Troubles in Adaptation: ELLA ENCHANTED

Movie adaptations of beloved books are a sticky situation for fans. Those of the “book is always better” camp actually have a valid foundation to their argument. As Lindsay Ellis argued in her PBS Digital series “It’s Lit,” the book will generally feel more personal and well-drawn in your head than the movie adaptation. In general, there should be a lot of changes to a book plot to make it work as a movie. However, we always hope the changes will be intentional and well thought out.

Ella Enchanted

Ella Enchanted (the Newbery Honor novel) is an extremely popular middle grade retelling of the Cinderella story, with the twist that Ella has received a terrifying “gift” from a fairy named Lucinda. Ella must obey every command she is given. The story has endured as a staple of children’s literature since its initial publication in 1997. In several recent conversations I’ve had with adults (children-having and not), Ella Enchanted has come up as a popular option for teaching all children about the value of asserting your own wants and needs.

A novel this beloved was going to have some major struggles. Gail Carson Levine herself sees the movie as very different from the book. I actually think there had to be quite a few changes to book to make it work cinematically. I don’t want to bash the movie, but at the moment we have a wealth of fantastic YA adaptations out and upcoming.

Lost in Translation

Before I dig in, I must say I find the 2004 film Ella Enchanted (directed by Tommy O’Haver and written by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith) kind of charming. It’s overflowing with plot inconsistencies and hapless pandering, but there are some truly funny costume and set gags, and all the actors seem game. Anne Hathaway is adorable and lovely, but she doesn’t get to shine as much as she should.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the movies is the treatment of Levine’s world-building. Many of Levine’s books are connected, with her novel Fairest the most directly connected to Ella Enchanted. The society in Ella has magical races coexisting with intricate histories and languages. Her world-building has a lot in common with J.R.R. Tolkien, and other beloved fantasy writers. In fact, the 2004 Ella Enchanted has a lot more in common with Shrek than any other fantasy worlds.

In Levine’s books, we encounter elves, gnomes, giants, and fairies. In the movie, there are no gnomes. Trolls are antagonists in both, but they are much more slapstick in the film. While the elves have a thriving woodland society in the book, in the movie they’ve been forced into entertainment-based servitude. It was a shift that served the plot of the film, with Prince Charmont’s evil uncle being the real antagonist that Ella has to defeat to save Char. 

The reconfiguration of the magical society is not an inherently bad change in itself, but the denial of a society where different magical races coexist effectively is an odd choice. The adaptation choice was to put humans at the top of the food chain in a colonialist fashion in order to arrive at the conclusion that everyone (elves and giants, not trolls though) can be equal. Personally, I do prefer the idea that there is a priori equality, and the work of Prince Char and Ella is to navigate different cultures with respect and grace. Instead of being surprised by the giant wedding, they were prepared to come in and participate respectfully.

Going further, the filmmakers chose to nix a lot of the elven mythology that Levine builds up in the book. In fact, Ella’s ability to learn languages and communicate with elves and gnomes effectively helps her on her travels throughout Frell and over to the Giant wedding. Since her father is a useless nincompoop, Ella fends for herself and learns how to treat people with respect by doing the opposite of her father’s shady business. In the movie, the father is a much more simple supportive character. It’s not necessarily a terrible choice, but it seems to make things easier writing-wise because you didn’t have to color in a complex parental relationship. This change also denies Ella independence, which is part of how she breaks the curse in the book.

Although Ella’s internal conflict over her curse is still at the center of the movie, there is also the external conflict of the evil uncle Sir Edgar trying to kill Char to consolidate power and expand his nebulous colonialism. It is revealed through the course of the film that, in addition to restrictions on elven society, he has enslaved the giants into hard labor. Sir Edgar finds out about Ella’s curse and tries to get her to kill Char, which is how Ella breaks her curse. In the book, Ella breaks her curse because she can’t imagine being ordered into marriage with Char, instead of joining with him of her own volition. 

Although it is more dramatic to have Ella find her agency in refusing to complete a murder, her choice in the novel to reject a marriage to Char that her family was forcing her into for their own gain is more satisfying for the completion of the emotional narrative. 

Also, one of the taglines of the movie is “get enchanted,” which . . . is not what you want, actually. Did the person who made the poster read the book?

What is a strong woman?

One change to Ella’s journey made perfect sense in the movie: the timeline. The book takes place over a couple of years of Ella’s life, seeing the wider spectrum of her adolescence. The movie takes the very smart approach of setting it over a contracted timeline, with the major events taking place over a matter of weeks. They move through the locations quickly, and some situations are elided together for efficiency. Some take way too long, like the troll throw down scene.

