Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie
The Wonderful World of Disney on ABC
Laura Ingalls Wilder's nine-book Little House series has inspired unwaning obsession on the part of its usually young, female fans from the very beginning, since the first book, Little House in the Big Woods, was published in 1932. The books, most of them published in the 30s and 40s, continue to sell at the rate of 80,000 per year, and after reading them, people want to know what really happened to the pioneering Ingalls family as they traversed the unsettled midwest between 1867 and 1885. The average Laura-identifying, school-project-doing fan can probably tell you certain facts the books left out: the years the family spent in Missouri and Iowa, the death of the only infant son, that there were three prototypes for bitchy Nellie Oleson. There are booming ancillary publishing wings, such as the series of Little House historical fiction by other authors about Wilder's mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother; cookbooks; songbooks; endless academic and secondary research. Every summer thousands of bonnetheads descend on De Smet, South Dakota, and other Wilder sites in search of "the real Laura."
I've never worn a bonnet, but I have to cop to being one of the obsessed. Once a year, even in adulthood, an overwhelming, unspoken urge sends me toward The Long Winter, and then all the other Little House books, out of sequence, until the floor around my bed is littered with pieces of my crumbling 1970s-era paperbacks. The writing is so sensual, so rooted in the physical world--in the feel of itchy wool underwear, the taste of bean porridge, what it's like to be inside on a cold day, outside on a hot--that the stories feel real even while they feel unfamiliar. As a girl I reveled in the strangeness, the history, the weird uncomfortable dated stuff. I was happy I had escaped those strictures (bonnets, corsets), but they also felt analogous to certain constraints I experienced but had no words for. I was--I am--seduced by the bedrock centrality of Laura's family life, the pleasure found in small things, the uncool striving toward "being good," the survival of one young girl against gigantic odds, the way all the books together showed a path out of girlhood. And I liked the access the books gave me to survivalist information like how to make bread or sew my own hat.
This month the continual interest in Wilder's books is served by another attempt to tell her stories on the small screen: a five-episode miniseries on the Wonderful World of Disney based on the second book, Little House on the Prairie. (The first episode, two hours long, aired on March 26; the last episode, one hour long, runs this Saturday, April 23, on Channel Seven.) This series has a lot to contend with: not only readers' ideas of what things looked like but also an entire generation of kids who grew up thinking of Pa as big shiny Samson-haired Michael Landon--that is, those who weren't hopelessly devoted to the books. Those who were have been known to object to the Landon series: after running through the entire plot of Little House on the Prairie in the first episode, the show parked the family in On the Banks of Plum Creek (book three) for most of the following 182 episodes, in which the Ingallses and a bunch of new characters dealt with pressing teen issues like addiction and kids falling down mine shafts. It was an after-school special in vaguely period dress.
The Disney miniseries is born of the spirit in which we remake period pieces these days: an uneasy truce between the ideal of "telling the truth" and the impulse to make the story palatable to modern audiences. This version sticks pretty closely to the plot of the actual book, even sometimes to the particulars of Wilder's life (leaving out baby Carrie, for instance, who hadn't been born yet when the Ingallses left for Kansas), but under all the dirty faces and homespun it's full of the usual revisionism. This is a Little House for every girl clutching an American Girl doll, looking for a spunky heroine, a wide-eyed witness to history with all the benefit of hindsight.
Most of the changes to the story fall under the basic rules for handling the awkward bits of a period story: glamorize, update, or jettison. Even though they call her hair brown, the color that causes Laura so much insecurity in the book, it's basically blond, albeit a darker shade than her sister Mary's. Instead of sporting the one-foot waving curtain of beard he actually had, Pa (Cameron Bancroft) has just enough facial hair to suggest a leathery western machismo. His smile reveals rows of feral BriteSmile teeth, through which he sometimes half-hisses his dialogue like Clint Eastwood. Ma (Erin Cottrell) sports a windblown, look-at-my-freckles J. Crew look, her hair beautifully tousled, her clothes all the-look-the-feel-the-fabric-of-your-life. Bearing the least connection to the 19th century of all is the score: awful, sappy, completely contemporary low-rent Enya (maybe it's actual Enya--does it matter?). By the end of the fourth episode Pa has played his fiddle only twice for about 20 seconds, total, ignoring one of the books' biggest reasons for existence--Wilder started writing about her childhood as a way to preserve her father's songs and stories.
