Shy People Would Have the Last Laugh: Why the Amélie Musical Doesn’t Work
In his video analysis of The Last Airbender, YouTuber essayist Big Joel states that “An adaptation can or ought to maintain the essence of its source material. Thinking this, we’d watch The Last Airbender and say one of two things: either A) You got it. You zoomed in on the right parts and made something that captured the original. Or B) You didn’t get it. You zoomed in on the wrong parts and produced something that didn’t capture the original.” Part of what makes or breaks an adaptation is whether the essence remains the same. Much like the work of a translator, a word-for-word scene from the original means nothing if the message conveyed isn’t presented in its best possible format.
This can be said of all manner of adaptations: book to film, video game to film, book to musical and, in today’s case, film to musical.
In past years we’ve been given a slew of adaptations of films to musicals, with hits such as Mean Girls, School of Rock, Legally Blonde, Beetlejuice, Billy Elliot, and many others with varying degrees of success. This success depends not only on whether the essence carries over into a musical format but also on how the story is expanded upon when set on stage.
When it comes to Amélie, however, something is not quite there.
Amélie, the story of a young woman working as a waitress in Paris as she navigates the complexities of her love life through daydreams and convoluted strategies to bring about her fantasies into reality. On paper, it seems like the perfect story to capture in a musical setting: ludicrous enough to justify elaborate costumes and scenery, grounded enough to explore the complexities of a single woman living in the Paris of 1997.
So what went wrong?
Perhaps the most important distinction between the film and the musical is the shift in perspective due to cultural differences between French and American storytelling, specifically a more nuanced approach from French cinema to a more explicit method conveyed through an American production.
It is this Americanized interpretation of events in Amélie that, in my opinion, constitutes the musical’s greatest weakness. By “Americanized” I refer to a change in values such as competition, individualism, and self-reliance (amongst others) that on the surface may not seem very significant but completely alter the meaning behind many of the story’s events and the overall message the film tries to convey.
In his memoir, Steve Alpert relates translation issues between Disney and Hayao Miyazaki once the former obtained the rights to dub and distribute Princess Mononoke in the United States. He claims that for Disney, “translation meant an opportunity to change all of the things they didn’t think would appeal to a commercial audience in America.” Rather than keeping the film’s integrity in line with their translation, they “filled silences with dialogue that wasn’t in the original script. They added plot points to fill out storylines they found unclear. They change names to make them sound more American.” Amélie the musical suffers from a similar effect, due in no small part to the American team behind its lyrics and script.
It’s worth noting that not all the changes made for the musical were negative; aspects such as Amélie seeming to follow in Princess Diana’s footsteps or Raphael Poulain’s garden gnome representing his wife are present in the film, albeit in a more covert manner. They help ground the story by drawing attention to details that serve to flesh out the characters. The London Production does this extremely well, presenting an Amélie who is allowed to explore more of her psyche by changing the focus, therefore the lyrics, in the songs “Halfway” and “Times Are Hard For Dreamers.”
However, focusing on the original Broadway production, the following are minor yet significant tweaks in the story that, in my opinion, stem from a misunderstanding of cultural values:
The prologue tells us that Raphael Poulain “likes his daughter in theory but doesn’t really like it when he has to touch her.” The film originally presents an emotionally distant man who rarely showed his daughter physical affection except once a month during her checkup. More than a father who resents his daughter’s existence, Raphael was an army doctor whose love language was anything but physical touch.
Continuing with Monsieur Poulain, in “There’s No Place Like Gnome” Amélie welcomes him to the café, his first outing in years, and introduces him to the owner of Des Deux Moulins, Suzanne. This leads to Raphael and Suzanne developing a relationship behind the scenes, an unnecessary addition that only reinforces the notion that true happiness is found in romantic relationships.
In “The Commute,” the narrating characters explain that Amélie thinks she’s happy on her own when, secretly, she pines for companionship. The London Production does away with this interpretation, altering the lyrics to present a woman who’s tried her hand at relationships yet prefers solitude. In any case, Amélie’s status as a single woman is never up for debate in the film, not until she begins to sabotage her own chances at love.
Lucien, Collignon’s assistant at the fruit stand, is present only in “Three Figs,” a song in which he claims figs are his best friends, plays with them and gives them names such as “Figaro.” While he shares Amélie’s mind in regards to finding joy in his work with small games, in the film he is a kind, dedicated worker who greatly admires Monsieur Dufayel, showing interest in art, stars, and Lady Di.
