Chick-lit can be very one-note: High-end fashionista meets handsome stranger and everyone looks fabulous. That’s pretty much all there is to books of that genre. The characters never snap a heel or get a run in their stockings. Or, heaven forfend, wear something from Sears. Yawn. However, I do like me some Sophie Kinsella. Her books have a bit of bite to them, and her characters are diverse and interesting. Her best-known work is, of course, the Shopaholic series, which follows the misadventures of big spender Becky Bloomwood. Only the first two of the currently eight novels have been made into a film, though, and that was 2009’s Confessions of A Shopaholic. It serves as a prime example of what not to do when adapting well-loved novels for the screen, but we’ll get back to that.
The first book, Confessions of A Shopaholic, which came out in 2001, is pretty sedate in comparison to the other books in the series. Like any pilot episode, it establishes Becky as a character. She lives in the Fulham section of London with her best friend, Suze Cleath-Stuart, and writes for a financial magazine called Successful Savings. And yes, she loves to shop. A. Lot. Naturally, this has saddled Becky with a massive pile of debt, as her bank representative, Derek Smeath, keeps reminding her.
Becky knows she has a problem, and she only has two options: cut back or earn more money, and unfortunately, neither one works out so well for her. Cutting back means making her own sandwiches, taking coffee to the office in a Thermos, and forgoing all purchases except those which are absolutely essential. Only in Becky’s case, her sandwiches are soggy, her coffee is bitter, and she ends up spending loads of money to make curry at home, only to burn the spices (Suze takes pity on her and orders takeout). Not to mention, it’s difficult for Becky to suddenly go cold turkey on her usual habit of buying whatever she feels like.
So, it’s on to Option Two. Becky attempts to make picture frames at home, which frustrates her to no end. She tries taking a Saturday job at Ally Smith, only to be fired after a few hours for trying to reserve a pair of zebra-striped jeans for herself. Next, she figures she’ll get a high-powered gig in finance, but she can’t bluff her way through interviews. Plus she suddenly realizes that finance bores her stiff.
At the same time, in the course of her Successful Savings job, Becky deals with a guy named Luke Brandon, who has a public relations firm called Brandon Communications. At first she thinks he’s not so bad (he even lends Becky money for a scarf she’s supposedly buying for her aunt). As time goes on, though, Luke strikes Becky as being a bit of a prick. Things progress, but I’m not going to ruin anything.
In the second book, 2004’s Shopaholic Takes Manhattan, Luke and Becky are now dating. Becky does a financial segment on a show called Morning Coffee, giving common-sense advice to the monetarily forlorn. She continues to have a spending problem herself, but she really, really tries to hold back. Still, it’s not enough to buy that pair of lilac sandals with the cute little blackberry charm–it also makes sense to throw in the orange ones with the clementine. It is an investment, after all.
Luke is in the process of setting up a New York branch of his P.R. firm, and Becky goes with him. Manhattan is like heaven to her. Barney’s! Sephora! Anna’s Paperie! Sak’s! Sample sales! Becky feels she’s on her native heath, making friends and exchanging fashion tips with the salespeople.
Looming in the background, however, are those who want to shatter Becky’s image as a financial guru, and they succeed. Becky has to pick up the pieces of her reputation and her relationship. Will it mean a new and better life, or will Becky have to hide in a hole and never come out? Nope, not gonna give any spoilers here, either.
Both of these books were (and still are) fairly popular, so it’s pretty easy to imagine the anticipation of fans when the news of a feature film broke. Becky Bloomwood on the big screen? How cool was that?! Sophie Kinsella said on her website that she liked the script, and when an author says that, it can mean the film is a safe bet.
There were some changes between the books and the film, of course. Becky (Isla Fisher) starts out at a gardening magazine which folds, and she talks her way into a job at Successful Savings, headed by Luke Brandon (Hugh Dancy). She and Luke met before at a hot dog stand, where Becky is trying to convince the hot dog guy into cashing a check so she can buy a green scarf. Just as in the book, she fumbles out something about the scarf being for her aunt. When Luke catches her wearing the scarf in the movie, he manages to work it into a persona for Becky’s column in the magazine. Becky only sees Successful Savings as a pit stop, though, because she really wants to write for the Vogue-like Alette, headed by Alette Naylor (Kristin Scott Thomas).
