Enola yet Not Alone: How Netflix Brought a Children’s Book to 2020 and Created a Heroine We Can All Admire

Millie Bobby Brown as Enola Holmes. She stands at a train station, wearing a blue collared dress and her hair is wavy and tousled.
Netflix

Any book-lover knows that movies based on books rarely get it right. If you have had the misfortune of seeing a movie adapted from a novel with someone who read it, you’ll be familiar with the old cry of, “That’s not what happened in the book!” Book lovers watching adaptations of our favourites are great at ruining the viewing experience of a movie which has already, in our eyes, ruined a perfectly good novel. I am definitely one such bibliophile and yet the movie adaptation of Enola Holmes elicited no such groanings, but certainly not because it was an exact recreation of the book. In fact, the plot and even some of the characters were quite different from Nancy Springer’s novel, The Case of the Missing Marquess An Enola Holmes Mystery, yet it achieved the rare balance of capturing the spirit of the book in a fun, new way which not only allowed me to forgive the changes, but to actually appreciate them.

By focusing less on Enola being alone and more on how she alone forges her path because of and despite her relationships with those around her, screenwriter Jack Thorne captured the spirit of Springer’s novel while showing us that although a strong heroine can survive by herself, being alone is not a necessity for strength. The film presents a model for learning from our friends and families while placing healthy boundaries around our relationships with them, which makes Enola Holmes a heroine from whom we can all learn.

The relationship between Enola Holmes (Millie Bobby Brown) and her mother Eudoria Holmes (Helena Bonham Carter) whose disappearance sets off the entire adventure in the book is quite distant. Enola & her mother “seldom interfere in one another’s concerns,” and Enola is unsure of her mother’s affection. The movie revamps this dynamic, making the two close. Enola says they were “always together” until the day of her mother’s disappearance, and so she begins the story as a capable, confident young woman with her mother’s advice to guide her. Many times on her adventure Enola recalls Eudoria’s words, making her like Enola’s Jiminy Cricket along for her adventure, not just the object of her quest. Having Brown break the fourth wall and speak to us, the audience, directly also makes Enola seem as if she is never truly alone since Eudoria and the audience are her phantom companions to guide and reassure her along the way.

Enola Holmes practicing archery indoors with her mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) looking on proudly.
Netflix

Pacing is one area where book-to-movie adaptations always struggle, since a lonely girl describing her thoughts for chapters at a time works well in novel form, but relationships are much more interesting to watch on screen. By starting the film when Enola is on her way to meet her brothers at the train station and having Enola recount her upbringing and mother’s disappearance to the camera, we start right in on the action of the story and get to see Enola interact with her mother (in flashbacks) and brothers (in the present) right away. Thorne knew how to capture the spirit of Enola’s narration in the novel while focusing on the major relationships, thus accelerating the story for the screen adaptation. Book Enola takes five whole weeks to solve all the ciphers which lead to the money Eudoria has left her, but Film Enola solves the “Look in my Chrysanthemums” puzzle in one night, finds all the money her mother left for her and is off the next day.

One notable moment missing from the film was Enola realising that her mother left using her bustle and tall hat as luggage since someone would have noticed her leaving with a bag, as she didn’t normally carry one. Piecing together that puzzle highlights the brilliance of both mother and daughter in the book, and I missed it in the film, but the sentiment is carried across when Enola uses her own corset as a hiding place for her money, citing that the corset is a symbol of oppression for those who are forced to wear it, but as she chooses to wear it to aid her escape it is a symbol of independence for her.

In the novel Enola and her mother never reunite. Enola deduces that her mother is tired of fighting for women’s rights in a world that doesn’t want to change, and has left it all behind to grow old in peace – living out her last days among a traveling group of Roma. Their only contact is via cyphers in the periodical section, in which Eudoria lets Enola know she is safe, happy and loves her daughter. The film swaps this for a more satisfying conclusion. After searching for her mother the entire film and finding (only) herself, Enola is rewarded with the thing she has been yearning for – her mother. In plain language, without cyphers, Eudoria makes her love and pride known to Enola once and for all. Though a fairly self-assured young woman, and even more so since her adventure, Enola still struggles with the thing so many of us do – the desire to know we are loved by our parents. With Eudoria’s visit, Enola’s insecurities in that area are at last put to rest, and she may truly begin her life as a young adult knowing that wherever she goes, though she may be alone, she has not been abandoned.

Enola and Eudoria share a tender moment, Eudoria touching Enola’s cheeks and smiling.
Netflix

Now on the topic of jujitsu; Book Enola knows none. Film Enola learned jujitsu from her mother. This fact alone would be enough to turn any book-lover away from the adaptation entirely – especially considering how much Book Enola contrasts herself with her brother Sherlock Holmes (Henry Cavill). He is an expert swordsman, but she knows the encoded meanings of flowers. It is her female education, not her physical prowess, which allows her to be a great detective in an entirely different way than Sherlock is. However, the addition of jujitsu to the film must be spared any indignation since English women learning jujitsu is historically factual to the suffragette era. Edith Garrud ran a martial arts school in London with her husband in the early 1900s, and the pair began teaching suffragettes jujitsu for self-defence as the movement became increasingly violent. Helena Bonham Carter herself admires Garrud, and changed the name of her character in the film Suffragette from Caroline to Edith in her honor.

Besides, who doesn’t love to see women fighting in beautiful gowns (even Pride & Prejudice & Zombies won me over with that one)? Overall, adding jujitsu to Enola’s list of skills was thoroughly entertaining, not terribly historically improbable, and good cinematic fun. The corset stopping a knife, by the way, is lifted directly from the text.

