Originally published in September 2004, on my original 52 Books blog. My comments in different type.
Year published: 2001
Genre: Chick lit
Sub-genre(s): self discovery
Where got: Bought in Prague
For those who have not read the book or seen the movie and don’t want to know the ending or of either, please stop reading NOW!
Those who have seen the movie are already familiar with the basic plot of the book: Bel Air princess Elle Woods is rejected by her boyfriend and follows him to law school to show him that while she is a blonde, she is not dumb. All kinds of funny chaos ensues, Elle defends Brooke, a former sorority sister in a murder trial, gets sexually harassed by her supervisor, and finally rejects the ex in favour of continuing law school and being with the cute lawyer she met.
That was the movie.
The book has the same basic plot, but with important differences. One is that instead of heading east to Harvard and losing all connections with her friends, Elle heads north to Stanford, meaning that she still has relatively easy access to her social network, which is what gets her the internship on the Brooke Vandermark defence team. Another is that her supervisor is actually quite nice and there even seems to be some mutual sexual attraction between him and Elle. The third is that the trial is not about murder, but an inheritance dispute. Brooke Vandermark has been sued by her husband’s daughter and ex wives for the inheritance and stands to lose everything if she is proven guilty of the murder. There is no Emmet, and Elle is happily single at the end of the book. Elle gets somewhat annoying at times because she is so perfect: so beautiful that even movie stars stare at her, and so kind that everyone who gets to know her beyond the superficial can’t help liking her. Internally, though, she’s a mess and quite human (which is what saves her from being a total Mary Sue).
Technique and plot:
The book drags a bit at times, especially the middle section, but for the most part it moves along well. Elle’s culture shock, coming from her pampered Bel Air environment, to the harsh and competitive law school where everyone instantly assumes her to be a stereotypical dumb blonde, is not quite as funny as it is in the movie, but a lot more real (I speak from experience, having suffered culture shock myself).
Interesting read, good support to the movie. 3 stars.
The unavoidable book/movie comparison:
All in all, I think many of the changes to the story from book to movie were well warranted, especially the expansion of the character of Paulette, played by Jennifer Coolidge, who steals every scene she is in. In the book Paulette is just a sympathetic French manicurist who is mentioned a couple of times in passing. Changing the trial from an inheritance case to a murder trial did make the movie story more thrilling. Elle in the movie is a lot more assertive than Elle in the book, and gets ahead on brains and hard work, while Elle in the book, although clearly smart (she wouldn’t have stood a chance in law school otherwise) is constantly struggling to keep up with her schedule, skipping classes and generally slacking off. Elle in the book is trying to get Warner back by dangling herself in front of him all the time, while Elle in the movie is intent on proving to him she is smart enough to deserve him. In spite of the differences in portrayal, Reese Witherspoon’s Elle is still recognisable as Amanda Brown’s Elle, and I think that reading the book gives one a better understanding of the turmoil that is supposed to be going on beneath Elle’s sunny smiles and sulky pouts in the movie. Reese Witherspoon is quite a good actress, but she has not mastered the subtlety needed to express finely nuanced emotions. I’m not saying she mugs, but her face is expressive in a big way, rather than subtle.
I didn’t quite understand why they changed the schools from Stanford to Harvard. Perhaps they wanted to make sure the audience really understands how alone Elle is once she starts law school? And since they had to add a romance element, why couldn’t they have made it sizzle a bit? I mean, Luke Wilson’s Emmett is cute, but that’s just it, he is just another cute guy around campus and there is no tension between them, it’s all just sibling-like banter and no apparent attraction.
Since I am reading a book about scriptwriting, I can’t help adding that I am now beginning to understand better why the plots in books are so often altered in screen adaptations. Books have different dynamics from movies, and while we will patiently slog through a slow middle section of a book in anticipation of a good climax and ending, we want a movie to keep up a good pace and entertain us throughout. The middle section of the book is about Elle’s problems fitting in, her struggles with her studies, legal stuff and internal struggles that would have bogged down the movie had they been shown in full. In a movie the short and snappy scenes of her interaction with her teachers and co-students serve much better to show this, even if it makes her loneliness and isolation seem a bit trivial compared with the book. But, after all the movie is supposed to be a lighthearted comedy, while the book is an occasionally funny story about self discovery.