I am a girl raised on fairy tales, folktales and myths. I enjoyed these stories and the lessons that they peddled about being noble of character, yet as I grew older I became resistant to the storylines of young women who lacked agency in their lives beyond seeking a man to marry.
When I was in sixth grade, my aunt gifted me a copy of Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. It was a retelling of the Cinderella story, my least favorite of the fairytale heroines. I resented the idea that her suffering at the hands of her step family should be rewarded with freedom from that life only to be married to a man she met only once.
The book sat on my bookshelf for years. When I finally read it, I regretted leaving it unopened for so long.
Ella is candid in her narration which endeared her to me from the beginning. She describes the curse of being obedient bestowed upon her by the foolish fairy Lucinda, who meant the curse to be a gift. She must live with this curse of obedience which causes constant pain and humiliation. As Ella tells the reader, the curse brings out the inner rebel inside of her and shows the many facets of her character. Ella shows her imperfections when she humorously recounts the way she evades orders by annoying her cook and surrogate mother, Mandy. At times she rebels for simple reasons (like not wanting to be a puppet), but other times her reasons are to prevent harm from befalling others – even if it costs her own health as the curse tortures her to physically obey.
Ella’s vivid memory for languages and her cleverness when in tricky or even dangerous situations – like when she saves herself from a band of ogres by speaking their own language and luring them to sleep – confirms that she is nobody’s damsel in distress. Unlike the original Cinderella, Ella does not suffer silently, but speaks out when her ruthless father attempts to marry her off to an older man, and seeks revenge against her step sister Hattie who orders her about, showing that despite their efforts, she will not be defined by others.
She also has a great capacity for love when she defends her friend Arieda from others who would tease her, and grows to love the prince over a year of meetings and letter correspondence, rather than at one fateful night at a ball. I admire Ella for her courage, her fierceness and her capacity for love. In the end, when Ella breaks the curse, the reader sees the journey Ella has gone through, and that by the end of it, she is defined only by herself: “Myself unto myself. One. Me.”
When I heard that a film version of the book was being released, many years later, I was both excited and nervous. Would they do justice to the book that had helped define what a strong, intelligent and kind heroine should look like? I was skeptical, but decided to see the movie anyway. After all, I liked Anne Hathaway and could picture her humor and passion in her role as Ella.
The film is ultimately disappointing in that it resembles nothing about the book besides the most basic plot points: Ella, her wicked stepsisters and the curse from the fairy Lucinda. Anne Hathaway has a quirkiness about her that is fun and attractive for the teen girl movie they were pushing, but it departs so much from the book that the essence of Ella is lost. We see her struggle with the curse, but while the book displays this in all of its facets, from Ella as humorously rebellious to fighting against herself to ensure the safety of the man she loves, the film uses Ella’s curse for comedic relief – to the point of depicting Hathaway frozen Matrix–style in her escape from the police because her stepsister Hattie forced her to steal. The inclusion of modern day elements – like Ella attending community college, criticizing the royal government’s treatment of the bad CGI creatures, and daring to thwart an evil uncle trying to take over the throne – attempt to depict a strong female heroine, but as an adaptation, the movie falls far short of why I fell in love with Ella in the first place.
There are moments in which the film nods to the book. When Ella’s mother dies, she reminds Ella to stay true to herself. I appreciated the diversity of the cast, including Parminder Nagra as Ella’s friend and Vivica A. Fox as the misguided fairy who bestows upon Ella her “gift.” All of the actors played their parts well for the feeling of the film. What was lacking was the interpretation of the writers and director in giving the film a cheap overlay of laughs while reducing the characters to tropes with little development. There are a few enjoyable moments (who doesn’t love a good Queen interlude?), but overall, it does not show the story or the nuanced characters that I have grown to love.
I would love to have seen the film under the direction of Alfonso Cuarón á la The Little Princess, in which the rich tones and subtle, genuine characters capture the growth and love that comes from true struggle. Until a better adaptation arrives, I return to my well-worn copy of the book, where the Ella that I imagine learns from the struggles of her life to design a brighter future full of friends, adventure and love.
What do you think? Is the book or movie version of Ella Enchanted more entertaining? Tell us what you think in the comments!
Leticia Urieta is a Xicana writer from Austin, TX. She is a graduate of Agnes Scott College and is a fiction candidate in the MFA program at Texas State University. She won Agnes Scott’s Academy of American Poet’s prize and her worked has appeared in Cleaver and the 2016 Texas Poetry Calendar. Leticia lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and two dogs and works as a bilingual elementary educator. She is using her love of Texas History and passion for research to write a historical fiction novel about Mexican women in Texas’ war with Mexico. Connect with her on Twitter @LeticiaUrieta.