Sunday, February 04, 2007

Betty La Fea (Ugly Betty) Mas Bella

At a bookstore last night, saw a copy of the novel "Just Like Heaven" that Reese Witherspoon made a movie out of. Realized that explained as well as anything why I'm so pissed at the "La Fea Mas Bella" turn of events. What am I talking about?

I never bought the novel, not because it was a translation of a French thing, nor because its purchase would affirm my sissy boy status (that's been affirmed well back). It was just an interesting book and I thumbed through it (don't worry that I'm keeping bookstores from making a profit--I think I've built their last three buildings). Driven young female doctor is first in a wreck, then in a coma, and her spirit is confused and wandering around trying to figure out who she is and why she seems to be able to walk through walls. The guy who's subletting her apartment from her relatives until they can work up the guts to pull the plug on her ends up, after being convinced that's she's a real ghost(!), helping her rediscover her past and (spoiler) getting her spirit reunited with the body before they switch her off.

Here's what made the novel interesting, since you were probably yawning with familiarity by the end of that last paragraph. As you likely filled in, the ghost and the boarder also fell in love. But the finale of the novel was simply her waking up and, as close to reality as you could get in this, not recognizing him. He, however, upon realizing this, simply smiles and tells her something like "let me tell you what happened" and trusts that their feelings will regrow. That's it, the end. Nothing certain but the surprise that they didn't go for a mushy ending simply because it was easy and focus groups wanted it.

Think Hollywood trusted that the audience would be able to live with the novel's ending? That maybe it wouldn't pander to the easy, the focus group-driven? That leaving the audience wondering and hoping and never knowing might actually be something that affirms viewers' intelligence? No, no, and no? Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner.

The novel was daring and taking a chance, producing a challenging but smart ending that didn't pander or go for the lowest common denominator simply to wring out a little more profit. The movie was pure formula and even Reese couldn't save it. It was like the US ending of the recent "Pride and Prejudice" that had Darcy and Elizabeth acting so completely out of character that one woman who saw it said that if they were going to screw up Austen so badly, they should have at least gotten them naked. And notice I said "the US ending." The British version ended at a spot that was logical and fitting with the original novel. But apparently we nitwits didn't like it in the test showings so, Poof, let's completely violate a treasured novel. (Sort of like that Demi Moore version of "The Scarlet Letter" that had a happy ending.)

There was a time in this country when we could understand and appreciate movies that were smart and didn't cop out to lowest common denominators. One of the greatest movies ever made was "Roman Holiday" (the Gregory Peck-Audrey Hepburn version, not that idiot made-for-tv thing they crapped a decade or so back). A young princess in the post-WWII period, tired of the trappings, sneaks away and ends up chaperoned by a reporter who recognizes her and sees the story of a lifetime. Except, of course, they fall in love. Only, she's a princess with obligations and he's a commoner reporter with no way to fit in. Today, the focus groups would require them to be together. Then, the ending went the way it should, and is still giving me goosebumps as I think about it while I type.

We used to be intelligent. We used to understand art and narrative and the human condition. Now it's all focus group endings and fear of not maxing profit. Which is why I'm hating where they're going with "La Fea Mas Bella." Yes, as some commenters have noted, it's still entertaining and better than the idiot telenovelas that bookend it now. But not in comparison to the original. They're doing to "Betty La Fea" what the producers of "Just Like Heaven" and "Pride and Prejudice" did. The result is just a shadow of the original (and "La Fea" going to get much worse in this). The ratings are high and the profit is apparently good. And the people who missed "Betty" will never know the difference.

But there was once a telenovela called "Betty La Fea" that captured a message and a feeling that transcended the usual telenovelas, even the occasional good one. That show was a classic, a Colombian "Pride and Prejudice," a "Roman Holiday." Now we have "La Fea Mas Bella." "Betty" is remembered a decade later and will have its status years from now. Does anyone really truly believe that "La Fea" will have that standing even a couple of years after it finishes its never-ending story?