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Ella Enchanted

July 2, 2011

 In 2004, Tommy O’Haver directed the adaptation of Gail Carson Levine’s Newberry Honored novel Ella Enchanted.  Anne Hathaway was cast as Ella opposite Hugh Dancy playing Prince Char. With such strong leads, Minnie Driver as Ella’s fairy godmother, and Levine’s superb novel as a foundation one would expect this motion picture to be a wonderful creation. Granted, the actors did a fine job with what they had to work with. Levine had given the filmmakers no shortage of storyline, complex characters, and many complicated themes and emotions to work through, all set in a magical yet believable realm. There is no identifiable reason for the shallow interpretation distributed to the public. The creators of the film committed the cardinal sin of movie adapting: not staying true to the writer’s intention.

The bare plot tells of Ella receiving a “gift” of obedience at birth from a short-sighted fairy. When the story opens Ella is a young woman who has had to struggle her entire life with her “gift.” In line with the Cinderella plot, Ella’s mother dies and her father marries the wicked stepmother with the wicked stepsisters in tow. Unable to bear her situation any longer, Ella sets out to find a cure for her condition – a journey that will leads to her acquaintance with Prince Charmont.

Levine’s version combines the complexities of personal choice with the traditional agency-robbing magic spells of fairy tales and teaches that, while it may require tremendous sacrifice and strength, one’s power and determination to choose will ultimately be stronger than any outside influences – magical or otherwise. In addition to this profound theme, Levine creates a fairy tale world without the hokeyness that fantasy has the propensity to fall into. Her characters are just as real and complex as the characters in literary fiction.

The movie, however, removes the key component of the spell: Ella has no power over the spell. There are no moments of struggle against it. Her body simply takes over. The hokeyness that is absent in the novel, immerses the film. Rather than embracing Levine’s intricate and ingenious magical world, the film fights against it with a chaotic selection of cheap-looking modern and Renaissance costumes and contemporary cover songs instead of an original score. The most charming and imaginative elements of the novel are excluded from the movie and in their place are numerous inane gags with Ella’s curse – something the novel never does. It always treats Ella’s situation with respect. Levine understood that the loss of agency is no laughing matter.

An interviewer asked Levine how involved she was with the film. She replied, “Not very.” She explained that she had “consulting rights” meaning the producers had to send her the script but had no obligation to consider her feedback. She admitted that “the script is very different from the book, and so is the movie. My comments about plot weren’t acted on.” When asked her opinion about the film she said, “The movie is so different from the book that it’s hard to compare them.” When asked if her favorite part of the book had also been her favorite part of the movie, her reply revealed her opinion of the adaptation:

“I loved writing the letters Char and Ella exchange when Char is in Ayortha, but they’re not in the movie at all! I loved writing Ella’s flirtation with the Earl of Wolleck when Ella’s under the influence of the torlin kerru, but that’s not there either.”

She ends the interview with the plea “regard the movie as a separate creative act.” She clearly wants to separate her own work from that of the filmmakers, and then cryptically and diplomatically concludes with the suggestion that, “You might want to think about the choices the screen writers made and why they may have gone in the direction they did.”

Possibly the novel was adapted in this way to dumb down the complexity of the story to appeal child viewers. However, every quality writer for children knows that young people know when adults patronize them and understand more than adults often realize. Levine set out to tell a story of the weight and significance of personal choice. She did not intend to produce a comedy about what happens to a person in this situation. Which may be why Levine received a Newberry Honor for the novel and the film generated over $12,000,000 less than the cost of production.

  1. Thank you!
    I positively love the novel Ella Enchanted but ripped out not only my eyeballs but everyone’s in the room with me as I suffered through the film.

  2. Yup, couldn’t stand this movie. I really wish someone would do a real adaptation of the book. Love this blog! Your writing is fantastic and your opinions are fresh. 🙂

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