A Little Princess was on TV late the other night and I realized I’d completely forgotten how much I’d loved this adaptation:
Left in America to be educated while her father fights in World War I, Sara finds herself under the wing of Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron), the schoolmistress whose fondness for her students is directly linked to their parents’ financial standing. Since Sara is rich enough to earn the nickname of the title (which is also an endearment from her widowed father), she is very well-treated, at least while the money holds out.
Admired by schoolmates who wear matching middy dresses and hair ribbons, Sara is given ostentatiously grand quarters that befit her initial status. In keeping with the story’s spirit of noblesse oblige, she finds time to befriend younger girls and charm them with her storytelling skills. She also makes friends with Becky (Vanessa Lee Chester), the school’s scullery maid, who becomes her greatest ally once Sara experiences a severe reversal of fortune. Like Mary Lennox of “The Secret Garden,” Sara is both patrician and bereft, with only the magic of her own daydreams to sustain her.
“A Little Princess” is now a more joyous, operatic story than it was on the page (or on the stage, where Miss Burnett’s works have been enduringly popular). It’s also missing the pet rat that was meant to be a lovable character, thus offering another example of the film makers’ acumen. As written by Richard LaGravenese (whose whimsy fits more easily here than it did in “The Fisher King”) and Elizabeth Chandler, “A Little Princess” even injects some elements of contemporary reality into a tale that could well have remained unrelievedly quaint. The film crosses lines of race and class as well as those of time and space.
I’m a sucker for a period costume drama; I could sit through Titanic again just for the hats, so this, with the beautiful colors and the elaborate clothing and sets, was right up my alley anyway. But what interested me was that the director got, really got, how kids are, how nasty and spiteful and joyous and brave they can be, how detailed their worlds are, and how resilient they become.
When Sara raises her hands on the balcony and bows and dances with her Indian friend across the alleyway, the exuberance of it makes me catch my breath.
Plus, there’s a monkey.