The Bridges of Madison County is a 1995 American one-true-love romance. The film is based on a 1992 best-selling, terribly written novel by Robert James Waller.
Stephen King gives the novel a roasting in his well-known book On Writing. Almost everyone who wants to be a writer seems to have read King’s writing book, part autobiography, part how-to guide. In the appendix, King includes a list of excellent novels and a list of terrible ones. He says writers must read bad writing before fully comprehending what makes good novels good. I feel Stephen King is too powerful to be so callous about others. But here’s what I’ve also noticed: Most powerful people came from nothing, and forever see themselves as ‘outside the establishment’. For them, there’s no epiphany in which they realise, “I’m big cheese now. I’d better be careful who I roast.”
Then again, Bridges of Madison County did sell 60 million copies. Maybe if you sell that many books, you’re a peer of Stephen King.
Is ‘Bad Writing’ Simply ‘Screenplay Writing’?
I have nothing like Stephen King’s clout. So I’ll tell you this. I picked up Robert James Waller’s novel Bridges of Madison County at a second-hand store for fifty cents. I took it home and sat down to read it. If Stephen King made it all the way through that novel he did better than me. I couldn’t make it past the first five pages. I’m inclined to absorb the style of whatever I’ve been reading lately, and the prose was so cringe I was worried it would infect my own prose. The guy wrote the novel in 11 days and it shows.
The conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that it’s easier to make a good movie from a bad book than from a great one. That’s probably true. No one has ever gotten The Great Gatsby right. A Confederacy of Dunces has allegedly driven some who’ve tried to adapt it mad. Did you hear that James Franco made a film version of As I Lay Dying? Exactly.
The book is written as badly as a screenplay. Ergo, it makes for a great screenplay. (Screenplays are work documents, never intended to be enjoyed for their line-level beauty.)
Who Gets To Be A ‘Good Writer’?
Stephenie Meyer is another romance writer whose best-selling vampire novel Twilight is frequently held up as an example of poor writing. Readers who love her work (mostly teenage girls and adult women) are assumed incapable of seeing bad prose for what it is. This isn’t true. Many of Twilight’s biggest fans write sophisticated think-pieces about the series’ problems, ideological and stylistic. Many will likewise point out that the prose becomes better as the series progresses.
There are clearly gender issues affecting pop criticism of pop books. There are also publishing industry issues at play. Why wasn’t the first Twilight book better edited? Why aren’t publishers spending more on editors in general? Well. Why aren’t readers spending more on books?
Genre Blend of Bridges of Madison County
The editors at Story Grid did an episode of The Bridges of Madison County. They consider this story an example of a Courtship Love story.
What Makes A Good Story?
There are many aspects to a great story. All aspects interrelate, but beautiful prose is just one thing, and maybe not even the most important thing to people who read one or two books a year.
Plotting and characterisation are separate from a novel’s line-level beauty. When ugly prose is adapted for film, the prose is no longer an issue. Now other aspects are allowed to shine (or fall flat). At least, this is the case when adept actors are cast in major roles. Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood do a marvellous job of elevating cheesy dialogue of The Bridges of Madison County. They also share superb onscreen chemistry.
Clint Eastwood clearly saw the adaptive potential of this story. He produced it, directed it and starred in it. The movie is a particular type of satisfying. But because the line-level cringe has all but gone in the film, other issues reveal themselves.
On Setting and Authenticity
While audiences will accept films made with CGI or filmed against backdrops inside Hollywood studios, there’s a special appreciation reserved for movies filmed on site in off-the-beaten-track locations.
The Bridges of Madison County is authentic to its setting. True Grit is also set partly in Iowa, but The Bridges of Madison County looks a lot more like the actual place, being filmed there and all.
I’m giving this old story some fresh attention because three decades later audiences continue to enjoy the film, and theatres around the world continue to adapt the story for stage.
Monster House is a 2006 animated feature length film for a middle grade audience. The script was written by Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab. Harmon and Schrab had collaborated on Laser Fart previously, a film which I have not seen and will not be adding to my watch list. Monster House is already 12 years old, but the animation still looks pretty good. It was animated at a time when actors were just starting to be used as models, which is why this looks better than The Polar Express. The one thing significantly improved by modern processing power is hair. Inability to depict hair and skin is why Pixar decided to make their first animated film about toys. The hair on the characters of Monster House looks plastic, like you get on a 1980s Ken Doll, compared to what you see in, say, Brave, of 2012, in which hair is almost a character in its own right. (Animators have since gotten over their hair obsession, I think. Now hair is just hair!)
Screenwriter Harmon has been working in television since Monster House, notably on Rick and Morty. He also lists The Simpsons in his credits. Schrab has also been working in TV, most notably on The Sarah Silverman Program. Basically, these are youngish American comedy writers with a male sensibility.
MONSTER HOUSE STORY STRUCTURE
Genre Blend of Monster House
Monster House is a genre blend of Adventure and Comedy. Monster House is also a haunted house story, though it’s not DJ’s own house that is haunted, but the creepy old mansion across the road. Though not listed as a horror, this story borrows horror tropes. Horror and comedyare a surefire hit, if done correctly. Jump scares have to be genuine jump scares, and the writers have to know which scenes are to be taken seriously and which are a deliberate lampoon. Monster House achieves this balance, with genuine scares for the younger audience, followed by funny scenes which bring the audience back into safety… for a while.
Unfortunately, the popular horror genre has some highly problematic tropes, and the writers of Monster House borrowed those, too.
Monster theory states that the characters viewed as villains or monsters reflect cultural unease or prejudices. Often, this leads to the vilification of those who defy gender roles, and perpetuates this vilification in the media. […Many] stories place a heavy emphasis on female sexuality as a particularly awful form of deviance.
At the beginning of the story DJ has been monitoring the creepy house across the road. He has noticed that when toys land on Nebbercracker’s front lawn they disappear. Something spooky is going on there. The problem is, he doesn’t know what’s going on and because he lives across the road, it’s in his best interest to find out. Things get personal when his best friend Chowder loses his expensive basketball. Then DJ thinks he accidentally killed Nebbercracker. This makes him invested.
Under the surface, DJ wants to prove himself a man. (This is of course related to his major Shortcoming, that he is a powerless boy.) At the beginning we hear his voice crack. He considers himself too old for Trick or Treating. He says he’s too old for a babysitter — he’d be just fine alone with his parents off on holiday. This allows for some good, ironic comedy in which it is revealed that DJ is mostly still a child. He sleeps with his bunny rabbit, he is freaked out by small things (though justifiably freaked out by big things).
In some ways, DJ’s wish to be manly is shown by his desire to be childlike. Unfortunately, as almost always happens in stories about boys written and funded by men, DJ’s wish to be manly is also shown by his desire to be non-feminine. (Hence an actual girl has to come along. More on that below.)
Note to all writers everywhere: The opposite of ‘man’ is not ‘girl’. The opposite of ‘man’ is ‘boy’. Girls do not exist to affirm your heterosexual manliness.
Chowder and DJ are similar to Jeff Kinney’s Greg and Rowley. Greg is the pessimistic skinny one while Rowley is the chubby, childlike one. (More childlike than DJ.)Chowder is DJ’s Opponent in his mission to be considered more adult. Chowder is full of enthusiasm for trick or treating, and likes to play computer games and eat junk food. By hanging around with Chowder, DJ won’t be considered a man. Before they leave for their weekend away, the parents (especially the mother) are also opponents in this regard. DJ’s mother babies him in the most embarrassing fashion, making inappropriate remarks about his changing adolescent body.
Note that Jeff Kinney probably got this successful trio ensemble from J.K. Rowling, who probably got it from someone else again. The romantic opponent is Jenny — a Hermione character who is smart and organised and who drives the plan. Both DJ and Chowder compete for Jenny, at first objectifying her. We are encouraged to laugh at them as they try to impress her and fail. This, too, is the Wimpy Kid formula, in which girl characters are not quite human, considered a separate species (by the boys, and by extension, by the audience). Girls are also depicted as inherently ‘smarter’: more bookish, more scathing, more wily and underhanded. Jenny is an example of The Female Maturity Principle.
DJ’s babysitter, Zee, initially appears to be The Babysitter From Hell. She is depicted as a duplicitous goody-two-shoes who is actually into heavy metal and stoner boyfriends. The male scriptwriters have given her some pathetic, pseudo-feminist lines to make us despise her even more. Zee is actually on the same side as DJ though, because they have the same goal: To do their own thing in the house while they each leave the other alone. The babysitter’s stoner boyfriend represents the other side of the babysitter — together they form a slightly dangerous team. The audience knows this pair won’t be there to help the boys out should they need it. Parents and parental influences are safely out of the way in this story.
I have just listed the ‘inner circle’ of opposition, but the Big, Bad Opposition at first appears to be Nebbercracker, and is then revealed to be his house. This pairing is an example of a character who IS his house. At least, that’s how it’s set up:
When trespassed upon, the place reacts in a variety of antisocial ways: The lawn can suck things underground, and the facade takes on an unnaturally human visage, with two upper windows as eyes, a peak above the porch roof as a nose and the front door as a mouth, out of which rolls a lengthy tongue-like carpet with frog-like snatching ability.
This house is haunted by a wife who Nebbercracker ‘rescued’ from the Freak Show (presumably so he could own her, though he seems wholly redeemed by the plot line). This woman was in the freak show because she was ‘the size of a house’ (very fat). I’m uncomfortable with this. In essence, the big reveal is that Nebbercracker is himself a victim, to a fat woman with PTSD from a lifetime of being held in a cage. Everything I could say on this has already been said, back in 2006:
As the house, Constance is therefore enormous, insatiable, crazed – just as she was in life. Mr. Nebbercracker, in contrast, is small and skinny, the one who placates her great rage. This portrayal of a fat woman as out of control with huge appetites (whether for food or for sex) – as, literally, a maneater – is unfortunately all too common. In fact, the very difference in size between a large wife and a smaller husband, whether in literature, film, or real life, communicates the message that she is the dominant partner. These stereotypes of fat women are particular to fat women – the reverse wouldn’t work. There are no cultural figures of fat men whose appetites must be controlled by their skinny wives.
Further, the house is only silenced when it is destroyed, at which point we see Constance’s ghost dancing with Nebbercracker before swirling off into the sky. Nebbercracker then breaks down in relief that he and Constance have finally been set free. Thus, it is only through Constance’s destruction that her appetite is forever controlled.
What’s wrong with this picture? Monster House doesn’t merely reinforce negative stereotypes – it depends upon them. There would be no plot if not for the purposefully grotesque figure of Constance.
