the time, place and audience of writing - it is similar in that respect to Little Women. I always preferred the Carr family to the Marches, however, probably because they were younger. The earlier chapters are quite simply about children playing, quarrelling and getting into trouble - and it's so vivid. Katy had such a vivid imagination, and I could just dream I was there, sitting on the roof of the ice-house, or exploring Paradise with a picnic, playing Kikeri or the river game, playing post-offices... to name but a few. There is no doubt in my mind that the first half of the novel is the most fun.

At the beginning of the novel, Katy is twelve years old, full of mischief, thoughtless, careless, untidy - for a C19th century children's novel bound for reform from the very start - but one does so much wish she wasn't. She's not always very nice, which we see in her treatment of Elsie. Elsie is very much the middle child - wants to join in with her big sisters' games, but always pushed aside and told to run along and play with the children. Yet Katy means well, and that redeems her character.

Halfway through the book, we are introduced to Cousin Helen, and this is a character that I think has changed over the last century or so. Before they meet Cousin Helen, who is an invalid, Katy predicts that she will be "something like 'Lucy' in Mrs Sherwood, I suppose*, with blue eyes, and curls, and a long, straight nose. And she'll keep her hands clasped so all the time, and wear 'frilled wrappers', and lie on the sofa perfectly still, and never smile, but just look patient

Ugh! Doesn't she sound simply ghastly? Though that is what Katy is looking forward to. Thank goodness Cousin Helen is not like that - though she's almost as bad. She is just too perfect. Unlike the imaginary Helen, she does smile, and has fun, and is never too busy for the children. She never gets cross, and when she became an invalid, broke off her engagement to the man she loved, so that he wouldn't have to be always looking after her. "[a]nd now, he and his wife live next door to Cousin Helen, and are her dearest friends. Their little girl is names 'Helen'. All their plans are talked over with her, and there is nobody in the world they think so much of." I don't know about you, but I find that most unhealthy. More than anything, I pity Alex's wife - surely she would never be able to live up to Alex's first love who is "half an angel already."
Don't get me wrong, Helen is lovely, but she is too lovely. I notice as an adult that she is quite a two-dimensional character, a person for Katy to aspire to, and to trigger her improvement.

For improvement is what Katy is doomed to from the beginning. On a day of bad temper, Katy disobeys her Aunt Izzie's orders not to play on the new swing in the wood-shed, and it breaks and injures her spine. She is confined to bed for four years, where she learns patience and consideration for others, and later the responsibility of being the Woman of the House, after Aunt Izzie dies. She emerges from her bed at the age of sixteen, unrecogniseable from the impetuous little girl she was before - and from this point onwards the interest in the series switches from her to the next sister down, Clover.

Although Clover was much more of a good girl than Katy to begin with, she keeps her sense of humour, and her character. Alas, Katy does not. That is not to say that I don't like the series from this point on - because I do. But the focus of the story switches onto what Katy did, rather than the character of Katy herself.

*Research turns up the story "The History of Lucy Clare" by Mary Martha Sherwood, a story that makes the "moralising" in What Katy Did look simply anarchical by comparison.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Cafe

I rarely buy DVDs I haven't watched before, but Fried Green Tomatoes was an exception to that rule. I unpacked the book at work, and on reading the blurb on the back, I remembered a friend had recommended the film to me. I went to see if it was on sale the road. It was - for £5! so I bought it.

Fried Green Tomatoes is a very American film - not in what I think of as the modern USA, full of shopping malls and big cars, but an old-fashioned America, still a new country of joy and freedom and really close-knit communities, but a lot of danger and darkness too. I'd say it was a feel-good film, which would be strange when you look at some of the things that appear in it: lots of death, racism, domestic abuse, murder - and what happens afterwards - but over all of this, it is a film about friendship.

There are two parallel stories in this film: the story of Evelyn, an unhappy housewife, with rather a Homer Simpsonish-husband. She meets Mrs Threadgoode at a nursing home who tells her the story of a girl in her family - Idgie, and her friendship with Ruth, her late brother's fiance, growing up through the '20s onwards.

Idgie is certainly the strongest character - a real tomboy, who makes me think of a C20th Calamity Jane (though that may have something to do with the show I'm currently taking part in) crossed with Robin Hood. She wears men's clothes, gambles, drinks, hangs around some rather unsavoury characters - but there is nothing she wouldn't do for her friends.

As the story progresses, Evelyn turns from a rather wet down-trodden Southern housewife to a feisty woman who knows her own mind, encouraged by Mrs Threadgoode's storytelling - though she does develop somewhat of a destructive streak along the way, "accidently" bashing the car of two bratty teenagers who steal her parking space (six times) and knocking down a wall in their house to let the light in. More importantly, she learns to stand up for herself and do what she believes to be right despite opposition - such as inviting her new friend to live with her and her husband after the old lady leaves the nursing home.

Fried Green Tomatoes has some tear-jerking moments, so be prepared and have some tissues handy - not so much at the deaths of beloved characters, I found, as when Mrs Threadgoode arrives home to find her house has been destroyed as it was unsafe to live in. The pathetic sight of her, sitting on her suitcase asking, "Who'd want to steal my house?" is unbearable.

But the film is full of funny moments too - though one or two are rather horrible at the same time. The obvious is, of course, when one realises just why no body was ever found of Ruth's abusive husband. It brought be right back to a gruesome nightmare I had about five years ago that has prevented me from being able to eat McDonald's food since...

I have to say that Fried Green Tomatoes, though they are presented as a great delicacy, don't much appeal to me (because I don't much like any kind of tomatoes.) All the same, I'd choose that over Big George's barbecue - even if it is the best in Alabama.