“The Late Nino Quincampoix” narrates the imagined scenario Amélie dreams up when Nino is late to the café. Rather than a wild tale in which through bank robbers, amnesia, and Afghan raiders, Nino winds up living in the hills of Istanbul (and thus isn’t worth Amélie’s time,) the musical creates a scenario in which he gets hit by a train as he’s crossing the tracks of Europe’s fastest train to get his watch fixed, survives, and proposes to the nurse who helped heal him. Amélie in the film knows there’s a possibility he simply didn’t retrieve her photo in time, yet it’s telling that in the musical Amélie makes herself upset at the idea of another woman entering Nino’s life. Amélie’s jealousy is unnecessary; she never feared to lose him, and it seems like an easy way to stir drama by having her jealousy spring forward if only in her mind.
Hipolito’s quote “Without you, today’s emotion are no more than the dead skin of yesteryear’s” is replaced with “If gods were trees, cognac would be the sap.” This phrase in particular exemplifies another, slightly larger issue with the changes made to the story. Perhaps sensing that their now American audience won’t comprehend much of the information given to them, changes or additions made to the musical present simpler, more straightforward concepts. Rather than explaining a specific kind of longing for a beloved person, a longing that deadens all other present emotions compared to those in the past during a time spent with that person, the writers went ahead with a more digestible simile about cognac and tree sap.
And then there’s Zeno’s Paradox. A dichotomy paradox in which any given object traveling between two points must always travel half the distance before getting there, and the halfway point of that, and so on.
While there’s merit in finding a metaphor for Amelie’s lack of initiative and assertiveness in regards to her own life, Zeno’s paradox becomes a bulky addition to the musical, overcomplicating Amélie’s feelings regarding Nino and the rest of her relationships. I don’t believe the film presents any evidence of Amélie feeling alone and lost and sea, reaching out to people who don’t reach back; while the circumstances surrounding her childhood very clearly played a part in the person she grew up to be, they are presented matter-of-factly, as more of a reason to live independently rather than deep, childhood trauma. The film isn’t interested in psychoanalyzing her need to socially distance herself and daydream her life away, although this overcomplicated dive into her psyche may have its root in the all-male writing cast for the musical.
Funnily enough, this is an aspect I find the London Production corrected. By changing a few lyrics, they present an Amélie who is firmer in her decisions, who has a clear and distinct reason as to why she’s always halfway in her connections with others. The song “Halfway” not only has adult Amélie sing the entire song alongside her mother rather than her child and adult selves, but also adds a memory in which she sent a paper boat across the table to her mother, who proceeded to crumble it up and throw it away.
“The lesson I learned from my mother was to see a great divide.”
This addition provides the basis for her issues with commitment and helps explore the conflicting feelings of an overbearing mother figure who passed away when she was still quite young.
Another Youtuber essayist, Sarah Z, explains that musicals are unique in their ability to reveal information directly from the characters to the audience. She believes that music and songs serve “as this incredibly fantastic medium to express those complicated and very internal feelings.” The sense I get from Amélie’s original production is that they didn’t quite want to expand upon its source material; adding changes does not equate to exploring existing aspects or gaps in information. For example, Hamilton interprets Eliza Hamilton’s historical silence regarding her husband’s affair as her burning the letters that redeem him, thus guarding her private life against the public eye.
However, the pinnacle of this americanization process present in Amélie comes in the form of the character’s quirks, hobbies, and behaviors.
Typically in western media (specifically the US and the UK) characters who are old souls, who partake in the enjoyment of behaviors and activities that don’t follow the social norm, are portrayed as strange; they tend to dress in uncommon styles, they don’t follow social conventions, and they usually exist on the receiving end of teasing or downright malicious aggressions. We have, for example, Mabel Pines from Gravity Falls, Stargirl from the eponymous book by Jerry Spinelli, and Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter series. It doesn’t help that some of these characters, Amélie included, are not only victims of neglect or abuse, but are oftentimes interpreted as having mental illnesses such as ADHD, autism, or even maladaptive daydreaming.
What Amélie originally accomplished was a more nuanced approach to these kinds of characters; rather than writing them off as “oddballs” or “freaks,” the film makes use of this fantastical lens through which these characters see the world and applies it to their everyday lives, transforming the Paris of Amélie into a world that borders on fantastical, made even more so through the unique experiences lived by each character.
