Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Little Mermaid Wrap-Up

The Little Mermaid Wrap-Up

So, here’s what I have discovered this month:
1. Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” is not a terribly popular fairy tale for adaptation
2. 2 out of every 3 adaptations of “The Little Mermaid” suck because authors don’t take the time to identify what is so powerful and compelling about the original, and
3. The idea that I could find the time to write a book review the week the show I’m directing goes up was really, really silly of me.

That being said, it’s actually really convenient that I ended up doing this fairy tale this month, because of the first two points that I discovered: There really aren’t that many adaptations out there. Oh, there are plenty of mermaid books, and there are plenty of books about the Siren legend, but there are very few “Little Mermaid” adaptations.

And you know what? I’m okay with that. Really. To be perfectly honest, if you’re going to adapt a fairy tale poorly, I’d rather you not adapt it at all, and while I wish Anderson’s original version of this tale was more widely known than Disney’s, I appreciate the fact that most adaptors are taking the ideas that inspired Anderson and going in their own direction with them.

Because here’s the thing. If you read “The Little Mermaid” and you come away thinking, “Gosh, that would be a great story if it only had a happy ending!” then you’re kinda missing the point, and also, you don’t want to read “The Little Mermaid.” You want to read a story about forbidden love between two people from very dissimilar walks of life who overcome the obstacles in their paths and find a way to be happy together. And that’s fine. That’s perfectly good story, and it’s been written over and over again, and it’s been written over and over again about a mermaid and a human, and I fully support that! Sirena by Donna Jo Napoli does it really well, and is one of my favorite novels by her.

So, yeah. I’m well aware I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to this story – but here’s the thing. It isn’t just this story. It’s any story in the public domain with an actual author. You wouldn’t rewrite Peter Pan and have Peter decide to abandon Neverland and stay with Wendy. You wouldn’t rewrite Alice in Wonderland and have the Mad Hatter kill Alice before she can return home. You wouldn’t rewrite Little Women and have Laurie end up with Jo. Those examples would completely disregard the author's work and endings, and to me, villainizing the Sea Witch and the girl on the beach and giving the mermaid a happy ending with the prince is the same thing. Books belong to their readers and all that, but you have to have respect for the original. You can’t just completely disregard something you don’t agree with.

So yeah. Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon gets a Strongly Recommended, and Teenage Mermaid by Ellen Schreiber and Midnight Pearls by Debbie Vigue both get Not Recommends.

Other notable novels: No adaptations of the story per se, but Fortune’s Fool by Mercedes Lackey and The Mermaid’s Madness by Jim C Hines are both excellent novels that play on the mermaid trope, as does Sirena by Donna Jo Napoli mentioned above.

October’s fairy tale is Rapunzel! See you tomorrow!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Review Cancellation, what??

Hello all! Cassie here.

So, originally this last week, I was going to be reviewing Fortune's Fool, by Mercedes Lackey. But as I started my reread, I realized that that novel is less The Little Mermaid and more the siren legend with a taste of Russian folklore.

Okay, says I. Well, Jim C Hines sequel to The Stepsister Scheme is The Mermaid's Madness, and it promises to be a Little Mermaid adaptation, so we'll read that!

But about halfway through, I realized that that novel deals with the character of the little mermaid years after the events of her story, and the novel's events aren't even directly related, not really. It's less of an adaptation and more of a continuation with a brand new tale.

And then I said, you know, it's really to late to try and track down a fourth adaptation, let alone read it, plus I don't know that they're really out there beyond the three I've read, plus I've got a show going up this weekend, and I'm up to my eyeballs in tech week, so maybe we should just take a break, yeah?

So, for my sanity, plus the fact that the two novels for this week turned out to not fit the criteria, we're turning this into a three-adaptation month, and I will see you all on the 30th with our wrap-up!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon

Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon

Target Audience: Teen
Summary: Princess Margrethe has been hidden away while her kingdom is at war. One gloomy, windswept morning as she stands in a convent garden overlooking the icy sea, she witnesses a miracle: a glittering mermaid emerging from the waves, a nearly drowned man in her arms. By the time Margrethe reaches the shore, the mermaid has disappeared into the sea. As Margrethe nurses the handsome stranger back to health, she learns that not only is he a prince, he is also the son of her father's greatest rival. Sure that the mermaid brought this man to her for a reason, Margrethe devises a plan to bring peace to her kingdom. Meanwhile, the mermaid princess Lenia longs to return to the human man she carried to safety. She is willing to trade her home, her voice, and even her health for legs and the chance to win his heart…

Type of Adaptation: Retelling

It should come as no surprise by now, but I have incredibly high standards for adaptations of this fairy tale. I know, you’re all shocked, right? Anyway, bearing that in mind, Carolyn Turgeon’s Mermaid absolutely blew me away, and I cannot wait to tell you about it, so let’s dive right in, shall we?

This novel is told in two alternating voices: Lenia’s – the mermaid – and Margrethe’s – the girl on the beach. And, of course, we all know about my love/hate relationship with multiple perspectives in novels, but this one is done really well, and really suits the story. That’s really one of my markers – if the story were to be told from only one perspective, would anything important be lost, and in this case, the answer is yes.

Anyway, we meet Margrethe, a princess from the Northern kingdom who has been sent into hiding at a convent because her paranoid father believes that their Southern enemies will make an attempt on her life if she stays in the castle. The Northern and Southern kingdoms have been at war for years, and it taints everyone’s lives. When Margrethe’s mother was alive, it was better, for she tempered the king, but since her death two years before, the king’s lust for war has been growing, and the tentative peace is nearly in tatters.

So Margrethe is stuck in this convent, realizing for the first time just how little she knows about her own kingdom, when one day, she’s out on the wall, and she sees an utterly impossible thing – a woman with a fish tail, impossibly beautiful, dragging a young man to shore. The mermaid looks up at her, and speaks into Margrethe’s mind: Come. Save him.

The mermaid, of course, is Lenia, obsessed with the human world, gone to the surface for her eighteenth birthday. Through her side of the start of this story, we learn how fascinated she is by the idea of the human soul – a web of light, as she pictures it, that exists inside them and offers them the chance to live forever.

And here we have one of the things I really like about this adaptation – it doesn’t shrink away from the religion. Let’s be honest – Hans Christian Anderson was a bit heavy-handed at times with his Christian message, and it seems to be the trend to leave that aspect of the story out of a lot of retellings, and indeed, of the fantasy genre in general. But the fact remains that religion and the idea of the Christian soul plays a huge part in Anderson’s original, and this novelization did that justice. Christianity and Christian ideals were very present, but not in a way that anything was shoved down the reader’s throat – it was just a fact of the world in which the story was taking place. That’s a difficult balance, but Turgeon hit the mark solidly.

Anyway, Lenia’s birthday happens to fall on the worst storm in the history of anyone’s memory, but she’s insistent on going to the surface anyway, and that’s when she sees the shipwreck. She watches a sailor die, and is fascinated by it. She’s hoping to see his soul leave his body, but when she doesn’t, the horror of what she witnessed hits her instead, and she can’t bear to let that happen to all of them. So she picks the nearest drowning man and tows him to shore.

But she knows she can’t save him. She can save him from drowning, yes, but not from his other injuries, and so she reaches out for anyone who can help – and the person she finds is Margrethe.

So Margrethe saves the young man – Christopher, he reveals – and it isn’t until he’s being nursed back to health in the convent that Margrethe learns he’s actually Prince Christopher, of the Southern kingdom, and she’s supposed to hate him because he is her enemy. There’s just one problem with that – Margrethe is already halfway in love with him. The way he speaks to her doesn’t help. He believes that she saved him, that she sang with a beautiful voice and brought him back from death. He also has no idea who she is. He believes her to be a woman of the cloth, and since she’s supposed to be in hiding, she can’t exactly correct him.

But once he’s well and preparing to leave, he lets her know that wrong as it is, he will always hold her in his heart. This doesn’t help the crush Margrethe is working away on.

But then he’s gone, and she goes back to life as normal, except that now she knows mermaids exist, and she’s as fascinated with Lenia and the underwater world as Lenia is with humans and their world. And Lenia is as in love with the prince she rescued as Margrethe is.

Lenia can’t stop thinking about him, and Margrethe, and wondering if he survived, if she was able to help him. Her sisters all think she’s fallen in love with a merman, and they try to uncover who it is, and that’s when she reveals that she’s in love with a human. Her sisters are shocked and warn her how dangerous this is – not because of a parents’ wrath, but because of the law of the merpeople – that they and humans shall be entirely separate.

Lenia knows all this, of course, but it doesn’t change how she feels, and one day, she can’t take it anymore, so she swims back to the surface, and there she encounters Margrethe, and I love this scene. They have a conversation about the realities of these other worlds and how they used to be connected. They talk of the prince, and they both recognize that they are both in love with the same man. But far from being a rivalry, it is, at this point, just one more connection, because he’s an impossibility for both of them. For Lenia, he’s another species. For Margrethe, he might as well be. This scene is so beautifully done, and I love what it sets up later, that they were aware of each other so early on. It really does ensure that this story belongs to the both of them, equally. It’s a parallel journey they’re on, and it’s wonderfully done.

