Wednesday, October 30, 2013

BOOK STUDY: Someone FINALLY YA'd the Pimpernel

That someone is Diana Peterfreund, and that book is ACROSS A STAR-SWEPT SEA.

I've been studying THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL for about 15 years. I feel like I qualify for at least a Masters in Pimpernel. I've been WAITING for an excuse to throw down a thesis-length book study on it, and FINALLY, here's my chance! Let's unpack the lineage of the Pimpernel story and see where ACROSS THE STAR-SWEPT SEA fits in.

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SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
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WHAT IS THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL?

* A love/adventure story (actually a series of stories) written by Baroness Orczy in the early 1900s.
* A great idea poorly executed for over 100 years.

The great idea: At the beginning of the French Revolution, French actress marries rich Englishman. She's blackmailed into spying on the English aristocracy in hopes of unmasking the man (known as The Scarlet Pimpernel) who's been rescuing French citizens condemned to the guillotine. She helps the revolutionaries set a trap for the hero only to discover that the Pimpernel is her husband. Basically, it's a ancestor of BATMAN if Bruce Wayne were married, hiding his identity from his wife, and working with an Ocean's Eleven-esque group of buddies to fight crime. (Clooney would be Percy, Brad Pitt would be Andrew, and Matt Damon would be himself.)

The original story was told from Lady Marguerite's perspective, building up to a reveal of "Luke I am your father" or "Bruce Willis is dead in the Sixth Sense" proportions. The tension building up to her discovering the identity of the Pimpernel is real and still valid a century later. But as the story has evolved, new renditions have gone with a strategy of "screw it, let's tell the story from Percy's perspective instead - no point in pretending people don't know who he is." Percy goes more places, sees more things, interacts with more people, and is in the thick of more action. Centering the narrative around him is a solid decision every time.

The Poor Execution: Each interpretation of the story has had its problems. For one, everyone struggles with where to begin (a legitimate question for all storytellers), and evolving this text over one hundred years seems to have only exacerbated the issue. Do we start with when Percy and Marguerite meet? Or when Percy decides to take on the dual identity and start saving people? Or when Chauvelin starts his manhunt? Or somewhere else? The middle of the story (with the espionage and deceit) provides solid bones, but good gracious, the endings! There's a reason you haven't seen a lot of remakes of CITIZEN KANE (they got it right the first time), but there are several versions of the Pimpernel. We're still waiting for someone to stick the landing on the dismount.

A BRIEF BUT COMPLETE HISTORY OF THE PIMPERNEL NARRATIVE

To appreciate the level of difficulty for Peterfreund's rendition, you need some understanding of the versions that came before.

* Baroness Orczy's original series. Rough beginning. It takes several rambling chapters to establish the conflict, build the world, etc. The two main characters, Marguarite and Percy, don't get ANY "screen time" until chapters five and six respectively.

Solid middle, building fascinating relationships (Marguerite & Percy; Percy & Andrew; Marguerite & Chauvelin; Armand & Marguerite; Chauvelin & Percy; Percy & Everyone; and my favorite Marguerite & Andrew). Each relationship is built on real, believable conflict. Marguerite & Percy have an estranged marriage for reasons that unfold as we go. Marguerite and Chauvelin were friends, but now she is the object of his blackmail and her brother Armand’s potential executioner. Andrew is caught between Percy (his best friend, to whom he’s pledged his undying loyalty) and Marguerite (his best friend’s wife, a damsel in distress, who must be treated with the utmost chivalry, even if she is trying to deceive him).

The original ending is really, really rough - like, it ends with the Pimpernel disguising himself as a Jewish cart owner and having the revolutionaries beat him up because he's Jewish. It also features an unrealistic reconciliation between Percy and Marguerite, which makes me think that the good Baroness mistakes starry-eyed hero worship for love. Discovering that Percy was a hero shouldn't have been enough to forgive his actions, especially given that their relationship was supposedly based on him idolizing her. Rather, discovering his true identity should have been a opening for dialogue between them and led to something deeper. If you ask me, that ending couldn't have been chucked into the shredder fast enough.

* Movie version from 1934 staring Ashley from GONE WITH THE WIND as Percy. Already the narrative has shifted from Marguerite to Percy, and the opening scene shows him in the midst of a perfectly executed rescue mission. We get to see him switch between his Pimpernel mask and his ‘court idiot’ mask – and that true self that exists in the small moments in between. A very good rendition that gives us more insight into the relationship between Percy and his cohorts. As in the original text, we’re a little unclear on exactly how (or why?) Percy and Marguerite ever became a couple in the first place, so the romance feels a little forced. At the end, Percy is captured by Chauvelin and bravely faces a firing squad, knowing that it is his own men (led by his right-hand-man Andrew) behind the guns. The end feels flat compared to the rest of the story (and how about that FAINT!), but it’s still a vast improvement over the original.

