Put this one under “JUST READ THE BOOK”

You know how kids are.
They have gummed their copy of Goodnight Moon and know it heart, they obsess over the dog in Are You My Mother? They know all the rhymes in Horton Hears a Who and when their Mothers say, “I said GO and GO I meant,” they that they, like Marvin K. Mooney, had better hustle on up to bed pronto.

It’s an accepted fact that kids thrive on the sameness and the repetition of favorite stories, and if their teachers or parents skip or substitute a word, they will be Corrected, and it may bring on Drama of the Highest Sort.

Apparently, though, we’re supposed to grow out of that. By the time we’re young adults, any old way that our very favorite novels and stories are repackaged and presented is supposed to be just fine with us. We read How to Eat Fried Worms, and if it’s radically different in the movie, to the point of adding extra characters, who cares? We unplug the phone and put off our final graduate project in Shakespeare (sorry, Dr. Kahn) to watch what we think will be the fantabulous LeGuin epic, Earthsea, and find it whitewashed and insipid and hideous (and YES, I’m still p.o.’d about that, lo, these many years later. And I will be!!!!).

Oh-ho. Welcome to my rant.

You KNOW I hate novels turned into movies. Too few of them are done well enough to merit watching any of them, but last night, I conveniently forgot that, as I bundled into my blanket and huddled down to watch the PBS/BBC production of Ruby in the Smoke. Sometimes I think American Anglophiles assume that if it’s British, it must be good, because the British Know Their Lit’triture, and if we don’t like it, well… we’re just too coarse to appreciate Heathcliff on the Moors. Somewhere under that comes the assumption, too, that the BBC never makes a mistake (I’m pretty sure this, in some part, the Potter thing – it’s just not as good as it once was, but people get nervous and start accusing you of hating witches or something if you point that out), but let me tell you: Ruby in the Smoke? Not one of their best efforts.

I have always adored Sally Lockhart, because she is gutsy, determined, and can shoot and ride and knows military tactics. She is in the center of a Victorian mystery, which, in and of itself, is somewhat highly dramatized and clichéd — but that’s the way the story goes. While the BBC production was … pretty, it was just too fast. Phillip Pullman has taken the trouble to write such a deep and complex book, showing, as he does, British history (and hypocrisy!), the background facts of the opium trade, and life in Victorian England as being both full of grinding, horrific poverty, rampant drug use, and ridiculous manners, as revealed by The Aunt. That’s why the movie had me cringing — we are rushed past plot elements and truths that are given time to digest in the novel, and the pinnacle moment when Sally actually has to take the opium herself is turned into a two minute dream sequence where everything was neatly resolved instead of a wrenching decision she really had strong opinions about and didn’t want to make.

I guess my final, aggravated question is WHY didn’t the BBC make it a two-part series? I expected that, actually, and they’ve been known to do that with billions of period pieces — did they skimp on this because it’s a young adult book? (Although you’ll note there’s no comment about the audience it is pitched to on the PBS site — hmmm.) Ruby’s just too huge of a book to shrimp down to an hour and a half size. The speed of the narrative left no room for drama, subtlety, for building the plot — nothing. It was a confusing blur where you were told things but not shown them; you found out details, but you had no time to wonder if you were right, or try to guess at the particles of the picture you were given. All Billie Piper seemed to do was wear cuter and cuter outfits, ’til the final scene where she was even in a great little hat. That wasn’t Sally! Not that she didn’t have cute clothes — oh, she dressed, all right. But this was a girl who wasn’t all that obsessed with her appearance. She was… prickly, not all girlish sweetness. She stood out as herself, and I just didn’t see or sense any of that in the BBC production.

I hate YA books made into movies… poorly. I am willing to redeem movies for a second chance if anyone has some suggestions on movies that are FAITHFUL TO THE BOOK — which no one seems to be able to manage, and maybe I am asking for a lot because book covers sometimes aren’t even faithful to the book — which really does beg the question doesn’t anybody READ!?!?!?

Okay, okay. Climbing down off the soapbox now…
Final comments: If you want pretty pictures? See the movie. If you long for a great story, a “ripping” good “Old-fashioned Victorian blood-and-thunder” historical thriller — for heaven’s sakes… read the book.

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  1. …or listen to the book as read by Anton Lesser. He brings the book to life with characterizations that are just right, not over done. He narrates all three of the Sally Lockhart books, brilliantly.

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