Unfortunately for all involved, Margrethe’s father learns that the convent sheltered the son of his enemy, and he flies into a towering rage and takes Margrethe straight back home, convinced he can protect her better at the palace. It doesn’t matter how Margrethe tries to tell him that Christopher had no idea who she was, the king remains convinced that this is the next step of the devious South in launching war again. The stories that fly around are insane – that the evil Southern prince broke into the convent to ravage and assassinate Margrethe is the most common.

And Margrethe can’t reason with anyone, and she knows her father is going to use this as an excuse to start the war again, and she can’t stand by and let that happen. Between her and her old tutor, a plan is formulated. They will send a proposal to the Southern king in secret, offering Margrethe as a bride to Christopher, in a marriage that will unify the kingdoms. For Margrethe’s tutor is convinced that the Southern king is as weary of war as many of the Northerners are. And so, to stop the violence, Margrethe is willing to make this sacrifice. The fact that she loves Christopher and believes he loves her in return is secondary, really.

But Lenia provides a complication. Because while all this has been going on, Lenia has been to visit the Sea Witch, Sybil. And though Sybil does everything in her power to talk Lenia out of trading her tail, tongue, voice, and lifespan for a chance at a human soul, Lenia is headstrong and determined, and she will do this thing.

Sybil is wonderfully drawn. I’ll gush more in the checklist, but man. There’s a mystery about her that’s never resolved, a sadness and a personal touch to the warnings she gives Lenia that force you to imagine just what she’s been through in her own lifetime.

Lenia asks one last favor of Sybil, that she’ll tell Lenia’s family what happened, and that Lenia chose this, and that she’s happy. And then she has her tongue cut out, and man. Turgeon does not shy away from these descriptions. She is very blunt and very forward about exactly all the pain and agony that Lenia goes through in this transformation – but not in a graphic or distracting way. Just in a way that forces the reader to realize the extent of this decision, and I think that’s important. Too often with this story, we focus on the romance of the sacrifice without really considering exactly what it would have meant.

And Lenia, now human, washes up on shore in the Southern kingdom, without a tongue, without a voice, and without the protection against cold and injury that being a mermaid afforded her. Luckily, she’s found by the princess, who is taken with her strange beauty and wants to introduce her to her brother, the prince, who’s been moping since he returned from his expedition to the North some time before.

And here’s another thing I really love – watching Lenia traverse this world that is so utterly foreign to her. We watch her bathe for the first time, wear clothes for the first time, feel dry hair for the first time, and it all just drives home the fact that she is literally out of her element.

And the prince is immediately taken with her, as his sister knew he would be, and because this is a gritty and realistic look at very human characters, he takes the little mermaid to bed, and we get to be with her when she has sex for the first time. Again, not graphically, it’s very tastefully done. But it’s a remarkably mature upgrade of this story that really takes it out of the fairy tale world and puts it into a world of court intrigue where, yeah, this stuff happened all the time.

And it is fascinating. Because love isn’t the same as marriage, which is what the little mermaid has to achieve. And sex isn’t the same thing as love, though Christopher does, in fact, grow to love Lenia, while simultaneously being in love with the mystery girl who found him on the beach – who, though he doesn’t know it, is both Margrethe and Lenia. It’s deliciously complicated, and I love it. Because love isn’t simple, despite what fairy tales tell us. Love is an incredibly complicated emotion, and this novel really drives that point home.

Back to Margrethe, the Southern king has agreed to the plan, and Margrethe and her maid are set to travel to the Southern kingdom in secret, because Margrethe knows her father will never agree to the marriage unless given no other choice. But when they arrive, they learn that this isn’t going to be the fairy tale ending Margrethe was hoping for – Christopher was never told of the arrangement, and he’s not particularly happy about learning it in front of the whole court. He wants to chose his own bride, not have one thrust upon him, and on top of all that, learning that Margrethe is both the princess and the girl on the beach, he’s as pissed at her as he is at his father.

So what does he do? Makes it clear to both of them that he has his chosen love already – Lenia, who he’s been sleeping with for some time now, and who is carrying his child. Yeah. That happened.

And Lenia recognizes Margrethe, though Margrethe doesn’t recognize Lenia. And now the relationship between them changes utterly from what it was on the beach. Now, they are rivals. Now, they hate each other. Margrethe, to Lenia, stands in the way of her gaining a soul. And Lenia, to Margrethe, is keeping her from marrying Christopher as she believes God is willing her to do. And it doesn’t help that Christopher is in love with both of them, even angry as he is with Margrethe.

This is so wonderfully done. And that makes it all the more heartbreaking when Lenia realizes that she isn’t going to win this. She’s going to lose Christopher, because he’s a prince and she has no identity in this world. Because he could never have married her, despite his talk. Because the future of both kingdoms is at stake, and he and Margrethe have to be married, and he does love her, too.

Watching Lenia realize this is heartbreaking. But what’s even more heartbreaking is the moment when Margrethe realizes exactly who Lenia is. That changes everything, because now, it’s not just some random girl – it’s this mermaid she shared so much with so long ago who has sacrificed everything to be human and in this world and with the prince. The scene that truly broke my heart was the scene where Lenia was giving birth and Margrethe ran to be with her, and confessed that if it was in her power, she would give up Christopher for Lenia. “I would die right now, to let you have him,” she says, but it’s out of her hands. And this comes from only knowing all that Lenia gave up, not even that she’ll die as soon as Margrethe and Christopher are married.

But Lenia has come to terms with that. With the birth of her daughter, she knows, she has gained a kind of immortality, and she can be content with that. But she wants to be by the sea when she dies, so on Christopher and Margrethe’s wedding night, she slips away, down to the sea. But Margrethe sees her go, and, thinking she is going to kill herself, follows her to try and stop her. Instead, she overhears Lenia’s sisters offering her the knife and begging her to kill the prince, to spill his blood, and become a mermaid again. Lenia refused, and throws the knife away. It lands near Margrethe, and in that instant, she knows what she has to do.

She runs to the castle to get the baby, then runs back down to the beach just as the sun begins to rise. She tells Lenia she overheard everything, and she knows what must be done. “I am his wife,” she says. “His blood is my blood, and his soul is my soul.” And she uses the knife to cut her leg, and lets her blood spill onto Lenia’s legs.

And it works. Margrethe’s sacrificed blood undoes the magic on Lenia, returning her voice and turning her back into a mermaid. Margrethe swears that she will raise Lenia’s daughter as if she were her own child. And Lenia says goodbye to them both and the life she was willing to give up so much for, and returns to the sea.

This novel . . . it’s everything I wanted an adaptation of this story to be. Seriously. This is masterful, adaptation at its very best, and I am thrilled that it exists. But let’s to the checklist.

Exploration of the human characters? Check, check, and check. One check for Margrethe, one for Christopher, and one for all the side characters. Everyone in this novel is so fully and beautifully drawn. Their struggles were real and present, and I never once felt that Turgeon was making anything easy for anyone. What Margrethe and Christopher and Lenia went through and faced and had to struggle with, it was marvelously complicated and real and genuine.

No villainization of the side characters? Check. Sybil in this version fascinates me. She’s not in the novel all that much, but I have an incredibly amount of sympathy for her. She’s got a story, and though we never explicitly get it, we can guess. She has a much different flavor than Anderson’s sea witch, but I like her just as much. She’s not a villain. She’s someone with a history, and she’s warning Lenia away from some personal experience, and I love guessing what that is.

Message in the end? Okay, so no, the little mermaid doesn’t die in this version. She is rescued, in a sense. She’s allowed to live out her life as a mermaid instead of turning to foam or living her life as an air spirit. Do I have a problem with this? Not in the slightest. Why? Because the sacrifice is still there. She would have died. She was fully prepared to die. She had come to terms with it. It was Margrethe who couldn’t let it happen. And even though Lenia didn’t die, she still has to sacrifice everything she loved in the human world in the end – her love, her daughter, her friend. She has to leave it all behind and never return. And so the message is there and intact. There’s no easy happily ever after in this book, and I love that. No one is untouched by the complexity of this story. Christopher will forever be in love with two women. Margrethe will forever bear the burden of Lenia’s sacrifice. And Lenia has to leave her life behind her. They all live, and I think they’ll all find a way to be happy in the end, but because of what they’ve been through and the sacrifices they’ve all made, it will be a more mature and therefore better earned happiness, and I’m entirely satisfied with that ending.

Beautifully done. Absolutely beautifully done. This novel did this story justice, and I’m so glad.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Guest Post: Disney's The Little Mermaid by Matthew

Disneyʼs The Little Mermaid

or “Why Sometimes, Disney Should Just Leave Well Enough Alone”

After writing a whole review about how itʼs okay for Disney to make changes to stories like Beauty and the Beast because theyʼre part of the evolution of oral storytelling, Iʼm not about to lambast Disney for the work they did on Hans Christian Andersonʼs The Little Mermaid. I should probably mention, first of all, that though I dislike this movie, I donʼt have quite the same hatred for it that Cassie does. I still hate it, donʼt get me wrong . . . itʼs just that Iʼve already said my piece pretty thoroughly in my Books vs. Movies review on the subject, and to be honest, this movie does have a lot to offer, and I think it had a lot of potential. Squandered potential, but potential nonetheless.

