Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day: Book / Film Comparison

Book is by Winifred Watson.  1938, Persephone, Paperback, 234 pages.

Movie: 2008 release, Directed by Bharat Nalluri, Screenplay by David Magee and Simon Beaufoy, Starring Amy Adams, Frances McDormand, Lee Pace, Ciaran Hinds, Shirley Henderson, and Mark Strong.

In a nutshell: In both movie and film, the story is about a middle-aged governess who gets swept up in the life of a young London socialite for one day.

Comparison Review:

I saw Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day when it was released in theaters.  I had seen a preview and it looked fun and it featured Pushing Daisies‘ adorable lead actor, Lee Pace.  My friend and I enjoyed the movie thoroughly and left the theater high-spirited and set on buying the DVD as soon as it came out.   When it did, I showed it to friends and family, with the result that I have seen the film numerous times.

I had realized fairly early on that the film was based on a book, and finally read it during the last month.  (My first Persephone book by the way.)

Amazingly, though I would describe the film as ebullient and giddy, the book is even more carefree.  In the book, Miss Pettigrew is quickly adopted by the confident, gorgeous Miss LaFosse and her social set.  With a sort of ‘why not?’ air of abandonment, Miss Pettigrew adapts herself to her new friends’ lifestyle, allowing herself to be bolder, even flirtier.  She adores Miss LaFosse unreservedly and champions the one suitor she thinks is worthy of her new friend.

The film’s take on Miss Pettigrew is shaded a bit differently.  Certainly Frances McDormand’s Miss Pettigrew undergoes transformation throughout the movie – becoming bolder and more confident, for example.  There is a hilarious set piece in the beginning where she ably gets Miss LaFosse out of a jam.  But film-version Miss Pettigrew is a bit more reserved and even disapproving than her gleeful literary counterpart.  This might be because – in the film – Miss LaFosse and her friends are less happy-go-lucky and more deceptive and clueless.  Winifred Watson certainly took some satiric jabs in the book, but on the whole, all except one major character, are treated with an amused benevolence in the book.

I think the tonal shift between book and film most likely derives from the filmmakers’ choice to push the historical period to the forefront.  It is the eve of World War II and only the older set (Miss Pettigrew and Ciaran Hinds’ character) seem to feel the full import of what that would mean.  They remember the cost of World War I clearly.  It casts an automatic sobering influence on the story (though I would characterize the film as light-hearted overall.)

Winifred Watson’s book was published in 1938.  Watson did not write her story with a 21st century view of history and world events barely intrude on its romp.  By contrast, the filmmakers probably looked at that year, and thought – bam! eve of World War II.  I imagine when future screenwriters set films in our current era, there will have developed a certain shorthand for our time: if it’s set in 2011, we should have the people dress this way, and allude to this pop cultural phenomenon and that world event.

I’m reminded of how Eudora Welty purposefully set her book Delta Wedding in 1923, a year where little happened, dodging great national events like the war and the Depression.   As we look back on the past, years gather connotations about them, and thus old stories are layered with the new storytellers’ view of that time.

The film is of course different from the book for many more reasons than just this one I have discussed.  The heightening of stakes, the collapsing of characters, the molding of the story into more familiar narrative arc patterns – these happen in the adaptation too.  But the above were some of more prominent thoughts swirling in my head.

I enjoyed both film and book.  I find the film’s emphasis on the difference between the generations to be a nice touch, and I love when Amy Adams and Lee Pace sing together near the end of the film at the night club.  The film also expands on Miss Pettigrew’s tentative romance with Joe Blumfield, which I like as well.

On the other hand, I slightly prefer the increased poise and confidence of the book’s Miss LaFosse over Amy Adams’ more desperate version in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.  The scene where Miss Pettigrew gets a bit drunk in the book is a missed moment for the film.  And it is kind of a shame that Miss Dubarry’s enterprising character is villainized for the film, as I rather liked the interaction she had with Miss Pettigrew in the book.

I think I would recommend seeing the film first and book second, based on reactions I’ve read from other bloggers regarding the book and film.

Others’ Reviews of the book:

Novel Insights – “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is fundamentally a tale of self-discovery – of a woman finding out who she could have, and can be.”

Somewhere i have never travelled – “Definitely something to read when you are feeling a bit down and need some lighthearted glamorous fantasy. I loved it completely.”



Filed under Book Review

6 responses to “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day: Book / Film Comparison

  1. I read the book last year and loved it, but I haven’t seen the film yet. I wonder if having read the book first would affect my enjoyment of the film? I’d still like to see it anyway!

  2. I liked the emphasis on the coming war in the film, but ultimately I found it a bit disappointing – the fact that they resorted to the good ol’ women-competing-for-a-man trope rubbed me the wrong way. I enjoyed it other than that, though.

    • I can see how that would, though I must say that it wasn’t the worst use of the trope I’ve seen. Shirley Henderson’s character has a great little revealing moment as she’s talking to Miss Pettigrew in the salon – she’s not completely a flat villain.

  3. Pingback: Book & Movie: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day | Iris on Books

  4. Pingback: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson (1938) | Unbridled Enthusiasm

Join the Discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s