The musical, on the other hand, creates a divide between the rest of the “normal” society and Amélie’s world. It’s interesting how the musical takes the phrase “Times are hard for dreamers” and twists it into the main thesis of the show, a phrase offhandedly said by Eva, a sex shop worker and one of the more sober figures in the film. Times may certainly be difficult for dreamers and idealists, but when we are presented with a ragtag group of misfits who can’t or at times refuse to fit into societal norms, the musical plays more on the value of individualism through odd characters rather than a collective culture that exists and thrives through each equal member of society.
Through Zeno’s Paradox, exemplified by the image of a boat, the musical constantly implies that Amélie, along with her host of eccentric neighbors, is “lost at sea” and need help in order to live fulfilling lives. While the characters in the film certainly live what could be seen as incomplete or lacking, they are thrust into an even deeper existential crisis in the musical, portrayed as beings cast out of regular society, their lives carrying no meaning until Amélie stirs things up.
In “The Sound of Going Round in Circles,” a song exempt from the original cast recording, the narration details how Amélie and the regulars of the café are stuck in a permanent loop in their lives, their circumstances left unchanged as they continuously regret past mistakes or else lament that their future is nowhere near. And it’s unclear just how much of an impact Amélie makes in their lives when, with the exception of Monsieur Bretodeau and Madeleine Wallace, her concierge, no permanent changes seem to have stuck.
But then again, the film’s primary concern was showing how life can be made a little bit better by finding joy in the small things, a change in perspective anyone can apply to their daily life. Yet when the musical intends on making these quirks and hobbies belong solely to the “odd” characters who remain ostracized from society, Amélie loses its quality of relatability. It starts to feel less like a world in which simple pleasures are enough and more like a unique tale that is happening not to the audience, but a select special group.
For example: After a brief scene describing random events that occurred simultaneously to her conception, the film’s intro credits showcase different ways in which a 6-year-old Amelie plays on her own: peeling dried glue off her hand, eating fruits lodged on her fingertips, drumming her palms over her ears, amongst others. Once she’s an adult living in Paris, the people around her are introduced through the narrator who also details little pleasures they enjoy, as well as things that upset them: popping bubble wrap, enjoying the sound a cat’s bowl makes on ceramic tiles, cracking knuckles, etc. All of these details play little to no part in the story itself; while they may give an impression of each character’s personality, I believe it serves more to tie the audience into this world of little joys and pleasures most can relate to.
When today’s online culture involves ASMR videos with soap cutting, kinetic sand, and slime, it’s difficult not to connect to characters who love dipping their hands into sacks of grain or, on a more morbid note, enjoy watching toreadors gored on television. These threads not only set a fantastical tone to the story but also allow us to join by connecting with these joys that are more commonplace than, say, kissing the love of your life during the sunset.
However, when the whimsical becomes a personality trait, the musical drives home the notion that through these hyperbolic behaviors Amélie and her friends are “different,” an element also present in the way the musical’s world is constructed.
In any story, characters inhabit and form part of a specific city, country, and society that informs their actions and delineates a unique set of circumstances within which every piece of their story can converge.
In Amélie, her world can be narrowed down to Paris, specifically her apartment building, the Café Des Deux Moulins, Sacré-Cœur in Montmartre, her childhood home just north of Paris, and even the numerous metro stations that carry her from one side of the city to the other. Each location is a different faction composing her universe and while we are met with recurring characters (her father, her coworkers, the concierge at her apartment building,) her Paris carries the sense that it is a grounded and well-contained world, enough to feel real.
Obviously Paris is a real place but the city presented in the film, sepia-toned, old-fashioned, and with an innumerable cast of Parisians, it is presented like an even playing field, the entire city a breeding-ground for surreal and dreamlike events.
The musical, on the other hand, reduces her world down to two main locations: her apartment and the café, the latter serving the function of a hub world where the strange converge rather than a regular café with an organic entrance and exit of customers. The main problem with this is the implication that all these wondrous activities and people don’t exist outside of these places, that the café isn’t one of many settings in which the odd can be found and normalized but rather a lonely club for the marginalized where no one but themselves exist.