Both films present images of the extremely fat woman as a hybridized “woman-house,” whose identity and body are merged with the physical structure of the house to which she is confined. Drawing upon the work of foundational psychoanalytic theorists, we illustrate that the fat woman as “woman-house” threatens those around her with psychic or physical annihilation and therefore must be destroyed.
Stories in which non-conforming women must die at the end extend beyond this narrow ‘women as houses’ trope. It is seen in a wide variety of films, including one of my favourites, Thelma and Louise.
Art didn’t invent oppressive gender roles, racial stereotyping or rape culture, but it reflects, polishes and sells them back to us every moment of our waking lives. We make art, and it simultaneously makes us. Shouldn’t it follow, then, that we can change ourselves by changing the art we make?
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE HOUSE IN GHOST STORIES
The book cover below is strongly suggestive of ghosts. What is it, exactly? The house. The gables. The vintage texture overlay, the aura in the sky, and also the fact that we can only see a part of the house. Dormer windows, and preferably attics, are almost a requirement, as are chimneys — hopefully one of those wide old chimneys — the kind you could send a kid down.
The haunted house is a character in its own right, ready to gobble up its inhabitants. One of the most famous haunted house stories was written by Shirley Jackson.
In a middle grade story where a group of kids must defeat something supernatural, they often visit some kind of sage. This is straight from mythic structure, a la Joseph Campbell. The screenwriters achieve a twist on this sage guy by making him the local video arcade loser.
Every time I’ve watched this film I’ve gotten bored for the Battle sequence. I feel this is the film’s structural shortcoming (trumped only by its ideological ones). This is a story would would have benefited from a shorter screening time, but unfortunately the industry is set up so that feature films must be of traditional feature length. The big struggle sequence involves a house which literally comes to life and turns into an animated monster. Spectacle can only last so long before the audience zones out. I have always responded like this to elongated big struggle sequences, though I suspect fans of action movies appreciate them. Reviewers described the big struggle sequence like this:
But the overriding impression is assaultive to a progressively off-putting degree. Kenan keeps hammering away with stun-gun cuts, visual ammo suddenly flying in from out of frame and ear-splitting sound effects and music cues, to the point where at least part of the audience will want to tune out. In this respect, it is a theme-park ride, with shocks and jolts provided with reliable regularity. Across 90 minutes, however, the experience is desensitizing and dispiriting and far too insistent.
Though Jenny was useful for formulating the plans, it’s up to the boys to save the day with brute force:
While Chowder is driving a steamshovel, simultaneously battling the now-mobile house and leading it to a strategic point under a crane, DJ and Jenny are scaling the crane, DJ with explosives in hand that he will drop into the house’s chimney, blowing it apart. Jenny has a minor role in this – I can’t remember the exact sequence of events, but it’s something like, DJ stumbles and drops the dynamite, she grabs it, throws it to DJ, and he drops it in. It was all so predictable – and so unnecessary. Why couldn’t Jenny have dropped it in? Why are girls almost always accessories and rarely the heroes? Allowing Jenny to be the one to finally drop the dynamite would have made it a group effort, rather than a boys’ effort with a girl tagging along.
That Jenny doesn’t get to use the weaponry is the least of my issues. My issue is that Jenny doesn’t get a character arc.
The mainstream (adult) film equivalent of this is giving the female character the gun while the male characters use brute force with blunt objects and so on. Guns, in movies, at least, are seen as the easy way to win a fight. I am familiar with the ‘feminist equality’ argument for private and unmoderated gun ownership: “Guns level the playing field. A woman with a gun can fight a big man.” American homicide statistics don’t back this argument up, but I digress.
Ironically, the anagnorisis that DJ has is that after all that adult responsibility of saving the neighbourhood from the massive house woman, he would like to be a child for a little while longer. We realise this when he agrees to go trick or treating with Chowder.
Apart from this his friendship with Chowder has been reaffirmed. Previously, their child development was out of sync, but now these two buddies have overcome that.
The house is destroyed. One lingering question: Where is Nebbercracker going to live? This is never answered, though Chowder speculates. Last thing we see is Bones climbing out of the rubble of the house. He has been trapped inside. He’ll probably assume he was on a drugged out bender.
In any case, the suburban neighborhood is now safe.
As for the romantic subplot, it’s kind of a rule that DJ ‘deserves’ to win Jenny. DJ is the more conventionally attractive boy and star of our story. Even J.K. Rowling herself has said that Harry should have ended up with Hermione. The problem with romantic subplots is that if the plot really is a distant second to the main action, we end up with a story in which the girl is given as a prize, with no real reason shown for why this girl would be interested in the boy she ends up with. For instance, a believable romance between equals features an ‘I understand you moment’, which is a phrase I’m borrowing from Matt Bird. I’ll just quote Matt:
The reason so many love stories fail, and so many lame love interests drag stories down, is that the writers have failed to add “I understand you” scenes.
“I understand you” moments don’t have anything to do with wanting to change the other person and everything to do with accepting: We don’t root for Beauty and the Beast to get together until the beast gives Belle his library.
Matt Bird, Secrets of Story
Matt does offer a bit of a disclaimer: Sometimes the writer can establish that two characters belong together before they even meet.
But why, exactly, are DJ and Jenny together? I can tell you why. It’s because DJ saw her across the road and it was love at first sight. In turn, Jenny is impressed by DJ’s saving the day while Jenny stood by and watched. I don’t know about you, but I think a smart, knowing character like Jenny would see right through that kind of bullshit. Don’t you? It’s how she was set up!
By the way, it was always clear that Chowder wasn’t going to ‘win the girl’. As explained by Michael Hauge, there are some rules of romantic triangles. (And by ‘triangle’ I mean the variety in which two boys are interested in one girl.)
1. Make the character who will be left behind a jerk who deserves to be jilted. This is the trick used here.Chowder is kind of lazy. The physical shortcut is that he’s also chubby, even though BMI and laziness do not correlate in real life. He says he worked really hard for his basketball, but he only asked his mom for a dollar 28 times. Not marriage material, in other words.
2. Let the rival be the one to realize the hero isn’t her destiny.
3. Give “Ms. Wrong” someone better to be with, who makes her happier than the hero can.
4. (Rare)Leave your protagonist alone at the end, but better off moving on.
The writers of Monster House have written a film that mostly works, structurally. They’ve relied on established, unhelpful tropes to that end.
To The Manor Born is a British romantic comedy series written by Peter Spence which aired from 1979 to 1981. The actors reunited for a Christmas special in 2007. The writer is also known for Rosemary & Thyme and Not The Nine O’Clock News. Spence is educated in politics and American studies, which come across in his one-liners — these English characters have a contempt for all things American and there is a stark division between the blue bloods and the Labour government. He married into the family that runs this estate, so I can’t imagine anyone better positioned to write from an outsider’s perspective about a small English community set around a parish than Peter Spence.
SETTING OF TO THE MANOR BORN
Characters Who Stand In For Subcultures
Oftentimes when two characters clash in fiction, those individuals stand in for the clash between groups of people irl. This elevates an otherwise simple comedy or domestic drama. In Hud we have a clash between old values and new (1960s) values of the American South. In 2017 we saw a similar clash in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, in which certain characters exemplified racist, insular attitudes. Others struggle to deal with the new, kinder culture. Still others display progressive values. In To The Manor Born we have a very British clash between aristocracy and the nouveau riche — two very different kinds of rich, but both rich all the same, and therefore foreign to the vast majority of the audience.
TO THE MANOR BORN STORY STRUCTURE
Structure Of A Transgression Comedy
Each episode of To The Manor Born conforms to the transgression comedy. This is a perfect structure for two characters whose modus operandi — and main character attribute — is to pretend they are something they are not.
Discontent: someone is unhappy about something
Transgression with a mask: peculiar to comedy (and, incidentally, to noir thrillers)
Transgression without a mask: midpoint disaster when the mask is ripped off
Dealing with consequences
Spiritual Crisis: happens in almost every story
Growth Without a Mask
The stand-out example of this comedy structure is Tootsie, but can be seen all over comedy, including many episodes of The I.T. Crowd.
Returning to To The Manor Born after a long time (it was a series I grew up with), I was slightly surprised to see that Richard DeVere is set up as an equal insofar as screentime and empathy goes. My memory is that this is a story about Audrey. We actually meet Richard first, as he pulls into the village, setting him up as the viewpoint character. Like Richard, we are amused as outsiders by the eccentricities of the vicar. Richard comes across as very reasonable — we sympathise with him.
We soon see that Richard wants what he wants and stops at nothing to get it. He’ll even crash a funeral gathering to get his dream house. Richard reveals himself to be a trickster, though we don’t know the extent of this until episode two, when we learn that he is part Czechoslovakian, part Polish. (This is the perfect example of transgression comedy in which ‘the mask’ comes off. Richard DeVere is revealed to have a Czech birth name. )
Richard’s shortcoming is that he uses people to advance himself socially, and this makes him blind to whatever else is going on peripherally. He demands to be treated with respect, and in the business world he no doubt gets it, but here in blue blood territory he is starting from the bottom and must earn respect in a foreign environment.
Audrey fforbes-Hamilton is presented immediately as a trickster. The trickster is a very popular archetype with audiences, and we needn’t sympathise with them at all because they are so interesting. Tricksters make plans and follow them through. All we need in order to sympathise with a character is right there. We don’t even have to agree with their morality, and we wouldn’t agree with Audrey’s if we knew her in person — Audrey is a pragmatic, gold-digging schemer who will happily use people to get what she wants.
Audrey is also part of a long British tradition of comedic, socially aspiring women, which were very popular sit-com fodder in the 1970s and 80s, and which may be making a comeback.
These women care about no one but themselves and Audrey is probably on the sociopathic spectrum, treating all people as tools, failing to even recognise the emotion of sadness after her blue blood husband dies of double pneumonia and good living. An older, American analogue would be Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, in that Peter Spencer uses the same trick — he surrounds Audrey with people who do like her. This tells the audience that bad characters can’t be all bad.
Audrey and Marjory are among the second-to-last generation of toff women who were never expected to work, trained only in social manners and managing domestic staff. The very last of that class included women such as Princess Diana, born 1961. Audrey and Marjory would have been born around 1940, same as Penelope Keith. Audrey’s other shortcoming is that she’s just not fit for integration into regular life, even though that is exactly what is demanded of her now that England changed markedly after the war. Audrey has no marketable skills. Unless she marries rich again there is no place for someone like Audrey, and this is a very real problem for her. We could dig more deeply and it says something serious about upper-class women, and how a sexist dichotomy imprisoned them, in its own way.
Richard wants the dream house to impress his business pals, and also to pass himself off as old money. Audrey and Marjory’s xenophobia shows us that Richard has been up against racism his entire life, and we can see why he might want to offload his continental heritage to make life easier for himself.
