I’ll say right off the bat that I’m not going to review the movie. It’s a fun movie, but it’s so utterly far from the book that it makes no sense to combine it with the book review like I did with Life of Pi. As for making it its own review, I have nothing to say about it that Levine herself hasn’t already said.
The book, however, I will lavish with praises for as long as I live. It is one of if not the cleverest adaptations of Cinderella—or, indeed, any fairy tale at all—ever written.
If I say that the problem with retelling Rumpelstiltskin is that none of the characters are canonically sympathetic (and I have), then I say that the problem with retelling Cinderella is that Cinderella victimizes herself. She obeys, which is a virtue only to an extent. Adaptations of Cinderella abound, but every writer who does so is faced with this dilemma. How do you portray a girl who in the fairy tale does nothing to help herself in a way that people in the modern day— people who say that if you do nothing to help yourself you’re not a victim but a volunteer—will still sympathize with her?
Cameron Dokey made use of sentimentality and compassion to explain this. Donna Jo Napoli conquered the issue by painting an exotic historical setting that lets you bend your morals a little to suit the time. Gregory Maguire side-stepped the problem entirely by telling the story from the step-sister’s perspective instead. Cinderella is always given a reason—loyalty to the land, love for this would-be-mother she never had, etc.—to stay that is more than simple obedience. But always there comes a point where as the reader, you roll your eyes and think, “Surely there’s an easier way.”
Gail Carson Levine, with Ella Enchanted, did what no one has (to my knowledge) ever done before. She made Ella not only clever, funny, sassy and strong of character, but defiant. How do you stick a defiant girl into the role of Cinderella, you ask? Why, by saddling her with an obedience curse, of course!
Better yet, Ella and Char (the prince) are friends long before the ball. They fall in love long before the ball. Their relationship is dynamic, turbulent, funny, engaging, and everything I could hope for.
But it’s more than just a love story. It’s a story about a girl struggling to escape the cage that the curse has made of her life. Ella’s cleverness and wit keeps you engaged, and the quirky cast of characters, ranging from endearing to hateful, keep you laughing even when Ella isn’t in the mood to laugh.
I can read this book again and again and still enjoy it. Ella and Char’s love, unlike in many fairy tale retellings, is deep and borne of friendship. There is no rival, no real drama, it just is. Ella’s wit truly does Levine credit, because she makes you love her as you read by making you laugh at every turn. She staunchly refuses to be crushed, no matter how bleak life gets. She is constantly thinking, constantly doing what she thinks is best, so when she decides to indulge herself by going to the ball against her better judgment, you are smiling with joy rather than berating her for a fool.
Wit and fun dance together with just the perfect dash of sadness and efforts in vain.
The thing I liked best about this book was that Ella broke her own curse. Of course, throughout the story, you’re right there with her wishing Lucinda would take it away. But when Ella breaks it herself, after having failed to do just that so many times before, you’re over the moon, because of course this is how it had to happen.
I love everything that Levine did with the curse. The period of time when Ella, after having been ordered to be happy obeying, is quite something. The observation that she has been turned from half-puppet into all-puppet is all too astute, but Ella’s sorrow when the happiness is taken away from her is also very moving. But most amazing of all, Levine makes use of this opportunity to continue showering you with humor that could only be borne of that situation. Only occasionally is a situation serious enough that Levine lets it go humorless, and those moments never last very long.
For the second time today (and in fact since starting this blog), I rate this 10/10.