Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

More on Enchanted

Tricia pointed me to Mitali Perkins' great post on Enchanted (read the comments, too). I began to write a long comment but instead of highjacking the thread I thought I'd just post it here.

(Caution: Many, many spoilers ahead...)

It's absolutely true, as I think I noted, that Enchanted has its cake and eats it, too. It deconstructs the love-at-first-sight motif only to reconstruct it in the end, for example. It also deploys the damsel-in-distress motif but then reverses it, putting the hero (briefly and not very seriously) at risk while the heroine struggles to save him. From a feminist viewpoint, I thought, well, meh. Giselle does end up with a job (while her rival, Nancy, who's apparently been a successful businesswoman, gives hers up). The Marie Curie story is shown to be just as much of a fairy tale as Little Red Riding Hood. Giselle even speaks up for stepmothers--a good thing, since by the end she will become one. But apparently shopping is the most significant form of female bonding, and a credit card is better than a fairy godmother (or, apparently, than remarkable skill with drapes, scissors, and thread). Disney will never, ever deconstruct its consumerist fantasies.

Perkins notes that the film deploys some noxious stereotypes (both racist and ageist) as well--in a way, again, fairly typical of Disney films. I think, though, that those stereotypes are somewhat mitigated by the fact that they are deployed by someone evil: that is, both the Narcissa (evil stepmother) character and Nathaniel (her henchman) are so tied up in their version of a fairy tale world that they can't think beyond deploying those stereotypes. Narcissa transforms herself into a crone because she thinks crones are evil; Nathaniel (badly) impersonates various immigrant types because that's who he imagines would do Narcissa's dirty work. They both fail. So while Perkins is right that there are images of bad first-generation immigrants in the film, the really bad characters are only impersonating immigrants. The "real" working class and/or immigrants depicted in the film are for the most part "good" people (the bus driver, the steel drum band, etc.). Now, true, they are only in minor, supporting roles, so there's still that problem, but they're not evil--far from it. And Giselle, for what it's worth, engages with everyone on equal terms: homeless people, shopkeepers, and high-powered lawyers.

I have to confess, I didn't like Nancy--not because she wasn't awesome (I didn't see enough of her to decide) but because she hung around for five years with a pig! She was obviously McDreamy's rebound girlfriend (his wife left him and his daughter when she was one year old or younger, right, if she was six in the movie and he'd been dating Nancy for five years?), she'd been the only adult female in Morgan's life all that time and still didn't know her well enough to know the whole "girlfriend" routine wasn't gong to work, and she was still mooning around for him after finding him with a towel-clad babe in his apartment? If I'd believed for one second in their relationship I might have felt bad for her--but the whole thing was a setup from the start. The one I was curious about was Morgan's mother--but then, I'm always curious about the mom (maybe those are my bifocals?), especially when she's not on screen at all. Frankly, I was surprised and a bit heartened to discover that she wasn't dead--that would have been the usual Disney move.

I've probably spent way more time on this than it deserves--the movie is entertaining, the production numbers are a hoot, and it doesn't take itself nearly as seriously as I just have. On the scale of Disney movies, it seems better to me (wearing my feminist, mom-ist lenses) than most. But is it either great art or ideologically pure? Well, in a word, no.

I have to confess that It's a Wonderful Life actually made me feel more uncomfortable, on many of these grounds, than Enchanted: the comic African-American maid! The Italian immigrants referred to as "garlic-eaters," and depicted with uncountable children--and a goat! Of course it was made in less "enlightened" times...and it still made me cry to watch it...but at the same time this other little voice was reminding me of its failings. And so it goes.

Friday, December 28, 2007


In case you've forgotten I blog here, I thought it was time for a quick post. And all I have to say is, I found Enchanted enchanting. I didn't really want to, and I'm sure there are things to say about how it both undermines the Disney magic and completely buys into it, but I still loved it. No tears, just pure pleasure at formula done right.

Nick enjoyed it just as much as Mariah, if not more.

(Oh, and by the way? Susan Sarandon should play a wicked stepmother more often. She looked like she was having so much fun!)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

December Carnival of Children's Literature

If you haven't finished your Christmas shopping yet (please tell me you haven't), you may find some great tips here. And if you have, then you deserve a little treat for yourself, don't you think? All sorts of bookish-holiday goodies going on at the December Carnival.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Terry Pratchett...

