Edit May 16, 2018: For updated and added reviews and content, visit my new website Lit Lovers & Corset Laces.
A Little Princess is common book for any little girl to read. It's the novel your mother shoves in your face to help convince you that you are special, loved, and important. It's the book that holds the lesson of learning how to value yourself and your own creativity even when others around you try to discourage you. Despite these great lessons, however, the book never had any real staying power with me. The movie was quite a different story, though. Of course there are a few problems with the movie. It's not true to the source material whatsoever as far as the setting, and the ending is quite different from the novel's, but stripped down to the bare basics it is essentially the same story with the same timeless moral. I've watched this movie about three times in the past week and continue to cry, and I'm determined that it's an underrated film that I will attempt to pass down to my children.
Vanessa Lee Chester plays Becky, the second largest role in the film and also the role in which the most liberties were taken. In the book, Becky is nothing more than a poor cockney girl working as a scullery maid. Alfonso Cuaron (the director) took a large step by casting a black girl to play Becky, who in this film is portrayed as an orphaned servant and is ostracized not only because of her station but her race as well. Even though this might throw you off, Chester more than atones for the lack of physical faithfulness through her performance. She is another child actor who really mastered that art of believability, and together she and Liesel Matthews cement a chemistry that captures the audience's heart and forges a great onscreen bond. Chester portrays Becky as a much more sensible character than I remember her being in the book. When the audience first meets her, she's resigned to accept the life she's been subjected to and mentally shakes her head at Sara, who she seems to view as an escapist. Slowly, however, we see her begin to find hope through the stories Sara tells, and through their friendship she gains the confidence to imagine things for herself.
Screenplay: There are a great many diversions from the original novel, but I don't believe the screenplay was written with any intent of being like the book. The greatest way to approach this movie is acting like you never read the source material. I'm not saying this to scare you away, however. Most of the seemingly insane risks paid off tenfold in my opinion. Cuaron's version of A Little Princess captures more than just a girl's relationship to herself. It highlights various aspects of different relationships: relationships between races, relationships between social classes, relationships between parents and their children. There is more variety in this film then there ever was in the novel. The film also places much more emphasis on the culture from which Sarah came. She was moved from India to Victorian England in the novel (I believe, I don't quite recollect) while her father went to the mines. In the film, the time period is shifted to World War I where Sarah is taken from India to New York while her father fights in the war. The contrast between the two settings brings more attention the rich Indian culture that became essential to Sarah's present self awareness and wisdom. There are many differences, but I promise there is nothing that you won't like. Or at least, there was nothing I didn't like. Even though I'm normally a huge stickler for loyalty to the source material, this film never really bothered me. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that I watched this movie years before I was even able to read. By the time I laid my eyes on the book, the movie had already found such a dear place in my heart that I couldn't criticize it in the slightest way.
Cinematography: Absolutely stunning. I have know idea who filmed the movie, but the artistry involved was beautiful. The movie was all about subtlety in acting, and the cinematography really captured that well. Nothing was overdone, but sometimes I was just awed by the beauty of the way the camera hit something in just the right way. There was also a huge emphasis on using different angles, which worked well in the film. I also loved the use of a kind of color scheme, even though I'm not sure that has to do with cinematography. The contrast between the richness of India's whites, oranges, and bright yellows and the dullness of New York's green and black color tinge is actually quite symbolic, as are other aspects of the film, such as wind and the story that Sara narrates throughout.
Soundtrack: Perfect. I mentally applaud Patrick Doyle. The album has a place with my other favorite soundtracks on my ipod. The music is very culturally rich and influenced by the sound and sensuality of India. The main theme, "Kindle My Heart", floats throughout the entire soundtrack. The song really has staying power, which you don't even realize until you find yourself humming it in the days after you've watched the film.
Costume Design: Like everything else, very subtle but very stunning and also VERY cultural. The rich oranges, creamy whites, and colorfulness of Sarah's clothes in India and Ram Das's native garbs provide a noticeable and intentional contrast to the dull greens of the girls' uniforms and the dingy blackness of Sarah's dress later on. I might have already mentioned this, but it is really worth noticing so just read it over again.
The only thing that halfway bothered me was that Sarah's father is British and she was raised by Indians, and yet she has an American accent. But other than that, the accents were all fine. I guess you can't train a child actor to do everything perfectly.
It was wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. This movie slipped hideously under the radar when it came out in theaters, but it actually ended up being nominated for an Academy Award. Unfortunately, most people will never know about the beauty of the film, which is a shame because I personally believe that it's a movie everyone deserves the honor of watching even if they aren't familiar with the novel. Everything about this movie was breathtaking and its message still resonates with me and anyone else who once watched it as a child. Not only that, but A Little Princess is so visually and musically aesthetic that once you've watched it and let that timeless message and everything surrounding it sink in, you will never forget it. I recommend that if you ever find the chance that you give it a try. It never fails to make me shed a few tears, and I'm sure that even those who don't like it will still find something to cherish.
Five stars out of five. Without a doubt.