18 June 2008

Why Haven't They Ever Made a Movie of...?

Have you ever wondered that about some books? For this post, I'm specifically thinking of a favorite book, Jean Webster's Dear Enemy, which strikes me as the perfect book for a film.

Dear Enemy is the sequel to Daddy Long-Legs, in which orphan Jerusha "Judy" Abbott was sent to college by a kindly benefactor, an older man whom she later unwittingly falls in love with as the cousin, Jervis Pendleton, of one of her roommates. In Dear Enemy, Judy has purchased her "alma mater," the unhappy John Grier Orphanage, and places it into the hands of her other roommate, Sallie McBride, fresh from college. Sallie thinks of herself as a flibbertigibbet and arrives at the school with her pet chow dog and a personal maid, determined to stay only a few months until she can marry her fiancé, an up-and-coming young lawyer/politician. However, Judy is wiser about Sallie than she is about herself, and Sallie grows to love her position, releasing the children from the institutional regime that they have previously followed and devising all sorts of new schemes like camps for the older boys that will help the children when they eventually go out into the world.

Sallie also runs afoul of the orphanage's dour physician, a Scotsman named Robin MacRae, but as the story progresses, they become each other's ally as well as antagonist.

The book contains, unfortunately, the unsettling and bigoted theories of eugenics as practiced in the early part of the 20th century. It's a bit startling and depressing today to hear college-educated adults like Sallie and Dr. MacRae talking about heredity as something that overwhelmes upbringing, so that an alcoholic's child will always need institutionalizing because he will "naturally" crave alcohol, and watching Sallie sending handicapped children away to asylums because they don't belong with "normal" children. But this was the prevalent attitude at the time, and it doesn't keep Sallie or MacRae from actually breaking from the trends of the time. In particular, there is a girl named Loretta who is what we would call today "mentally challenged." Instead of banishing her to an asylum, Sallie sends her to live with a kindly farm family who basically act like one of today's residential homes for people with Down syndrome. Loretta is treated kindly, blooms into a happy young woman, and learns to do many things rather than spending the rest of her life rocking back and forth in an institution.

With all the eugenics twaddle disposed of, what a great story is left: spoiled college socialite finds a social conscience and career, helps children, and eventually finds love with a man who has had some tough times in his life. There is a appealing subplot about three children who have just become orphaned, and a couple want to adopt just the little girl, not her older brothers. Sallie and MacRae quarrel because she at first thinks having the little girl adopted without her brothers would be an accomplishment, but as the doctor protests, Sallie slowly realizes that she cannot break up the siblings, who are very close, even if she loses the little girl a good home where she will be given all advantages. There is also a fire at the orphanage to provide excitement and Sallie's growing dissatisfaction with her fiancé, who merely expects her to be ornamental and amusing, to add conflict.

Maybe Hallmark will make it as a movie some day, as their original films run in a similar vein.

(Frankly, I'd love a version of Daddy Long Legs that was more faithful to the book, as I have never been fond of the Leslie Caron/Fred Astaire musical.)

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