Audrey wants to continue living in Grantleigh Manor, which has been in the family (her former husband’s family?) for 400 years. I doubt this heritage factor is important to her in the least — Richard pulls her up when she claims certain traditions are ancient when they’re really only new. Audrey wants to stay in the house to maintain her prestige in her community. It is a huge comedown for an aristocratic woman to be ousted from the family manor.
In episode one we are shown Audrey’s history — she had an ‘arranged’ first marriage (arranged by herself), and we’ve not surprised to learn in episode two that she has designs on Richard DeVere, not for him but for the manor. It’s also no surprise because it’s right there in the title. The title is so good because there is irony in it. Audrey is no more deserving of that manor than anyone else. I feel like this show gave modern culture the phrase ‘to the manor born’ but it goes back much further — To The Manner Born is a play on the phrase “to the manner born,” from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The desire-line ‘to marry Richard and move back into Grantleigh Manor’ will sustain the entire series. And because this is a romantic comedy we know the two will get together eventually.
What keeps them apart over the course of three seasons are mini-desires that are either fulfilled or stymied in the course of one half-hour episode.
01: Richard wants to buy Grantleigh whereas Audrey wants to continue living there as a happy widow. (The sustaining desire-line is established.)
02: Richard wants to find a social secretary to help him integrate into the village without impacting on his role as CEO of his supermarket chain. Audrey is not at all happy about being ousted into the much smaller property across the meadow, but wants to reclaim some dignity of sorts by tricking Richard into embarrassing himself by thinking someone else has moved in instead — someone he can use. In this episode Audrey gets what she wants in a small way, while Richard has already got what he wants in a big way — the manor.
03: Audrey wants to turn Richard into a church-going man. This is one concrete improvement she can make to a man she wants to turn into marriageable material. (Marriageable in her own eyes, that is.) Peter Spence is sure we know that this is part of a larger scheme by having Audrey tell Marjery so.
04: Audrey continues on her Richard improvement strategy. He must learn to protect the nation’s heritage. Instead, he has replaced an ugly but culturally significant mantel with a safe full of cash. Audrey wants him to feel bad about this. (It backfires when she ends up with the ugly mantel in her lodge.)
05: Audrey wants Richard to come to her on “bended knee” to ask for help in organising an annual ball. She wants to maintain her former status in the community and also impress Richard with her organising skills.
06: In episode six, Mrs Poo is the character whose desire sets the story going — she is bored at the Manor and wants a party. But because Mrs Poo is a minor character, her desire is also minor, and can be considered a McGuffin desire. It is only once Audrey attends the party that her own story-worthy desire kicks in — she wants to show the village that she is doing well financially. For that she must go on her usual overseas holiday. But as she explains to Brabinger, it’s appearing to go on holidays that is the main thing, not going on the holiday itself. It makes sense for Audrey’s character that she doesn’t enjoy overseas holidays in the slightest. This is shown via her reading a holiday journal from the previous year, in which she was bored. Outside her own very specific environment, the xenophobic Audrey flounders. This harks back to the wider, enduring desireline of Audrey — regain her former position or die. Audrey is the human equivalent of an insect which can only survive on one single blighted species of grain.
07: At the beginning of the episode it is revealed that Audrey has been having cash flow problems. Ordinarily, a real life person would ‘want money’, but because this is a comedy and because Audrey is a comic archetype, Audrey doesn’t really want money. (For her, such a desire is crass.) She is ironically upbeat about the late bills and wants to bounce a cheque at one of Richard’s supermarkets to get her own back. He took her house, after all. Then she wants to know what’s going on at the Manor, because Richard has a clearer desire in this episode — in an attempt to appear more English he is staring in an advert for Fontleroy’s Old English Tonic. When this is revealed to Audrey she has an about turn and her desire changes — she wants to star in the advert herself, considering herself more genuinely suitable for the job.
Romances are so difficult to write because the main opponents are the lovers, to each other. This series follows the fight-fight-kiss-kiss tradition of romance, where the audience sees from the very beginning that two characters are perfect for each other, and now we must (hopefully) enjoy watching them come to the same realisation, swapping witty banter (and it had better be witty).
A mistake some romance writers make when writing these fight-fight-kiss-kiss stories is simply creating personalities that clash. That’s not enough. Their agendas need to clash. Agenda = desire + plan, so their desires and their plans must clash as well.
The manor provides a very solid goal (desire) for both of them, but they can’t both have it.
Audrey and Marjory have a longterm, sisterly relationship in which Marjory is often the voice of reason, speaking for an audience who would otherwise question Audrey’s motives. A staple of British comedy is the stupid sidekick. In The Vicar of Dibley we have Alice, in Only Fool’s and Horses we have Rodney Trotter, and so on. This dynamic is also utilised frequently in cop and buddy comedies, where one guy is wily and the other dimwitted, getting them into trouble.
What is Audrey’s overall plan? After the wedding she plans to stay in the Manor, living life as before, only without her husband. This plan is soon dashed when she is told she is in debt. She has a plan to raise funds, but has no idea about how hard money is to come by, so these plans fail and she is required to leave her family manor.
Her plan switches and she intends to win over Richard. She’s planned this before the other characters realise — she has purchased the lodge, very nearby. Audrey understands Richard completely and knows that in order to win his heart she has to prove herself as wily and socially aspirational as he is himself. All of these trickster stories are flirtation. And the audience loves to see them fall. These are powerful people we’re laughing at, which makes it satire.
The big struggle scene in each episode of To The Manor Born involves witty back-and-forth dialogue between Richard and Audrey, often with an audience such as Marjory, sometimes alone. Spence started out as a gag writer for radio, but as he explains in the special features, Penelope Keith told him she’s not a gag actor. Also, gags would not be in keeping for a lady of the manor, so that explains why the big struggles happen in dialogue.
The writer kept the winning and losing about even, to show the audience that these two characters are made for each other. Audrey succeeds in getting Richard to church, but in the next episode she succeeds in conveying the importance of historical buildings but fails at the same time — she didn’t want the old mantel in her house. In “The Grapevine” episode, both Audrey and Richard are victims, discovered by the whole village coming out of the woods at night. They’ve been observing badgers.
In “A Touch Of Class”, Audrey attempts to trick Richard into eating a terrible mean, but she has been outfoxed by her drunkard temporary butler, who serves up a delicious meal, cooked by a renowned good cook as a favour.
A look at the structure of a transgression comedy (above) maps the ‘anagnorisis’ phase onto the ‘coming off of the mask’.
Over the course of the first series of To The Manor Born we see Richard realise that he has to learn a new culture and make a big effort to fit in, as custodian of the land he now owns. The whole village now knows that he’s not old money, so he’ll have to try extra hard to fit in. He realises in episode two that when you’re living among blue bloods, they’re not always happy to do what you want them to do, e.g. be your social secretary.
As for Audrey, she starts off resenting Richard, then realises she might be able to marry him and return to her manor, then she realises she’ll have to mould him into the sort of man she would want. Finally by the end of season one it is clear both of these characters are more similar than they are different, and Audrey realises she likes him as a person.
The back-and-forth one-upmanship and the discovery that each of them is duplicitous as the other will culminate at the end of season three in a wedding. The wedding episode drew huge viewer numbers in 1981. It was the only episode not written by Spence, for some reason. Perhaps Spence felt more comfortable writing transgression comedy than in tidying up a romance with a happy ending. These are two different skills, and two different sensibilities.
My Summer Of Love is a 2004 film based on a novel by Helen Cross set in 1984. If you’ve seen Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994), My Summer Of Love bears similarities: A relationship of romantic infatuation between two teenage girls from very different backgrounds.
This film puts the relationship between the girls to the forefront, making it a romance rather than a crime drama. My Summer Of Love is a love story but it is a tragic one.
GIRLS AND FANTASY LIVES
Picture books and middle grade novels are full of boys with rich fantasy lives. In these largely carnivalesque stories, the line between reality and fiction is blurred. But when it comes to young adult and adult fiction, what happens to all these dreamy boys? They disappear. Destructive, manipulative fantasies suddenly become a female characteristic.
At one point the girls enjoy a post-coital cigarette. This is such a Hollywood cliché that filmmakers themselves must be aware of what they’re doing. Here, the girls have themselves been influenced by the silver screen. Smoking in bed is what adults do, they have learned, and so they do it.
GIRLS AND MIND-ROTTING NOVELS
The girls’ whole summer is a construction of performed melodrama. There has always been handwringing about young women and the types of stories we let them read — a century ago many people believed novels would rot their minds. Ten years ago it was Twilight, more recently it’s sick-lit, and concerns (justified or not, I’m not sure) that 13 Reasons Why encourages suicide as a legitimate and successful form of revenge. Mona’s background in fiction includes horror films. As evidence we see her mimic the voice of a movie devil. But what has influenced Tamsin? She says she loves Edith Piaf. We also see she has made up melodramatic things about Piaf’s life. (Edith Piaf did lead a rather tragic life but she didn’t murder anyone, and not with a fork.) Tamsin’s mother may or may not be an amateur actress but in any case Tamsin seems to worship (real) actors, and has no doubt seen a lot of plays and films. Tamsin has been exposed to Nietzsche. She encourages Mona to read him, but soon shows that she doesn’t really know anything more than his name.
Perhaps boys continue with their fantasies but those take a different form and we no longer all them fantasies. Tamsin’s father is having a series of affairs. Perhaps we should compare this to the sexual fantasies and longing of his teenage daughter.
THE CHARACTER OF TAMSIN
Tamsin is an intriguing blend of savvy and naïve. Though she’s not all that dangerous yet due to her lack of power in the world, she is certainly a dangerous woman in the making.
IS TAMSIN A SOCIOPATH?
Is Tamsin on the sociopathic spectrum? Not being a psychologist myself, and with Tamsin not being a real person, I am free to speculate. I can certainly make a good case for it:
We know that Tamsin has been suspended from boarding school because apparently she’s a bad influence on others.
The scene which really makes me think Tamsin has zero empathy is the one where they visit the wife of the singer who was using Mona for sex at the beginning of the film. Tamsin revels in the misery she is causing this woman. (Neither of the girls are woke enough to see that this woman is not part of the man’s problem.)
Later she winds Phil around her little finger for laughs. (Anyone else think of that saying: “Men are terrified women will laugh at them; women are terrified men will kill them”? (Despite appearances, Tamsin isn’t old enough yet to know to be scared of men like Phil.)
Tamsin picks up that Mona is interested in horror movies and gives her a genuine scare by taking control of the Ouija board.
Tamsin’s fantasies about her sister being dead are creepy. It’s likely she has zero affection for Sadie.
