Sunday, November 07, 2010

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Last month I treated myself to the audio version of Miss Pettrigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson, and then watched the movie. True to form, I liked the novel better than the movie, but thought the movie did a reasonably good job of catching the spirit of the book although they changed (grrr!) some details that I wish they hadn't changed.

The book, as read by Frances McDormand, who plays Miss Pettigrew in the movie, was absolutely delightful. Completely escapist with strong fairytale overtones, but sweet and warm and profoundly feel-good. What I particularly enjoyed about the relationship between Miss Pettigrew and Delysia Lafosse is that it is entirely symbiotic. Both women not only respect and enjoy each other's company, but they need each other. You might argue that since Miss Pettigrew is hungry and virtually homeless when they meet, she needs the largess of Miss Lafosse more than Delysia needs the wisdom and guiding hand of Miss Pettigrew, but we don't need to bring Maslow and his hierarchy of needs into the discussion!

I was disappointed that the moviemaker felt compelled to create more tension by corrupting the character of Edith Dubarry and making her stereotypically shrewish, jealous, and spiteful, competing with Miss Pettigrew for the divine Joe (i.e., Ciarin Hinds). Although Shirley Henderson played to perfection this evil twin of the Edith Dubarry from the book, I think this change transformed the "women as comrades" theme of the book into just another cat fight. I much preferred the interesting angle of Edith in the book--a completely self-made woman (both cosmetically and in the business world) who is driven to be successful and can still find love and happiness with the right bloke.

I also thought it interesting that the moviemaker felt compelled to take the fairytale world of the book and place it squarely in context. The book was written in 1938 when Europe was on the brink of renewing the world war, and yet it depicts a truly magical world in which princesses in disguise are finally given their due and problems really do have solutions. The movie attempts to dampen the spirits by showing gas mask displays in department stores along with designer dresses and having the characters express anxiety about the coming war.

Finally, I think I understand why the moviemaker made Michael, Miss Lafosse's true love, a poor man instead of just a nice rich one, but I wish they hadn't. Part of the charm of the story in the book is that the upper crust people who inhabit the world into which Miss Pettigrew is flung accept themselves for what they are and so are able to see and embrace and encourage the wonderfulness that is really Miss Pettigrew. Making this just another story about a starlet needing to choose between a poor true love and a rich mean guy undercuts the theme of inclusiveness that the book trumpets.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the movie and thought Amy Adams was terrific as Miss Lafosse and Frances McDormand was perfect as Miss Pettigrew, but the book is a gem in its unconventionality and the moviemaker stripped away several important planks making it more conventional and hence less than it could have been.


  1. I loved Miss Pettigrew and it sounds like the audio version was a real treat, especially with Frances McDormand reading. Perhaps an audio reread is in order! Although I liked the movie, the changes you mentioned were disappointing.

  2. So I've been wanting to see the movie and read the book. I think I'll do it in that order and get the best last.

  3. I quite enjoyed Miss Pettigrew this year and highly recommend reading more books that have been republished by Persephone Books, they're wonderful!

  4. I haven't read the book but did enjoy the movie. Both female stars were excellent. Nice that Frances McDormand is reading the audiobook. I will have to look for this title. Great review!