The issue here is that The Little Mermaid, unlike Disneyʼs other faerie tale stories, is not based on an traditional faerie tale. Stories like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and so on have many, many variations to them, because theyʼre based in oral traditions, and the story changes a little bit from each telling. The Russian Cinderella story is very different from the French one. With The Little Mermaid, however, this is not the case. Hans Christian Anderson didnʼt collect the story--he wrote it. Itʼs an original story and, therefore, deserves the same respect that any book should have when itʼs being turned into a movie. That is, if youʼre going to make changes--which, of course, you almost have to with this story--do so for the betterment of the story, not to dumb things down for a “lesser” audience. On its own, Disneyʼs The Little Mermaid isnʼt a bad movie, by any means. As an adaptation of Andersonʼs story, however . . . well,
letʼs start from the beginning.

Now, in the opening credits of the movie, we do get to see one of the biggest things that this movie has going for it: the animation. You can really see how this was a turning point for Disney animation, because it is absolutely breathtaking. Everything truly does look as though itʼs underwater. It even looks amazing over twenty years later. Honestly, Iʼd be just as happy watching the images on the screen with the sound on mute . . . but weʼre not going to do that here, so on with the story.

Weʼre introduced to our underwater kingdom, where King Triton reigns, half-man and half-sea creature, with a retinue of sea creatures at his beck and call, including Sebastian, the uptight crab who will serve as Arielʼs comedic and completely ineffectual secondary guardian. (Also known as Animal Friend #1.) Sebastian is directing a huge musical concert for King Triton featuring his many mermaid daughter, who each introduce themselves in this scene, but as weʼll see them maybe twice more during the course of the movie, itʼs not terribly important. A tremendous build-up of music signals the introduction of the youngest and most beautiful daughter Ariel . . . who of course, isnʼt there.

Okay, this is a small, nitpicky point, but I have to address it. Sebastian is directing this little escapade, and anyone who has ever directed anything knows that once you get to performance, youʼve done all the rehearsing and critiquing you can do, and your main task is very simple . . . MAKE SURE EVERYONE IS THERE!!! How, exactly, did it escape Sebastianʼs notice that the star singer of the evening wasnʼt even there? You had one job, Sebastian! One job! And you blew it! I mean, okay, Ariel is irresponsible and flighty and all that but COME ON! (Itʼs also indicated that this isnʼt the first time something like this has happened, so in addition to failing as a director, the little crustacean doesnʼt even learn from past mistakes.) [Word. -- CG]

But, back to the story. Weʼre then introduced to our main protagonist, Ariel, the little mermaid herself. And itʼs pretty clear from the get-go that Disney was aiming to make her a pretty sharp contrast from the previous three princesses. With bright red hair and practically naked, Ariel was by far the sexiest princess Disney had created at that point, but the differences werenʼt merely physical. Ariel was clearly more outgoing, more rebellious, and more argumentative than Snow White, Cinderella, or Aurora. Itʼs like if that little bit of snarkiness and sarcasm we got from Cinderella on occasion was fully realized. Sheʼs also, to put it quite simply, a brat.

So, Ariel and her best friend, Flounder, who is a . . . flounder (Animal Friend #2, and also, what, did they just run out of creative names at this point?), are exploring this sunken ship. The friendship between them is a fairly typical case of one friend being aggressive and vaguely reckless, and the other having misgivings but going along with it anyway because of some sort of loyalty to the first friend. Despite feeling ill-at-ease, Flounder is basically bullied by Ariel into going on what is basically a scavenger mission. Ariel collects trinkets from the human world, hiding them away in secret because her father, King Triton, has a pretty big prejudice against the human world, and has forbade his kingdom--and his youngest daughter specifically--from having any contact with them.

This is a difference from the original story, but an interesting one. Unlike the original story where it was basically traditional for mermaids to visit the human world--playing off of the old siren legends--here, itʼs absolutely forbidden, and Triton is particularly passionate about it, to the point where you start to wonder what humans did to him. The question is never answered, but it does make Triton into a very interesting character.

But, back to the story. Arielʼs obsession with collecting human trinkets almost gets herself and Flounder killed by a hungry shark, but they manage to escape it, with the trinkets in hand, and swim to the surface to consult with a seagull named Scuttle (Animal Friend #3) who seems to have surpassing wisdom and knowledge of the humans, though heʼs voiced by Buddy Hackett, so we know that only goes so far. So after giving Ariel some hilariously incorrect information about what her trinkets are used for, Ariel suddenly remembers the concert that she was supposed to star in (honey, youʼre the freaking star performer, how do you just forget?) and hurries back home.

Triton and Sebastian both chew her out, and understandably so, and yet Ariel tries her darndest to make them out to be the bad guys here, because by golly, sheʼs sixteen years old and shouldnʼt be treated like a child! What this has to do with her being irresponsible and missing the concert, I donʼt know, but sheʼs sixteen and thatʼs what bratty sixteen year old girls do. She swims off in a huff, because thatʼs also what bratty sixteen year old girls do, and Triton sends Sebastian off to keep on eye on her.

The next scene is the famous “Part of Your World” song, which I will admit is a gorgeous piece of music, and does actually give Ariel some motivation other than a hot guy, at least at this point in the story. We see here that Arielʼs love of the human world isnʼt just a passing interest, but pretty much an outright obsession, with a hidden grotto filled with human trinkets from past scavenges. And this, again, is a point of interest in the story. Where does this obsession stem from, especially given how anti-human her father is? How did she come to start collecting these things? How does she even know about the human world?

So then, Ariel sees fireworks in the distant sky and swims up to investigate. It turns out that they are celebration fireworks for the birthday of Prince Eric, who is by far Disneyʼs most interesting prince to date. Snow Whiteʼs and Cinderellaʼs princesses didnʼt even have names aside from “Charming,” and Prince Philip from Sleeping Beauty was about as bland as white bread. Eric, on the other hand, actually has something of a personality. Heʼs interesting, a very likable guy, and actually has something of a story arc in this movie. Itʼs a fairly typical “Iʼm looking for the perfect girl” story, only in this case, when he finally encounters Ariel, he doesnʼt immediately think “This is it!” And his story arc is more about not chasing a dream and seeing whatʼs right in front of him.

But Iʼm getting ahead of myself. At this point, Eric is just a nice guy with a dog and a winning personality. Ariel sees him, becomes hopelessly infatuated, and then all hell breaks loose. There a storm, the ship sinks, and itʼs worth noting that the reason Eric gets himself in trouble in the first place is because he went back to save his dog. Seriously, you gotta love him for that. But as per the original story, he almost drowns and Ariel saves him, with the help of her three animal friends. Eric wakes up long enough to hear her singing and to get a brief look at her face, but she heads back to the ocean before anyone else can see her.

And now, Ariel and Eric are both obsessed. Ariel swims around with her head in the clouds--a pretty neat trick, when you think about it--which makes Triton suspect that there may be a man in her life, but he figures itʼs a merman, and is overjoyed that his daughter might finally be seeing some sense. Eric, meanwhile, has sworn not to marry anyone but the girl with the beautiful voice who saved his life. And while Ericʼs bumbling advisor person tries to help him see sense, Sebastian is doing the same with Ariel, extolling the values of being a sea creature in, of course, “Under the Sea.”

But during Sebastianʼs elaborate--and apparently completely improvised--musical number, Flounder and Ariel have sneaked off to the grotto. Sebastian is called off to meet with King Triton regarding this mysterious male someone that Ariel is obsessed with, and Sebastian confesses that Ariel is in love with a human, which sends Triton into a mighty rage. He finds Ariel in her grotto, and in what can only described as a godly passion, destroys everything, including the statue of Eric that has only recently fallen inside. He regrets his anger, but too late to keep his daughter from collapsing into despair . . . and to keep her from going to Ursula the Sea Witch for a magical solution.

Ursula has been established as a character by this time. We know that Triton has done something to her and sheʼs out for revenge. (Yet ANOTHER interesting aspect of the story that will get no further explanation.) And she figures, correctly, that the best way to get revenge on Triton is through his favorite daughter. Exploiting her obsession is, as Ursula says at one point, “too easy.”

Once again, things go pretty much the same way as the original story, but the terms of the deal are slightly different. Ariel loses her voice, but not permanently. Ursula doesnʼt cut out her tongue, rather she takes her voice magically and locks it away. Also, Ariel has a time limit. She has three days and three days only to make Eric fall in love with her, but in terms of Disney movies, thatʼs quite a lot of time. (I mean, it took the other princes all of two seconds to fall in love with their ladies.) And if she fails to do so, she doesnʼt die, but turns back into a mermaid and belongs to Ursula. So, sheʼs basically selling her soul here, but sheʼs dumb enough to go along with it. Now, Ursula is about as up front with her about the risks as the book Sea Witch, the main difference being that this Ursula actually attempts to sabotage the deal . . . but more on that later. [Also, Ursula's version of being "up front" is more along the lines of manipulating Ariel into agreeing rather than trying to be an actual voice of reason. -- CG]

Ariel becomes a human, and Flounder and Sebastian help her to shore, where she attempts to learn how to stand and walk and so on. Not only does she not seem to feel any pain when she does so, but it really doesnʼt take her that long. Sooner or later, Ericʼs dog finds her, which leads to Eric finding her. He suspects that she might be the girl who saved him, but upon finding that she canʼt speak, decides it must not be . . . which is probably about the dumbest conclusion you could possibly come to. I mean, itʼs been a little bit of time. Maybe she lost her voice in the intervening days since your near drowning. Maybe she had an accident herself! I mean, dude, you were all set to marry her right there until you found out she couldnʼt talk. Cʼmon, what did you think, that you just happened to find someone who looks EXACTLY LIKE the girl who saved you? Sigh.