Tamsin is charming, intoxicating and fun to be around.
Sociopathic women are not subject to the same body insecurities that most women are. That’s not the same as saying that any woman comfortable with her body must be a sociopath — think of it in the inverse: sociopathic women know exactly how attractive they are, unbound by society’s rules and expectations about femininity.
Sociopaths are more likely to use sex as power, and are therefore more likely to identify as bisexual, because power is the goal — gender of sexual target is irrelevant. (Again, not true in the inverse.)
The sorts of lies Tamsin tells are in line with what you’d expect from a sociopath. She lies to control others. She has no other reason to lie to Mona. Tamsin doesn’t need money or anything like that.
Since sociopathy is to some degree genetic, the philandering father is a possible sociopath in his own right. (We don’t learn enough about the mother.)
TAMSIN THE FANTASIST
The audience sees that Tamsin is a ‘fantasist’ before Mona does. The older you are, the earlier you see it.
Tamsin doesn’t change at all over the course of the film. She is a mendacious ‘bad influence’ at the outset and remains so. We know she will go straight back to boarding school, latch onto some new victim and continue to wreak havoc with people’s emotions.
SETTING OF MY SUMMER OF LOVE
Filmed in Todmorden, this story is set in a very similar Yorkshire town.
The book upon which this film is based starts in May, 1984. This was apparently a record-breaking heatwave for the area. Season is symbolic here — the extreme heat of this summer mirrors the ‘passion’ these girls feel for each other. Todmorden won’t see another heatwave quite like this one for a very long time. Likewise, we can surmise Mona won’t fall in love like that again.
The music, fashion and cars of the film make no attempt to take us back to 1984 — instead it looks like 2004. Nor is there anything about this that couldn’t be 1964 or even 1944, with a few surface-level modifications.
In 1984, gay relationships were illegal. In the film the girls are thrown out of the local dance establishment, not just for being high and interrupting the singer, but also for draping themselves all over each other. For the locals — be it 1984 or 2004 — two girls in love would have been a confronting sight.
But this is not really a story ‘about’ being gay, banding together against the wider, intolerant, heterosexual world. It would be a mistake to focus on this as a lesbian film. I regard this love as romantic but not erotic.
Yet the algorithms at IMDb reflect a tendency for filmgoers to focus on the salacious at the expense of seeing the story for what it is: Two (most probably) heterosexual young women playing out a love fantasy in what one of them thinks could replace real life.
THE FAKENHAM HOUSE
The aristocratic house is ‘creepy’ in Tamsin’s words, made even creepier by her made-up stories about it. At various points I thought of “Rapunzel“, though Tamsin had cloistered herself away in her upstairs bedroom largely by choice. (The dollhouse in Sadie’s bedroom is symbolic. )
I thought of Rapunzel again later when Mona’s brother literally locks her inside her bedroom. Tamsin chooses to cloister herself inside her bedroom, whereas the financially poor, working class and poorly-educated Mona is locked into hers. This is about more than the bedroom.
RICH AND POOR AS MIRROR CHARACTERS
A story instantly becomes more interesting when rich and poor come together in a story. A little Yorkshire village is the perfect opportunity for this — more so than London, probably — because country villages comprise tiny rows of cottages where the poorest people live, with ticky-tacky but newer cottages where middle-class people live (e.g. Mr Fakenham’s lover), but just beyond the town’s border lie the large homes of England’s aristocracy. The private-schooled daughter from the mansion down the drive is legitimately sharing the same country road as the girl from the pub.
NOTES ON THE STORY STRUCTURE
IS MY SUMMER OF LOVE A COMING-OF-AGE STORY?
[This is more] a movie that is about being an age, than coming out of age
What is a coming-of-age story? This isn’t an easy question because, at its widest interpretation, everything with a character arc is a ‘coming-of-age’ story.
What, then, makes My Summer Of Lovenota coming-of-age story, in Roger Ebert’s eyes? I guess it’s because 15-year-old Mona does not grow. Not in any desirable sense.
She certainly comes to a realisation. Mona is let down in love — again. She has no one in the world apart from a volatile, ex-crim brother. when she almost drowns Tamsin in the river she demonstrates that she has a bit of her brother’s murderous rage within her. When she walks down the road in that last scene — we don’t know to where — I feel her life will be just as terrible and deflated as she always expected it to be.
In this story there’s nothing of the psychological ‘growth’ characteristic of a coming-of-age story. Rather, Mona briefly saw grander possibilities for herself during a brief brush with a child of the aristocracy, and now she has shrunk back into herself. A feature of a coming-of-age story: the main character becomes equipped with the strength and courage and independence to face the world head on, and to move into adulthood living as her ‘true self‘.
Because we don’t get to see where Mona is going, the audience must extrapolate to achieve a sense of ending. Another viewer might see her attempted strangulation of Tamsin as a form of female empowerment, but I am not in that camp. I see this violence as a warning sign. (In domestic violence, strangulation is the best predictor of subsequent murder.)
The plot of the ex-con older brother’s religious conversion seems unrelated at first but over the course of the story we realise both get at the main question: What does it mean to be a genuine person? Failing to live up to his standards of Good Christian Person, Phil tells his church buddies to up and leave the premises. Like Mona, Phil too is probably back on the path to ruination.
SOME DIFFERENCES BETWEEN BOOK AND FILM
Mona narrates the book, so her Yorkshire dialect is strong. In the film we only see her idiosyncratic way of speaking when she actually speaks, and she doesn’t say that much.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Mona and Phil — called Porkchop in the novel because he is fat — have a sister named Lindy. Lindy is getting married for the second time. The film suggests that there are more kids than just Mona and Phil, when Mona tells Tamsin about her future hypothetical life in which she’ll have a bunch of kids, wait for menopause, or cancer, seeming to mirror her own mother’s sorry life. The entire subplot of the wedding is gone from the film, probably due to the constraints on time. More story fits into a novel.
In the book we know Tamsin’s last name: Fakenham. It never comes up in the film. Being an allegorical name, this might be too on-the-nose.
In the book Mona is self-conscious of her appearance whereas her appearance is a non-issue in the film. Perhaps because Mona has red hair, is skinny and freckled the audience is supposed to ‘know’ her insecurity. Almost every 15-year-old who goes by that description in fiction has huge body image insecurities — the most famous being Anne of Green Gables. Mona bears other similarities to Anne Shirley — she is terribly alone in the world and has the ability to sink into fantasy. Perhaps Mona is Anne Shirley from another time and place.
DIFFERENCE IN SETTING
In the film, Phil is shutting down the family bar at the beginning of the story but in the book Mona works as a barmaid at the pub where the family lives.
Mona thieves, plays on the fruit machines and drinks alcohol to help her cope with the day. We see Mona smoking and drinking but the film doesn’t show her gambling and thieving tendencies. This makes her even more of a naïve puppet in Tamsin’s games.
Tamsin is home from boarding school and seems lonely, so Mona gets a ‘call to adventure‘ when Tamsin’s father Mr. Fakenham asks her to befriend his daughter.
In the book Mona is on her way to school when she decides to visit the Fakenham house. There is no mention of school for Mona in the film. We assume she’s left, or at least, she’s not going back. Her education is over. She seems a bit older than fifteen, too. Ages are not mentioned.
Mona finds Tamsin’s parents arguing about Mr. Fakenham’s affairs when she first visits the big house. In the film we don’t see Tamsin’s mother until the very end, and we find out about Mr Fakenham’s affairs through different means, left in the dark about whether this was actually going on, or if this too was another part of Tamsin’s fantasy.
IF YOU LIKED MY SUMMER OF LOVE CHECK OUT…
Heavenly Creatures is based on a true story which I feel is the main edge it has over this story. Peter Jackson utilises more stylisation in Heavenly Creatures, but the acting is on a par. Like Kate Winslet, Emily Blunt has gone on to be a big name.
Commentators have compared the book My Summer Of Love — with its emphasis on a sister’s wedding absent in the film — to The Member Of The Wedding by Carson McCullers.
Tonally, look to We Have Always Lived In The Castleby Shirley Jackson. Jackson’s narrator is a mendacious teenage girl, whereas the narrator of My Summer of Love is a more ordinary character. The setting, too, is similar. Merricat Blackwood is sequestered in her ‘castle’ but occasionally goes into the village.
If you enjoyed My Summer Of Love, check out Fish Tank, a film by Andrea Arnold.
In Wallace and Gromit: A Matter Of Loaf Or Death, Wallace and his dog, Gromit, open a bakery and get tied up with a murder mystery. But, when Wallace falls in love Gromit is left to solve the case.
GENRE BLEND OF ‘A MATTER OF LOAF OR DEATH’
comedy, horror, romance >> cosy mystery
STORY WORLD OF ‘A MATTER OF LOAF OR DEATH’
The town’s milieu was inspired by thoughts of 1950s Wigan. It’s sort of like 1950s steampunk. Similar towns are seen in the live action Midsomer Murders series. It’s very English. As a consequence, Wallace comes out with very British idiomatic expressions pretty much every time he speaks. His life revolves around very English foods, especially cheese.
The films appeal to a dual audience partly by including a frequent scattering of allusions to pop culture. There are plenty of puns and nods of recognition in the intratext — Meat-a-bix written on Fluffles’ bed box instead of Weet-a-bix, for instance.
Wallace has a kindly nature, and is perhaps a little over-optimistic. This blinds his view on reality. In a Courage The Cowardly Dog sort of character combo, it’s up to Gromit to save the day while his owner goes blithely about his everyday business. Wallace is basically Muriel. While Wallace wants cheese and hot pots all the time, Muriel likes a nice cup of tea. (No coincidence that Muriel is from the British Isles, even in an American cartoon series.) Isn’t it a shame that Wallace never met Muriel? Now they would’ve made a happy couple.
This story has a romantic plot, so the romantic target is also the opponent in any romance. Here, the romantic opponent is also the villain.
Piella Bakewell is a hyper-feminized villain whose lipstick, elaborate hair-do and sausage-skin-tight dress work to tell us that she is not as she appears underneath. She is also a middle-aged woman who was thin in her youth, and has a vendetta against bakers because they bake all the delicious things which have made her fat.
I find this character and her storyline problematic. Femininity as artifice is a trope common throughout both fiction and real life. This is most clearly seen in stories (including reality TV shows and documentaries) featuring male-to-female transgender people. But it also applies to feminine cis-gendered women.
