Anne Fine has had her triumphs of late: two Carnegie medals, a Whitbread Award, the Smarties Prize … but who’s counting? Suffice it to say that in the last few years she’s scooped the Kid Lit pool.
Now, surely, she’s surpassed herself. After all, Pratchetts may come and Dahls may go but how many writers for young people can claim to have provided a star vehicle for Robin Williams? The movie, Mrs Doubtfire, based on Anne Fine’s novel Madame Doubtfire, currently tops the American box office and promises to be a similar smash-hit in Britain judging by the almost full auditorium on a cold Tuesday in Basingstoke when I saw it.
Of course, much has changed in the transition from page to screen. Though the basic storyline has been retained – the antics of an out-of-work actor with a broken marriage who cross-dresses in order to gain access to his children – the narrative has received the full Hollywood Treatment at the hands of director Chris Columbus and co-writers Leslie Dixon and Randi Mayem Singer. And very effective treatment it is, too. The shift to a family audience has upped the quota of wisecracks, screwed a tight plot even tighter and, by way of re-location to glorious San Francinema-sco, greatly augmented the glamour. Add to this some highly professional performances from the three children, from Sally Field as the exasperated Mum, from the Man Himself as you-know-who, and I defy anyone, except perhaps a critic, not to laugh as loud and as long as I did.
So that’s all right, then.
Well … almost. As I left the auditorium alongside other satisfied customers, a query or two was already surfacing. What bothered me was something my daughter, then aged eleven, had said seven years ago when we’d finished reading the book as her bedtime story. ‘Dad,’ she remarked, ‘it’s not really a funny book, is it … underneath it’s quite serious.’ She meant passages like this, I think:
He was in full blast. Lydia and Christopher stood in sullen silence, while Natalie looked weepy and confused.
‘I’ve sat through as many boring old child health clinics and grisly playgroups in church halls as she has. I assure you. I’ve iced your birthday cakes, and wallpapered your bedrooms.’ He banged his chest. ‘I was even the sodding tooth fairy! Oh, yes. Make no mistake, I did as much as she did. You are my children as much as hers!’
Lydia and Christopher glowered, deeply indignant at the lecture, and smarting particularly under its implications of ownership. Natalie stood with her eyes lowered, inspecting her thumbs. She hadn’t realised that before, about the tooth fairy. . .
Here, there’s a dimension the movie never attempts. At the time, the tooth fairy reference had Ellie and me giggling helplessly-indeed, the phrase ‘sodding tooth-fairy’ has passed into household parlance. What wasn’t lost on us, though, is the pain underlying the comedy. Anne Fine’s free-wheeling farce has an Ayckbournian blackness and edge.
The movie ignores this completely. So attractive are the central characters on screen – whether child or adult – that the main suspension of disbelief required of the audience concerns the break-up of this Wackily Wonderful family in the first place. After this, accepting Robin Williams in drag is a doddle.
There’s a similar retreat from the sheer toughness of reality at the climax of the film when Dad’s belated success as a TV presenter brings about a suspiciously promising resolution to some of his marital difficulties. Again, the novel tells it rather differently:
‘How did you get here?’ he asked her.
‘1 had a fight. She didn’t want me to come. She called me disloyal. She said you’d forfeited your right to a visit today.’
‘What did you say?’
Lydia turned. Her eyes were filled with tears. She looked exhausted.
‘I told her I was not going to live my life between the two of you any more, thinking about her rights and yours. I told her I thought I had rights of my own, and from now on you two had better start thinking of mine.’
Daniel’s eyes widened.
‘What did she say when you said that?’
‘I didn’t actually say it, ‘confessed Lydia. ‘I yelled it.’
No shrinking from antagonism, or agony, here.
In short, the jokes in the film version are bought much more cheaply and charmingly than the novel’s. Instead of the tooth fairy we get sodding Tinkerbell.
Is this simply because Anne Fine is a better and more daring writer than Leslie Dixon and Randi Mayem Singer? Very probably
. but, in all fairness, it’s hard to be sure. As team-players, screenwriters have much less control over their text than writers of books. Also, given the financial imperatives of a big budget movie, a vital part of their task is to minimise the risks of audience disapproval. My guess is that Dixon and Singer would concede, and even envy, the greater depth and bite of Fine.
Luckily, of course, as a side-effect of their own success and the book sales it will promote, that depth and bite now promises to reach a wider readership than ever. So we have all the more reason to welcome the Doubtfires, Mrs or Madame … and all the more reason to celebrate the surefire talent which made both possible. If there were an Oscar for best original source-material, I bet I know who’d win it in ’94 …