Okay, so the next section of the story can basically be summed up with “hilarity ensues.” Ariel, having listened to Buddy Hackett as a seagull, has absolutely no idea how to be a human, which leads to actually some of the funnier moments of the film. Also, Sebastian almost gets cooked by a crustacean-hating cook, which is one of Disneyʼs more hilarious moments in cinema history. And through a montage of scenes, we see Ariel and Eric getting to know each other and getting closer and closer as they do, and I will admit that itʼs nice to see Disney actually doing this for a change. Itʼs not a lot of time, to be sure, but they still show a building relationship rather than an instant one. And toward the end of it, we do see Eric finally make the decision to drop this obsession with a dream and take the perfectly nice, adorable girl that heʼs found and formed a close friendship with. Eric actually learns a good lesson here.

So basically, up to this point in the story, I have absolutely NO PROBLEM with this movie. I really donʼt. It looks good, the music is great. The main character is a brat and vaguely stupid, but still likable and engaging, and sheʼs sixteen, so we can forgive the negative character traits. The love interest is, likewise, interesting and likable and actually has a story arc. And the story itself is engaging and fun.

But hereʼs where it goes downhill for me. Ursula, upon realizing that Ariel is actually succeeding in making Eric fall in love with her--at least enough to get a kiss--decides itʼs time to step up her game. So, using Arielʼs mystical voice, she disguises herself as a human, and makes her way to Ericʼs castle. But it isnʼt just enough for her to “fool” him into thinking that sheʼs the girl who saved him. The voice actually hypnotizes him into believing that he must marry this girl as soon as humanly possible. Now, to give Disney some credit, this is actually closer to the old siren legends, with men being hypnotized by the voices of the sirens. What I do not like, however, is that they have not only demonized the Sea Witch at this point, but also the girl who the prince ended up marrying in the original story. This bugs me a little because one of the things I always wondered about the original story is how did the girl feel about all this? I mean, from all indications, she became friends with the mermaid. The mermaid was happy for them, she held her train and everything. How did it affect her when the mermaid, for all intents and purposes, committed suicide?

But, back to the story. And at this point, everything that might have been interesting about this movie--Tritonʼs story, Ericʼs story, Ursulaʼs story--theyʼre all sacrificed in favor of the “love conquers all” story. Ariel pretty much abandons all hope, not even stopping to question what the hell happened to Eric between last night and this morning, and goes away to have herself a little cry. But, because thatʼs what villains do, Ursula stupidly sings her evil plot to herself while preparing for the wedding in her room, and Scuttle overhears and flies off to tell Ariel. And Ariel, to her credit, does actually act. Itʼs the only point when she does, but she tries to stop the wedding and stop Ursula, and almost succeeds . . . but that blasted sunset comes just a little early, and Ursula drags her back down to the sea.

Triton, acting exactly as Ursula knew he would, sacrifices himself to save Arielʼs life. Which . . . okay, itʼs all very noble and itʼs the one place in this movie where Andersonʼs message of sacrifice exists [despite the fact that it's completely negated by the end of the movie -- CG], but . . . dude, youʼre king of the sea! Youʼve got a whole kingdom to think of here, and youʼre turning it over to this witch! I know you love your daughter and all, but this seems like a “needs of the many, needs of the few” type of deal to me. But I guess itʼs a fatherʼs love for his daughter, and what father wouldnʼt give up the whole sea to keep his daughter safe, so we can forgive it.

So, Arielʼs free and Ursula is now the new queen of the sea, and she decides to exercise her power by . . . growing really big and making a bunch of storms. Yeah, this is where a lot of Disney villains lose me. They gain their power, and then they donʼt do anything with it! But anyway, Eric comes to save the day, and unlike the previous princes, actually does so in a pretty badass way, eventually ramming Ursula through with a ship (most badass slaying of a bad guy EVER!) and as is usually the case with Disney films, everything goes completely back to normal, including King Triton [And, message of the importance of sacrifice negated. --CG].

So, what have we learned here? Very little. Has Ariel changed at all? No. Has she learned not to be so impulsive and stupid from the fact that she endangered the entire kingdom for the sake of a boy? No. Has she learned that her love for the human is unfeasible and unrealistic? No. Is she, at the very least, going to be grounded for the next three hundred years for her actions? No! In fact, Triton, this king who has such a deep prejudice against humans that it caused him to go all godlike and destroy a whole grotto of trinkets, decides to let Ariel have her way and become human so she can be with Eric. Gag me. I mean, I guess she sacrifices her family and home for the sake of love, but itʼs not like sheʼs that broken up about it. What exactly did she sacrifice, then? Where is Andersonʼs message in any of this?

But letʼs look at the checklist:

Exploration of the human characters?--Well . . . technically, yes, given that the human girl isnʼt really human at all in this version. I do have to give Disney props for Prince Eric, though. Heʼs not looked at quite as deeply as some of their later love interests, but he does actually get his own story arc, his own issues to overcome, and more character development than the protagonist. And heʼs just a thoroughly likable and enjoyable character, so weʼll give this a check.

No villainization of the side characters?--Yeah, seeing as how the Disney movie is the whole reason this category even exists, this one gets an anti-check. Ursula is pure evil, Ursula actually becomes the human girl in the story, making her pure evil. Even King Triton is villainized a fair bit in this story. I mean heʼs not a bad guy, but heʼs definitely an antagonist in the context of the story. Heʼs the overbearing father to a sixteen-year-old girl, which pretty much automatically spells villain. So yeah. -1 point for this one. [Ooof. Negative points, folks. A first for the blog. -- CG]

Message at the end? Well, itʼs not drowning of a broken heart, but itʼs not Anderson either. Disney seems to have the same attitude toward this story that a lot of people have toward Romeo and Juliet . . . that just because thereʼs love or romance in it, that makes it a love story. But The Little Mermaid, at itʼs core, is a story about sacrifice, and what did Ariel sacrifice? Nothing. I mean, I guess you could argue that she sacrificed her life in the sea, but she was pretty much ready to get rid of that from the get-go. This isnʼt really supposed to be a “happily ever after” type of story. And I realize that Disneyʼs not going to have their main protagonist die or not get what she wants. Believe me, I understand. But thatʼs the point where you really have to ask . . . if youʼre going to adapt a story for kids . . . why this one?

Iʼm not going to go so far as to say itʼs a bad movie. I can see why people enjoy it. But . . . itʼs not Andersonʼs The Little Mermaid, plain and simple. And honestly, it doesnʼt even replace Andersonʼs message with one of any substance. Maybe if they had taken some of the interesting subplots from earlier in the film and given them a bit more prominence in the end, this could have been a good film with a happy ending and a strong message, even if it wasnʼt Andersonʼs message. As it was, however, they chose the standard, stale “love conquers all” message, without examining the consequences.

Maybe thatʼs enough for you, and if so, fine. But I need a little more from something claiming to be an adaptation of Andersonʼs story.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Midnight Pearls by Debbie Vigue

Midnight Pearls by Debbie Vigue

Target Audience: YA/Teen

Summary: They say the prince married a girl who was not what she appeared and that another girl who saved the kingdom vanished without a trace. Some said it was witchcraft. Some said it was only a legend. For those who knew the truth, it was magic. Rescued from the sea at an early age, Pearl grew up within sight of the water, and the castle. With her pale skin and silvery hair, she was an outcast in the village. Her only friend was a boy she met on the beach – a young prince named James, who understood Pearl’s desire just to be like everyone else. Their friendship is viewed from afar by many: a disdainful king, Pearl’s worried foster parents, a jealous young mermaid, a lovestruck merman, and the powerful sea witch. Now a storm brews in the kingdom, with a tidal force that could keep James and Peal apart.

Type of Adaptation: Retelling

Every time I read one of these Once Upon a Time books, I am less and less impressed with whoever’s in charge of writing the advertising blurb. It’s called misrepresentation, guys, and it’s annoying as hell. But that’s neither here nor there, really.

We start this novel with a spot of intrigue, or at least, with Vigue’s best attempt at it. In an italicized prologue, a girl named Pearl, who we have no real reason to feel any attachment to yet, is walking down the aisle on her wedding day full of fear and panic and heartbreak because the man waiting for her at the end of the aisle is not who she wants to be marrying. And once we’ve whet our appetite with that, we start the book for realsies with a jump into the past to see who this girl named Pearl is and why we should care about her.