In our present system of gender, when drawing the lines between femininity and masculinity, we’ve positioned the latter as being the natural, stripped down, down-to-earth, nice and simple, no-frills, no-frivolity concept. We like to imagine that the masculine is just pragmatic and to the point, lacking in any unnecessary aesthetic considerations. We imagine it to be efficient and direct. Conversely, the feminine is believed to be artifice, an elaborate costume, all just poses and aesthetics and frivolous dalliance, wholly lacking in any pragmatic value. It’s an ornament, rather than a tool, and is anything but direct, instead regarded as endlessly complex, subtle, mysterious and intuitive. Full of uncanny, inscrutable excesses like feelings and beauty and style. The feminine is fey, precious, wild, unknowable. The masculine is rational, basic, objective, and ever so apparent.
While Wallace is stupid, any individual male character can be stupid, especially when it comes to love. This is not connected to hyper-masculinity. Wallace’s stupidity does say something about how men can be easily taken in when they fall in love, but this is provoked by the woman’s artifice. It started in the Garden of Eden.
At least since Biblical times, Women Are Liars is a cultural narrative from way back. Femininity As Artifice is a subtype of that idea.
As for the message about body shape, the whole story relies on the audience’s implicit knowledge that, for this middle-aged woman, putting on weight is one of the worst things that could happen. There is never any critique of this idea. Fatness is the joke. Specifically, female fatness. Wallace is allowed to glory in food to his heart’s content.
The thing is, this is a very clever story. The symbolism and the jokes work so well. It makes total sense that Piella would want to get rid of bakers — not only that, there’s a perfectly timed joke about getting a full ‘baker’s dozen’. The dough itself resembles doughy middle-aged people. Piella’s hyper-femininity works well as a ruse because pink, flowers and 1950s housewives are popularly considered the antidote to the masculinity of big struggles which take place in the outside world. Because this is all so clever, it’s can all be explained away. But a story is never just a story. This particular story relies heavily on worn-out sexist tropes.
On a less annoying note, Piella Bakewell has a little dog — a female who is a poodle. The poodle is a victim — a mute cute — and does what she can to help Gromit defeat their mutual opponent. I am grateful to the writers that Gromit and Fluffles do not end up an item, a la Milo and Otis and many other stories, where it seems the only truly happy ending for a boy character involves falling in love with a pretty girl character, even when the personalities are animalised children.
It’s up to Gromit to save the day. Realising Piella’s evil plan, he is unable to talk owing to his being a mute dog, so he is left with no other choice but to research how to build a security machine. He frisks Piella at the door to their house with an airport security type thing. He confiscates her ladle. He has already locked away all the knives in the house.
This is foiled with Piella cracks on Gromit bit her. Gromit is muzzled with a bread basket and chained to the sink.
Fortunately he has already set up a Rube Goldberg type machine to send her flying with a sack of flour on a string.
For a while it looks like the story is over, but we sense it’s not. How does the audience know that, after Wallace and Piella have first split up, that the story isn’t finished? What exactly is it that we’re sensing? If the story had ended there, there would have been insufficient build-up. A big struggle is a big struggle sequence. Sending Piella flying with one small sack of flour does not match the formidableness of the villain.
Piella arrives for a forced reunion and has bought a ‘cake’, which viewers know to be some sort of trap — is it poisoned? Is there a punching machine inside? We soon find out there’s a cartoon bomb — the big round ball with a single lit fuse.
There is an extensive action scene in which the bomb is caught inside Wallace’s trousers. Gromit saves him by filling his trousers with dough.Jokes involving trousers and the exposure of bums are particularly funny to a middle grade audience. The bomb blows up but Wallace is saved. This is the exaggerated, comical final big struggle that viewers expect from a comedy which has already opened with masterful action sequences (the cycling downhill and the near death experience falling into the alligator pit).
Wallace seems to have a anagnorisis after the break up, sitting at the table drinking tea with Gromit, the Only Sane Dog in the room. There is no true anagnorisis because these are plot driven stories and we can’t have Wallace coming to his senses or there would be no more adventures to be had. When Wallace turns his attention back to food this is funny precisely because he has zero anagnorisis.
Piella is thrown into the alligator pit, the one we saw earlier, which just so happens to exist nearby. Her vanity is her downfall. She has insisted on riding the advertising blimp despite being too heavy for it. The murder conveniently takes place off screen, down the well and out of view, but we know she’s been killed because the alligator burps.
As in every Wallace and Gromit story, Wallace soon turns his mind to food, the clock which runs his day.
Anne Of Green Gables has a lot in common with modern YA stories aimed at young women.
THE INFLUENCE OF CINDERELLA
In real life, the character of Anne Shirley would be a lifelong social workers’ project. Her parents died of ‘the fever’ when she was an infant and since then she’s been pushed around from place to place. She has literally no one in her life who really cares for her. Children simply do not thrive when there is no one to care for them. This gives the beginning of the Green Gables saga more in common with a fairytale than realistic fiction.
THE INFLUENCE OF JANE AUSTEN
Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813. Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908, just shy of 100 years later. I’m in no doubt that L.M. Montgomery grew up reading and re-reading Pride and Prejudice. Anne of Green Gables is the 1908 Canadian equivalent for slightly younger readers. However, Anne seems to be based on her child self.
Anne Shirley is basically an Elizabeth Bennett character.
In no particular order:
Diana Barry is Jane — each the sweet and beautiful confidante but ultimately too boring to ever exist as a main character in a novel. Both Jane and Diana are victims — in some ways — of their narrowly prescribed circumstances, being completely devoid of freedom. They do pretty much as they are told and they will have uneventful, reasonably happy but low-drama lives.
Lizzie is closer to her father just as Anne is closer to father figure Matthew Cuthbert at first.
Marilla is much kinder and less comical than Lady Catherine de Bourgh but fulfills some of the same story functions. For example, when Marilla cautions Gilbert Blythe that Anne is still very young this must plant the idea of courting her seriously in his mind, because that’s when he offers to escort her to her reading of The Highway Man. Likewise, it’s when Lady Catherine visits Lizzie at her home telling her that Darcy is already engaged to her sickly daughter that Elizabeth stubbornly refuses to say she is not engaged to Mr Darcy, despite rumours. Ironically, this outwardly event brings to consciousness her suppressed feeling that in fact she does like Darcy very much.
Suppressed affections for the most eligible boy in the village. Both Lizzie and Anne have romantic notions — Anne’s are a little more immature — and their ideas of romance actively stand in the way of them finding love until they overcome their fears.
These fears are thought to be borne of ‘pride‘. I find pridefulness quite an old-fashioned notion. I believe Lizzie and Anne suffered from anxiety, which I can well understand, living as fertile women in an age where sex and love was not discussed openly, but where women died during childbirth in every village, and if you didn’t pick your man wisely? Too bad, you were stuck with him. How could you pick wisely, though, when decorum wouldn’t let you spend any real time alone with him? To the early 1900s reader, however, ‘pridefulness’ as a female shortcoming was well understood, and made for a good psychological shortcoming. Bookish girls were often told not to bury their noses in study — Diana Barry is an example of a girl whose parents thought that way — and girls were expected to marry whether they wanted to or not. If they chose not to, they were called stubborn — and Marilla is an example of that, growing old and lonely in her twilight years as she gradually loses her eyesight. “If you don’t get married and have children you’ll live a lonely life,” readers are told. Pride as a psychological shortcoming is readily understood across cultures, and in Japan we see another quite different culture which nevertheless understands that pridefulness is something to be overcome. See for example Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service, a Japanese story through and through but echoing strong shades of Jane Austen and Anne of Green Gables nonetheless. Kiki is Anne, Tombo is Gilbert. (By the way, Anne of Green Gables is very popular in Japan. Japanese tourists make up a disproportionate number of tourists to Prince Edward Island each year.)
Unlike L.M. Montgomery, Jane Austen was not under contract to write any more stories if Pride and Prejudice were to take off. Not true of Lucy Maud, who was forced to write an entire series about Anne under contract even though she didn’t seem to want to. I feel her instincts were right — there’s a good reason why Jane Austen never wrote a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, and there’s a reason why the sequels to Kiki’s Delivery Service didn’t sell as well. Both Anne of Green Gables and Pride and Prejudice are complete stories in their own right. There are of course readers who love the entire Anne series, but others feel quite keenly that the rest of the series pales in comparison. I hesitate to use the word ‘formula’ because Anne of Green Gables, much less Pride and Prejudice, is far from ‘formulaic’, but there is a good reason why Anne of Green Gables works. (See Story Structure, below.)
For more on the similarities between P&P and Anne, see here.
THE INFLUENCE OF L.M. MONTGOMERY ON MODERN STORIES
For the younger set, throw in a bit of Anne of Green Gables and there’s an unlimited number of popular and enduring stories that can be made from the pieces:
Go a bit younger and the granddaughters of Anne Shirley are Ramona Quimby, Junie B. Jones and Clementine. Mischievous, well-meaning, average looking, each of these heroines find themselves in regular scrapes when all they want to do is have fun.
Let these heroines enter adolescence and they will probably have something about their physical appearance they can’t stand. That Anne Shirley so hates her hair makes me think that maybe adolescent self-criticism predates the Mad Men era after all. That said, Anne Shirley had very good reason to hate her red hair. In the 1800s it was genuinely thought that girls with red hair (and green eyes) were — if not exactly witches — at least ‘wicked’. The word ‘wicked’ comes up several times in the book. This was thought to be an innate characteristic that went with red hair, and in fact the idea hasn’t died completely. One day it will seem as archaic as phrenology. Anne Shirley was deemed to have a temper on her because of her red hair, so every time she lost her temper, it was put down to her having red hair. If that isn’t a justifiable reason to be angry in the first place, I don’t know what is.
Young adult novels for girls will almost always have a romantic subplot if not romance as a main plot, and increasingly, middle grade fiction has a hint of romance too. (The boy and girl will probably start as enemies, end as sort-of-friends.) Romantic stories with drama as the wrapper tend to endure across generations and area also more respected by critics.
I also see the influence of Anne of Green Gables in a popular TV show such as Gilmore girls. Stars Hollow is a modern day American Avonlea. Both are genuine utopias. Apart from death — which happens in a romantic way — falling over in the middle of a field and passing swiftly — nothing really truly bad happens in Avonlea. Rory is smart and bookish like Anne, but overall more of the Diana character. The mother of Gilmore girls is feisty enough in her own right to provide some interest and conflict. Also like Gilmore girls, Rory has a bit of a rags to riches arc — she was never truly destitute, but because her grandparents are wealthy she is able to pursue her academic dreams.