...has recently become one of my favorite authors. I'm late to the Discworld (and other intriguing worlds) party, I know, but I have been working my way through the oeuvre and have not yet been disappointed. Confused, yes, but not disappointed. I am an especially big fan of the Tiffany Aching books (The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, and Wintersmith) and am looking forward to more.

Apparently Pratchett is, too, but this news does worry me--for the unwritten books, yes, but also for the man and the life he's living. Still, you've got to love a man who can talk about an Alzheimer's diagnosis like this:

He told fans the statement should be interpreted as "I am not dead".

"I will, of course, be dead at some future point, as will everybody else," he said.

"For me, this may be further off than you think. It's too soon to tell.

"I know it's a very human thing to say 'is there anything I can do', but in this case I would only entertain offers from very high-end experts in brain chemistry."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


From the Horn Book, on The Golden Compass:

Indeed, the primary failing of this adaptation is its reductivity. Where the book was a series of questions, building upward, layer upon layer, the movie is all about the answers — starting with an opening-credits voiceover that explains many of the central truths of the trilogy, truths Pullman teased forth over the course of the whole story. Without those mysteries to draw viewers forward, the story seems merely to skate the surface (and while a shorter run time is usually indicative of responsible editing, here the film could really have borne expansion). In some ways the early explanations make the rest of the story more confusing, raising topics not explored until later volumes and eliminating, in the process, some brilliantly propulsive reveals.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Christmas and books

Christmases in my family have always involved books. The packages telegraph their contents by their solid heft and neat rectangles--even the sloppiest wrapper can make a book look good under the Christmas tree. But just as Christmas often involves books, many books--both Christmas-themed and otherwise--also involve Christmas. My own list of "Christmas books" is idiosyncratic, no doubt; I recall not only the charming tales of happy families but also the clear-eyed evocations of loss and ambivalence. Together they make up my own personal Christmas reading list.

read the rest here...

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Golden Compass Movie: A Brief Review


So, I finally saw it. Really, it was only the second day the movie was out, but it felt like "finally" as so many folks seem to have seen it in previews, and the reviews and the "controversy about religion" stories have been out for a while.

And, meh.

Well, not quite "meh." It's visually quite stunning. I spent the first few minutes saying to Nick and Mariah, "do you remember that place? Look, there's the Bodleian Library! There's Christ Church Meadow! Look, look!" As Mark said, it made Oxford lovelier than it seemed when we were there, all the while also making it quite familiar.

And the unfamiliar was striking as well. The CGI didn't bother me--I believed in Stelmaria and Pan, and most especially in Iorek. I loved seeing witches fly, and bears fight, and zeppelins and airships and daemons and dust. I didn't find the music intrusive (which for me is about as good as it gets) and I thought the casting--especially Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra, Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Coulter, and Sam Elliott as Lee Scoresby--was inspired. (Oh, yes, I liked Tom Courtenay, too.)

But it was less than I'd hoped, and many of the changes, to my great surprise, seem to me to increase rather than decrease the possibility of religious controversy. The movie seems much, much more clear-cut in its depiction of "villains" and "heroes," and locates almost all guilt quite squarely in The Magisterium from the beginning. One of the things I most liked about the novel, particularly on first reading, was the ambiguity. Was Asriel heroic, or demonic? Were Lyra and Pan right about Dust, or were they wrong? Where did the Master of Jordan's loyalties lie?

By making Fra Pavel, rather than the Master of Jordan, Asriel's intended assassin, and by having Asriel focus on Dust with no mention of intercission or trepanning, the movie makes Asriel far more heroic than he is in the book. (I don't mind leaving off the end of the novel; that makes narrative sense for the film, but it does contribute to this sense of Asriel as potential hero.) And making Asriel heroic makes the Magisterium the only villain. Now, it's never called the Church, as in Pullman, so perhaps the movie seems less overtly anti-Christian, but I still think that the novel complicates things fruitfully by suggesting that the Church is not the only source of corruption in the world. That seems to me lost in the movie.