Years before, a fisherman was out on the ocean when a storm came up out of nowhere. He had no warning, no time to get to shore. Convinced that he was about to die, he did his best to soldier on bravely and face his death with dignity and honor, when a voice spoke in his head, telling him to cast his nets over. He did so, and when he pulled them back in, there was a child, pale as death, caught in them. Knowing that God wanted him to find this girl, the fisherman knew he would make it through the storm. And he and his wife took the child in as their own, and named her Pearl for the large black pearl she had clutched in her hand.

Then we jump ahead thirteen years, and it should be noted at this point that each chapter starts off with another italicized sentence that takes us that much further down the aisle, and, I dunno, I guess I understand what she was going for here, but there’s really only so many times and ways you can say “This was a horrible moment for Pearl, walking down the aisle toward someone she didn’t want to marry,” and this book uses all of them and then some.

But in the main storyline, we see Pearl with James, her only real friend who, it turns out, is the prince. They’ve been meeting in secret once a week for ten years, and they really are the closest of friends. The afternoons he spends with Pearl are the only times the prince has to just be James and not a prince, and for Pearl, they’re the one time no one is staring at her too-pale skin and silver hair. Lately, though, the friendship has been changing, because they’re both of marrying age and both being pressured to consider marriage by their families.

And I’m gonna come right out and say it – JAMES WANTS TO MARRY PEARL. Seriously, it’s really obvious, and I’m stressing this because it’s going to be very important when we get a little further into the story. James wants to marry Pearl. He cares about her a great deal, she’s his best friend, she doesn’t care that he’s the prince, and he doesn’t want her to marry the blacksmith who’s twice her age. He’s given this a lot of thought, and he knows that marrying Pearl would give him not only a bride he loves, but also a Queen who can help him rule the country effectively.

He’s setting up everything to ask for Pearl’s hand – he finally introduces himself to her parents and reveals their long-standing friendship, he urges her not to accept the blacksmith, and he asks her to accompany him out for a sail so he can ask her a very important question in a setting that is special.

Now, Pearl has spent her whole life with nightmares that tell her that if she goes into the ocean, she’ll die, so she’s naturally pretty nervous when James asks her to go for a sail, but she figures she’ll be all right on the ocean, as long as she’s not in the ocean. She really wants to go, because the ocean has called to her all her life (spoiler: she’s a mermaid-turned-human. Don’t worry, it’s not a real big spoiler. It’s made pretty obvious, just like James’s plans to ask Pearl to marry him), she’s just kept away because of the nightmares.

So, of course, this means that once out on the water, long enough that they’re out pretty deep, but not long enough for James to have actually asked his question, the boat springs a leak and they start to sink. Pearl is terrified because she doesn’t know how to swim, but through her frantic efforts and the surprisingly helpful tide, she’s able to make it back to shore. James, unfortunately, isn’t so lucky.

He’s injured as the boat sinks, and caught in a current that starts to pull him out to sea. However, he is in some bit of luck – a mermaid, acting on a premonition, has swum to the surface, and sees the danger. She darts forward and, with the help of her brother, drags James to shore and kisses him because she just can’t help herself – he’s so beautiful. The mermaid’s name is Faye, and her brother’s name is Kale, and after James’s life has been saved, Kale pulls Faye away, back down to the depths where they came from.

Pearl finds James washed up on the beach, and he starts babbling his thanks to her for saving him. Pearl’s confused, because she did nothing of the kind, but James is adamant. He caught a glimpse of his rescuer as she dragged him to shore, and she had Pearl’s distinctive skin and hair, so it couldn’t be anyone but Pearl. Pear continues trying to tell him that she didn’t rescue him, but he just looks her in the eye and finally says what he came there to say – kinda. He says, “I will marry the girl who saved me.” I want to stress this again, he says this because he’s convinced that girl was Pearl. He continues to believe this, even when Pearl, just as adamantly tells him, “Then you will not be marrying me.”

We shift then to the underwater world, to Faye and Kale, and we get to learn a little about these two. We learn that they are a prince and a princess of the underwater world, and that Faye’s obsession is with the human world, and Kale’s obsession is keeping his sister out of trouble and finding out what happened to his betrothed, Adriana, who disappeared thirteen years ago and is presumed dead (spoilers: She’s not. That’s Pearl.) And currently, Kale is pretty worried about Faye, because she can’t stop thinking about that human she saved, and he’s afraid she’s going to do something reckless and stupid.

Which is exactly what she does. She disappears, and by the time Kale is able to track her down, he knows there’s only one place she could have gone: to the sea witch. The sea witch, in this version, is thoroughly evil, an immortal sorceress who has a grudge against the royal family and is constantly seeking to hurt them. She was imprisoned by the royal family to a set of caves, but she can still lure young merkin to her home, and that’s what she did with Faye.

Kale goes to visit her, and initially, he just wants confirmation that Faye was as stupid as he’s afraid she was, but he ends up blurting out that he’s fallen in love with a human. See, when he and Faye went to the surface, he caught a glimpse of Pearl in the water, and he’s pretty well convinced that she’s Adriana, his childhood betrothed, and somehow, for some reason, he ends up making a deal with the sea witch of the exact same parameters that Faye did – he’ll be given legs and human lungs, and he’ll have seven days to win the heart of the one he loves. If he can’t, he’ll die. The sea witch tricks him, though, and he isn’t aware that the price she’ll ask will be his eyesight – for he doesn’t know Pearl’s human name, and he’s never heard her speak. He has only seen her, and so that is what is taken away from him.

Up until this point in the novel, I really liked Kale. He seemed like a solid sort of character, but making this deal? I mean, talk about monumentally stupid, folks. He did the exact same thing his sister did – the exact same thing, I’ll add, that he was ready to kill his sister for doing. And you know, if his actions had been motivated differently, if he had become human to protect his sister and bring her home, then we would have been fine. But instead, it’s to go chase after this girl he saw once, who may or may not be this lost girl that he knew and supposedly loved back when they were toddlers.

And honestly, this is where everyone’s characterizations start to fall apart for me, actually. You’ve got Kale, who has inexplicably turned into an idiot. Then you’ve got Pearl, who refused the blacksmith’s proposal because she didn’t know him very well, and feared James’s proposal because she didn’t think she knew him well enough, but then goes and accepts the proposal from Robert, a nobleman she’s never met. This is after, of course, she meets newly-human Kale on the beach and listens to him tell her that she’s a long lost princess from his land named Adriana, that her heart knows him and loves him, that they’re betrothed. They even share an incredibly cheesy kiss. And then she goes and agrees to marry stranger number 4. And you know, for a girl who is supposedly an outcast who won’t get any offers, she’s turning down a whole hell of a lot.

And then there’s James. Oh, sweet Lord, James. Let’s talk about James for a minute.

You remember how James was going to ask Pearl to marry him? You remember how James loved Pearl and was convinced that she’d saved him on the beach? You remember how James had decided that Pearl was the best possible wife, both for him and for the kingdom, because of her intelligence and the way she interacted with him? Well, in comes Faye, and out goes any respect I ever had for this prince.

See, James takes one look at poor, mute Faye who can’t walk, figures out that she must be the one who saved him (and kissed him), and immediately decides that he’s head over heels in love, and must marry this strange new girl who looks just like Pearl!

... okay, so wait a minute. Literally the only things he knows about this girl at this point are: she looks exactly like Pearl, except that she’s more willing than Pearl, because she kissed him. See, Pearl made it pretty clear that she was going to turn down a proposal from James, so he turns around and falls “in love” with a girl who looks just like her but probably won’t say no to being his bride? I’m sorry, that doesn’t really fill me with the confidence that this is going to be a healthy relationship.

And, I’m sorry again, and this is probably the firm realist in me speaking, but I absolutely hate the message this sends. Now, I am not a fan of the "love at first sight" trope in the best of circumstances. But the message that a fairy-tale “true love” marriage based on instantaneous infatuation is preferable than a marriage between based on years’ foundations of respect, equality, and very strong friendship? This gets on my bad side before I'm halfway through typing the sentence. James knows nothing about Faye – he doesn’t know if she’s intelligent, or if she’ll challenge him, or if she’ll help him lead his kingdom, and yet, the moment he meets her, it’s like he never intended to propose to Pearl. In fact, it’s like he forgets about her entirely.

Except that she’s still there, still engaged to Robert but inexplicably drawn to the blind man Kale she met on the beach, who has since be arrested as a murderer because of an overly complicated subplot as full of holes as worn-out pantyhose where Robert and his father are trying to kill the king and James so they can take over the kingdom, and Robert asking to marry Pearl has to do with that . . .? I dunno. Really. I dunno.

And following fast on the heels of characterization in the “things falling apart” department, is this novel’s structure, because we hit the halfway point, and I don’t even know what’s going on with the passage of time anymore. It’s bad enough to start the chapters with this flash-forward to Pearl’s ill-fated wedding, but the even within the chapters, we’re jumping around all over the place as we switch perspective. We leave Pearl wondering if she’s going to accept Robert, and in the next chapter, we see her at the palace, without explanation, only to jump back in the next chapter and pick up where we left off, and . . . it’s incredibly confusing.