And speaking of that that troll throw down scene . . . In the book, Ella (who has a facility with languages) learns how to put on the “oily” voice of the trolls that compels their prey to stay in their capture. She is able to use her wits to get the trolls subdued, and Char and his knights join her after she has subdued the trolls, and tie them up. In the movie, Slannen (another very strange character rewrite) orders her to beat them up and “kick his butt.” Although Ella is presented as smart, the movie uses this scene to value throwing brawn around, as opposed to showing her abilities. 

This issue of how Ella shows strength also bleeds into Ella and Char’s relationship. In the book, they’re old friends because she is from a well-off family. In the movie, Char saves her, and she rebuffs him. Even though Ella continues to dismiss Char because she is an activist, they eventually fall in love when Ella sees Char listening to the concerns of the giants and he catches her while she’s singing “Somebody to Love.” The Shrek of it all really jumps out here. Although Char does respect Ella in the film, the book relationship is much more based on mutual respect and friendship.

Poking fun

One take on the movie from Anne Hathaway herself caught my eye: she said that the movie “makes fun of itself for being a fairy tale.” The reason I keep making the Shrek comparison is because Ella Enchanted the film takes a lot of production design cues from that series, as opposed to other children’s fantasy film adaptations that had a more “serious” approach. Instead of an original score, Ella has a modern pop soundtrack. It also has several locations that are legible to early aughts viewers, especially the mall that Ella runs through.

For a movie that does want to make fun of fairy tale tropes, it does shy away from any of the direct Cinderella parallels. The ball is a pretty small affair, with Ella not in disguise at all. There is a mean stepmother and stepsisters, but they’re more of a nuisance than the active threat they are in the book. I think this is a good change for the plot of the film. If they had focused more on Ella’s personal conflicts, it would have been even better.

The problem is that most of Levine’s work is about turning fairy tales on their head and interrogating why and how so many women were subjected to various indignities that were eventually overturned by marriage. Ella Enchanted the book is not exactly a laugh-out-loud read, but Ella the character loves jokes and mocking the ways in which she is supposed to act like a “lady.” Much of her relationship with Char involves jokes, sliding down bannisters, and working together.

In movies during the 2000 to 2010 era, there was a divide between movies that took a serious approach to their fantastical worlds, and movies that took a… less serious approach. No one wanted to copy exactly what Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter were doing, so this kind of farcical geniality emerged in some movies that were adaptations of children’s and young adult books. Remember the Percy Jackson movie? I think it sort of killed the jocular ironic takes on fantasy and mythology adaptations, which was nice.

I couldn’t get into everything that causes issues within the plot and the characters in the movie, but there are a lot. The elves are major players in the book, especially with regard to Ella’s father and his dirtier business ventures–their refusal to capitulate to his shady business practices causes him to lose money and marry Dame Olga, setting off the plot of the rest of the book and Ella’s more Cinderella-esque experiences. I think the choice to show the elves as simple entertainers, instead of a robust society based on environmentalism and crafting, was probably to avoid any direct comparison to elves in Lord of the Rings. Vivica A. Fox is quite funny as Lucinda, but she is denied any kind of understanding or redemptive action. Olga and the stepsisters are mean, but they don’t really go far enough with how terrible they are in the books, so the only major conflict is that Hattie and Ella like the same guy.

Some small joys

As I said, I still find this movie charming. Here are some wonderful parts, in no particular order:

  • Minnie Driver as Mandy
  • Lucy Punch, professional ugly stepsister, as Hattie
  • Cary Elwes’ absolute love of being evil Sir Edgar
  • Parminder Nagra as Areida (such a wonderful bit of casting for a great part of the movie, but the emotional fallout of that was promptly dropped)
  • Anne Hathaway’s costumes
  • The trill that accompanies orders that come to Ella

When it was on Netflix, Ella Enchanted definitely popped up in my weekend lazy viewing. The main issue is that it strips away some of Ella’s agency and a lot of the societal world-building. However, it is far from the worst movie of all time. It’s produced by human garbage Harvey Weinstein’s company Miramax, but so were many other mediocre movies. The movement from internal to external conflict, the clumsy racial metaphors, the obsession with making the movie readable to modern teens: these are common in movie adaptations. I wanted to write about Ella Enchanted specifically because we are in both a golden age of YA movie adaptations and a renaissance of reboots.

Is there enough love for Ella Enchanted to push the boat out on a reboot project? It could be serious but still have a sense of humor, and would thereby be incredibly different from the movie that was all humor (with two moments of substance). Anne Hathaway should be in the reboot, obviously. Her whole thing is having a great sense of humor about herself and her history! And what if we have a young girl of color playing Ella? Is this not the PERFECT time for a story about a young woman shaking off the oppression placed upon her for no good reason? I refuse to believe this is one of those books that’s impossible to film!

It might be silly to talk about a movie that came out in 2004 based on a novel that came out in 1997, but I wasn’t a book reviewer back then, so here we are.

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