On the New Year’s Eve we started watching Eloise at the Plaza DVD that my sister-in-law gave us for Christmas. The beginning was mischievous and exuberant, and I couldn’t believe a movie that good was made in 2003. Since we were halfway through at our kid’s bedtime, I suggested that we open the bubbly and keep watching once they are asleep, but DH talked me out of it. He thought we shouldn’t watch it without Yelena.
I’m glad I followed his advice. The second half of the film was sentimental and moralistic, which puts it at odds with the spirit of the book. Of course, they got the morals all wrong.
The back cover of my 50th Anniversary Edition of The Absolutely Essential Eloise features the praise from the sages of our era. Among them is Susan Sarandon:
Thanks to Eloise, my daughter sought independence and mastery over her life. We loved reading this book, and we’ve never given it away.
NPR’s Nina Totenberg sounds even less sensible:
Eloise is a model for uppity women.
I’m not clear what constitutes that precious independent model uppity woman behavior: wearing a tissue box as a hat or getting mixed up in Paris traffic and causing an accident. But I do know that Eloise is no role model or hero. What she is, is a trickster. A trickster is a folkloric and literary character, a rule breaker who teaches us what not to do.
Whether Elise books are children’s literature is a matter of minor controversy. When the first edition of Kay Thompson’s Eloise came out in 1955, it was subtitled A Book for Precocious Grownups. In my opinion Eloise makes a fine read for kids, just as Reynard the Fox, the Cat in the Hat, Ivan the Foll and countless others. Children have great senses of humor and quickly learn to recognize a trickster. If they need to be cued in a little, like to be explained what will happen, step by step, if, say, we don’t turn off these bathroom faucets — Kay Thompson does just that. Feminists who lack a sense of humor think Eloise’s behavior is something to imitate. They say that Eloise is rebellious, but if taken literally, Elise is as rebellious as Kelly Osborn. She’s not rebelling against anything, just searching for boundaries.
The 2003 film is particularly egregious because it rhapsodizes why Eloise is important. We watch a debutante declare that she wants to be like Eloise because Eloise knows what she wants, and gets it. Really? The girl is a brat who runs up charges on a whim and throws [unconvincing] tantrums. The debutante’s line of thought must be confusing to a young viewer who, in all likelihood, already learned that the world doesn’t work this way.
Elise at the Plaza fails on other grounds. The book is full of mysteries. The Plaza is full mysteries. Eloise’s own origin is obscured. Not a word is said about her dad, and although the girl’s mother receives a few mentions, she never enters the narrative. The six-year-old is left in custody of a permissive nanny. World without parents — we all can dream, can’t we?
The silver screen Plaza is still full of rooms, but instead of the fantasy land where a lonely child roams the cavernous stately hotel, we get a film where mother looms large. Disney introduced the tear-jerk plot line with a little prince grieving his lost mother, and Eloise’s own mom returns from France in the closing scene.
In sum, Kay Thompson gave us a mischievous little girl in a grand building, full of secrets and marvels, cold, but with small exotic rewards hiding behind every door. She exists in a reality where the rules are suspended, allowing us to gain greater appreciation of these rules. In our own feminist age we get a poorly socialized child who “teaches” us do as we please.