And you’d think that, since Faye and Kale are the ones with the draining hourglass in terms of needing to get things done, we’d spend some time in their perspectives to keep the urgency alive, but no. We’re in Pearl’s head, or James’s, and three days pass like it’s nothing, and the focus is just continuously out of place. I felt like I was constantly missing the most important part of the story, having to wait for the next chapter, to hear it in retrospect.

And then there’s this subplot. And honestly, I can’t even summarize it without sounding like an idiot because it just plain does not make sense. Robert and his father are trying to frame Kale for murder because of reasons, but even though Faye finds him in the dungeons and Pearl, more importantly, finds him in the dungeons, at no point does he say to her, “Hey, I’m a merman, you’re a mermaid, you were cursed by this evil sea witch, and so was I, and if you don’t agree to marry me by the end of the week, and James doesn’t agree to marry Faye, we’re both gonna die,” despite the fact that he, unlike Faye, has not lost his voice, and nothing in the sea witch’s curse prevents him from saying any of this. Debbie Vigue, I just ended your novel fifty pages sooner than you did.

But seriously, he says nothing that actually helps Pearl, speaking instead in these vague riddles that are supposed to, I don’t know, not freak her out, but your life’s on the line, dude, and so is your sister’s, and all you have to do is open your mouth and speak coherently, you know. And Pearl! All you have to do is bring James down to the dungeon, and we can all go home!

But no, Vigue has to give us the last ditch crashing the wedding (somehow) scene where Kale spouts more vague platitudes, and Pearl leaves Robert at the alter to go confront her destiny by diving into the sea and using her midnight Deus-ex-machina pearl to suddenly remember all the things and defeat the sea witch and undo all her curses just by . . . clutching this pearl and saying, “I undo all your curses.” Seriously. Seriously.

Because the sea witch had a necklace of midnight pearls that she could use to harness magic and break the bonds the royal family put on her, but when she kidnaped Adriana, adriana grabbed one, and with the necklace broken, its power was gone, apparently, but then why not work the incredibly powerful magic that a single pearl seems to have when you have, like, twenty of them still, and – no. I’m done with trying to introduce logic.

Pearl saves the day! Yay! She’s magical and crap!

Anyway, she lifts the curse on Faye and Kale, turning them back into merkin, and she has regained her mermaid form, and the king’s guard catch Robert and his father, and then, for one shining moment, I thought that maybe we were going to salvage a bit of this at the end. Maybe we were still going to separate the mermaid and her prince, but no. Magic Pearl Adriana uses her magic pearl to give Faye legs and human form free of charge! Voice included! And so everyone lives happily ever freakin’ after. Except Cassie.

This one just plain tried too hard, from about a third of the way in onward. I was on board in the beginning, let’s be clear. I loved the set-up and where I thought the story was going. But then, we had to find a way to work in an eventual happily ever after, and we had to find a way to add conflict beyond just unrequited love, and we had to find a way to wrap everything up in a neat little package, and I don’t know why I’m surprised, really. Checklist.

Exploration of the human characters? This is James, and technically Pearl, and I liked both of them a lot better before the mermaids showed up. Well, okay, to be fair, I was pretty on board with Pearl all the way through. She was done pretty well, consistently, even if the situations she was forced into were subpar. Her characterization never wavered, and I liked her, and I was rooting for her. As for James, though . . . pre-near-death-experience James, I like a lot. The James who wants a best friend who treats him like a person, the James in love with Pearl, making the smart marriage choice for the kingdom? He’s great. James in love with the mermaid? Get him away from me. So, partial point.

No villainization of the side characters? Yeah, the sea witch was evil through and through, and cruel and vindictive and had no soul or redeeming characteristics to speak of. And that wasn’t enough villainization, it seems, because we added Robert and his father, so poorly characterized as to be utterly forgettable. No point.

The message in the end? Your best friend who’s hesitant to marry you because you’re a prince and she’s a commoner can and should be replaced with a mute look-alike who’s willing to kiss you? Yeah, fantastic message. Totally giving you that point. Hans Christian Anderson’s message has nothing on yours. / sarcasm.

And see, here’s the thing. I feel like, somewhere in this novel, there is a seed of a good story, if you can just get past the incredibly poor adaptation of “The Little Mermaid,” and the absolutely horrific story structure and the erroneous and unnecessarily complicated subplots. The story of a girl who doesn’t fit in but finds a friend in the Prince, who agrees to a marriage of equals with him despite her doubts and insecurities, forsaking the idealized notion of “true love” for the real and far more present friendship that can grow into strong love? I’d read that story.

But unfortunately, this book isn’t that story any more than it’s an adequate adaptation of “The Little Mermaid.” So better luck next week. Here’s hoping.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Teenage Mermaid by Ellen Schreiber

Teenage Mermaid by Ellen Schreiber

Target Audience: YA/Teen

Summary: Spencer almost drowns in a surfing accident when a sparkling, golden girl savse him with a kiss of life before she suddenly disappears. Where did this dream girl come from, and will she return? Lilly rescues a boy from nearly drowning and dangerously steps out of her own watery world. Curious to explore this forbidden land, she’s gotta find her handsome Earthdude. A silver heart locket is their only clue.

Type of Adaptation: Modernization

Let’s be frank: I didn’t go into this week’s adaptation with real high expectations. Between the book’s summary, the horrible computer art cover, and the fact that it’s only about 150 pages long, I was pretty sure I knew exactly what kind of book I’d be getting – high school melodrama with a veneer of fairy tale across it, cute, “fun little,” and insubstantial. And this book? Met every single one of my expectations. And then sat down to get to know them better. And then never left.

The metaphor got away from me. Point – this book was exactly what I expected it to be. It is “cute,” it is a “fun little” adaptation of a fairy tale, and it is thoroughly insubstantial. Somewhere, Hans Christian Anderson is rolling in his grave. Let’s talk about why, shall we?

So we start with this kid, Spencer, who’s a surfer, though apparently not a very good one, since the first thing he tells us is that “I panicked. I totally freaked out!” Why? Because he fell off his surfboard into the water. Now, I’m not an expert on surfing, but it’s my understanding that this happens fairly regularly, and if “wiping out” (I believe that’s the correct terminology) leads to freaking out, you probably shouldn’t be surfing. Just saying.

Anyway, he’s desperately trying to get to the surface when his surfboard hits him in the head, rendering him nearly unconscious. And would you look at that, before natural selection can do its bit, a shimmering golden girl with a tail saves his sorry ass. Unfortunately, she also apparently turns Spencer into a really bad poet, because he starts talking about her “pink-lipped smile,” and her “golden yellow and sun-fire orange hair,” and how her “piercing ocean-blue eyes stared through me and touched my soul,” and a whole bunch of other phrases that I’m pretty sure were last said by no fifteen-year-old boy ever.

And part of saving him (of course) requires her giving him The Kiss of Life (which will, unfortunately, make a return appearance before the novel’s end). He’s conscious enough to remember that, folks! As she hauls him to shore, he reaches out for the one thing he can touch, and walks away with some weird silver heart locket.

And then we shift to the mermaid’s perspective, and for about three pages, this was almost interesting. Because Schreiber made the choice to modernize not just the human world, but the mermaid world as well, and that was an intriguing idea to me. So, Waterlilly (no, I’m not kidding you), goes to a mermaid high school that’s just like human high schools, and it turns out she’s the equivalent of that outcast nerd girl stereotype who wants to do all her reports on Lord of the Rings and elves, except that her fascination is with humankind.

Turns out, the silver necklace she was wearing when she saved Spencer belonged to her great-grandfather, who was supposedly a human who turned merman for love of her great-grandmother, though her family denies that this is true. Somehow, the fact that he owned this locket proves that (??), and so Lilly “borrowed” it from her mother to use in a school report on humans that no one wants to listen to because mermaids apparently view us as a primitive species. However, in the midst of her report, Lilly realizes that, gasp! The necklace is gone! The Earthee (and no, again, sadly, not kidding you) must have taken it! And rather than face her mother’s wrath, and risk being sent to a boarding school in the Atlantic (horrors!) Lilly will do anything at all to get it back from him.

I do have to say that I like that what drives Lilly to the surface at the start isn’t love for this human boy – it’s a practical need to get her locket back, combined with the fact that that’s just a really convenient excuse to finally have a reason to go to the surface. 

So Lilly and her best friend Wave (yeah, I can’t make this stuff up, guys. Other underwater character names? Beach. Tide. Ms. Dorsal. Madame Pearl. Because, you know, all underwater characters have to be named for underwater things just like all earth characters are named for earth things.) swim up to the surface to try and find Earthdude. And while they don’t find him, they do find the fliers he’s spread all over the beach, looking for the girl who rescued him, a “golden-haired beauty.” He also says, “I wear your silver heart close to my own” because this book just wants me to die from the cheesy, sappy, gooey teenage love juice leaking all over the place.

Anyway, the flier says he wants to meet her at the stadium the next morning, and so Lilly is determined to be able to shed her tail for the day, so she drags Wave to talk to Madame Pearl in the spooky “Underworld” of the sea.

Now, we all remember this part of the story, right? Mermaid gives up her voice, the most precious part of her, in exchange for legs, to win the prince’s love and an immortal soul, but the price is very high, and if she doesn’t succeed, she’ll die and turn to sea foam? That ringing a bell?