SETTING OF ANNE OF GREEN GABLES
Often a measure of a novel’s success, in its depiction of a particular place, occurs when readers feel they know it, they recognize it, or, better yet, they want to visit. Such has been the case with the perennial favourite, Anne of Green Gables. Since its publication in 1908, fans of Anne Shirley have sought out the small island in eastern Canada, keen to meet the character and tour the landscapes she made memorable—The Lake of Shining Waters, the Haunted Wood, Lover’s Lane, the Birch Path. Like the free-spirited Anne, who loves and names almost every tree and flower she encounters, they, too, want to know the place that had such an influence on her. For lovers of the Anne novels (Maud Montgomery wrote an additional seven for the series), much of the magic seems rooted in the very land Anne roamed.
Visitors to Prince Edward Island will find much to love in its natural beauty—a narrow strip of rolling hills in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with lush fields, quiet coves, and miles of white sand beaches. But its pastoral, timeless feel can’t quite explain its powerful draw. While the summers are mild, its winters are long, and two of the primary industries—fishing and agriculture—can be tough to pursue at any time of year. Yet tourism, the second most important, remains strong, with hundreds of thousands of visitors arriving every year to experience the same sites that were such a part of Anne Shirley’s adventures.
It is, in many ways, an odd phenomenon, a balancing act between the real and the fictional that Canada’s National Park Service, among others, helps sustain. In the town of Cavendish (“Avonlea” in the novels), in the house known as Green Gables, visitors can see the rooms where Anne and Matthew and Marilla slept; they can walk the same paths, cross the same streams and inhale the same fir-scented air. Along the way, they can relive some of Anne’s more memorable moments—scaring herself with Diana in the Haunted Woods, welcoming spring with her schoolmates on a mayflower picnic, accepting Gilbert’s offer of friendship on an evening stroll as the novel concludes. And yet these are all imagined events, superimposed on the PEI canvas—until one reads more about Montgomery’s life. There, in the pages of her journals, which were first made available to the public in 1985 (edited by Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston), is where the real and the fictional intersect.
Anne of Green Gables is episodic in nature, but the character development of Anne (and Marilla and Matthew) is linear. I discuss the episodic/linear nature of Anne of Green Gables in Types Of Plots In Children’s Literature.
…illustrations in children’s books contribute to our perception of character, giving an instant and immediate external portrait. Even when a novel is not illustrated, a cover picture may be revealing enough. Even a very brief examination of a number of covers to classics such as Anne of Green Gables shows how a visual portrait of a character can influence our expectations. In existing covers, Anne is portrayed sometimes older, sometimes younger, sometimes happy, sometimes sad, sometimes very pretty, which contradicts the text, and sometimes plain, in consistency with the text. In any case, the cover signals that the protagonist is a young white female. This may make adult, male, and non-Caucasian readers reject the novel.
How Picturebooks Work by Scott and Nikolajeva
There are so many exceptionally good books with strong female characters, but not nearly enough, and boys are not encouraged to immerse themselves in them. How many people would never consider buying Anne of Green Gables or Island of the Blue Dolphins for their 10-year old boy, but don’t pause before giving a daughter Treasure Island or Enders Game? Books featuring girls are, for the most part, understood to be books for girls. Which is interesting as well because, in addition to there not being enough, books featuring girls as protagonists are disproportionately among the most frequently banned children’s books. In a recent Buzzfeed list of 15 commonly banned books for kids, almost half were about girls. Girls who do things apparently scare a lot of people.
As each of these main underdog attributes is overcome, the next becomes an issue. The fact that Anne is a girl places the story firmly in its era — big budget stories are still being made where female characters have to prove themselves first (which usually involves being ‘feisty’, and making it among the boys on an adventure outside the home), but this generation of children is finally starting to see stories about girls whose femaleness is not something that makes them an underdog.
Anne needs to find someone to love her in order to find fulfilment. First she must find parental figures. Later, because old people die, she must find a romantic partner. Anne of Green Gables is a love story as well as a romance.
Anne of Green Gables is in some ways a very modern story. Whereas many 20th century films and books were about women waiting for men to save them, Anne Shirley works hard and we know she’d be just fine even without her Gilbert. Our culture has even reached the point where we get popular films such as Bridesmaids, about seriously flawed women (not even attractively flawed) who must get themselves ready for equal partnership before they can find love.
Like the perfect job interview (and the perfect kidlit heroine), each of Anne’s shortcomings has a flipside strength:
She is imaginative but prone to distraction. (I argue that Anne Shirley is an ADHD girl through and through.)
She is smart at school but also smart mouthed (audiences love, love, love a character who has the nerve to say what she thinks — it explains the cosiness of Doc Martin, too, popular with an older audience).
She appreciates all that is beautiful but remains toxically dissatisfied with her own lack thereof.
She is tenacious but stubborn. Her tenaciousness gets her far in academia but until she overcomes her stubbornness she won’t get far in love.
She is infectiously full of the joys of spring but immature.
Anne has neither the age nor wisdom to see what her real desires are. Though we as audience can see that her red hair should really be the least of her worries given her dire predicament at the start of the story, Anne gives her hair an undue amount of attention. When Marilla teaches her how to pray, Anne ‘asks humbly’ to:
Stay at Green Gables
Grow darker hair
Both requests indicate Anne’s deeper seated and far more serious need to be accepted and admired.
The lesson here is that main characters don’t necessarily know (or voice) what they want. But the audience must know.
On her journey Anne meets the full complement of both developed and flat allies, enemies, fake-enemies and fake-allies. The allies are famously described by Anne as kindred spirits.
Although at the beginning of the story Anne has no one and the whole world seems against her, as soon as she hits Avonlea strangers show various kindnesses. For example, there’s the station attendant who is charmed by her. I suspect Anne has always found comfort in the small kindnesses of strangers she meets along the way.
The flattest enemies are the women who abuse Anne by requiring her to look after their many children, all the while psychologically abusing her. First we have Mrs Hammond; next we have the prospect of the local Mrs Bluitt, whose very name suggests Anne would not be happy. As a side note, revisiting the story again as an adult, especially as we face the prospect of re-entering a world in which men control the fertility of women, I have more sympathy for Mrs Hammond as a victim. The 1980s miniseries starring Megan Follows almost encourages the viewer to read Mrs Hammond as lesbian, about to move in with her possessive, shoulder-rubbing female friend as she accuses Anne of basically killing the husband herself, with her failure to deliver lunch on time. What if Mrs Hammond was gay? What if she never wanted any children at all, but was stuck with all those twins? In a pre-contraceptive age, Mrs Hammond is arguably as much as a victim as Anne Shirley.
Marilla is an opponent who turns into Anne’s firmest ally by the end of the book.
Miss Shirley is a Miss Honey archetype (used by Roald Dahl in Matilda), an ally in every way.
Soon a pattern emerges — Anne is universally liked by good people, even if those people are crotchety on the surface. Diana’s auntie is the best example of that. Anne is a bit of a blow-in saviour trope, though rather than leaving town for good, she is pulled away to complete different parts of her life’s journey, returning every now and then.
In any love story, the desire and opponent are the same person. This is specific to love stories. So, Gilbert Blythe is both desired and an opponent. Same for Marilla, actually, because this is a story about a girl falling in love with her (substitute) parents.
There is a romantic triangle in Anne of Green Gables, since it is clear from the start that Diana Barry admires Gilbert Blythe. But because readers are like ducklings and fall in love with the first character they see, we are all rooting for Anne and Gilbert, even though Diana probably ‘deserves’ him more, if you think about it. We can see Diana isn’t quite smart (or educated) enough for Gilbert though, who is obviously more interested in fiery women like Anne. How does Montgomery manage readers to the point where we don’t end up mad and frustrated at Anne for her stubborn resistance to Gilbert? Diana realizes Gilbert isn’t her destiny. After a conversation with Anne near the end of the book, we are left with the impression that while Diana will pursue Gilbert if Anne doesn’t want him, she’ll happily give him over to Anne.
Josie Pye is a different matter — Josie is that snobby, girly character found in most popular books for girls — a girl who thinks she’s better than other people (the worst thing a girl can possibly be). Josie is rich but not academically inclined. She is well-dressed and confident and sees Anne as her rival, setting up a rivalry even before Anne has noticed she exists. This ensures the audience dislikes Josie Pye. Josie is not all that interested in Gilbert — she is mostly keen to deprive Anne of him.
Anne’s childlike, episodic adventures at Avonlea culminate in a ‘near drowning’ (which is no such thing), but the suggestion of death is there. A common storytelling technique in middle grade is to have another character come to the rescue of your protagonist. In this case it’s not a true rescue, more of a farce, as if acted upon a stage (where Anne often imagines herself, in fact). The rule here is that your main character still has to help themselves when it comes the character arc. They can be helped out in some sticky plot situation, but ultimately, change is up to them.
By the way, is there a deeper meaning to Anne’s obsession with The Lady of Shalott? Since it occurs at a climactic moment, I suggest there is. Doomed to view life through reflections, the Lady’s life is a mere shadow with no experiences of her own. Like The Lady of Shalott, Anne is inclined to live vicariously via women whose lives she has invented inside her head. This is the very thing preventing her pursuing anything in real life with Gilbert, right there in front of her.
Anne’s obsession with Tennyson’s poem isn’t really helping her get over her red hair issues, because it encourages us to focus on form over substance. The leak in the boat symbolises her psychological shortcoming — it will be her undoing — she needs the love of Gilbert to teach her she is in fact worthy in her own right. Signfiicantly, Gilbert has said he prefers brains over beauty anyway.
Anne learns that she truly belongs to Avonlea, even if she started out as an unwanted orphan. She has won numerous people over and spurred their own character arc (especially that of Marilla and Matthew, but also that of Rachel Lynde, Diana Barry’s mother and the crotchety old maid aunt*).
*As a side note, why is Diana’s old maid aunt so much richer than Diana’s natal family? My own guess is that Diana’s extended family is aristocratic by heritage, but perhaps the father made some bad investments and they have since lost most of it, which is why the aunt is the only one still able to pay for Diana’s music lessons. In this sense, Diana is very much like Jane Bennett — not only docile and beautiful and kind but also in a financially precarious position unless she marries well — and she will be expected to marry well in order to haul the financially failing family back into Prince Edward Island’s gentry class.
The Romantic Subplot
When Gilbert reveals that he and Anne tied for first in the Queens exam it is clear to Anne, seemingly for the first time, that they are true equals. This will eventually lead to a full-blown romance and marriage, but not in this first book.
After the death of Matthew we are left with Anne and Marilla together — Anne wants the best for Marilla and Marilla wants the best for Anne (college). These two goals will continue to butt heads and we’re not quite sure exactly what happiness will look like for these two, but when Gilbert offers to walk Anne home we know those two are going to end up together and we know for sure that Anne is going to look after Marilla in her old age.
