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22 November 2012

The Battle of the Little Princesses: Novel vs. Film

A Little Princess is one of my all-time favorite books. I think I read it at least once a year. When I read it for the first time, I loved the ending so much that I just kept reading the last few chapters over and over again. I also consider myself something of a Shirley Temple fan. I couldn't honestly tell you whether I read the book first or saw the film, but suffice it to say I grew up with both versions of the story. Who better to judge this "Battle of the Little Princesses"?

Sara Crewe or What Happened at Miss Minchin's was first published by Frances Hodgson Burnett in 1888, then revised, expanded, and republished in 1905 as A Little Princess: Being the Whole Story of Sara Crewe Now Told for the First Time. Burnett (1849-1924) had been raised in Manchester, England, but her family moved to America when she was a teen. While she was a schoolteacher in Tennessee she began submitting stories to women's magazines. She married in 1873 and would have two sons, the youngest of whom became the inspiration for her classic story Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886).

Mary Pickford made he first film version of THE LITTLE PRINCESS in 1917, but my personal favorite is the 1939 Shirley Temple adaptation, which aired on TCM over the weekend. With the world on the brink of another world war, Burnett's original story was altered to fit the changing political climate. The basic premise of a little rich girl sent to school in England remained the same, but with some very significant differences.

Summary of the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Seven-year-old Sara Crewe is sent to Miss Minchin's "Select Seminary for Young Ladies" while her father is serving with the British Army in India. She is by far the wealthiest student at the school, but she is also the brightest and friendliest. She becomes popular and seems to be quite content, though she misses her darling papa terribly. When on her eleventh birthday Sara is told that her father has died of jungle fever, she is devastated.  He had lost all of his money in a business deal, and Sara is left a charity case. Miss Minchin keeps her on as a servant, forcing her to sleep in a dreary attic room. Even as the school drudge, Sara tried her best to think and act like a little princess. Meanwhile, in the house next door, her father's business partner is sick with worry as he desperately searches the world over for his friend's daughter. I will not tell you what happens, but I will say that it ends well for Sara and badly for the cruel Miss Minchin.
Summary of Walter Lang's 1939 Film
Sara Crewe is sent to Miss Minchin's school in London while her father goes away to fight in the Boer War in South Africa. She misses her father terribly, but she makes friends with one of the teachers, Miss Rose, her riding master, Mr. Geoffrey, and the scullery maid, Becky. She becomes very worried when she learns that her father is trapped at the siege of Mafeking, but celebrates with the rest of the school when Mafeking is relieved. However, at her birthday party, she is informed that her father did not make it out of Mafeking alive. Miss Minchin then forces her to work as a servant in the school. But Sara, refusing to believe that her father is dead, daily searches the hospitals for him. Again, I will not reveal the ending, but I can tell you it is a happy one!

Scenes from the book that were omitted from the movie:

  • When Sara first meets the French master and explains to him, in perfect French, that she does not need to learn French, as Miss Minchin demands, because she has spoken French all her life. This is when Miss Minchin first decides she dislikes Sara.
  • Discovering Becky asleep in her chair and allowing the scullery maid to come to her room every day for cakes and a story.
  • When "Guy Clarence" of The Large Family gives her his sixpence because he believes she is a beggar.
  • When Sara, who is starving herself, gives the street girl five of the six hot buns she purchased with the fourpence she found in the road.
  • The ending of the book is completely different from the film.
Scenes from the movie that were not in the original story:
  • Two dance sequences Shirley Temple does with Arthur Treacher
  • The dream sequence
  • Any scene with Geoffrey and Rose
  • Any scene to do with the Boer War and Mafeking
  • When on her birthday Sara and her father have made a pact to think of each other at exactly 2:00.
  • Queen Vicotira. Yes, Queen Victoria does make an appearance. God save the queen.
Characters from the book that were omitted from the movie:
  • Sara's best friends in the school, Ermengarde and Lottie
  • The Large Family, the Montmorency/Carmichaels, whom Sara observes when she is poor, and whom she befriends when she is rich again
  • Anne, the starving girl on the street to whom Sara gave her bread rolls
  • Melchisedec, the rat in her attic room whom Sara befriends
Characters from the movie that were not in the original story:
  • Bertie, Miss Minchin's brother (Arthur Treacher)
  • Geoffrey and Miss Rose, the riding master and school teacher, who are lovers and were secretly married before Geoffrey went off to war
  • Queen Victoria. Just... no.
Shirley Temple as Sara Crewe
"She was a slim, supple creature, rather tall for her age, and had an intense, attractive little face. Her hair was heavy and quite black and only curled at the tips; her eyes were greenish gray, it is true, but they were big, wonderful eyes with long, black lashes, and though she herself did not like the color of them, many other people did."
Not quite the bonnie goldie-locks that is Shirley Temple, is it? Although Temple is undoubtedly adorable as the little princess, she is a little too much of a baby to portray the little girl in the book who never cries. 

