Bookflix: The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1934

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After seeing a Buzzfeed post about books you need to read before their movie adaptations come out*, I was inspired to start a new series on Mark It Read about movies based on books. I am a terrible movie-watcher; I don’t see many movies in theaters and I’ve never seen many movies that would be considered must-see. But I have Netflix, so I’m working on it! With D on vacation last week, I had time to get some DVDs of movies that you couldn’t pay him to watch. I started with a real doozy: the 1934 (un-remastered!) version of The Scarlet Pimpernel.

I first read The Scarlet Pimpernel last year, and it quickly became one of my favorite books. I loved it so much that I devoured six other books in the Scarlet Pimpernel series, and have at least one more on my Kindle waiting to be read. It’s like The Princess Bride, it has everything: action, drama, romance, politics and humor. Baroness Orczy really balances all of those elements to create a book deserving of the “classic” label. I was a little worried that the movie would fall short like so many other adaptations do. And perhaps in a shallow way, I was worried I wouldn’t think the main character was charming and handsome enough. Yes, I know, that sounds ridiculous. But when you talk about how devilishly handsome your hero is, the casting department better live up to the words on the paper.

In case you’re wondering, Leslie Howard is fairly handsome in a 1930’s way, so it was okay. And his ability to switch personas from Blakeney to the Scarlet Pimpernel (sometimes even in the same scene) is marvelous.

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Raymond Massey and Leslie Howard as Chauvelin and Sir Percy

Once you get over the subpar sound quality and graininess that comes with any old movie no one has taken the time to remaster, it’s pretty good. It stays true to the book, maintaining most of the original details. The novel isn’t very long or complicated, so I would have been surprised if it drifted too far away from Orczy’s story. I had read so many of the Pimpernel adventures that I forgot the first one isn’t as action-packed as the later ones, and does more service in establishing characters and historical context than in having actual physical altercations between the good and bad guys.

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Merle Oberon and Howard

The acting is great. Lady Blakeney tended to be a little melodramatic in the novels but Merle Oberon does a fine job at being a little more subtle. Her character has a valid argument: her husband used to be a good man and spouse, but lately he’s seemed distant and superficial (with good reason, he’s trying to keep his secret identity from being revealed!). Her frustration and regret come through in both gesture and dialogue. And she’s beautiful, to boot!

I’m not going to waste your time by reviewing the entire movie, but if you like old black and white films and you like the book, this version of The Scarlet Pimpernel is worth watching. It’s short (barely 90 minutes) and it’s entertaining.

*While I am lukewarm about a lot of books on that list, I’m so so excited that The Monuments Men is being made into a movie. I watched the documentary The Rape of Europa, which was also based on the book, and it’s been on my to-read list for months. The documentary is excellent, but it doesn’t have Clooney and Damon in it, so I think I’ll need to see the movie too.

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