It’s easy to dismiss romantic comedies as fluffy, mindless cinematic dreck, and some of them are just that. In every genre there are some well-made movies, and many more middling and awful ones. But there is such a thing as a good romantic comedy, even the most ardent chick flick-hater will agree. […] Romantic comedies are made almost exclusively for and about women –- in fact, they’re the only genre that is. I dislike them because regardless of any fluffiness or mindlessness, they are powerful pieces of popular culture. Rom coms furnish us with ideas and expectations about some of the most important things in life: love, work, friendship, sex, gender roles. And some of those ideas are worryingly sexist and regressive.
Angyal likens a number of modern rom-coms to Shakespeare, but not in a good way:
Movies like The Ugly Truth andThe Proposal upped the ante on the well-worn trope of the highly strung and socially incapable single career woman. It is nothing new to suggest that a humbling at the hands of a modern-day Petruchio is the only cure for this particular disease. But in recent years, the shrews have become higher strung, the Petruchios more chauvinistic, and the humbling more humiliating than ever before. Remember how in The Ugly Truth, Gerard Butler’s character reduces Katherine Heigl’s character, a competent, professional and authoritative adult woman, to curling up in the fetal position in the closet of her office? And how she then she falls in love with him? Tamed, indeed.
She notices a growing trend:
More recently, romantic comedies have given us a great deal of graphic male nudity. Male nudity is a growing trend in the genre: in the last [few] years, we’ve seen the barely-clad bodies of Justin Long (Going the Distance), Jake Gyllenhaal (Love and Other Drugs), Ashton Kutcher (No Strings Attached) and Justin Timberlake (Friends With Benefits).
And also notes that all of these are white men who look pretty much the same naked. She also noticed a growing acceptance of casual sex in films like No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits.
though Angyal points out the problems therein:
This wouldn’t be a problem, of course, if romantic comedies depicted women and men, and sex and love, in a positive and realistic way. But they don’t. Romantic comedies teach us that a woman’s life is empty and meaningless without a man, and that any woman who believes she is happy being single is simply lying to herself.
Then there is Hollywood’s racist problem:
[Rom coms] teach us that love is only for straight white people –- skinny, beautiful straight white people
And the gender essentialist messages:
[Rom-coms] teach us that men are sex-crazed, commitment-phobic animals who have to be manipulated into romantic relationships, and that when a man really loves a woman, he’ll demonstrate his feelings with grand gestures that barely skirt the line between love and stalking.
Have a weird, random dream job that would only exist in a Hollywood script. You’re a product tester of…products, or a “GLAMOROUS” dog walker, or a super chic editor of Chic Magazine located in Loveless Metropolitan City, U.S.A. Your job is your life. In the office, you’re an assertive smart woman but at home, when no one is looking, you open a bottle of wine and become The Sad Wine-Drinking Single Woman.
Christopher Orr makes the argument that rom-coms ran out of steam in 2012. He argues that although they only stopped being profitable that year, they’ve been terrible for decades (though he did like Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally and Pretty Woman. He also likes the darker rom-coms like The Silver Linings Playbook and Moonrise Kingdom). Orr noticed that although big name (male) actors may start in rom-coms (and do a great job), as soon as they get breaks in other genres they rarely come back to rom-coms, perhaps thinking that would be slumming it. As an example he offers George Clooney, who has modelled his career on Cary Grant’s in every way… except that Cary Grant did rom-coms. As for the storyline itself, he points out that in the modern world it’s harder to find an original way to keep two characters apart, which has lead to some ridiculous storylines. Embedded in this article is also the video A Brief History Of Romantic Comedies.
Alyssa Rosenberg points out that both male and female actors are opting out of rom-coms too, if they get the chance. defends defends rom-coms a bit, pointing out some good ones. (She likes 40-year-old Virgin and Bridesmaids, in which the hero/heroine has to have their own inward character arc before they’re fit for being in a partnership.)
[In short, critics don’t mind rom-coms if drama is one of the major genre blends.]
Orr responds to Linda Holmes at NPR who pointed out the misogyny of this debate (without using the word misogyny, though Orr doesn’t mind using it):’we’re not going to enter another “golden age” until we address the epidemic of weirdly aggressive actress-hating that seems to befall anyone who trades on straight likability. Linda Holmes writes also that ‘there is a useful distinction between romantic comedies that are greatand romantic comedies that are greatly loved’, and cautions anyone critiquing a rom-com to critique them for having ridiculous plots, which is the very point, especially in the old classics. Pretty Woman is an example of a ‘greatly loved’ film which is not technically great. She also argues that there is still plenty of opportunity for writers to keep lovers apart.
If Rom-Coms Are Getting Worse, It’s Not Because Society’s Getting Better by Noah Berlatsky is another response to the Orr piece. His favourite rom-com is Say Anything because the main characters are not actually assholes. He also thinks it works because the characters are young — young people still have constraints but older people are free to hook up as they please.
5 Romantic Comedy Tropes That Need To Die from Thought Catalog: Too many white people, too much with the pathetic fallacy of raining, not accepting a woman’s ‘no’ (I’m looking at you, The Notebook), women falling for hot men despite them being assholes, from a writer who also wishes Kate Hudson would get no more work in Hollywood.
Love Actually Is the Least Romantic Film of All Time from The Atlantic. I hate the messages in that film so much. At least I’m not the only one. For an excellent example of a love story by Richard Curtis, see the made-for-TV movie The Girl In The Cafe, which demonstrates his excellent skill as a writer but with interesting messages.
9 movies that make women think it’s romantic to be stalked from Hello Giggles. While I can’t stand this plot point in stories myself (and here’s evidence, in my breakdown of Waitress), I do wonder: Are women, grown women who have lived in the world, really ‘learning how to live life’ from rom-coms? I doubt it. I think most grown women recognise stalking when we see it in real life. As in the apparent frequency of con-non-con fantasies among women (formerly known as ‘rape fantasies’), being ‘stalked’ inside a fantasy by a fantasy sexual partner is not actually stalking at all, because the definition of ‘stalking’ means you don’t want it and don’t want the stalker. I do wonder about girls, however. At what age is it okay to introduce Twilight to your daughters (and sons)?
The word ‘stalker’ is used casually now, to describe deep liking someone’s social media posts. And it’s used casually in the song below. But genuine stalking is a scary matter…
These days there’s a romance subgenre called ‘fake relationship’. These are romantic stories in which two people are forced into emotional closeness via proximity or circumstance. Muriel’s Wedding doesn’t quite fit this category of romance because it transcends these stories and becomes a story about female friendship instead. There is no girl-meets-boy happy ending, which brings it out of the romance genre.
Written and directed by Paul Hogan (no, not the Crocodile Dundee guy, and no, not everyone in Australia is called Paul Hogan). This one goes by P.J. Hogan, probably because of that Crocodile Dundee guy. This was Hogan’s breakout success, and was also the start of two stellar careers for Rachel Griffiths and Toni Collette. That said, we’re here to talk about writing, for a change.
The Plot Structure Of Pretty Much Every Comedy
While some story experts say that there are 7 or 8 different structures for comedies, others say that this is the arch structure of pretty much every successful comedy recently:
Discontent: the hero is unhappy about something Transgression with a ‘mask’: peculiar to comedy and noir thrillers (the mask is metaphorical — the hero is trying to pass themselves off as something they’re not) Transgression without a mask: midpoint disaster when the mask is ripped off — the hero is ‘found out’ Dealing with consequences[ Howard Suber writes: “What will the hero do when he discovers his armour doesn’t protect him, that he can be violated — now and in the future? There is only one satisfactory answer: he can pick himself up, dust himself off, and start all over again.”] Spiritual Crisis: happens in almost every story Growth Without a Mask [Suber writes on this point: Some people might find it astonishing how many memorable popular films end in violence and death, but the history of drama is filled with them, and it is difficult to find any period that is not filled with them. If death is the ultimate separation, the next worst is the separation of people who love one another…The story that resolves itself in unification is most often a comedy.]
The Plot Structure Of Muriel’s Wedding
Muriel’s Wedding is worth a rewatch not just because it’s funny in a bittersweet kind of way, but because it’s a great example of a comedy that follows exactly the structure described above.
Discontent: Muriel is unhappy with her life in general — she’s been unemployed for the last two years and spends a lot of time alone listening to ABBA.
Transgression with a mask: Muriel lies to Rhonda that her life is going great, that she’s going to marry a guy called Tim Simms and she has a successful career selling make up.
Transgression without a mask: The mask is ripped off when Rhonda finds her wedding album under the bed and realises she spends a lot of time going around to bridal stores having her pictures taken. There is a confrontation in a wedding store when Rhonda finds her and Muriel is forced to tell her she just wants to change her life and that there was no Tim Simms.
Dealing with consequences: Still chasing the popular crowd, she basically ditches Rhonda for those other three bitches who are interested in being her bridesmaids now that she’s a bit famous. So she loses her best friend for a while and ends up completely alone when her husband also rejects her.
Spiritual Crisis: happens in almost every story: Muriel has a revelation at her mother’s funeral when she realises her father is more interested in the fact that Bob Hawke sent condolences than about the fact his own wife is dead. Having herself chased after celebrity by marrying the South African swimmer, she confesses to her fake husband afterwards that she’s just the same.
Growth Without a Mask : The good-looking husband rewards this growth with a proper kiss. Muriel realises that what she wants in life is to live in Sydney with her best friend and make her own life so she pays her father back some of the money she stole and takes off.
The other thing Muriel’s Wedding has going for it are two catch phrases: “You’re terrible Muriel” really took off in Australia and NZ in the late nineties and everyone knew where it was from. It is said three times during the film by Muriel’s hopeless sister.
Relying on the magic storytelling number of three, the sister says this three times over the course of the film.
The other is, “What a coincidence!” which is funny because the audience realises immediately that the father is having an affair, and so their meeting at the Chinese restaurant is no coincidence at all, but also comedies like this tend to be full of coincidences, so it’s a bit meta. (E.g. Rhonda finding the album exactly when Muriel is trying on the dresses, and so she confronts her inside the bridal store.)
The story begins, appropriately, in a small town on the Gold Coast, which is glittery and touristy and offers regular people a week or two of rich lifestyle once per year — the illusion of greatness for the average Joe. Muriel has to escape this setting and go to the big, anonymous city in order to really confront her genuine self. Hence, the setting is connected to the theme.
Sydney contrasts with Porpoise Spit — Sydney is the ‘New York of Australia’, the place aspirational young people from small NSW/QLD towns hope to go to make their own way and discover who they are as part of an anonymous crowd.
Muriel’s Wedding is also successful for other reasons:
The main character, Muriel Heslop, is full of plans and scams. Though we don’t like such characters in real life, we do love watching them on screen — shoplifting, lying, stealing money from her own parents… Muriel has it all.