* Movie version from 1982 staring Doctor Quinn as Marguerite and Gandolph as Chauvelin. Peterfreund states in her acknowledgements that this is the authoritative version she turned to, and with good reason. Believable backstory as to why Percy and Marguerite became a couple! A (newly conceived) love triangle between Percy, Marguerite, and Chauvelin! Sword fights! One of the things that made this version more fun was that it melded together the original Pimpernel story with another of Baroness Orczy’s novels (ELDORADO) to produce a much richer text. But while this version of Percy might be the most like the Baroness’s original description (drolling speech, heavy eyelids, just generally a bit lazy and irritating), I prefer my Percy to ramble quick words and then pause while everyone listening goes… what? Like…

* Broadway version 1997. Ohhh Douglas Sills. I first became aware of the Pimpernel’s existence because I saw Douglas Sills perform “Into the Fire” on the Rosie O’Donnell show after school. I’d never heard of it before, but this snippet was enough to make me go WHAT IS THIS WHAT IS IT? Broadway did a phenomenal job of churning up the humor and heartbreak of the story, but it focused almost exclusively on the love triangle. At least we still got a sword fight at the end.

* There was also a BBC mini-series in the late 1990s. It’s on NetFlix. The second episode made me laugh. Let’s move on.

The point is, the last 100 years has proven that there are a LOT of different ways to tell this story, and we have yet to find THE BEST way to arrange the given puzzle pieces. That’s why what Peterfreund did was so cool. She went back to the original text, dug in, found some elements that hadn't yet been explored, and then added her own unique flavor.


ACROSS THE STAR-SWEPT SEA: THE BIG PICTURE

First of all, Peterfreund pulled the old gender swap-a-roo. She presents the Percy character as a girl (which begs the question, what if Paris Hilton has been fooling us all along?). Percy became Persis (short for Persistence, which I doubly enjoyed because it reminded me so much of “Paris” and it also sounds kind of like the plural for "purse"). The Marguerite character is transformed from a famous actress into a guy from a famous family. Chauvelin, Armand, Andrew, even the Prince of Wales – every guy character becomes a girl (except, I guess Tony might be the equivalent of Tero?).

Secondly, the story finally advances beyond the French Revolution period. Peterfreund built a really cool futuristic sci-fi South Pacific sort of world with Albion on one side of the sea and Galatea on the other. (Because all I think about these days is soccer, it reminded me of WBA and Galatasaray.) The world building was complex and full – it actually took me a couple of chapters to get my bearings (which makes me wonder what the experience would be like for someone unfamiliar with the Pimpernel story? Probably easier). While aristocrats were beheaded via guillotine in old France, in Galatea, they lost their minds due to forced medication. Another smart (and terrifying) idea from Peterfreund.

Thirdly, and probably the biggest obstacle to making a YA Pimpernel story work – Peterfreund found a way to force “Percy” and “Marguerite” together without them being married. She didn't utilize the love triangle plot that had become such a staple of the story over the years. She dreamed up enough alternate tension to keep the story interesting without it.


ACROSS A STAR-SWEPT SEA – THE BRILLIANT DETAILS

If you go way, way back to the original Orczy text and read the world’s initial introduction to Percy, you’ll find an almost throw-away line about where Percy came from. His father was wealthy, his mother was mentally ill – and because Percy looked more like his mother, it was no surprise that he was stupid, too.

Of course, playing stupid was all part of the game for Percy, just as it is for Persis, a blond, stylish, gossipy, high school dropout. But Peterfreund took that throwaway line about Percy’s mother and made it the driving engine of her plot. Persis’s mother is ill, which makes her more compassionate toward those being tortured with the mind-numbing medication. She also knows that she may have inherited her mother’s illness, which makes her reckless. No romantic motivations needed. A very smart addition.

Marguerite became Justen (a less obvious name indicator, which made me a little sad), the descendant of a famous doctor and a promising medical student himself. Medical issues (or maybe more specifically, the interaction of technology and the body) are woven through the entire story. Persis experiments with different genetic engineering codes for her disguises (not unlike some futuristic version of polyjuice potion). When one goes wrong, Justen the Medic is there to provide first aid. A clever meeting, different enough that I momentarily forgot that I sort of already knew where the story was going.

