I used to think it a pity that while The Little White Horse got two adaptations, Elizabeth Goudge’s other novels (safe for Green Dolphin Country) got none, and technically I still think so, but now I also think we really need another adaptation of The Little White Horse.
One that doesn’t suddenly disappear, and one that actually gets the book right.
I want a Christian (or in this respect very tolerant and sensible) director and screenwriter. No, seriously, I want it to be a piece of Christian media in the same way that The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings are. In a good way. And I mean in a really good and sensible way, not a sort of low budget production from a vaguely cult-ish American production firm nobody ever heard about and that also includes “Christian” things that were never intended by the author (that is, sadly, the downside of a certain kind of Christian media).
I want all the things included that don’t fit the mainstream Hollywood taste—the “middle aged love” as a Guardian article once called it, the blend of history and faith, the creative approach to magic, the way the backstory really works. I want all the characters to really look the way they were described in the book, I want a fat and jolly Benjamin, and a Puck- or Peter Pan-like Robin, I want the parson and the villagers, and Miss Heliotrope as a serious character, and Marmaduke Scarlet as a mysterious character, and all the little animals. I want the writers to understand that the characters are not separated into the categories “dark and mysterious” and “comic relief”. And I want Maria to be flawed and grow as a character.
I want all the odd and strange and silly aspects played straight. Wrolf is not a black dog who magically turns into a lion, he is a big golden lion that is somehow accepted by everyone to be a dog. The pink geraniums are a very, very important plot point. Maria’s spiritual connection to the very real boy Robin is an important part of their relationship.
I want the movie, from an aesthetic point of view, to be the ultimate dream fantasy of your average little girl. Pretty dresses, pony riding, lots of glorious food, flowers, enchanted rooms, the whole of it all. But I want the spiritual and emotional themes to be addressed in a very mature, serious manner, and with all the depth of the book. No toning down. None of that terrible business of children’s book adaptations making the tone darker and more mature, and the themes and values sillier and easier.
We need that. I think, in some ways this really might work better nowadays than just a few years ago: the cottagecore trend could help with the style, and older romantic couples are slowly and steadily becoming more acceptable again. A mini series might work better than a movie-they usually do—but I think a movie could capture it neatly, too.
There should be a film adaptation of These Old Shades, and frankly, I should be in charge of it. It’s a pity in itself that there is no Georgette Heyer movie to speak of, with all her Regency novels being a bonanza of material for beautiful films and mini series in the vein of our well-beloved Jane Austen adaptations. But These Old Shades, that’s a different matter altogether. It’s not gentle colours and dry wit, combined with romance and a dash of adventure, it’s far too 18th century, far too lavish and rich, too powdered and patched.
No, with new adaptations of beloved classics, made in different styles, being all the rage right now, we should be making a screen adaptation (whether an extra-length movie for the theatres or a mini-series made by one of our favourite public television broadcaster is of less importance) in a new playful interpretation of the characteristic style of classic period dramas.
The reader might not yet know what I mean, but I do. The problem with this book is that two possible things in a film adaptation could happen: 1., that the makers take the book too seriously and try to present all of it in a completely true manner (or, worse, try to fix what seems wrong!) and 2., that the makers look down on the source material as a silly vintage romance novel and make just a travesty of it, or try to make it modern.
But These Old Shades is a good book, and it’s a book to adapt into film respectfully, but it also sometimes a silly book, with some of its silliness being full intention, and some of it maybe just a sign of age, and both needs to be considered. A loving, respectful self-irony is what it needs, playing all what is meant seriously in a truly serious manner, but not forgetting the wonderful humour, and gently poking at all that is silly about it, showing the nonsensical class snobbery that is, already, called out in the book, and the strange whatnots of the time.
Many reviewers seem to think that the book stands for all that it shows, but that is not entirely true—a certain hypocrisy is exampled, and the protagonists are not always meant to be agreed with (or always agree with each other!), but the strange logics of innate desires…of farming, for example…make a good base for in-jokes that carry and light up parts of the film, and show a certain humorous view of what can be read in the novel, without deprecating it.
But some things need to be played straight. The page boy with the Titian hair, for example. No matter how obvious it might be to all the audience, there shall be no hints beyond what can already be read in the book, or, as we see him, even fewer. Play it straight, no matter how ridiculous it may appear. Play it straight, and reveal it in full glory. And the same goes for certain physical similarities…
And be careful of what you do with the main characters’ relationship. Show what is written, truthfully and with full understanding of context and situation, not wrong readings of others.
What brings me to another—show Avon and Léonie, and all the others, in their full light. Don’t try to make them any better or worse than they are, instead show how flawed and lovable they are, and how they, especially Avon, grow.
I want to see a Léonie who’s all energy and misbehaviour, loneliness and distraught, a strange and elegant boy at one time, and a rogue, yet sweet girl at another. Her eagerness to fight and use weapons, to bite and kick, and fence and shoot, should be shown in exactly the true, wild, chaotic way it is, and not polished to make her a Strong Female Character, devoid of all personality and originality. Her equal delight in her attire as a boy and her new-learned girlhood should be equally shown, and she should not be made into either a tomboy, who hates all feminine things she should wear or do, or into a girl who’s changing entirely through suddenly putting on a dress, leaving all what was behind her, because both would be a simplification of her character and sadly stereotypical. Léonie likes what she likes and does what she wants, whatever that may be.
