An Unusual Pantheon, Indeed


It’s almost inevitable that the filmed versions of novels suffer in comparison to the original. The structural and storytelling requirements of film all too often flatten characters, compress events, and obscure themes and motives. The film version of Bridget Jones’ Diary completely omitted the novel’s commentary on female self-image and culture, for example. Often, making a successful film from a printed source requires significant transformation of the source material (see Dr. Strangelove (or, indeed, most of Kubrick’s mature oeuvre); Blade Runner; Apocalypse Now).

However, there is a very small category of movies-from-books where the film not only stands on its own two feet but actually exceeds the original. The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II (also the rare case where the sequel exceeded what preceded it) is the canonical example. And now I have to report that the filmed version of The Devil Wears Prada is another case of the film far exceeding the original (I admit that I haven’t actually read the novel, but by all accounts, it’s both awful and self-serving).

Our heroine, Andrea “Andy” Sachs (her self-selected choice of a boy’s name is supposed to signify her spunky, independent spirit) is supposed to be a brilliant budding journalist seeking entry into the publishing world (she turned down Stanford Law to pursue her dream; one wonders how hard it would be for someone with the record and intellectual firepower to get into Stanford Law to apply to a graduate program in journalism). Anne Hathaway, the actor who plays Andy, is a pretty and appealing screen presence, even in the first act of the film, when she’s saddled with an unfortunate haircut and dowdy clothes (signifying, of course, Andy’s status as a fashion outsider and naif).

Andy somehow manages to acquire a job as second assistant to Miranda Priestly, the wicked witch of the west imperious doyenne and editrix of the entirely fictional Runway magazine (for those of you keeping score at home, Runway=Vogue and Miranda Priestly=Anna Wintour). Priestly rules her magazine—and the fashion world at large—with pursed lips and an air of slight disappointment; an iron fist in a Chanel glove.

Working alongside Andy at Runway is an evil step-sister Miranda’s first assistant, a tart-tounged Englishwoman named Emily (Emily Blunt in a scenery-chewing, scene-stealing turn); Stanley Tucci plays a fairy godmother art director who takes Andy under his wing and helps her fit in.

The film’s fairy-tale setup is a large part of the film’s initial attraction, and Andy’s Cinderella-like metamorphosis from frumpily unfashionable bookworm to sleek, glamourous clotheshorse is, indeed, a sight to behold (the subtextual message, of course, is that the route to being fabulous lies in a makeover). Ill-fitting corduroy and discount-store sweaters are discarded in favor of designers who need only one name; functional flats are replaced by towering stilettos; an unruly, frizzy mane of hair is pared down into a glossy, sleek, swinging do.

It should be pointed out that ugly duckling roles seem to have become a speciality for Hathaway; this is the third movie she’s appeared in where she undergoes a transformation from frumpy to fab.

The real star, though, is Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly. Despite the fact that Priestly is, structurally, the story’s antagonist, she dominates every scene she’s in—and the film as a whole. Part of this, of course, is simple magnetism; Streep is a Movie Star, and the camera loves her as such (curiously, while most classic movie stars play variations on a theme—James Garner, for example, has become the living embodiment of the affable (if now aging) rogue—Streep is a movie star despite herself; she embraces roles that are alike only in that they’re all middle-aged white women (see her sentimental Yolanda Johnson in A Prairie Home Companion as a contrast to Priestly)).

From the calculatedly unthinking manner that she dumps her coat and purse on Andy’s desk, to her brilliant first-act speech where she draws the line from a turquoise belt to Andy’s blue sweater, to the chilly way she savors the fashion world’s fawning obsequiousness, Streep’s Priestly is an astonishing creature. Her ability to strike fear into her underlings with just a whisper (a trick Streep borrowed from Clint Eastwood, her co-star (and director) in The Bridges of Madison County, another decent movie fashioned from an absolutely awful novel) invokes power both power and respect.

The film dutifully trundles through its various plot mechanics (the hunky writer rake; the up-and-coming designer; the rival editor), but set against the simple pleasure of watching Streep, they fade to become simple window dressing; the actual details of the plot seems secondary and serve only to bump the film through its acts.

The Devil in both the book and the movie refers to Miranda Priestly, of course. But the novel’s devil is a one-dimensional harridan, high on power and thoroughly unlikable. The movie’s devil is a seductive demon, using glamour and power and shiny pretty things to lure Andy into changing who she is; Priestly is akin to Milton’s Lucifer, a devil who seduces rather than overpowers.

The title sequence of the film is a rapid-fire montage of assorted female Runway staffers going through their daily prep; their artifice is contrasted against a pre-makeover Andy stumbling through her morning (the end of the sequence has the staffers all hopping into cabs, while Andy descends into the subway on her way to her job interview at the magazine). The message seems unmistakable; yet, post-makeover, Andy turns into one of them, even going so far as to lose enough weight to go from a perfectly respectable size 6 to a size 4.

The devil knows that glamour seduces even those who reject it; at the end of the film, Andy turns her back on Runway and gives away all her couture clothing. But she keeps her fabulous haircut.


By any chance, is your use of the word glamour predicated on etymology?

AZ and I enjoyed this - me more than I expected, though I'm a sucker for Streep (and somewhat less a sucker for Tucci). But it's a very good summer film, meatier than most of the ones we get tossed during these hot, AC embracing months.

AZ being a magazine hound, and a editor and journalista of sorts, we had a good grasp of the inside baseball. And she may try some of the management tricks on her writers and managing editors....!

OK, that last bit not so much. But it makes for good jokes. We're really more about the Management Tips from Barney Miller.

I dunno, Mike... what do you think?

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