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Even Frances Hodgson Burnett’s happy endings come with a price. The beloved British author responsible for two of children literature’s most enduring classics (and, at least in the case of her “The Secret Garden,” one of the most frequently adapted tales for children) was never precious about meting out “happily ever after” endings with some serious asterisks. Burnett didn’t dislike a happy ending so much as understand that even the most fantastical of plot twists — the long-missing father returns, compassion is cool, the savior was living next door the entire time — should exist in both a fairy tale world and one that looks very similar to the real one.
After all, Burnett’s heroes are mostly children who are skin-of-their-teeth survivors, young stars who overcome through both sheer force of will and the power of their big imaginations. There’s certainly something dreamy about Burnett’s story starting points, from a lush garden needing to be saved (“The Secret Garden”) to a pair of unknowing heirs who are owed much (an idea approached from very different angles in both “A Little Princess” and “Little Lord Fauntleroy”), but Burnett always rooted these fairy tale ideas in harsh reality. So it’s somewhat surprising that the best cinematic version of Burnett’s world comes with the kind of happy ending the author herself might have been cautious about creating.
Loosely based on Burnett’s classic 1905 novel of the same name, director Alfonso Cuarón’s “A Little Princess” seamlessly weaves the harsher elements of Burnett’s story (any kid who read it has likely never forgotten the image of a young girl having her “ears boxed” by a caretaker) with a fantastical script from Richard LaGravenese and Elizabeth Chandler that plays up the inherent magic of the tale. Cuarón’s film takes some major liberties with Burnett’s original story — much like the 1939 film version of the story, it crafts a very happy ending — but the film does it in service to a deepening of the fantasy that Burnett first imagined.
At its heart, it’s the stuff of (particularly dramatic) childhood fantasies: rich young girl Sara Crewe (the wonderful Liesel Matthews, who burnt bright as a kid star before getting down to business as a member of the ritzy Pritzker family, canny casting on a whole new level) is shunted off to boarding school during World War I, where she’s already a bit of an outcast before horrible news arrives that her father is dead and she’s now an orphan. Packed off to the school’s dank attic and forced to work for her keep, Sara attempts to feed her soul through a two-pronged approach: staying true to her kind nature and imagining (quite literally) a rich world in which her horrible living conditions are plush, luxe, and satisfying.
Shot by Cuarón’s compatriot Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, “A Little Princess” is a feast for the eyes and the heart. As Sara’s real world situation continues to crumble, she holds fast to fantastic dreams that allow her to experience all sorts of wondrous things, from tasty meals to a comfy bed and even a still-alive father. The spirit of Burnett’s books, which all hinge on combining dreaming big with the cost of living in the real (and, often just plain terrible) world, remains top of mind even during some of Cuarón’s most vivid visions of Sara’s pretend life.
The pain of Sara’s actual life is never pushed aside, but instead is the driving force behind her seeking beauty in horrible circumstances. That’s what Burnett’s stories always strove for, the beauty living alongside the pain, and finding something new and satisfying in the process. As the film’s plot accelerates, Cuarón begins to compress the two seemingly different sides of Sara’s story, ending with a conclusion that makes a tear-stained case for a world in which a happy ending is finally possible, the price long since paid.
“A Little Princess” is now streaming on HBO Max, iTunes, and YouTube.