Know what Lilly gives up? Her crystal sea horse collection. And that was really only a bribe so that Madame Pearl wouldn’t require a parental signature.

. . .

That’s right, folks! One of the most heart-wrenching and desperate deals wrought in fairy tale history translated to the equivalent of a girl getting rid of collectables at a garage sale. She still has her voice, she’ll walk without pain, and at the end of the day, she can come right back home again. Just like Hans Christian Anderson intended!

Also, the potion only lasts a day, and if she’s not in the water by sundown, she’ll be a human forever! (Except not, for reasons we’ll get to) Gasp! Look at the tension! Imagine the stakes!

Except that Lilly is delayed from taking the potion within the parameters given to her by Madame Pearl, and so it’s . . . delayed in starting, and so Lilly’s transformation happens later than expected, and she misses Earthdude’s meeting time.

And Spencer? When she doesn’t show, this one time at this one place that he arranged hoping she’d see his flier by chance? When she doesn’t show? He descends into a deep despair because he knows he’ll never see the love of his life again.

Lilly wakes up then on a beach, and guess what, guys? She’s naked! Because the potion didn’t take clothes into account! Isn’t that funny? Isn’t it?

Anyway, after a series of chapters in which hijinks ensue as Lilly gets mistaken for a transfer student and has to attend Earth high school classes, and Spencer keeps getting glimpses of her and running through the school trying to track her down, but continually missing her, and every other comedy sketch cliche is played out to the absolute max, they finally connect, and though all Lilly really wants is her necklace, Spencer keeps talking her into just doing one more thing with him.

And does this end tragically, with her failing to make it back to the sea in time and being stuck as a human? Nope. She goes back, turns back into a mermaid, and swims away, and the only thing different is that now she’s in love with Spencer. And I do mean the only thing. Because in her love-clouded haze, she neglected to follow through on the whole reason she tracked him down in the first place – getting her necklace back.

When she realizes this, she decides it must be fate! She and Spencer are meant to be together! So what does she do? She goes back to Madame Pearl for another dose of the potion! That’s right, folks, she makes the same deal again! And what does she have to trade away this time? Her collection of beautiful seashells bras? Her dolphin companion Bubbles? No! She has to trade – nothing. Seriously. She claims to have nothing left, but that she needs it because this time it’s true love, and Madame Pearl says okay, then, this one’s on the house, because once upon a time, I had a love, too.

. . .

I think I’ll just go cry silently in a corner, okay? Ignore me.

Anyway, Spencer is back with his friends, lamenting the fact that he’s never going to see Lilly again, when lo and behold, there she is (not naked this time – she took precautions and wore three outfits so that one would survive the transformation!), in the flesh. And this time, she’s not leaving. She’s going to stay with Spencer past her deadline and live as a human for the rest of her life!

Except that, here comes Wave, walking on two legs, after Lilly to bring her back to the ocean! Yes, folks, it seems anyone can buy a pair of legs from Madame Pearl for some trinkets, or a heartfelt story about being in love! It’s a wonder the western seaboard isn’t crowded with mermaids at this rate.

Anyway, Wave makes the really pretty impressive point that Lilly can’t just give up her tail, her life, her family, and her home on a whim and proclaimed love for a fifteen-year-old boy. And legitimately shocking, Lilly is brought to see sense with this. Wave actually manages to convince her to return to the ocean before her time runs out, and you know what, I was prepared to be actually impressed if the book had followed through with this. If Schreiber and her editors had been gutsy enough to separate the lovers and let them live out their lives with just this memory of teenage love that happened once upon a time.

I didn’t for a minute think that the book would actually end that way, understand. I knew it wouldn’t happen. But I would have been impressed if it had.

But no. Spencer follows Wave and Lilly to the ocean, where he (and his two random friends) discover that, ohmigod! They’re mermaids! (Because, yeah, that hadn’t been revealed to Spencer before this). And Lilly is one moment telling Spencer, you can’t let your friends see me! It’s forbidden! And then, in the next, being totally fine with them being there, to say nothing of the fact that they’re all totally fine with learning that mermaids exist, but meh, whatever.

Anyway, they say their heartfelt goodbyes after Lilly explains that they can’t be together. And then Lilly and Wave swim away. And then Lilly starts to drown.

Yeah. You read that right. The mermaid starts to drown. Know why?

“She’s drowning of a broken heart.”

. . .

I just – . . . No. I can’t. I just can’t. Not gonna fixate, three pages left.

Anyway, Spencer is, of course, the Only One Who Can Save Her, by administering The Kiss Of Life, like she did for him way back at the beginning. Except, here’s the catch: if he kisses her, because he’s in love with her, he’ll turn into a merman. So, stay a human and let a girl die, or save her and give up your entire life. Ready? Go!

And he doesn’t hesitate. His heart knows the way. He kisses her. “That night, I saved a mermaid,” he says in the penultimate line, but it only gets better with the literal end of the book: “And, that night – I saved myself.”

Yeah, that’s where we end.

And, here’s the thing. For one passing moment, I had the worrying thought of what happens next. For one moment, I was invested enough in this story that I projected events beyond that ending. I worried about how Spencer might adapt to being a merman. I worried about the politics and segregation involved in the mermen community with this new arrival. And I worried about what would happen if this relationship that he just gave up everything for turned out to be just a passing teenage romance, and they broke up, and he was stuck there forever.

But the moment was fleeting, because I realized, well he can just go to Madame freakin’ Pearl and get a potion and go be human again, so it’s not like it matters!

And that’s the thing with this whole novel: Nothing matters. Nothing. There are no stakes. At all. No sacrifices, no hardships, no obstacles. There almost are. With the community prejudice and the logistics of adapting to a new world and whatnot, but we don’t ever get that story. All we get is a shallow and superficial teenage romance, and it breaks my heart that this is what Anderson’s poignant and beautiful story has become almost 200 years down the line.

And I feel like I should make something clear here that probably should have come up in the According to Cassie post – there’s reason I feel more strongly about keeping true to the spirit of this fairy tale than I would with, say, Rumpelstiltskin or Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast.

Because those stories, and indeed, most fairy tales? Aren’t original stories. They’re oral tradition tales, passed on from generation to generation, changing with each telling. That’s why so many version exist. It’s the nature of those tales to shift and mutate. When we read a book of Grimms’ fairy tales or Perrault’s fairy tales, we’re not reading stories written by those men. We’re reading stories collected by those men.

But with The Little Mermaid, that’s not true. This isn’t an oral tradition tale; it’s a short story written in a fairy tale style by Hans Chrisitan Anderson. He wrote this. He created it. It is his original work. And as a writer, I can’t help but imagine how I’d feel if a short story I wrote about the painful beauty of sacrifice and the need to live for other people was boiled down into an after-school-Disney-special-esque teenage romance. It’s just tragic to me.

So yeah. I feel strongly about this. How strongly? Well, let’s look at the checklist for that.

Exploration of the human characters? Even if Spencer had been wonderful, I couldn’t give this item a point because Schreiber completely wrote out the human girl who saves the prince. She’s not there at all. I mean, there’s a girl who has a crush on Spencer, but she gets four pages, is incredibly poorly motivated, and Spencer never looks twice at her. And then there’s Spencer himself, who is one of the most unrealistic fifteen-year-old boys I’ve ever seen put on paper. Just . . . no. Fifteen-year-olds don’t talk like that and they don’t think like that and they don’t interact with people like that. So, no. Just, no.

No villainization of the side characters? Okay, I mean, technically, yes. Our Sea witch wasn’t villainized. But Schreiber also took away everything that made her awesome, replacing her morally gray no-nonsense attitude with a secretly romantic heart and the outward veneer of a stereotypical Gypsy fortune teller. So, while I could give a point, I’d hate myself for it.

The message in the end? I’m sorry – drowning of a broken heart? Needing the Kiss of Life to be saved? I’d say this novel was adapting Disney’s version, but even Disney’s ending was more badass than that. At least it had sword-fighting with a ship and a parent sacrificing himself for his daughter. This book was just cheesy as hell in the end, and since nothing meant anything at any point, no. It gets nothing.

And I mean, okay. The book’s not horrible. I don’t walk away offended or insulted. It just . . . it’s cute. You can’t see the look on my face, but trust me. That word’s not a compliment coming from me. It’s cute, and a “fun little” look at The Little Mermaid, and that just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Little Mermaid (According to Cassie)

“The Little Mermaid” (According to Cassie)

Right from the Get-Go Disclaimer: If you read this expecting to see the story told by Disney, then you need to hang your head, receive a mild smack on the wrist, and put up with me shaking my finger and saying “Shame on you!” until you go read the beautiful original short story by Hans Christian Anderson. Or, you know, you could just read my version (but you really should also read his).

So! Basically, deep under the sea lies a kingdom inhabited by the Sea King and his people. Through Anderson’s descriptions, you see that their world is not so different from ours, but it is different enough that we, as the reader, find ourselves fascinated with the descriptions of its wonder and its beauty and its strangeness, and this is important for reasons we’ll discuss in a minute.

