Ella Enchanted

SPOILER WARNING: This post gives away the plot of the book and movie Ella Enchanted.

I won’t have room in my paper to discuss Ella Enchanted, but it’s such a fantastic adaptation of the Cinderella story, I want to talk about it somewhere. Well, the book is fantastic, the movie, on the other hand… But I’m getting ahead of myself.

One of the interesting things about Ella Enchanted is that the movie (released in 2004, starring Anne Hathaway) makes for a good study of an adaptation of an adaptation. The underlying story is, of course, “Cinderella”, the Perrault version. But then Gail Carson Levine adapted the story into Ella Enchanted, a young adult novel which won the 1998 Newbery Honor award. Levine’s adaptation is, above all, innovative. When I first read it, it took me almost halfway through the book to figure out that this was a Cinderella story. Okay, maybe I’m dense, but the story of Ella of Frell and her curse of obedience is so detailed and nuanced, it reads as a teen fantasy novel, not a fairy tale. The names are well disguised – the Prince is named Charmont, with everyone calling him Char; Ella, of course, is just Ella, and there is such an extensive cast of other characters that you get quite caught up in this world.

The basic premise of the story is that Ella is under a spell, cast by a well-meaning but extremely stupid fairy, which forces the girl to always be obedient. If anyone gives her a direct command, she must obey it; her body forces her to. Of course, this explains why Ella/Cinderella is so easily put upon by her stepmother and stepsisters – in this case, she literally has no other choice. She cannot rebel, she is physically unable to. Cinderella, the girl without agency, becomes Ella, a girl cursed into powerlessness. However, Levine’s Ella is a protagonist who in spite of the curse, the crippling handicap she is under, takes agency. Ella obeys direct commands, as she must, but even as a young girl discovers ways to exercise choice within the command. When her godmother, the family cook, commands her to hold the cake bowl for her, Ella holds the bowl – but she walks away with it, so Mandy has to follow her around the kitchen in order to beat the cake batter. When the singing teacher tells her to sing louder, she becomes so shrill the teacher can’t bear it, when he subsequently tells her to sing more quietly, she becomes inaudible. Ella is cursed, but she is also gifted, among other things with a knack for languages. She uses her abilities to her advantage and that of her friends, and works around her restrictions at every turn. Ella’s connection with the Prince, a sensible, kind young man, begins as a genuine friendship when he comforts her after her mother’s funeral, and she becomes as much of a support to him as his friendship is for her. Ella makes a strong effort to be rid of her curse; she tries as hard as she can, including travelling long distances through dangerous territory in order to find the fairy who cast the spell, to try to get her to undo it. None of this, however, is effective. But what finally breaks the curse, or rather, what finally gives Ella the strength to resist the curse to its breaking point, is the Prince’s marriage proposal. She realises that if she accepts the Prince and marries him, it would be he who would be at the mercy of anyone who would command her; that through her, they would be able to control the Prince, and the whole kingdom – she would become the weapon of his destruction. And so, because of her love for the Prince, despite a direct command to accept his proposal, she refuses, even though it nearly costs her her sanity. This refusal, the act of disobedience which takes all her strength, is what breaks the curse and sets her free. No longer cursed, she can marry the Prince and achieve final happiness.

Ella’s power is what permeates the whole story. Despite her crippling curse, she is a girl who takes charge of her life, she is a strong person.

The film takes this storyline, flattens it out, inserts it into a rather silly medieval-Beverly-Hills setting, adds a bad-guy royal uncle with a talking snake (who seem to have recently escaped from Disney’s Robin Hood), turns Prince Char into a teen idol, and makes the final motivation for Ella’s breaking the curse the command by Bad Guy to melodramatically stab the Prince on the stroke of midnight at the ball. Anne Hathaway’s Ella, though a quite lovely girl, is too dense to figure out that something like this might happen if she accepts the Prince, which is enough motivation for her book counterpart to find the strength in herself to resist. The girl in the movie has no agency, she is completely controlled by the curse. On the other hand, the Prince is a dimwit, and in standard rom-com style only takes notice of Ella because she is the only female who does not fall into fan-girl hysterics whenever he enters the room (or the mall opening ceremony, as it were). Like the Prince in Ever After, he needs to be lectured by CinderElla on how to be a ruler and start thinking for himself. (Another parallel between those two movies is that the more wicked one of the two stepsisters is almost the same character in both films, so much so that until I saw otherwise on IMDB, I was convinced it was the same actress playing the role.) The beautifully intricate fantasy world of Levine’s book, peopled with a myriad of races, each with their own carefully drawn culture and language, is dumbed down into a goofy kind of Disneyland where elves are oppressed by having to always sing and dance, which terrible injustice Ella makes the Prince revoke in a token nod to a serious theme (racism, in this case). Once the wicked bad-guy uncle brings about his own downfall after Ella’s rebellious breaking of her curse foils his plan to kill his nephew, the Prince (now King) and Ella can marry, and the wedding is celebrated with great pomp and ceremony – well, actually, with a big pop dance number (“Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”) which includes every last member of the cast; and the credits roll happily ever after.

