Growing up, one of my favorite movies was “A Little Princess,” directed by Alfonso Cuaron. This movie enchanted me with its music, the initial setting of India (complete with copious shots of the Taj Mahal against a bleeding orange sky), and the central theme of “all girls are princesses.” I loved Sara Crewe and cried with her when her father passed away, and I cried again at the end when it turns out he was only MIA in the Great War and he finds his way back to her. I seriously loved this movie, and still do.
I was still very young when I found out that this story was originally a book. Being a book-addicted little thing, I started reading the book but stopped when my sister told me that in the novel, Sara’s father actually dies. I gave up reading because that was just far too sad for my nine-year-old psyche to handle. I was used to happy endings.
Fast forward a decade or so, and my best friend bought me the book for Christmas, knowing my love for the movie. About a month ago I read it finally, and found that the book carries a message separate from the movie, that it has something else to offer than a sad ending. Rather than the theme of “all girls are princesses,” the book presents the idea that being a princess–and acting like a princess–involves not riches or status or special treatment, but rather unselfishness, patience, and unqualified generosity. We’re not princesses by right or birth, but by virtue of our behavior toward others.
“It’s true,” she said. “Sometimes I do pretend I am a princess. I pretend I am a princess, so that I can try and behave like one.”
After Sara falls into poverty and has to perform menial tasks, serve her former students, live in a drafty attic and often go without food or comfortable sleep, she learns what being a princess really means: kindness toward others, those both kind and unkind. She finds a sixpence and buys six buns with it, only to give away five buns to a homeless little girl on the street. She shows all kinds of kindness to others, whether or not they deserve it. Most notably, she restrains her temper with the evil Miss Minchin, not only out of kindness, but out of a desire to remain strong and stoic.
“When you will not fly into a passion people know you are stronger than they are, because you are strong enough to hold in your rage, and they are not, and they say stupid things they wish they hadn’t said afterward. There’s nothing so strong as rage, except what makes you hold it in—that’s stronger. It’s a good thing not to answer your enemies.”
Another element of Sara’s stoicism is her lively imagination. She creates all kinds of stories in her head to buttress her emotions at the end of grueling workdays and to frustrate her enemies. Sara has an incredible ability to escape from reality through stories, a quality I found admirable in an 11-year-old scullery maid. She never lets herself cry or break down, and she uses her ability to make up stories and create different realities to comfort and support her friends, like Becky and Ermengarde. Sara is a weird little girl, but her unconditional generosity and her fantastical imagination made me admire her.
“Whatever comes,” she said, “cannot alter one thing. If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it.”
I can’t help but compare the novel’s Sara to the movie’s Sara, who loudly proclaims that “all girls are princesses.” Movie Sara doesn’t equate good behavior with being a princess; rather, she asserts the individuality and worth of each girl and woman, proclaiming that women are princesses even if they’re poor, unintelligent, old, or conventionally unattractive. I loved this aspect of the movie. Movie Sara is less proud (in a way) than Novel Sara: she allows for each girl and woman to be special and be defined as a “princess.”
“Everything’s a story—You are a story—I am a story.”
I still adore the movie and always will. It presents the wonderful idea that each woman is special and should encourage a sisterhood among all women, regardless of social status or race. But having read the book, I understand how the movie fails to capture the idea that a “princess” should be defined by her behavior, and not simply because she thinks she is special. I think each story has something unique to say about women and about kindness toward others. I also think that the novel suffers a bit from its age: it was written in 1905 and it’s showing its wrinkles! That said, I adored reading this book. It taught me the meaning of being a princess.