When we meet Dominique Bretodeau, the most important character in the film as it is his life and past actions that unwittingly influence Amélie’s decisions, we get the feeling he exists outside of Amélie’s daily life. While within the same city, Amélie finds she must go out of her way to locate him until finally planting his childhood box in a phone booth on Rue Mouffetard. Yet in the musical, it’s none other than Des Deux Moulins he stumbles into rather than a random café with complete strangers as in the film.
On stage, there’s no sense of traveling through every corner in Paris, and while this may be due the general difficulty in representing an entire city within a single set, this confinement to what seems a single street doesn’t seem to carry an intentional reason either.
Rent pulls this off wonderfully, traveling between Roger and Mark’s apartment in the East Village and the rest of Manhattan. While the set barely changes, we perceive the change of locations, generally marked by recurring cast members inhabiting several different background characters (a trick Amélie also employs.) On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have musicals like The Phantom of the Opera, with a smaller cast and most if not the entire story taking place within the Paris Opera House. When inside his own playground, the Phantom is capable of exerting an incredible degree of power over other people, playing the ghost or the businessman whenever the situation requires it. The Opera House becomes a universe of traps and secret hideouts where no one, including the audience, is safe.
Amélie, the musical, achieves none of the above.
By reducing Amélie’s world down to a handful of locations and recurring characters, the musical feels less like a city in which fantastical elements and over-the-top behavior is part of everyday life, and more like “Normal is a setting on a dryer” kind of situation. This feeling we get by watching an old man paint the same painting every day for years, a café owner with a limp who used to work in a circus, a man who collects footprints and records odd laughter while working parttime in both a funfair and a sex shop, all of this was lost once the musical stops guiding the story through its characters’ motivations and decisions but rather by the oddities of this ragtag group of misfits who simply can’t and won’t connect with the rest of society, simultaneously complaining about how lonely and misunderstood they actually are when it is they who isolate themselves.
The stage play even robs us of the characters of Lucien and Madeleine, the former reduced to a song about how figs are his best friends and the latter having her character merged with Gina’s, thus forcing more of the plot to take place within the café; even Amelie’s father, a recluse who manages to overcome his own insecurities and venture out of his house for the first time in years, visits the café rather than embark on the trip he’d always wanted to take with his wife.
This sort of life, these quirks, and strange circumstances belong to them and only them.
Classified as a romantic comedy, I believe Amélie can also fall within the genre of magical realism, showcasing extraordinary events and behaviors as commonplace in the real world. It may be unusual to know someone who’s worked in a circus, someone fixated on a garden gnome decorating their wife’s ashes, or even someone with the use of only one arm who enjoys painting. Yet by combining all these peculiarities under a single story, the film celebrates the distinctions that coexist in our everyday life, allowing them to stand on equal ground where none stand out before the rest.
Other than cinematic tricks to convey Amélie’s daydreams, such as: showcasing her funeral on television, her melting into a pool of water once Nino leaves the café, Amélie dressed as Zorro and marking Collignon's door with a “Z,” there are elements in the film that question whether this world is actually fantastical and not just regular Paris.
We have, for example, a fish driven to suicide due to family conflict, the animal paintings and Amélie’s pig-like lantern moving and talking to each other during her sleep, or Nino having a conversation with the photographs she left behind for him. And even deeds Amélie carries out on screen are enveloped in a sense of wonder, such as a man finding his childhood secret box in a telephone booth or a woman receiving a letter from her husband nearly years later. It would seem Amélie’s good-nature and extravagant manner of thinking are what transformed these already heartwarming moments into extraordinary events.
Yet it’s interesting how many of these fantastical bits are the result of having exhausted “regular” options in the real world. In one scene, the narrator says, “A normal girl would call him up right away. She would meet up with him, return his album, and, after a few minutes, she would know if he’s really worth dreaming over. That’s called facing reality. And that is exactly what Amélie has no intention of doing.” Although this reality check “is the last thing Amélie wants,” she uses the resources of the real world to approach these people, and when that doesn’t work out does she turn to the fanciful.
When she first finds Bretodeau’s childhood box, she seeks out his address and arrives at three different locations before conjuring up the telephone booth plot (and before realizing she’d had the wrong spelling of the name.) When she retrieves Nino’s album, Amélie first calls the “Porno Palace,” actually makes her way there in person, and is then led to the funfair where unable to reach Nino, leaves him a cryptic message as the beginning of their cat-and-mouse game. Each time I watch the film I’m left thinking, What was her game plan had the actual Bretodeau opened the door? What would she have done had Nino been at the porn shop? Granted, the musical does explore this scenario when Amélie begins to panic in the porno locale and contemplates staying so Nino can talk with her directly before fleeing.