Saturday 16 May 2009

The Malory Towers series, Enid Blyton

When I was a little girl, a relative bought me some Secret Seven books, which got me hooked into Enid Blyton, to my mum's horror. She insisted that Blyton's books weren't actually very good, and that she overused exclamation marks, and recycled the same stories over and over. Fair point. Can't see much to argue with in that. But anyway, when I was a nine-year-old in primary school looking through the book-box for something to read, I was overjoyed to find First Term at Malory Towers, my introduction to the world of the School Story.

I was a little disorientated at first. The only boarding school book I had read before was What Katy Did At School, and I wasn't sure what to make of it. The book opens with my most hated (now) device of standing the character in front of the mirror to tell the reader exactly what she looks like (and it's nearly always a female character.) Still, it gave me a full description of the school uniform, something my later attempts of school-story writing was never without. I was also rather confused by the fact that the main character was called Darrell, though was definitely supposed to be a girl. (If I was living in C21st USA I probably would be used to that gender-swapping name phenomenon, but I was a 1990s English kid.) Still, once that confusion was cleared up, I enjoyed the book, and even bought my own copy so I could finish reading it. Even now, the characters and the events stick firmly enough in my memory to count as "classic."

As I previously mentioned, Blyton's writing is not what one would call literary, but the Malory Towers series counts as one of her best. The characters, though still not always very rounded, are more three-dimensional than her usual goodies and baddies. Most interesting of all is Alicia, the popular girl. As soon as Darrell meets her at the train station she wants to be her friend, but Alicia is not a very nice person. In fact, she's a downright bully at times, having no time for timid or stupid people, and her practical jokes sometimes go too far. That's not an unusual phenomenon if you watch high school movies nowadays - there is always the queen bee and her minions, the popular mean girls - but for Blyton, whose "good" characters have never more than a hot temper as a flaw, that is groundbreaking.

The series is also her most grown-up work. The final book in the series shows the characters at eighteen, looking forward to leaving school and going off to university, or discussing careers, rather than being caught in a time warp and not being allowed to grow past fourteen or fifteen. Of course, there's no suggestion of marriage for any of the characters. Malory Towers is an all-girls' school, and even all the staff appear to be unmarried (though that is partly because of the times - married women of that class didn't work - also there'd be nowhere onsite to put a husband and kids, I expect.) The characters mature and change throughout the series - yet not necessarily leaving school thoroughly reformed. Alicia and her best friend Betty, though the brightest girls in the class, are predicted by the head not to do that well at university because independence will go to their heads - they're the sort of people who would go out all night partying, without realising that natural talent without hard work will only get you so far.

There is even the threat of death in Last Term at Malory Towers. Gwendoline Lacey, the series's villain (though, I am in the school of thought that thinks that she never had a chance to redeem herself - the other girls and even the staff had written her off as a spoilt brat before she'd even got onto the train) spends the final term making herself insufferable, bragging about being sent to an expensive finishing school in Switzerland and how she and her mother had bullied her father into sending her. But at the end of the book, she has to leave school early because her dad is dangerously ill and not expected to survive.
Of course, being Blyton, Mr Lacey does not actually die. His illness is a device to teach a hard lesson to a girl who, though throughout the series appears to change for the better, always reverts back to her own spoilt, catty self. Nothing less than the threat of her father dying without her having the chance to make amends could affect Gwendoline for very long - and when he doesn't die, it gives her the chance to make amends. Though she is doomed to that awful fate (for a Blyton character) - of getting a job. Not a career - a job, probably in the secretarial line. Oh, the horror!

Friday 15 May 2009

Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome

I encountered Swallows and Amazons for the first time when I was about seven. Every night, my mum would read a chapter - or two or three if we could coax her - to me, my sister and my dad who was just as keen to listen in. I remember sitting on the big red floor cushion eager to hear the next doings of the Walker and Blackett children in the Lake District, back in the innocent days of the 1920s.

Compared with today's children's fiction, or even the later Enid Blyton adventures, Ransome's books seem fairly tame and slow. But what they manage to capture is the sheer joy of being a child playing make-believe. The Swallows and Amazons don't need kidnappers, castles or dungeons - all they need is their imagination and encouragement to use it (and a boat, some tents, etc - but that comes under the heading of "encouragement" in my book.)

Swallows and Amazons is fantasy-fulfilment to a child who played make-believe in her back garden in the early 1990s. All very well pretending one's bicycle is a ship, and a clothes-horse covered in a blanket is a tent - but the Swallows and the Amazons had real boats, a real camp, a real campfire. (I had to make do with a pile of twigs, not being allowed to use matches.) Ransome captures the child's voice and imagination without talking down. Corned-beef sandwiches become pemmican. Ginger beer becomes grog. (There is a marvellous moment, when, shopping for rope and groceries - sorry - provisions - John forgets himself and asks the grocer for four bottles of grog, before being rescued by his sister Susan.) The nearest town (Bowness-on-Windermere?) is known only as Rio. And the great thing is, the parents play along. The telegram of permission from Commander Walker, their father, reads "BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON'T DROWN." And when their mother comes to call when Titty is playing Robinson Crusoe, minding the island all alone, she is quite content to be Man Friday.

But at the edge of their world of make-believe are hints that they are, after all, still children. Their freedom has limits. There is an awful moment of mother being more disappointed than angry after the Swallows' sailing-at-night escapade. As I return to the page as an adult, looking for the quote, I almost miss it. Mother's reaction is very understated - she is jolly decent for a grown-up - but you feel it as a child when she asks John, "Don't you think that was very nearly like being duffers?" On a lighter note, the ferocious Captain Nancy Blackett is caused to surrender to the Swallows, after they captured the Amazon, because of a dread of being late for breakfast.

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