the devil loves good stories

While taking a break from the heat in Seattle (yep, the temperature soared one weekend to record-breaking heights), I accompanied a group of classmates to The Devil Wears Prada. I took the time to watch a few films while in the USA, despite feelings of guilt for doing so, and this was one of my favourites.

The story is simple and utilises conventional formula, but is saved by a complex performance by Meryl Streep as the powerful fashion mogul, Miranda Priestly, and strong screenwriting by Aline Brosh McKenna. Anne Hathaway acquits herself as Andrea Sachs, the naïve graduate who is catapulted into the glamorous world of haute couture as an assistant to Miranda, the editor-in-chief of the fictional magazine, Runway.

What’s most interesting about the story is that even though Miranda is a manipulating bitch to her assistants at times, the writing allows her depth by showing the factors at play in her decisions. This is not to forgive her abominable behaviour, but the film reveals that she is more than the traditional one-dimensional villain. Streep helps with an acting tour-de-force in which she eschews the usual screeching harpy that is the stereotypical model for tough women in business, and plays Miranda as a soft-spoken Margaret Thatcher-like leader, who is astute as well as demanding. Despite Miranda’s unreasonable attitude, the viewers are left with a pang of sympathy for the career she has chosen and the personal sacrifices she has made.

Andrea’s sneering attitude towards fashion in the beginning of the film is shown as a snobbish prejudice, which is dealt with adroitly in a smart scene about the evolution of the use of cerulean in clothing. Her complicity in her decisions is underlined also, especially when she attempts to blame everything on her boss and evade responsibility for the breakdown in her relationships. Most people have a choice, even if they don’t exercise it.

The most unsatisfying part of the film is the dynamic between Andrea and her past: i.e. her boyfriend Nate (Adrien Grenier) who is a chef, and the token gay friend, Doug (Rich Sommer), and black friend, Lilly (Tracie Thoms). At least one of these characters is unnecessary, and it would have been better to strengthen Lilly’s role and excise Doug (who doesn’t appear in the book). It’s a strange decision in what is an otherwise smart screenplay. It’s obvious from the beginning the decisions that Nate will make in the film, and Lilly is turned into the tongue-clucking girlfriend who passes judgement on Andrea in a rather contrived and unrealistic fashion. All of them are willing to enjoy the spoils of Andrea’s job, but increasingly do not cut her any slack as her career becomes all-consuming.

It’s a pity, because other than this jarring element, The Devil Wears Prada is a funny depiction of corporate politics and the excesses of the fashion industry (and you can watch Zoolander if you want a more slapstick parody). There are enough twists of convention, solid acting, and sound writing to lend this film a sense of satisfaction and enjoyment. It was made for a reasonable budget of $35 million, and has already accrued $109 million for its investors.

Since I needed light fare to read during my epic journey back from the West Coast of the USA to Ireland I bought a copy of The Devil Wears Prada as an example of the process of film adaptation.

This is an occasion where the film is better than the book. Miranda is an unredeemable character in the novel – purely narcissistic and demanding. Andrea is a whiner, who never properly faces up to her choices, and is happy to pour scorn on the industry in which she participates. There is a discernible elitist contempt for the fashion industry, which leaves a bad taste in the reader’s mouth.

I should have more sympathy for Andrea in the novel, after all I can relate to her situation as I was similarly indentured to a self-involved and utterly quixotic boss in New York for my first full-time job. My employer had inherited her position, was very wealthy, and thought nothing of manipulating her employees for her own unfathomable reasons. So, I’m familiar with the difficulty of coping with such a person. Andrea, in the novel, did not elicit my sympathy because she allowed herself to be manipulated, recognised it, and did nothing to escape it except to complain about it. The book also features a drippy boyfriend who is too good to be true (a public school teacher “who wants to make a difference”). The most interesting character is Lilly, who is screwed up yet appealing. It’s a pity that her character did not transfer better to the film.

At least the book is a fast read, is paced well, and the prose is decent enough. I’d never have picked it up except for the film, and I would have no interest in reading anything else by the writer, Lauren Weisberger. I’ve no problem with what is termed “chick lit”, because there are plenty of writers who work within this genre and produce entertaining stories. I suspect that Weisberger’s novel gained notoriety because of how the story is thought to mirror her own career in fashion publications, and a lot of people enjoy a bit of voyeuristic back-stabbing. It remains to be seen if Weisberger can continue to produce novels that will appeal to a wide audience without depending upon the reputation of past success.