Book vs. Movie: Ella Enchanted
By Kim Hollis
September 14, 2004

Anne and Parminder react after noting Parminder's screen time is about 30 seconds.

If movies like Freddy vs. Jason, Godzilla vs. Megalon, Alien vs. Predator, Godzilla vs. Mothra, Kramer vs. Kramer, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, Ecks vs. Sever, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla and King Kong vs. Godzilla have taught us nothing else, it's that everything is somehow better in battle format. We here at BOP recognize this fact, but at the same time realize that our breed of super-smart readers sometimes yearns for a touch of the intellectual at the same time. And since Hollywood has a certain obsession with turning literature of all types into big screen features, we're afforded the perfect opportunity to set up grudge matches galore.

And so, whenever the Tinsel Town hotshots decide that it's a great idea to turn the little-known Herman Melville classic Redburn into a theatrical event film, we'll be there. Whether the results are triumphant (see: The Lord of the Rings trilogy) or tragic (i.e. The Scarlett Letter), we'll take it upon ourselves to give you the verdict and spark the discussion.

Ella Enchanted

Ella is a teenage girl who was given the gift of obedience from a fairy at the time of her birth. Some gift it turned out to be, too, as our heroine finds herself living an existence that is cursed rather than blessed. Any time the girl receives a direct command, she must obey. Can she somehow find the fairy and break the spell, or will she be forced to live out her days as the willing slave of anyone who might figure out her secret?

The Book

Gail Carson Levine's fantasy book for youngsters was a Newberry Honor book as well as a winner of the 2000 Rebecca Caudill Young Reader's Book Award, which is a very prestigious accolade for books aimed at kids. All of the acclaim is justified, too, as this story is cleverly written, intelligent and consistently engaging. For anyone who ever loved fairy tales, ogres, elves, romance and princesses, it's a very clever take on Cinderella that not only turns the tale on its head, it actually makes it all about female empowerment.

Ella is cursed by a well-meaning but conceited fairy to obedience at birth. She lives in a village called Frell with her father and mother. Though her father is frequently on the road as a traveling merchant, Ella and her mother are very close, and live in a happy home where they are close friends with their cook, Mandy. Obviously, Ella's curse can occasionally make life dreary, but for the most part, her young life is a happy one - that is, until her mother passes away from a mysterious illness.

From that point on, things go steadily downhill for our heroine. First off, since her father has no idea what to do with her, he sends her off to finishing school with the daughters of a woman of society, Dame Olga. These two odious girls, Hattie and Olive, make Ella's life a living hell, especially since Hattie is able to suss out the fact that Ella must obey commands. And even though she manages to find one friend at finishing school, that joy is short-lived for Ella as Hattie orders her not to be friends with the girl any longer.

As a result, Ella decides to run away in search of the fairy who "blessed" her. Along the way, she becomes fast friends with Prince Charmont, or Char to his friends. She also encounters elves, ogres and giants, all in an effort to get to a wedding where Lucinda, the fairy in question, will be in attendance. After this wild encounter, a near-disastrous almost-marriage and a series of royal balls, will Ella finally get the chance to live happily ever after?

Although the book is definitely targeted at a teen audience, it's never dumbed down and in fact is very enjoyable for readers of all ages. It also scores high on the re-readability quotient - in fact, I probably enjoyed the book more on a second reading than the first. It's romantic but not sappy, fantastical but not ludicrous. Ella tells her own story in the first person, and she is witty, funny and frank.

The Movie

Basically, the movie version of Ella Enchanted is an extremely *loose* adaptation of the novel. And by loose, I mean that there is a girl named Ella in the movie who is cursed with the gift of obedience. Other than that, the stories are not even close. At all.

For whatever reason, the people who adapted the screenplay for theatrical form decided it simply wasn't campy enough. And that the villains quite as over-the-top evil as they ought to be. And that more singing and dancing were necessary.

To that end, the screenwriters made several "enhancements." Slannen the Elf, who is a peripheral character in the book, becomes Ella's sidekick. Amusingly, the book pokes fun of the notion that elves are short, happy little entertainers, but the movie makes its elves - you guessed it - short, happy little entertainers. They try to temper this "elfism" by making Slannen like Herbie from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Slannen doesn't want any part of his cohorts' goofy shenanigans. He wants to be an attorney (just as good old Herbie wanted to be a dentist).

Probably the most egregious change, though, is the creation of two completely new villains. While in the book the conflict was primarily between Ella and her curse (though Hattie and the ogres could also be considered minor bad guys), the producers of the film decided to take things to the level of mediocrity by inserting an evil uncle for Prince Char into the tale. Where in the book he is the rather well-adjusted son of a tough-but-fair king, in the movie his father is dead and he's under the countrol of the evil Edgar and his snake Heston. While I grant that Cary Elwes, who portrays Edgar, is deliciously in-your-face as the main baddie, he just feels wrong here, particularly as he is so fondly remembered as the hero in The Princess Bride, a movie of very similar genre. It should be noted, however, that Steve Coogan as the voice of Heston is probably the best thing about the film.

The primary role in Ella Enchanted is played by Anne Hathaway, a winning young actress who really ought to be able to break out into non-princess movies with ease. Hugh Dancy is a decent Prince Char, too. For the target audience (teenage girls), he's got the perfect blend of Heath Ledger-esque good looks and pro-feminist attitude. The remainder of the cast isn't particularly notable, even though some of them are pretty recognizable. Minnie Driver, Vivica A. Fox, Parminder Nagra and Eric Idle all have roles in the film, but they're so minor that they don't leave any real impression at all.

In the end, the movie version of Ella Enchanted means well and probably isn't really a bad film for its target demographic, but it's not special by any means. That's a shame, too, because for the most part the movie year 2004 has been bereft of quality product for youngsters.

The Verdict

Obviously, my opinion on this one is pretty clear. The book is far superior to the film in every aspect, and a much more rewarding and entertaining experience. For Anne Hathaway fans and youngsters looking for harmless entertainment the movie is a tolerable way to pass some time, but the book is a more enjoyable and clever rendition of the modern-day take on the Cinderella story. Where the author of the novel obviously sees her readers as growing, intelligent young people, the movie is content to make itself little more than a watered-down, live-action version of Shrek.