Yet with a lack of subtlety employed by the musical, Amélie heads straight for the strange, the convoluted, leaping at the first thought of an eccentric plan rather than explore the realm of possibilities real life has to offer. She plays make-believe with these people before even attempting to reach out to them in conventional ways, fulfilling her own desire to live as far detached from reality as possible, thus removing any fantastical interpretation the story may present.
There’s no shame in trying to insert a bit of magic into your daily life; however, when the musical makes it clear that Amélie’s defining personality trait is “nonsensical” the story loses all charm. She is transformed into the kind of person who imposes her way of thinking onto others, forcing their lives into the direction she wants rather than letting them find joy on their own. This forceful nature is cranked up to 100 in the London production’s version of “Times Are Hard For Dreamers,” where Amélie literally states she holds the key to other people’s lives and claims that times won’t be difficult for her “when all [her] dreams have gone as planned.”
And it’s here where the musical arrives at yet another conundrum: Amélie, in the film, is a girl who daydreams excessively, to the point of self-sabotage. Yet musical Amélie seems to claim to have so many dreams yet never conveys what they are or how to achieve them. Other than wanting to make people happy and get Nino to like her back (desires we see her develop on stage,) what does Amélie truly want?
One review mentions that Amélie is a passive protagonist, someone whose “I want” song effectively states that she doesn’t really want anything, and her mid-musical ballad, “Halfway,” which contains the bulk of her character’s theme, states that she’s permanently stuck halfway towards wherever, reluctant to travel that extra distance. Throughout the musical Nino becomes her lighthouse; he’s the one who guides her when, in the film, it was the other way around.
There’s no reason why the protagonist of any musical should have an “I want “ song. Starkid accomplishes this beautifully with The Guy Who Didn’t Like Musicals. Our leading man, Paul, doesn’t have many aspirations, and the only song of this caliber is sung to him by another character, begging him to want for something despite his lack of desire. The script plays with subversions of musical tropes all the while allowing Paul to remain passive; it’s when he actually does want something that his character arc reaches its peak without the need for a song.
Amélie could and does play out in a similar fashion, but its execution leaves much to be desired. Rather than learn that in order to make her fantasies possible she must participate in society, Amélie’s arc is shifted, making love the focal point of her transformation into a socially adapted creature rather than having her own personal development at realizing that she can’t live forever in her head.
Despite possessing a charming story, a whimsical leading role, and a handful of fantastical elements that should’ve found their niche on stage, Amélie simply was not suited for the theatre, possibly. The medium of film and the language used by director Jean-Pierre Jeunet convey very specific emotions, fully exploring Amelie’s daydreams and her view of the world while also seeping the rest of Paris into this magically real bubble (an aspect a good Parisian friend of mine despises.)
I’ve never been a fan of Chuck Palahniuk’s tips for becoming a better writer [gasp], specifically those involving thought verbs and showing versus telling. He claims that “one of the most common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone […] because a solitary character starts thinking or worrying or wondering.” In his opinion, the audience should never be subjected to the thoughts of their narrator.
At first, this stance seemed a bit extreme and somewhat needlessly unnecessary to me; sometimes, you just have to tell your audience what’s what. However, I do believe I finally understand what he meant.
With a protagonist who wants for nothing, and with the manner in which the musical is currently structured, we as an audience are frequently shoved into Amélie’s mindscape, ironically being told every thought she’s thinking without seeing how she translates those thoughts into real-world actions.
I will admit I loved the musical the first time I saw it; I was enchanted by the set, by the manner in which her daydreams were interpreted on-stage and, most of all, by the fact that one of my favorite films was set to lovely music I will listen to on occasion. However, the musical left me with a bitter aftertaste, and it took me a while and several viewings of the film to pinpoint the source of my distaste: the fact that Amélie went from daydreamer to a maladjusted adult.
And thus we are left with a passive protagonist, a wide-eyed dreamer who doesn’t seem to comprehend the repercussions of her meddling and who stubbornly ostracizes herself from the rest of the world, pretending that the only thing she wants is to not want.