Mary Nash as Miss Minchin

"She was very like her house, Sara felt: tall and dull, and respectable and ugly. She had large, cold, fishy eyes, and a large, cold, fishy smile. It spread itself into a very large smile when she saw Sara and Captain Crewe."
 I love Mary Nash (THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940)) too much to suggest that the above description describes her, but there is no doubt that her performance as Miss Minchin is one of the highlights of this film. I can draw no line of separation between the Miss Minchin of the book and Nash's characterization of her. Her role is very similar to the one she had played a couple years before as Fraulein Rottenmeier to Shirley Temple's HEIDI (1937). Indeed, some of the costumes she used in LITTLE PRINCESS  had also been worn for HEIDI.
Arthur Treacher as Bertie Minchin
I much prefer Bertie to Miss Amelia, Miss Minchin's goose of a sister in the book. He was also in HEIDI, and I will never tire of his song and dance numbers with Shirley Temple.

         Bertie: Today, my good woman, the British Army is behind me.

          Miss Minchin: Hubert, that uniform! You're not going to war?
          Bertie: Quite. To the very cannon's mouth, if need be!
          Miss Minchin: But why?
          Bertie: Because, old girl, I'm fed to the teeth with your bullying. And your treatment of Rose and little Sara is the last straw! I prefer the less painful horrors of the battlefield!
          Miss Minchin: Are you daring to criticise me?
          Bertie: Astonishing, isn't it? But it proves that I am competent to lead my men into the very jaws of death!

Cesar Romero as Ram Dass 
I just wanted to point out that Cesar Romero plays Ram Dass. An Indian. In a turban. With a parrot.
Miles Mander as Lord Wickham For some reason, this whole character, including his name, is completely different from the book. There is no "Lord Wickham" at all in the book, but "the Indian gentleman" who lives next door. In the film, Lord Wickham is a crotchety old man, an uncle of Geoffrey's who has disowned him and disapproves of his match with Rose. It isn't really explained why he has an Indian lascar for a servant, and there is no logical explanation for why he would want to redecorate Sara's garret room. In the book, the man next door was Captain Crewe's business friend from India. His servant Ram Dass has observed Sara's suffering and recounts it to the gentleman who is looking for his friend's lost daughter (not thinking Sara could possibly be she). The Indian gentleman, as Sara calls him, is kind and sends her lovely things to help take his mind off his sorrow and to alleviate her troubles. By the end of the story, she is affectionately calling him Uncle Tom.

The Battle of the Little Princesses 
After having read A Little Princess more times than I can possibly count, and having watched THE LITTLE PRINCESS (1939) several times since childhood, which do I believe is the better story? 

Both. It's not a cop-out. I genuinely value both these stories for what they have to offer. The book is a sweet story about a girl with a very strong character who is able to overcome personal tragedy, loss, and sorrow while still behaving like royalty. I solemnly believe that her love, patience, and selfless strength can be an inspiration to us all. This is one book I would encourage all children to read, perhaps more than once! 

The film is much less about the girl herself and much more about the age. Patriotism oozes out of every scene of the film, and you cannot help but get swept away in the glory of the thing. Your heart swells with pride to see the soldiers marching off to battle to the sound of bagpipes:
"Why are they sending so many soldiers, Daddy, if it's only gonna be a little war?"
You weep a little with young Sara when she must bid her adoring papa goodbye:
"My daddy has to go away, but he'll return most any day. Any moment I may see my daddy coming back to me"
You feel a tug at your heartstrings when Rose supports her lover's decision to enlist:
"Wouldn't you want me to go, if they call for volunteers?" "Of course, darling. You'd have to."
Your heart leaps with joy as even Miss Minchin is allowed to enjoy the midnight celebrations of the relief of Mafeking. And it is just about all you can do to keep yourself from standing and saluting when Queen Victoria rolls by to strains of "God Save the Queen." 

So, literary purist that I am, I wouldn't want anybody to give this film a miss simply because it varies slightly (okay, a lot) from the original story. This Thanksgiving, TCM will be showing a variety of film adaptations of classic children's stories. Some movie versions are spot on, some may vary a little from the original, but the best thing to do would be to cuddle up close with the children, young and old, in your life, and be grateful for the time you have with them. Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!



  1. This truly is a great line:"I prefer the less painful horrors of the battlefield!"

    I liked this book-to-movie comparison. Well done.

    1. Classic line from Arthur Treacher. Thanks for reading!


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