Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine and Ella Enchanted starring Anne Hathaway both tell the story of a girl “gifted” with obedience who falls in love with a prince named Char. That’s about it.
Where the book played it straight but created sparks with its characters and original perspective on typical fairy tale staples (centaurs more horse than human, ogres with honey tongues and an appetite for human, and fairies who barely ever use magic), the film took the typical 2000s Shrek-trodden path and riffed off fairy tale tropes (newspaper ads for abacus programmers, Frell Community College, glass sneakers). The film was not particularly good.
This is not a new observation.
Honestly, it should have worked better. It makes sense for the tone of a film to match its source material’s spunky, rebellious protagonist. Perhaps it would have succeeded had Shrek not already done the self-aware fairy tale three years prior and Shrek 2 not perfected it the same year as Ella Enchanted came out in theaters.
And while the Shrek films take place in a land inhabited by fairy tale creatures, it does not follow the beats of a certain fairy tale. Ella Enchanted is, at its heart, a retelling of Cinderella that answers questions you may have had while watching the Disney version, like Why didn’t she ever refuse to be the family slave? (answer: curse of obedience) or How could she fall in love with a man she met one night at a ball? (answer: she and the prince were best friends for many years but because of the curse became estranged). It’s also an allegory for not letting society tell you what to do.
But do you know what makes Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine so timeless? Do you know what weaves through the entire book to tie all that creativity together and keep the premise from becoming an allegorical mess?
Ella and Char.
Film Ella and Film Char are rubber caricatures of the Plucky Intelligent Heroine and Late Bloomer Prince who Finally Visits His Own Country and Becomes A Man.
Book Ella is clumsy. Her mother’s death was partly her mother’s own fault, no matter how wonderful a mother she was. Her father is apathetic, manipulative, and greedy. Her penchant for languages makes her stand out among junior fiction heroines. She can’t sing. She knows what herbs will make you spill your secrets. She has an eye for fine art. She sells enemies’ wigs for questing bread. No other figure in literature has that combination of traits, and film Ella possesses none of them.
Cinderella and Prince Charming’s relationship must be central to any retelling. In Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, Char is genuinely charming. He comforts Ella at her mother’s funeral with a story about how her mother made him laugh. He jokes good-naturally, remembering a story he heard about Ella’s ungainliness.
“I slipped on ice!”
“Ice chips you spilled before you slipped on them.” He laughed. It wasn’t a ridiculing laugh; it was a happy laugh at a good joke.
“An accident,” I protested. But I smiled too, tremblingly after so much crying.
Char pursues her from that point on. He invites her to the palace menagerie, he ensures she reaches a giant’s wedding without becoming an ogre’s lunch, and he saves Ella’s horrible father’s second wedding from being the worst day of Ella’s life. Injustice outrages him. He likes to slide down banisters. He helps foreign innkeepers pick up messes his own men made, he doesn’t understand the point of finishing school, and he loves a good joke. At points, he hurts as deeply as Ella. They get along spectacularly.
Capturing such a stable relationship onscreen certainly would have been difficult. No tension. Just two people who enjoy each other’s company bumping into each other while Ella tries to break her curse.
However, abandoning this challenge and giving Char and Ella a Pride and Prejudice story hurts the strength of Ella’s character. Because we see them laugh as friends and disagree as friends and discuss serious matters as friends, Char’s third-act proposal of marriage gives us as much joy as Ella. When Ella realizes she must refuse him—and what’s more, she must completely end their relationship in case the curse ever brought harm to him or the country he would soon rule—we understand her pain. Such an injustice is a monumental weight to carry for a girl already forced into servitude. But Ella carries it. When she is later directly (but not purposely) commanded to marry the man she loves, she finds the strength to break the curse and refuse because she is smart enough to know what could happen, even though nobody else has a clue.
I heard Lucinda’s voice, ‘My gift to Ella is obedience. She will always be obedient.” I saw Mandy telling me to eat my birthday cake. I saw SEEf leering at me and heard him. “No need to be persuasive with this one. It’d cook itself if we told it to.” I saw Olive counting my coins, Mum Olga standing over me while I scrubbed the courtyard, Hattie wearing Mother’s necklace. I’d eaten the cake, drunk the Tonic, given up my necklace, slaved for my stepmother, let Olive suck me dry. They’d gotten all they wanted of me, but they weren’t going to get Char. Never. Never.
This is far more complex than the hackneyed conflict of one lover being forced to kill the other.
The choice to devote so much time to bringing out-of-touch Char and hipster Ella together deflates the power of this finale. They’ve been an item for half an hour— why should we cry at the thought of Edgar ordering Ella to kill him? Never mind how it robs Ella of her own intelligence and strength of character, as the filmmakers realize the worst-case scenario rather than making Ella responsible enough to give Char up long before that happened.
Look, the world is full of Cinderella retellings and for some reason Ella Enchanted rose above the rabble to become a middle school reading staple. Why? Those two key characters. Lose them, and any adaptation has to do a lot of work to make up for it. But although the film hopes to be a snarky comedy, it just lifts from already existing comedic tropes. Even the biggest device it adds—a throne-stealing, father-killing uncle—was taken from something else and only attempts to beat out other interpretations in how hammy it can be.
It’s great that the film is spunky, and it’s charming enough that it’s not unwatchable, especially now that Shrek has worn off a little. You just have to forget it ruined
my someone’s chance to make a better adaptation of a fantastic story. A vibrant atmosphere may hold the attention for an hour or so, but clever anachronisms and colorful costumes do not a great movie make. The one aspect of Levine’s work that remains—the curse of obedience—remains the sole thing that sets the film apart.
Media Credit: Miramax Pictures
Levine, Gail Carson. Ella Enchanted. New York: HarperCollins, 1997. pp 14, 225. Print.