A LITTLE PRINCESS REVIEW
Stories are powerful things, and some stories reach out and grab you, touching your heart in unexpected ways. This is one of those stories. A Little Princess was written by Frances Hodgson Burnett and published originally in 1905, captivating little girls ever since. The story is about Sara Crewe, a young girl who had everything, lost everything, and still behaved like a princess despite her reduced fortune. There have been a few film adaptations through the years; one of which starred Shirley Temple. But perhaps the most well-known today is the adaptation by Warner Brothers, which was released on May 19, 1995.
A Little Princess was directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who later directed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and 2013’s Gravity. I think that Cuaron has a very distinct style of directing, and in the case of A Little Princess, it works beautifully. He is able to capture the majesty and splendor of India and the stories told there, both in the beginning and in Sara’s stories, while also creating a contrast between New York and the trenches.
A Little Princess was adapted by Richard LaGraveness (PS, I Love You and Water for Elephants) and Elizabeth Chandler (What a Girl Wants and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants). In 1996, the film deservedly was nominated for two Oscars, Best Cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki) and Best Art Direction-Set Direction (Bo Welch, Cheryl Carasik).
Still, if you are a huge fan of the book, there are some major differences in the film version. Sara goes to school in New York, and both the ending and the circumstances of her losing her fortune play out differently, as does the reason for her attending school in the first place. If you can get past that, the film does not disappoint and is a beautiful and underrated gem.
Sara Crewe was born and raised in India by her father, a Captain in the British Military stationed there. When he is assigned to fight in the War, she is sent to attend boarding school in New York, where her mother studied. When she arrives in America, she experiences culture shock and homesickness.
Feeling smothered by all the rules in her new school, Sara tries to do the right thing. Still, she doesn’t always succeed when it comes to some social conventions of the day. Whether comforting Lottie, helping Ermengarde with her French or thanking the servant girl, Becky, Sara becomes a very popular young lady. For some reason, however, Ms. Minchin seems to have a strong but buried hatred for her.
When news comes that Captain Crewe is presumed to be dead and Sara is left penniless, Miss Minchin seizes the opportunity to turn Sara into a servant girl, reminding her that she is no longer wealthy, therefore not a princess. The once fabulously wealthy and well-loved child is left with nothing and no one.
Sara finds herself no longer believing in anything, but as the story goes on she is able to remind herself what her father told her: All little girls are princesses, magic is real, and stories have power. Sara’s stories give comfort to herself and Becky and help unlock potential in the other girls at the school. Meanwhile, the magic works in unexpected ways. This is best seen in Ram Dass, who keeps appearing in the story unexpectedly.
Despite her exile, Sara’s friends have not forgotten her, and in a sneaky way, they let her know it. Meanwhile, the neighbor Mr. Randolph and his servant Ram Dass are searching for young Randolph, who was lost in action in the same trenches as Sara’s father. The two men also begin to develop plans to improve the lives of the two poor children in the next attic, Sara and Becky.
Randolph and Ram Dass find a British Officer in the hospital, who is temporarily blind and suffering from amnesia. Wondering if he can tell them about young Randolph and hoping that someone would do the same for him, they take him home until he is well again. This, along with the actions of Sara’s friends and the gifts left by Ram Dass mean that things are set in motion, resulting in an ending that will probably not leave you with dry eyes.
Throughout the story of Sara and her father is woven another story that gives Sara comfort; that of Prince Rama, Princess Sita and Ravanna, from the Indian epic poem “The Ramayana.” When Rama is attacked by poisonous gas, so is Captain Crewe. When Sara is afraid and alone after her father’s death, she makes a circle like the one that Rama made Sita to keep her safe.
Although the story is more focused on the relationships between the fathers and their children and the power of stories, the story of Rama and Sita is very sweet and wonderfully played out. It enhances the theme of stories having power as the story mirrors the main plot.
In addition to the love story of Rama and Sita, there is the story of Miss Amelia, sister to Miss Minchin, who falls in love with the milkman and runs away with him. These two stories, plus Captain Crewe’s remembering of his wife, give the story a slight romantic layer that contrasts the love shown between fathers and sons (the Randolph’s) and fathers and daughters (the Crewe’s).
One of the best moments happens when Miss Minchin punishes Sara toward the end of the film. She asks her if she still thinks she’s a princess because the world is a dark and scary place and she needs to be realistic about her place in it. Sara’s response is to tell her that all girls are princesses, no matter what their circumstances are.
Miss Minchin may seem like a cold heartless cookie-cutter villain, but there are moments where she shines out as a villain with layers. There are times when I found myself wondering what happened to her to make her that way; the acting of that part by Eleanor Bron was superb, especially when she was on screen with Liesel Matthews (Sara Crewe).
Although in some aspects it is very different than the book it is based on, A Little Princess is a beautifully shot movie with a brilliant score and talented actors. Although it takes different routes to get there, the spirit of Burnett’s classic lives on and reminds us of several things; stories have power, magic is real, the love between family members is strong enough to conquer most anything, and, finally, all women are princesses; it is our right.
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