Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Winifred Watson
I take a lot of grief sometimes from bookish friends for holding to the Purist Principle that "The Book Is Always Better" than the film version. I've seen it put another way: "Don't judge a book by its movie." I do admit there are exceptions. I think the TV version of Lonesome Dove really captures the essence of the book, and in that case I appreciate the less-graphic violence on-screen. The Walter Matthau spy caper "Hopscotch" is one of my favorite films of all time. I recently tried to read the novel on which it's based and gave up after a chapter of turgid prose. But they are the exceptions that proverbially prove the rule.
The other night, I found Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day on Netflix streaming. I'd seen it once, before I read the book, and I watched half an hour or so of it again that night. Then, after a bad day at work, I came home needing something more soothing to read than the siege of Famagusta on Cyprus in Dorothy Dunnett's Race of Scorpions. So I sat down with Miss Pettigrew, and within just a few pages I was reminded of how much I love this book, and why it in particular is so much better than the film version.
For anyone who hasn't read the book or seen the film, there will be spoilers below.
In the absence of extended narration, films have to show what books can tell, and they often exaggerate to highlight. The book's story opens with Miss Pettigrew arriving at Miss Holt's employment agency. She needs a job, and she is on the verge of desperation. She is behind on her rent, her landlady is threatening eviction, and we learn later in the book that the toast and coffee she has around 11 AM is the first she has eaten all day. The film opens with Miss Pettigrew being dismissed from a live-in situation, carrying a suitcase trailing clothes out of the house while her former employer watches from an upstairs window. She then loses her clothes (including her hat), in a collision with a man on the street, spends all night in a train station, and stands in a soup line only to lose her food in another collision. At Miss Holt's, she is told there is no situation for her, but she argues with Miss Holt and then steals the address of one that is open. I understand that all of this is meant to show how desperate her situation is. But it makes the film's Miss Pettigrew (f) almost a figure of fun, caught in slapstick, and yet also more aggressive and I think less sympathetic. With the book's Miss Pettigrew (b) we're constantly inside her thoughts, watching her struggle with her conscience and the shades of her parents. When Miss Pettigrew (f) proclaims, "I am the daughter of a vicar," there isn't the context that there is for her bookish version, so it doesn't carry much weight. I imagine that line got laughs in the theaters.
There is a similar problem with the character of Delysia LaFosse. I think Amy Adams is a wonderful actress. But she plays Delysia as a coquette, all wiggles and sashays. The book version is more serious about her career as an actress - not just a singer - and she takes Miss Pettigrew more seriously, in their talks. There's a warmth to their developing relationship in the book, which I didn't feel in the film. And by making the film Delysia an American, who is whisked home in the final scenes, I think the film ruined a perfectly happy ending. At the end of the book, Miss Pettigrew is going to live with Delysia and Michael, keeping house for them. She has gained friendship, security, work she is suited for, the prospect of which fills her with joy. And she has a beau in the offing. Miss Pettigrew (f) does get Ciarán Hinds - I mean Joe Blomfield - and presumably love and security. But it's with someone she has just met, and it's King Coheptua and the beggar maid. I think the book's Delysia and Guinevere both get the better deal (with all due respect to Lee Pace's Michael).
By introducing Joe into the story so early, the film re-shapes it into a more conventional romance. And making him the fiancé of Edythe Dubarry undermines the friendship between her and Delysia, as well as the hilarious episode of the cocktail party, where Miss Pettigrew reunites Edythe with Tony while under the influence of the Snake's Venom he serves her. In the book, Miss Pettigrew has all these adventures before she meets Joe. She has already been transformed. Joe is only part of her happy ending. The friendship of Delysia is just as important, as is the new life she is entering into. In the film, when Joe and Miss Pettigrew meet, she is still in her dowdy governess clothes,
and she promptly drops a pastry on his immaculate shoe and then flees - a
typical rom-com "meet cute" that makes her look ridiculous. They meet again and again through the course of the film, which keeps the focus on romance at the expense of Miss Pettigrew's other adventures.
Of course I don't think any film could do justice to the fast-moving dialogue of the book. I admit, I was sometimes as lost as Miss Pettigrew, even without the influence of sherry and Snake's Venom. This is just such a delightful book. I agree with Henrietta Twycross-Martin, who wrote the introduction to the recent Persephone reprint: "what astonishes is the sheer fun, the lightheartedness and enchanting fantasy of an hour-by-hour plot that feels closer to a Fred Astaire film than anything else I can think of." I was also reminded of the screwball comedies of William Powell, Myrna Loy and Carole Lombard, not to mention Cary Grant and Babara Stanwyck.
Has anyone read any of Winifred Watson's other books? Hop, Step and Jump sounds the most appealing to me.