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Pretty but middling adaptation
on 12 January 2008
Like others, I loved the original book and read it to my daughters with great pleasure. We also watched the DVD of the first television adaptation, which was long, amateurish, only intermittently satisfying, and very stuffy...though the actresses playing the 3 girls did a fine job.
The original book was so dense in building the story of the 3 girls and the extended family in the house with Garnie, Nana, and the boarders (each with their own distinct personality), that it seems almost impossible to adapt to the screen -- so it's understandable that any adaptation is going to have to cut some major parts of the book. The good news is that this production is very good looking, and Emma Watson is luminous as Pauline. Set design, costumes and lighting are all much more professional than the first screen version, and the casting is mostly decent.
This latest adaptation gets the basics of the girls right -- with Petrova being the most grounded and least interested in a performing career, Pauline a natural for the stage (but also ambivalent at times) with talent and stage presence, and Posy with the most raw talent as a dancer. The story is nicely set up at the start, as Gum is shown dropping off the 3 girls while in the midst of numerous travels...and then Gum reappears toward the end, revisiting the house as it is going to be sold and seeing "his girls" all grown up and heading in different directions.
However, the beauty of the interaction and growth of these 3 wonderful girls is mostly lost in this translation of the book. In particular, Petrova gets short shrift, while Posy mostly comes across a brat. This movie does use the vows the girls make together as a central theme, but the viewer then mostly sees Pauline's ascent to success, while the others have bit roles.
The boarders are relegated to extremely marginal roles, with the exception of Mr. Simpson (Marc Warren), the garage owner, whose role has been rewritten to provide a romantic twist to the story. For long time fans of the book, this will be the most unsatisfying decision, because it does nothing more than take time away from what should be the focal point of this movie -- the three girls. Not to mention that Mr. Simpson has had all the life drained out of him by the way his role has been re-written, and Warren's wooden acting doesn't help.
I am not normally a purist about movie adaptations of books that take liberties, if something new and interesting is created that can attract a broader audience, or make the book resonate on the screen better, but nothing like that is done here. If anything, the story is even more confusing as a result of the liberties taken with the book.
Also, dancing and the aesthetics of dance are given much less play in this adaptation relative to the book (and the first screen adaptation). The focus has shifted more generally to the stage, since much of this movie is a vehicle for Emma Watson (who is not a dancer). The few dance sequences that are shown (mostly Posey by herself, and a very attractive Russian studio of ballerinas toward the end) look very good, but there is not a lot of dance in this version of Ballet Shoes.
Ultimately, this production is a big mess as far as storytelling goes... though it's a very beautiful mess, and fans of the book will likely excuse the many flaws to see another version, and be reminded of one of their favorite stories. I wonder how much sense this adaptation would make to someone who never read the book, though -- unlike the first adaptation, this version has even more abrupt transitions and choppy storytelling, and mostly gets by on the beauty of the individual set pieces...and Emma Watson.