Anyway, in this kingdom lives the widowed Sea King and his mother and his six daughters, all of whom are each more lovely than the last, so that the youngest in the loveliest of all. All of them love to hear stories of the world above the water from their grandmother, but none more so than the youngest, who has long been captivated by that world. She asks for more stories with more details, and her garden is shaped like the sun rather than like something of the water.

The deal is that when a mermaid turns fifteen, she can venture up to the ocean’s top and see for herself the land above. The littlest mermaid, who wants most of all to see that world, has to wait the longest, but as each of her sisters go up, they come down with wonderful stories of everything they’ve seen, which of course just makes the youngest want to go even more, but like a good girl, she follows the rules and waits for her birthday.

When she goes to the surface, though, she doesn’t content herself with just viewing things from afar as most of her sisters did. No, she heads straight for the nearest humans she can find – on a ship in the middle of the ocean, and she watches them on deck for hours, completely captivated by these people so different from herself, particularly one handsome young man who happens to be a prince.

The mermaid is supposed to return after a few hours, but she is so enthralled that she can’t tear herself away, and it’s kind of a good thing because a storm comes up suddenly, and the ship is destroyed. She watches the prince sink beneath the waves, and at first, she’s pleased because it means he can live under the water with her, but then she remembers that he’s human and can’t breathe water and so would just die, so she saves him instead. This is a nice little twist on the traditional Siren mythology.

She takes him to shore, but she can’t do any more than that for him. However, she can’t bear to leave without knowing that he’s safe, so she waits until some girls come out with the daylight, find him, and take him in to care for him. Once the mermaid knows he’ll live, she returns back home.

Once home again, she refuses to share her adventure with anyone, and partially at least, it’s no wonder. We’re told that her sisters have reached the age where going above the surface is something they can do at any time, so the novelty has worn off, and they’re pretty much over it. But the littlest mermaid isn’t. In fact, she’s more obsessed than ever, especially after her grandmother tells her that though humans can’t live for hundreds of years the way mermaids can, they do have souls, and so gain eternal life after their deaths.

And the little mermaid wants a soul desperately. Once she hears about this, she can’t get it out of her mind, just like the human world and her young prince. But the only way to get a soul is for a human man to love her more than anything else in his world, to agree to marry her, and so share his soul with her.
The little mermaid becomes obsessed with this idea, and with the prince she saved, who she has taken to watching from the sea as often as she can, and eventually, the obsession reaches the point (as they always seem to) where she goes and does Something Very Stupid.

She knows that if anyone has the power to help her get what she wants, it’s the Sea Witch. The Sea Witch is terrifying and powerful, and no one really goes near her because of those reasons, but the little mermaid gathers her courage and goes for a visit, and can I just say? The Sea Witch is one of my favorite characters in this story, and a lot of that has to do with the very first thing we hear her say:

“I know what you want,” said the sea witch; “it is very stupid of you, but you shall have your way, and it will bring you to sorrow, my pretty princess.”

Yeah. I love her.

Basically, this is a character who honestly does her damnedest to try and make the little mermaid see sense. She says, straight off, ‘this is a really poor choice, honey. I can do what you want, I can take your tail away and give you legs and make you human, but it’s gonna hurt, constantly. Every step you take will feel like you’re walking on knives, and you’ll bleed all the time. You sure you want that?’

And the little mermaid says yes. And then the Sea Witch says, ‘okay, but full disclosure, because there’s more, you can’t ever become a mermaid again. Once you’re a human, you’re a human. Even if he never loves you, even if you don’t get what you want. This is permanent. You can never see your kingdom or home or family again. You have to live above sea forever, oh, and if he doesn’t love you and share his soul with you, if he ever marries someone else, you will die and become sea foam the morning after.’

And the little mermaid says, yeah, I get it, let’s get on with it. And the Sea Witch says, ‘okay, look. Seriously, this is really bad deal. Because I’m not done yet. You don’t get something for nothing; I need payment. And because of the seriousness of the spell, it requires the most precious thing you have to give – your voice. You will never be able to speak or sing again, and you’ll have to rely on your form and your grace to win him over. Do you really want to do this?’

And then little mermaid says yes. And the Sea Witch basically shrugs and says, ‘okay, kid. Your funeral.’ And it all goes down exactly as the Sea Witch said. The mermaid has her tongue cut out, and she is given legs and deposited on the shore where the prince will find her. Sea Witch didn’t have to do that, by the way. She just threw it in for free.

She becomes the prince’s confidante, his little dancer, and while he does love her, he loves her like a sister. He calls her his little mute foundling, and he confides to her the things closest to his heart – that he fell in love some time ago with the girl who rescued him, but she was a member of a convent, and so they can never be together, and now his father is forcing him to marry a foreign princess he’s never met.

So his heart is breaking because he loves this temple girl but can’t tell her or win her love, and her heart is breaking because she loves him but he’ll never reciprocate that love. But then, hope! Because the prince declares he won’t be forced into marriage – he says he’ll go see this foreign princess and meet her, but that if he doesn’t like her, he’ll choose his own bride, and that he’d rather marry his mute dancer than a foreign stranger.

But just as the little mermaid allows herself hope, it is snatched away again, for when the prince goes to meet the princess his parents want him to wed, lo and behold, it is the girl who saved him on the beach, who was being taught at the holy temple, and so of course, he confesses his love and learns that she loves him, too, and so they are to be married and live happily ever after together.

The little mermaid’s heart is crushed. But seeing him so happy, she cannot bring herself to do anything that might destroy that happiness. She helps prepare the wedding, and she carries the bride’s train, knowing all the while that she will die in the morning. But because he is happy, she will not fight it.

Her sisters discover what has happened, though, and that night, the appear, having gone and made their own deal with the Sea Witch. In exchange for their hair, they have procured an enchanted knife. If the little mermaid kills the prince before the sun rises, his blood will change her back into a mermaid, and she can live out the rest of her years in the sea. All she has to do is kill the man she loves.

She refuses. She throws the knife away into the sea and then dives into the water after it, fully prepared to die. But before she can become sea foam, she is taken by the air spirits, who tell her that they, like the mermaids, have no souls. But if they serve humanity for 300 years, doing good in the world, they will be rewarded with a soul, and because the little mermaid has struggled so hard to do good in her dealings with the prince, they offer to change her to an air spirit and give her the same chance. She agrees. The end.

My thoughts? I love this story. I think it’s heart-breaking and tragically beautiful, and I love it. I love that we have a fairy tale here whose ultimate message isn’t that true love conquers all, but that the happiness of others is more important than our own happiness. Is the little mermaid reckless and stupid in the deal she makes with the Sea Witch? Absolutely. But, she learns. She grows, she changes, and what she comes to understand in the end, that truly loving someone sometimes means letting them go, is an incredibly important and human message, far more realistic and meaningful, in many ways, that the idea that true love conquers all.

So what am I looking for in an adaptation?

Exploration of the human characters – there is a truly beautiful love story in this tale: a prince lies abandoned on a beach, close to death. A girl finds him, takes him home, nurses him back to life. They fall in love, but because he is a prince and she is a temple girl, they can never be together. They’re separated. He’s promised to someone else. But when he meets her, who should she be but the girl who rescued him, a princess in secret! It’s a wonderful story. It just doesn’t involve the titular character. So I’d like to see these two and their love story explored. Which leads us right into . . .

No villainization of the side characters. Not naming any names *coughDisneycough* there are a lot of people who really polarize some of the characters in this story, like the Sea Witch. They turn her into a horrible villainess who wants to destroy the little mermaid. But reread that story, folks. The Sea Witch is trying to help the little mermaid. She tries three separate times to talk her out of making a deal, and she gives her an out through her sisters. Yeah, she makes the potion anyway, but that’s because she’s a morally gray character, and it’s the mermaid’s decision in the end, not hers. This is such a fantastic character, and turning her into a black and white villain takes away her awesomeness.

Similarly, the girl on the beach is often given the same treatment, purely because she’s not the little mermaid. But think about it – this girl saved the prince just as surely as the little mermaid did. The little mermaid saved him from drowning. But the girl on the beach nursed him back to health and saw him home. The fact that her existence creates a love triangle is no reason to make her anything other than a three-dimensional character, and I will call you out if you do it.

Finally, the message in the end. I’ll be asking this question: How does your story end? If it ends with the prince and the little mermaid getting a happily ever after, well . . . then we’re probably going have a problem, and here’s why. There are thousands of stories out there about a prince and a girl finding love with each other despite massive odds. This story? Isn’t one of them. This story was written with an altogether different end goal in mind. The message behind this original story is beautiful and heart-wrenching, and while an adaptation’s message doesn’t have to be exactly the same, if you reduce this beautifully tragic story to a “true love conquers all” story, then I have a problem with you. Because why pick an Anderson story in the first place? Put it another way:

Are you adapting Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” or Disney’s? If you’re adapting Anderson’s, great. I look forward to seeing what you do with it. If you’re adapting Disney’s, run, because I’m going to come find you and smack you (disagree all you like, and many of you might, but this is something I believe very strongly about).

That being said, here’s our reading list for the month:
Week 1: Teenage Mermaid by Ellen Schreiber
Week 2: Midnight Pearls by Debbie Vigue
Week 3: Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon
Week 4: Fortune’s Fool by Mercedes Lackey

Feel free to read along!