The everyday dangers of pioneering described in the book are, in this series, pushed front and center with ER-like regularity, every 14 minutes. Each episode ends not, as the book chapters usually do, with hard-fought peace and security against the elements, but with a Perils of Pauline-style cliff-hanger (including, at the end of episode one, when Indians enter the house with Ma, the lurid suggestion of rape). Laura (Kyle Chavarria) is allowed to be involved in dangerous situations as she never was. She is almost shot in the opening sequence; she is riding on the horse with Pa (who never let her ride horses) when he is attacked by wolves; she is allowed to dish stew at the cattle-drive chuck wagons with a bunch of horny, road-weary cowboys. Not one of Wilder's books ever mentioned (1) going to the bathroom or (2) sex; here Laura throws open the door of their new outhouse and says "Pa, it's beautiful!" and stares openmouthed at the prostitutes on the muddy streets of Independence.
Much of the revisionism seems intended to help modern viewers relate to the family. So: Laura, instead of a spunky but proper and hardworking young girl, is a Burger King commercial of smiley reaction shots. Ma loses most of her fear of Indians (it was Ma in the book who said the only good Indian was a dead Indian). Mary's frightened goody-two-shoes ways are toned down and no longer derided ("Sometimes it's OK to be a scaredy-cat," sanctions Pa). Pa's desire to move west as part of anything as indefensible as manifest destiny (or his "itchy foot," as the book calls it) is downplayed and justified with a whole list of practical reasons such as not getting paid for a carpentry job in Wisconsin. This series doesn't know what to do with Pa in general, an astonishing character in children's literature, a man who could fix anything with his own two hands, then be fair and affectionate with his daughters in ways for which contemporary father figures have few reference points. This Pa is more like a moody camp counselor.
All of this is where Disney's efforts to give us a Little House we can understand backfire. The demands of being a girl at that time were as big a challenge as wolves or weather. Sitting quietly for hours without twitching in church, memorizing Bible verses (the Bible hasn't even shown up in the miniseries), always modulating your voice, trying to stay neat and clean while being chained to daily, physically exhausting, filthy housekeeping, not being able to do things you wanted to or run around in ways considered unladylike, being so completely under parental thumbs--the series loses a lot by not showing how hard some of that must have been. Authenticity, certainly, is lost, but also a sense of women's experience and hard work and how far we've actually come.
Downplaying all this stuff also just doesn't work as a dramatic device. The true strength of Laura's personality is diluted by a lack of contrast to the obstructions around her or the challenges she faced. Making her world more like ours paradoxically makes it harder to think "She's just like me!" because it's not clear what she's responding to. The confined tunnel of a sunbonnet was the exasperating point of view, literally and figuratively, from which girls experienced the world in those days, but Laura and Mary rarely wear them in this series--everyone seems kind of unbuttoned in general, and against that nothing Laura does or says seems particularly smart or courageous.
We will see how the miniseries resolves the largest, most irresolvable challenge of adaptation: the Ingalls family's coexistence with local Indian tribes, which will come to a head in the last episode. The extent to which the family knew they were squatting on Indian land and what exactly happened is endlessly debated among Wilder scholars. The books were somewhat open-minded for the time--Laura questions why the Indians must be moved west, but accepts that they must do so--but demonstrate nothing like our contemporary understanding of how Native Americans were treated. Despite missteps like the incident with Ma and complete fabrications like a scene in the fourth episode in which the Ingallses bunk with other white settlers to prepare for an Osage attack, the series tries to demonstrate a 21st century sympathy toward the displaced people. To facilitate this they've given Laura (badly scored, slo-mo) visions of fascination and friendship with some young Indian boys, given the Osage Soldat du Chene a bigger and considerably more magical role, and made Jack, the Ingallses' dog, not a brindled bulldog but a Native American "spirit dog." Laura gets lots of and-a-little-child-will-lead-them lines like "He's just like us! . . . He could be our friend!" And it looks like the U.S. government will be the bad guy in the end--badder than it was in the book.
Why does Hollywood even bother remaking period tales--especially children's books? Are they trying to make us forget all the versions that came before? To feel better about the casualties of history? To smugly enjoy our progress against the ignorance of the past? Or are filmmakers simply seduced by the chance to light a clear path backward when things are so much murkier in the other direction? This version of Little House on the Prairie, as hard as it tries, as close to the book as it sticks in some ways, as far as it's come from Landonland, still spends a lot of time tidying up the uncomfortable, often embarrassing particulars of the past. The filmmakers deserve some credit, but remaining true to the book would have been a lot more interesting.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/ABC--Kimberly French.