But above all: show her maturity. And her sadness. Two things that are often told of and sometimes shown in the book, and which are important to her character, even more when we see her moving and talking than in a book which tells a great deal through narration, and through the eyes of Avon:
“A certain cynicism, born of the life she has led; a streak of strange wisdom; the wistfulness behind the gaiety; sometimes fear; and nearly always the memory of loneliness that hurts the soul.”
Léonie, though often called that, is not a child—or maybe she is, but then she is a small child, a true infant, as much as an ancient, and that has to be shown. Making her all cheerful and wild would be unjust, and I dare say, to make better use of modern times in a film adaptation of an old book, than to include pointless nude scenes or lessons in misunderstood feminism, show some of her past, of the cruelty she experienced, and the things she has seen, and not just the results, but the reasons of her having to be a boy for seven years. All this could only be allured to in the book, and while I don’t want anything overtly dark or explicit in a film, I think it would be good to take a tiny glimpse behind the surface.
As for Avon—show his growth. His desire to live up to Léonie’s expectations, or to what he thinks them to be. Let him grow tired of his old image, but don’t overdo it—show that there has always been kindness in him, and that he would never cease to be a dangerous men. Show also his reluctance towards his and Léonie’s relationship, and his fear not to be good enough.
But again with Avon, the matter of dress is important. It would be such a pity if he were to look in a way that would be appealing—and “manly”—today. He is powdered, he is patched, he has a fan, he’s wearing shades of lavender and pink, and ensembles in pure gold, and he is always holding his snuff box tight. He is also frightening and dangerous, nearly sinister, and he thinks himself to be a worse person that he is, or at least, than he becomes. And he is the leading man in a romance. These three must work together, despite the general reluctance of the film industry to make it work.
Which brings me to another thing—the 18th century costumes, and sets, and general aesthetics, must work in accordance to the ideals of the time, not to ours, or what we now deem pretty of that time. But a few decided anachronisms, of the type often found in old period dramas, might just work for the fun of it. I don’t really know right now how to describe what I mean, but it’s the sort of thing I would find just right.
All in all, it has to be grand—bright, rich colours, big costumes, lavish sets, gorgeous scenery, full music, plenty of historically appropriate, but extravagant whatnots, all the strange ideas and ideals of that time, have to be shown in full grandeur. No minimalism, very little realism, no reluctance and no shyness; it has to be bold! And the style, the overall vibe, should be more of something made in the mid of the last century, but with a certain whimsy unique to itself, and an intricacy often found nowadays, all while staying faithful to the book.
Small and silent scenes should be equal to loud and large ones, Léonie and Avon’s sweet moments of Pygmalion given as much importance as Léonie and Rupert saving each other and riding away.
The side characters and their relationships should be explored wholly, but of most importance shall be the relationship of the Duke, and of his Soul. In fact, making Léonie his Soul should be a continuous thread throughout the entire film (or series). Not too much, of course—not to the degree that it gets annoying in narration, and especially not so as though Avon thought of Léonie of a sort of device to become a better person, or any such thing. Only gentle subversion of a common literary theme—a character who has not sold his soul, but, through buying what can not be bought, and what became his, and yet not his property, found his way back to his own soul.
It would be a pity if their love story became one of a cheerful girl fixing a bad man. Léonie is sometimes worse than Avon, at times he is even concerned about her own outbursts, though she may have better, if one can call it that, reason to be so. They both grow through each other and save and protect each other, or at least mean to do so, and at times it even seems that the tables have turned and it is he, who has to make sure that she is not growing too dangerous—which she must not, any more, having him.
For personal reasons, the scene of the drive back from Versailles needs to be included, unshortened, maybe even prolonged. And Léonie’s letter has to be the most heartbreaking thing, naturally.
And as for something I have already mentioned vaguely, and now have to say more to: It is of importance that Léonie is made Avon’s ward so that he can work his scheme against Saint-Vire and so that she can be respectably and legally with him. He thinks that she would only look at him as a “grandparent”, whereas she thinks that he would never want her as for matters of class. He refused her to be his mistress, and both thought the other should not marry them for their respective better. These aspects are too often overlooked by people who want to make everything bad. Naturally, their relationship grows from master and (overjoyed) servant to platonic, even familial affection, to romantic love. This growth is important and more of an example of friends who become lovers, than of anything else.
Now I have to say one last thing: The loveliest ending would be a voice over, maybe of the Duke, or of Léonie, perhaps of Hugh, or even of Saint-Vire, or several together… no! I got it, of the Curé! of the quote from, or even the entire, Epilogue to Eighteenth Century Vignettes by Austin Dobson, from the beginning of the book. It embodies just what I want for the film—a warm and loving, yet critical and gently ironic view of the magnificence, extravagance, splendour, bigotry, concealment, arrogance, and humanity of a not quite so distant century, and of the people in this lovely, silly story, who represent it all so wonderfully.
‘WHAT is it then,’—some Reader asks,— ‘What is it that attaches Your fancy so to fans and masks,— To periwigs and patches?
‘Is Human Life to-day so poor,— So bloodless,—you disdain it, To ‘galvanize’ the Past once more?’ —Permit me. I’ll explain it.
This Age I grant (and grant with pride), Is varied, rich, eventful; But, if you touch its weaker side, Deplorably resentful:
Belaud it, and it takes your praise With air of calm conviction; Condemn it, and at once you raise A storm of contradiction.
Whereas with these old Shades of mine, Their ways and dress delight me; And should I trip by word or line, They cannot well indict me.
Not that I think to err. I seek To steer ‘twixt blame and blindness; I strive (as some one said in Greek) To speak the truth with kindness:
But—should I fail to render clear Their title, rank, or station— I still may sleep secure, nor fear A suit for defamation.