Justen requests asylum in Albion in order to conduct research without interference from revolution (and it's granted due to his famous name). Asylum in this instance means "stay at Persis's house" and thus Peterfreund is able to keep the espionage tension alive. While Percy turns on Marguerite after she denounces French aristocrats to the guillotine, Persis turns on Justen once she learns that he played a part in developing the drug being administered to aristocrats.

Just as the original Percy was closely associated with the Prince of Wales, Persis is best friends with the Princess of Albion - the difference is, this time the Princess knows Persis's secret. Peterfreund's book focuses a LOT more on the political risks. The Princess is caught between keeping her own country from following the Revolutionaries' lead and also keeping her moral compass. Albion has a quaint little thread of "women can't inherit stuff and have limited rights," which also plays along nicely with maintaining 'The Wild Poppy's' cover ("when they expect nothing of you, they never see you coming"). Galatea, on the other hand, had always had a proper Queen, so seeing a female Chauvelin strikes no one as weird. There's even some Orczy source material to use for inspiration. A smart, well-crafted villain.

It was surprisingly refreshing that Peterfreund killed the love triangle and instead made the Chauvelin character and Justen like siblings. It was as though Robespierre was Chauvelin's father, he adopted Marguerite and Armand, and then raised them all together like a happy little revolutionary family. I'd reached a point where I thought the love triangle was so ingrained in the story that it HAD to be included, but I was wrong. In this case, it was much better without it.


THE ENDING

Peterfreund comes the closest to sticking the dismount that I've ever seen (and my quest to find the perfect Pimpernel ending goes so deep that I've even seen "Pimpernel Smith" smuggling people out of Germany during WWII). The Chauvelin equivalent captures Persis (ala Orczy's ELDORADO, in which Percy is deprived of sleep until he starts to lose himself). Persis is similarly in danger of losing her mind due to the Revolutionaries' drug - but the Armand character switches the medicines at the last second. Much like Sir Percy Blakeney before her, "Persis Flake's" greatest skill is maintaining and rewarding loyalty.

I like endings that have momentum behind them. For example, at the end of BACK TO THE FUTURE Doc Brown says, "Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads." When they soar off into the clouds, you know that the story continues, even if you can't see it.

Unlike previous Pimpernel renditions that attempted to give us resolution of conflict, the end of ACROSS A STAR-SWEPT SEA felt like the beginning of something. A vast, vast improvement. This is a fun book, but it's a smart book at the same time.

BUT IT'S STILL NOT QUITE PERFECT...

Over the past 100 years, Andrew (my favorite character) has slowly been written out of the story. I would argue that the original book was almost as much Andrew's story as it was Percy or Marguerite's. He has at least twice as much "screen time" as Percy. He's chippy, he's loyal, he's swoony-in-love, he has a hot temper, and he's the first person we know for sure is involved with the Pimpernel rescues. He doesn't even seem to be hiding it - and in just about every version, there is a scene in which Marguerite wonders aloud if Andrew might be the Pimpernel. He's an amazing character, and yet with each new version he's increasingly diluted. He was completely cut OUT of the 1997 musical version, which is probably one of the reasons it had such a singular focus on the love triangle.

The fact is: Percy Blakeney as presented in Orczy's first novel wasn't a very likable character (she has to fool us readers as much as Percy's fooling Chauvelin and the members of the court). And so, to make him more heroic and worthy of hosting the main narrative (Save the Cat?), Andrew's characteristics were slowly shuffled in his direction and best friend status granted to someone else. Seeing him pushed to the background makes me very sad - so when the very first scene of ACROSS A STAR-SWEPT SEA showed Persis and "Andrew" working as a team, I was so hopeful... but the interplay I wanted happened between Persis and the Princess instead. It was good, but I'd still love to see Andrew pulled back into the limelight.

Peterfreund got so many little things right that it's obvious she did her homework - Persis drives too fast, has a ship called the Daydream, the distinctive laugh, the lighthearted nature. The tone was appropriate, but I would have liked more sense of humor. The Pimpernel is best when the Pimpernel is funny. This book is by no means dour or brooding, but it didn't make me laugh out loud, either. It got a little repetitive at times - we know Justen feels bad about his role in developing the drug, we don't need to be reminded - just little things like that. But she used her artistic license with great success, and for that she's to be congratulated.

IN CONCLUSION

This is an outstanding rendition, and I'm so glad I read it. But, there is still room for someone to land a perfect Pimpernel. If there are other versions out there I might have missed, please let me know. We all have our quests, our White Whales. This just so happens to be mine.