While I enjoyed Confessions of A Shopaholic, anticipation is a funny thing–it can majorly let you down. I can’t speak for other fans, but I was disappointed in the film. There are plenty of cute moments. I liked Isla Fisher as Becky. There were, however, three major bones that I have to pick with producer, Jerry Bruckheimer and the other behind-the-scenes folks:
Bone Number One: Location, Location, Location
Obviously, Bruckheimer and Company learned nothing from the disastrous attempt to Americanize Red Dwarf, if they know about it. The moral of that story is: Beware of relocating scenarios that are culturally bound. Shopaholic moved from London to New York City, and Becky Bloomwood turned into an American. Why? Why? I’m an American, and I love my country, but in my opinion this was a baaaaaad move on the filmmakers’ part. For one thing, the characters are very British. Becky attempts to make curry in the first novel, for Pete’s sake. An American would have probably tried fixing Chinese food, or possibly cioppino, but not curry, because it just isn’t as common to American dining habits. It wouldn’t have been much of a stretch to keep Becky British, either, because Isla Fisher has Scottish parents. At least Hugh Dancy was allowed to talk in his real accent.
For another, the move alters so many things about the look of Shopaholic. Now, I can understand if it was too expensive to film in London, but New York City is pricey, too, which is why most films set in New York are filmed in Toronto. Ergo, cost probably wasn’t a factor in why Becky’s nationality was changed.
Bone Number Two: Disposable Comedy
A lot of the nicest bits of Kinsella’s novels were absent or treated as throwaways. Some of them were left out for obvious reasons, like a scene in the first novel when Becky goes to the Victoria and Albert Museum. It’s fun little interlude, and there’s one bit when Becky wishes museums had price tags on their artifacts (Yeah–they’re called antique stores), but there’s not much that can be done with a scene like that from a cinematic angle.
Other parts were just zipped through and not allowed to develop, like Aunt Ermintrude. In the novel, when Luke catches Becky buying the scarf, she stammers, “Erm…” a few times before blurting out “It’s for my Aunt Ermintrude!” Ermintrude is, obviously, a phony relative who is supposedly ailing in the hospital. She becomes a running gag, starting with Becky telling Luke when sees her wearing her “aunt’s” scarf is that poor Aunt Ermintrude died. Meanwhile, in the movie, Becky busts out a nonsense excuse to Derek Smeath that she can’t meet him because Aunt Ermintrude died in a skydiving accident. No stammers. No deer-in-headlights look.
What was especially disappointing was that Becky wasn’t allowed to have any credibility as a financial journalist beyond her Girl In the Green Scarf angle. Sophie Kinsella has a background in financial journalism, and she brings this out in the Shopaholic novels, but the film’s Becky copies passages out of Money For Dummies for her first piece on store credit card APRs. Sigh.
Bone Number Three: An Overly Abundant Suspension of Disbelief
Comedies aren’t generally known for their realism, but in Shopaholic’s case, the logic crosses too many lines. In the film, Derek Smeath is a debt collector instead of Becky’s banker, which changes the dynamic of the story considerably. Smeath hangs over Becky like a bird of prey. I don’t know what the protocol is in other countries, but in America, debt collectors are not allowed to stalk people. In fact, most of the time a debt collector can be put off by a few well-chosen words.
(Seriously. I’ve done this. It’s like Kryptonite to a debt collector. Especially if you throw in phrases like “proof of claim” and quote the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Yes, I do pay my bills, but foul-ups happen to everyone, if you get my drift.)
I will say, however, the way Becky pays Smeath back in change was pretty satisfying. Still a bit too unrealistic, though. I wouldn’t go to a debt collector’s office for anything.
Another plot arc that was improbable was when the Shopper’s Anonymous leader forced Becky to choose between her bridesmaid’s dress for Suze’s wedding and a dress bought for her by Alette Naylor for a TV spot. All Becky would have to do is show this woman the receipts, or the lack of, and that would be it. Or get Suze and Alette on the phone and have them confirm. Would a shopper’s support group really do something that extreme? I don’t know, but it seems kinda pointless.
Bonus Bone: The mannequins are creepy.
Large plastic people talk and gesture to Becky in the film. Really. She has whole blockfuls of them watching her. It’s just weird, even if they are friendly.
Sophie Kinsella’s opinion of the movie was much more favorable, but then again, it probably wouldn’t have looked good for her to be running it down on her own website. The rest of us, on the other hand, don’t have to be so polite, and Confessions of A Shopaholic wasn’t done nearly as well as it could have been. While the filmmakers probably thought they were being efficient by combining the first two Shopaholic books, the way they did it only neutered the story structure and development. It’s a shame, too, because the film had real potential to be an adorable, intelligent comedy with franchise potential. As it was, it felt rushed and cut-rate.
Any Shopaholic fans want to weigh in? What did you think? Did you like the film? Feel free to comment below!
Thanks for reading, and check back here tomorrow for the latest installment of “Origins.” Hope to see you then!
This film is available on DVD from Amazon.