Wednesday, December 17, 2008

60. Ballet Shoes: the Book, the Movies

This review will take a different format. I will be reviewing the book (a childhood favourite of mine) and then the 1975 and 2007 movies based on the book. I'll review them in the order I read/watched them.

First up: the book.

The title: Ballet Shoes: A Story of Three Children on the Stage
The author: Noel Streatfield
Publication: Dent, 1936
Got it from: Friends from England, Christmas 1994

It has been many, many years since I read this book. It appeared one Christmas from somebody from England. I can't remember who exactly, in those years we had several friends from our England days who were still sending my family Christmas presents. I still remember reading it in January during our "Sustained Silent Reading" period in school and loving it so, so much. Nearly fifteen years later, I still enjoyed it. It has held up surprisingly well.

For those of you not familiar with the book, it tells the story of "Gum" (Great Uncle Matthew), an eccentric old man who travels around the world and collects Fossils. He becomes the guardian of his great-niece Sylvia, who lives in his house on the Cromwell Road in London with her Nana. Gum is largely absent from the book, appearing only at the very beginning and very end. When Sylvia is grown-up, he starts sending babies home instead of fossils. First comes Pauline, who he rescues from a sinking ship, then Petrova, a Russian orphan, and finally Posy, whose mother couldn't keep her but sent along a pair of ballet shoes as her legacy. When the girls are old enough they adopt the last name "Fossil" because Gum had described them as "his fossils."

So we watch as Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil grow up, each having their own unique talents and interests. Pauline, the beautiful, blonde, spoiled one, is the little actress; Petrova the dark outsider who detests the stage but lives for cars and planes; and Posy, the bratty redhead who is a child prodigy in ballet. Across the chapters we see Sylvia (they call her Garnie as they couldn't pronounce Guardian at first) fret and worry as their money dwindles. They take in a series of interesting borders to help their finances. One of the borders, Theo, convinces Garnie to send the girls to "the Academy" where they will be able to earn money on stage. Lots of hard work, hard lessons and hard times ensue.

What's interesting is that this book provides a window into a world not so long ago, but impossible to return to. Nowadays children wouldn't think about having to earn money for their families, but in 1930's London it wasn't so unusual. And the hours that they kept! They basically had to work from early morning to early evening (with a few breaks) and then to bed at 7:30. Ye gods! They never had time for much fun except on Sundays. Yet their world still seems fascinating in a "I-can't-believe-ten-year-olds-had-to-memorize-so-many-lines-yet-they-did" sort of way. Exciting, but way too much work.

Highly recommended for everyone and especially young girls of a certain age. Make sure the edition you read has the original Ruth Gervis illustrations, they're delightful. Even after all these years, I still vividly recalled the one with Pauline and Petrova standing on the stool in "The Blue Bird" and Pauline sobbing by her bath after her Alice in Wonderland freakout. A-

And here comes the ominousness. (Cue "Jaws" theme. Dun dun. Dun dun.)

The 2007 movie version, aka NOBODY EVER SMILES:

I had a number of problems with this movie, which I will outline in point form:

- The casting. Pauline (Emma Watson) and Petrova (Yasmin Paige) were both too old for their roles, and Emma is much too tall and willowy to be short Pauline. Lucy Boynton fares a little better in the age category, but her hair is so clearly dyed red that it's almost laughable. The actresses playing Garnie and Nana were better suited to their characters. And Richard Griffiths, I'm sorry, is not Gum. Gum is an ancient, wizened little man and Richard Griffiths is definitely not.

- The ridiculous additional plots tacked on for "dramatic" effect:
*Garnie is not sick or dying in the book. Having her appear to be so in the movie seems contrived at best and cloying at worse.
*Theo, the border who is a dance teacher, is portrayed as an alchoholic, chainsmoking, middle-aged trainwreck, when she is none of these things in the book.
* The completely ludicrous "love triangle" between Garnie, Theo and Mr. Simpson which NEVER HAPPENED in the book because Mr. Simpson was married and Garnie was just fine without a man. (As a side note, yay that Mr. Simpson was played by that guy who almost gets eaten by the Abzorbaloff in Dr. Who!)
Really, I don't mind directors leaving things out but can they please not add things. as if they're telling the author what they should have put in?

- The house on Cromwell Road felt all dark and wrong. Perhaps the movie portrayal was more realtistic, but I always thought the house was smaller and sunnier than the big, overstuffed mausoleum they showed it as in this movie.

-The fact that they kept hitting you over the head with the fact that it was the 1930's. Just when you feel you might start getting into the movie for a second, boom! Here's another 1930's song to help you remember that this is THE 1930's!

-The childrens' out-of-the-blue freakouts. Okay, I understood Posy's tantrums, as she was a little snot in the book. But Pauline? She played the whole movie as if she was constantly on the verge of tears, and would suddenly snap and scream at people for no apparent reason. Note to director: random freakouts do not equal dramatic tension. Oh, and what was up with Winnifred's tantrum? Never, ever happened in the book. Very un-Winnifredlike.

-The general pacing of the movie. Everything seemed as crammed as the house itself. Stuff that was important in the book was addressed in just a few seconds if at all, while Theo gets several minutes of drunken moaning. Say what?

Disappointing, disappointing, disappointing. C-

The 1975 BBC version, aka EASES THE PAIN:

This movie wasn't perfect, but I enjoyed it much more than the recent version. For a start, I felt that it could stand on it its own as an enjoyable film even if one hadn't read the book, while the same can't be said about the new movie. There's a certain charm about the old BBC dramas. They bring a degree of realism to novels that new, slicker movies just don't. (The 1970's BBC version of Anne of Avonlea is a good example of this. The Megan Follows movies were good, but they practically butchered the original story beyond recognition). I think this has to do with the fact that the old dramatizations weren't afraid to be corny, even when the novels themselves were.

The casting for this movie was excellent. The three girls looked attractive but ordinary, not glossy Hollywood starlets. Garnie and Nana were good, as was Mr. Simpson, who was missing his wife in this one but also the silly love story with Garnie from the 2007 movie. Theo was neither drunk nor man-hungry: hooray. The Doctors' roles were cut down to just one, Dr. Jakes, but I didn't mind that so much as they were secondary characters and the actress playing the Dr. was very good. The real standout in this movie was Mary Morris as the great Russian ballerina Madame Fidolia. They fleshed out her role for this movie, making her as driven and bitchy (in a good way) as you would expect and she was so believeable it was scary. And Gum! He was wonderfully crazy and absentminded, just as I imagined.

The setting, too, seemed much less gloomy and more like a real 1930's household. The way they captured the dance academy was spot-on. I was a little disappointed at first that they jumped into the story partway through the book, but they did such an excellent job explaining the history of the girls near the beginning that I can't fault them.

I was going to give this movie a B+, but I'm giving it an extra point for when Manoff drops his monocle at the end. A-


Anonymous said...

I'm reading this book right now! I'm almost done!....I'm enjoying it very much and am ready to get the other Shoes books.
How did you watch the films? I don't think the recent one is available here yet.


KJH said...

I got both movies from the library. The 2007 Ballet Shoes is just recently out on DVD.