My other objection is to the frequent discussion of free will and doing what one wants. The conversation between Mrs. Coulter and Lyra at the High Table, for example, suggests that the big problem with the Magisterium is that it tells you what to do. (Never mind that Mrs. C. is actually working for them anyway.) But in fact the question of free will is far more vexed in the novel, as a conversation between Serafina and Lee towards the end of the tale makes clear.

Mariah, I think, said it best: she thought they got the characters right, but not the story.

It has given me a lot to chew on over the last twenty-four hours, and will probably continue to. But I think I realized something this evening when I compared my reaction to this film to my reaction to The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which I absolutely loved despite my strong reservations about the book. Much of what I love about His Dark Materials is the language, the beauty of the prose, the clarity of description, the absolute refusal to talk down to the audience. The film loses all of that, and in so doing magnifies the occasional incoherencies and contradictions that are present in the book, but which I can overlook in favor of the inventiveness of the language and plotting. I don't find much to admire in Lewis's language, and his theology seems incoherent to me. But the film built in some narrative coherence that I quite liked (the emphasis on World War II, which is completely lacking in the book), changed some of the most distasteful parts of the story (the sexism is reduced, if not reversed), and completely omits Lewis's often-annoying narrative voice--leaving behind a ripping good adventure yarn.

I've more often than not been disappointed in film adaptations of much-loved movies, starting with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which (for me) was a sad come-down from a novel I'd loved. As a kid, I was all about faithfulness to the text. As an adult, I'm perfectly happy to see adaptations as interpretations, and to enjoy a film for its daring departures from a book as much as (or more than!) for its fidelity. But there all interpretations are not equal, and alas, this one falls far short.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

I need to see this movie now!

Because I am just gorging myself on stories here, there, and everywhere on The Golden Compass, and I'd really rather just be re-reading the novels or seeing the film. And with the way our schedules are this weekend, it looks like we may not get to it until next weekend. Sigh. Still, these are all worth reading. My favorite, from the CS Monitor ("everywhere") is this:

Indeed, Pullman's God is not the God of religion, but the didactic, authoritarian voice of adulthood. It's the Authority that pays lip-service to free thought, but then limits free thought within the narrowly defined parameters of what it judges comfortable and acceptable. It is this Authority – and not the God of the Bible – that Pullman silences.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Golden Compass

I've mostly kept quiet about The Golden Compass movie that's about to open. I want to see it, I think the bear looks amazing, Nicole Kidman as Marisa Coulter is inspired casting, and beyond that I don't have much to say. Lots of other people in the world do, though, and here's a terrific, thoughtful, balanced response to some of the hysteria I've been reading about. (You may have to sit through an ad; sorry!)

Here's a taste:
I want my children to understand that human beings and institutions are fallible. That sometimes those who claim moral authority can traffic in corruption and abuse. I want them to be angry at every wrong perpetuated in the name of God. To question authority. To be feisty troublemakers for positive change.

Me, too. So we're going to the movie this weekend, if we can coordinate all the schedules (two concerts, two parties, an art opening...and a strong desire to sit in front of the fire and knit). I'll let you know what I think.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

And now for Alcott...

...whose birthday was also last Thursday. There are so many wonderful meals in Little Women I don't know where to start: the Christmas breakfast for the Hummels? The "young lobster" and "old asparagus" Jo buys for the lunch the girls prepare for Miss Crocker? The blanc mange Meg sends over to Laurie when he is ill? Amy's luncheon for twelve that ends up only serving one guest? As I look over the novel, though, I find I'm drawn to more solitary scenes:

"Jo! Jo! Where are you?" cried Meg, at the foot of the garret stairs.
"Here," answered a husky voice from above; and running up, Meg found her sister eating apples and crying over "The Heir of Redcliffe," wrapped up in a comforter on an old three-legged sofa by the sunny window. This was Jo's favorite refuge; and here she loved to retire with half a dozen russets and a nice book, the enjoy the quiet and the society of a pet rat who lived near by, and didn't mind her a particle. As Meg appeared, Scrabble whisked into his hole. Jo shook the tears off her cheeks, and waited to hear the news. (ch. 3, p. 23)
Books, solitude, and apples (though no rats) marked my childhood as well; it came as a great shock to me in graduate school and beyond to discover that there were women who did not identify with Jo--who chose, in fact, Amy or Beth or Meg instead. Not me--and scenes like this were why.