See what I mean about the difference between the book and the movie? Ella Enchanted, the film, is a piece of fluff without substance. The novel it abuses – uh, pardon me, adapts – is a brilliant re-imagining of the Cinderella story which answers the question of just why Cinderella is so easily put upon and pushed around, and thinks about how a girl can have agency in spite of the cruel restrictions placed on her. Gail Carson Levine’s Ella is a young heroine full of strength, and her overcoming of the obstacles she faces is a story of empowerment in the best fairy tale traditions. The Newbery Honor was fully deserved.




Some Gripes About Zipes

Okay, so I just put that in the title because it rhymes. However, I do have a few minor gripes with Dr Jack Zipes, him who, as I might have mentioned a time or two (dozen), I greatly admire in many ways. He’s written far too many books, for one – I keep reading Zipes books, and every time there’s still a bunch more I haven’t got to. Sigh.

But the main thing that’s starting to get my goat a bit is his – okay, for lack of a better term, I’ll just call it intellectual snobbery. Or maybe it’s just a matter of taste. Whichever, it seems to me that whenever Zipes writes about a book or movie I like, he looks down his nose at it. Harry Potter, case in point – as far as he’s concerned, the series is a patriarchy-reinforcing product of the culture industry. On the other hand, he thinks Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials series is a great piece of work, whereas I tried to read Pullman some years ago and just couldn’t stick it. Gloomy, violent and disturbing – just not a fun read. So is this just a case of Zipes liking dark, heavy stories, and disliking lighter material? I kind of wonder. He really likes Pullman, for sure; in discussing Cinderella adaptations, he brings him in too, with I was a Rat. But as I mentioned before, when Zipes talks about a Gail Carson Levine adaptation of Cinderella, he ignores the brilliant Ella Enchanted and talks about Cinderellis and the Glass Hill, which isn’t a Cinderella story at all, but a retelling of “The Princess on the Glass Hill”, a different fairy tale entirely.

Which brings us to fairy tale adaptations, Zipes’ main forte. Okay, I’m with him to a point on Disney movies – the Someday-My-Prince-Will-Come bubbleheads of the 30s and 50s have me rolling my eyes, too. But the Disney fairy tale movies are still fun to watch, and what’s more, they’re incredibly popular. And that’s where I’m starting to wonder: does Zipes just disapprove of anything that the common rabble like? Is that evidence for him that the viewers/readers have fallen under the spell of the culture industry?

The thing is that the folktale, the original, oral tale, was just that – the folk tale, stories told by the Volk, the common people. In Why Fairy Tales Stick, Zipes complains at some point (I can’t find the page right now to give you the exact quote) that a great lot of the fairy tale books in print today are low-quality drivel. Well, yeah! I very much doubt that every fairy tale retelling by every nanny around the 16th-century nursery fire was a literary masterpiece. It just wasn’t preserved on paper for the next few centuries. Oral culture has given way to print culture (and it in turn to audio-visual culture, to an extent); of course there’s a goodly quantity of dross is either medium.

But the other thing is that I think it’s okay to have fairy tales that are just fun, and that those can have an impact just as great as the heavy, worthy, “deep” adaptations. Perhaps a greater one, because, as I said, they’re FUN, so they spread. Take Disney’s Enchanted, for example – Zipes doesn’t have anything good to say about it, from what I remember (I think he does talk about it somewhere – once again I can’t remember where – and is quite scathingly dismissive). But it’s a piece in which Disney skewers their own conventions, in a postmodern multi-layered self-ironic style that’s quite a delight to watch. However, you have to be able to enjoy a good, sweet, princessy romantic fairy tale to get some value out of it. It’s not deep, it most definitely isn’t heavy – but it’s thoroughly satisfying for what it is, and has a really great message with it, to boot.

And that’s the thing that’s rubbing me the wrong way about some bits of Zipes’ writings: does literary criticism always have to mean “criticising” in the common sense, namely “fault-finding”? Yes, I know that’s not the academic definition of it, but more often than not, it seems that’s what it comes down to. Can we no longer find simple enjoyment in simple-ish stories? Can a sweet story without violence and heart-wrenching pain not also have literary and cultural merit – even if it’s a cash cow? Don’t get me wrong – I’m no supporter of big business, Disney among them, and their money milking practises. But if the enjoyment of a story that ends in a wedding and happily-ever-after means I have common tastes, then so be it. A folktale is a tale of the people – so shouldn’t we look to what is popular, what the people like, rather than to what literary critics designate as worthy of our attention? Even if those literary critics happen to be Jack Zipes?

And speaking of literary criticism, here’s a quote I ran across yesterday in Terry Pratchett’s Guards, Guards!:

[The Librarian of the Magic University] waited patiently as a herd of Critters crawled past, grazing on the contents of the choicer books and leaving behind them piles of small slim volumes of literary criticism.

(London: Corgi Books, 1990, p. 257)

I’m sorry, but after all the reading I’ve been doing that struck me as inordinately funny. It probably just proves once again that I have common tastes.