Muriel is morally as well as psychologically weak, as noted above. The lying and cheating constitute the moral shortcoming; psychologically she has no confidence and is shy. She mistakes the shallow, pretty, high-school-popular girls for good people and tries to be like them even though they’re awful.
The story ends happily ever after, not as a typical romantic comedy would (with the man of her dreams), but with a good female friend, thereby still fulfilling the expectation of unification. (This sort of happy ending has been replicated in rom-coms numerous times since, with another example of female unification being Waitress (2007). In Juno we have a re-unification with a man, though without her baby, which subverts norms for the genre.
There are several set pieces which are memorable: If you watched this when it came out you probably still remember the first boyfriend unzipping the beanbag instead of Muriel’s clothing.
The film is spliced together with juxtapositions. That beanbag scene is swiftly followed by Rhonda’s collapse due to cancer. Hilarious scenes are immediately followed by serious ones. Within scenes, we have the juxtaposition of Muriel’s overjoyed face against her husband’s disgusted expression as she walks down the aisle. This leads to the bittersweet vibe. Muriel’s family is basically a tragic story.
Juxtapositions can be seen in the scenery, too: The bright, kitsch colours of the holiday destination against the griminess of Sydney, where bad things can happen (and do).
Since Muriel starts off as such a morally and psychologically weak person, her scope of change is large. The audience is given plenty of opportunity to see exactly how she has changed. She’s come full circle when she starts to pay her father back the money she stole and makes the moral decision to look after her friend (a good person) who is now in a wheelchair.
Comedies usually begin with someone who is out of a job, poor, broke, unemployable — a ‘loser’. By the end of the story, more often than not, they’re a ‘success’. The course of comedy is thus always an ascent to power.
— Howard Suber
Muriel’s duplicitous nature — common to all comedies of this kind, of course — is visually portrayed in numerous ways, not least by the rendition of the ABBA song, in which we see a ‘Betty and Veronica’ sort of difference between two female faces. Two different Muriels.
Mirrors are often used to convey the same thing, and sure enough…
Waitress is a 2007 film with a tragic real life story behind the movie. It is also a good storytelling case study, as it changes mood part way through.
Though I don’t like Waitress nearly as much as I like Juno, it’s worth a brief compare and contrast as a way of understanding the way the rom-com is evolving through the decades. Writers can no longer expect large, enthusiastic female audiences for films which basically end with a happy-ever-after when the couple comes from such completely different socioeconomic backgrounds (Would Pretty Woman get a great reception today?) We don’t want to see a woman basically saved by a man. Modern female audiences (even those who love rom-coms) expect agency in our female heroes — it’s not enough to be saved by a prince. (This sort of retrograde, pure fantasy is valid as a fantasy though, and may explain the increasingly popularity of erotica, rather than romance, which at least nods in the direction of feminism.)
First, what Waitress and Juno have in common:
They are the same blend of three genres: Drama, Romance and Comedy.
They were both released in 2007.
They are both indie productions.
They’re both about a young woman who, at the very beginning of the story, is thrown into crisis with an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy.
They are both stories which subvert the traditional love story by ending with the female hero happy, but not happy because she has been reunited with man and child — happy because she has been on a journey to ‘find her true self’.
As far as feminist messages go, Junodoes a better job. Waitress has the right general idea, but undermines itself in several ways:
Jenna’s husband Earl does not transcend the stock character of a toxically masculine red-neck husband in the way that Juno’s boyfriend subverts high-schooler stock characters by being both nerdy and sporty. He is so very unlikeable that it’s difficult to see how Jenna could ever have ended up married to him. Witnessing the unfortunate relationships of her two best friends are meant to give us some insight into how Jenna, too, ended up with a man like Earl, but it still doesn’t quite work, as Jenna seems smarter.
Domestic violence is only hinted at. The problem with portrayal of domestic violence in a rom-com is that it’s the wrong genre to explore it seriously.
Although it appears Jenna suddenly achieves independence on her own, she in fact is saved by a man, and why did Jo leave all that money to her? Why was he so involved in her life? Because she’s pretty, let’s face it. (The admiration appears to have been largely one-sided.)
Jenna’s friend seems to have learnt an unfortunate lesson in love: That stalking equals true love. This is a source of comedy — the man has truly terrible poetry — and the message for the audience seems to be ‘well, you never can judge other people for who they find attractive’, but the unintended message is also that stalking works.
Dr Pomatter was created before the decade of NiceGuysTM, but to me comes across as hapless and hopeless and obviously not interested in pies. Let’s face it: Dr Pomatter is not in any kind of prison. As a highly educated white man, America is his oyster. If he’s not happy with his wife (and his actions would suggest he is not) then he should get over himself and leave this small town. He can literally go anywhere. I didn’t buy his bullshit, though perhaps that was the writer’s intention; Jenna doesn’t end up with him, after all.
Still, this film was made on a very low budget ($2m) and grossed closer to $20m, so it’s a success in financial terms. It’s also got a rating of 7.1 on IMDb, so this film is a success by many standards.Waitress has an unfortunate real life drama — writer and director Adrienne Shelley was murdered by a tradesman in her own home before the film was released. So she didn’t even get to see how it became a box office success.
Let’s see how Adrienne Shelley told a satisfying story, even if we have personal political problems with the message…
This is an unspecified Southern American town, and I have not ever been to an actual Southern American town, but I’m getting the impression that this is the utopian version thereof. There are certain Southern features in this story arena: The accents, the diner as the main setting, the ‘native’ sexist man (called Earl, of course) versus the forward-thinking newcomer (Dr Pomatter) and the feeling that cultural evolution stopped in the 1950s. The nurse is even wearing an old-fashioned uniform of the sort never seen today except in kinky dress-up scenarios. Pies, too, are a symbol of 1950s America, in which housewives had the time to bake, and were encouraged to think that pie-baking was an expression of love. Jenna, too, has absorbed these values.
The pie symbolism would be way too heavy-handed in anything other than a comedy. The pies Jenna concocts represent her moral dilemmas and inner turmoil. As you can see, the pie above symbolises love. The pie itself, though, hooks us into the 1950s housewife sensibilities that the story then aims to subvert. We’re lead to expect a cheesy love story because of these pies, and we’re therefore a little surprised when Jenna ends up without any man at all.
Psychological Shortcoming:Jenna is in a bad relationship but doesn’t have the strength to leave. Whenever she has a problem she deals with it by making up a new recipe for a pie. She is cynical when it comes to love: “What if it’s my prince charming?” “There’s no such thing.”
Moral Shortcoming: Although the audience is helped to understand Jenna’s position (Earl is ridiculously despicable), it is a moral shortcoming (in general) to hate your own husband while pretending everything is all right, then start something with another man. Jenna is not truthful with the people she is closest to. She also considers selling her baby as a way to raise cash — also challenging to the typical audience.
As seems to be the case in all of these stories about a downtrodden wife, it’s necessary for the audience to understand the nature of sexism and acculturation as it happens in small towns. The film A Walk On The Moon has exactly the same problems for a certain segment of the audience: That film, too, is about a repressed wife who has an affair. In order to understand why she did that, it’s necessary to understand the likes of that explained by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. An issue with Waitress is that it is not in fact set in the 1950s or 60s, so we might expect Jenna to have a little more freedom and agency, and just leave her damn husband.
In the first scene Jenna realizes she’s pregnant, throwing her life into chaos, since she doesn’t love (or even like) the man she’s with, Earl. She wants to save money so she can leave her husband. She desires to win a big pie competition, in which case she will win $25k and, as her friends point out, she could open her own pie shop.
Earl, her husband, is a stock character. He’s a masculine redneck who thinks a woman’s place is to cook and clean for him.
Dr. Pomatter is a romantic opponent, as romantic conquests usually are at the beginning of stories. The problem with romantic plots is that the writer needs to concoct some way to keep the lovers apart. In this case there’s the fact everyone is married plus the unethical bit about a doctor sleeping with a patient. Dr Pomatter is the inverse of Earl, which does not equal perfect — Dr Pomatter isn’t possessive of his wife (that we can see) but he is unfaithful to her. (Is the name ‘Po Matter’ deliberately unappealing? All I can think of is the contents of a po.)
Jo – who is Jenna’s crotchety old-man boss who owns the pie restaurant – is basically her ally who does the bit where the hero is confronted by her ally about her moral decisions. He does this covertly by pretending to read out Jenna’s horoscope from the newspaper but really he’s playing a sort of fairy-godmother, crystal-ball role, giving her life advice based on what he’s heard about her and the doctor’s affair. His views are conservative, in line with the views of the community and also in line with those of a conservative audience: homewrecking is a thing — affairs are always the woman’s fault. (I’m paraphrasing.) Anyhow, I wonder if he also confronted the Doc for being a philanderer… He had every opportunity when he was in hospital!
The plan is to save money working at the diner making pies, then eventually leaving Earl. But of course this plan doesn’t work – she is forced to tell Earl that she is pregnant because he’s starting to get violent with her. Earl wants to be a father. The complicating factor is that Jenna and her doctor are falling in love with each other. Then Earl finds Jenna’s stashes of money. She lies and says it’s all for the baby’s things (when it’s actually for her running away).
For Jenna, the big struggle is the birth. This leads to the anagnorisis. So, the birth process (in which, once again, we see a woman on her back despite not being hooked up to all sorts of cords and monitors, THE most painful way to push out a baby) is symbolic for Jenna’s inner turmoil.
Jenna realizes that she doesn’t want to be the reason Dr Pomatter’s marriage breaks up when she meets his wife for the first time and observes how much the wife seems to admire her husband. Then, when Jenna sees her baby for the first time she realizes what true love is, and that she doesn’t love her husband at all. The baby gives her the strength to tell Earl that she doesn’t love him and he gets dragged out of the room by staff.
When Dr Pomatter unwraps the supermarket pie thing and watches Jenna leave we know he’s going to go back to his wife and that he’s going to go back to eating his crappy pies rather than Jenna’s homemade ones. We see a flash forward to Jenna happy and singing to her baby while she continues to work at the pie shop. Alone. She is financially secure because of the money left to her by Jo, and the next scene shows us that she now has her own pie shop, bustling with people and brightly decorated. She has named it Lulu’s Pies after her daughter. (And after her real life daughter, who appears in the film.) She continues to be great friends with her female buddies.
Is Twilight the modern Pride and Prejudice? There are some interesting parallels.
I listened to a lecture from the Kid You Not Podcast in which Clementine and Lauren discuss the appeal of dark paranormal romance among teenage girls. This reminded me of a lecture delivered by La Trobe University’s David Beagley.