Enola, dressed in a red gown, meets Edith (Susan Wokoma) at her female jujitsu club.
Netflix

The relationships with Mycroft Holmes (Sam Claflin) and Sherlock in the film were perfectly built on their literary counterparts, yet extrapolated in all the right areas. Some conversations between Enola and her brothers are almost identical to the book – the meeting of her brothers at the station, for instance, is nearly line-for-line from Springer’s novel – yet once again Thorne builds on the text to add more relationship and interaction between the siblings. Cavill’s serious yet kind Sherlock is the older brother I craved for Enola in the books, while Claflin does an excellent job as the perfectly polished and unpopular Mycroft.

Scenes are added between the siblings to intensify the foundations of the relationships laid in the book. Enola’s relationship with Mycroft is more contentious, as he manages to confiscate her funds and send her away to finishing school, while her relationship with Sherlock is warmed – if not entirely uncomplicated. Though he visits her at finishing school to offer encouragement, he does not do the one thing which Enola really craves – help her leave. That task is left to the one major relationship in Enola’s life we haven’t yet spoken about – the Viscount Tewkesbury Marquess of Basilwether (Louis Partridge).

In the novel Enola and Tewkesbury are only fourteen and twelve years old, respectively, but the aging up of the characters not only lends plausibility to the plot, but also allows for the adorable romance between them which frankly, I was living for. Enola spends most of the original story trying to solve Tewkesbury’s case without meeting him. Conversely, Thorne saw a chance for Enola to be less alone, and to solve Tewkesbury’s case out of compassion for him, rather than an attempt to prove herself.

Their meeting on the train added an exciting sequence to a short book that needed to become a full-length screenplay and created new opportunities for Enola to use her smarts and test her moral strength. Living such a sheltered countryside existence, Enola has only ever had to make hypothetical choices. She has spent her life asking, “What would I do?” and now finds herself in a situation where she must ask, “What should I do?” For the first time in her life, Enola’s priorities are split between staying on her own path and helping someone who needs her. Many times Enola remembers her mother’s advice about staying on her own course, and yet Enola chooses over and over again not to be the type of woman her mother is. Eudoria would not be strayed from her path even by the love of a daughter, but Enola chooses to be a young woman who takes detours from her own path for the sake of caring for others.

Enola and Tewkesbury bicker flirtatiously in a London flower market.
Netflix

The friendship which blooms between Enola and Tewkesbury is a puppy-love kind of sweet and playful. Though Tewkesbury does start out seeming like an ungrateful, “useless boy,” he eventually proves himself to be a worthy partner for Enola. We root for them not just because of their sweetness, but because of how they complement each other. Enola imparts her wisdom about disguises and cuts his hair, and he shares his knowledge of edible plants to get them dinner. Enola saves him from death multiple times and he rescues her from finishing school. Tewkesbury and Enola are good for each other as much as they need each other, and the choices she is forced to make from interacting with him refine Enola more than any finishing school in England ever could.

When they finally do meet in the book, Enola and Tewkesbury both note how poor and miserable the people in London seem to be. They realize how lucky they are, whatever their problems may be, to have grown up with so much money. In the book’s epilogue, we learn that Enola regularly dresses as a nun to distribute food and blankets to the poor. True to the book, instead of finding the glittering jewel of England Enola read about, she finds a town much dirtier than the pristine countryside from which she came. From her first encounter in the city where her narration describes the “center of civilization,” while the camera shows a grimy, crowded London, to witnessing a mother and daughter complaining of hunger, Thorne’s script and Brown’s portrayal make it clear Enola is disturbed by the poverty she finds in London. But like many young people of 2020, Film Enola’s attention to injustice is no longer focused on charity, or what one person alone can change, but on systemic injustice, which takes many people together to change. Enola may be able to change the course of her own life on her own, but in order to change the world she needs teammates.

Last but not least, the film actually changed the villain from the book. I know, I know, normally, this would be a huge faux-pas in book-to-movie adaptations that would put off any lover of the book, so why didn’t it bother me?

Enola, muddy and wet, raises her fists to challenge an opponent to a fight.
Netflix

First, because the person behind the attempts on Tewkesbury’s life in the film was brilliant. The original villain wasn’t exchanged for a poorly thought-out substitute, rather the film created a new villain that kept with the spirit of the film and of the times in which it was released. Secondly, the book villain turns out to be a male kidnapper who dresses as a female medium hired to “predict” where the victim has been taken, and such a plotline in a film would likely have come off as transphobic. Changing the villain entirely allowed the book to translate better to 2020, while maintaining the world within the film. It presented a formidable villain for Enola and Tewkesbury to face down and led to a satisfying end.

The film adaptation of Enola Holmes managed to capture the spirit of the book while bringing it to 2020. The emphasis of social justice in the plotline, combined with a bit of romance and a fast-paced plot, made for an enjoyable viewing experience that still felt true to the essence of Enola that Nancy Springer put forth in her original novel. Somehow, the characters were all more likeable; even Mycroft felt like someone you loved to hate. Though her name is “alone” spelt backwards, in the film iteration Enola ends up alone a lot less often than she intends to be, however hard she tries.

Enola finds her way in the world with the advice of loved ones to guide her, but ultimately she makes her own decisions and chooses when to work with society or work to change it. Enola is not an entirely self-made woman, but is refined by her family and her friends and learns how to navigate her relationships with each of them. Some, like Mycroft, she chooses to cut out of her life and some she chooses to keep, albeit on her terms, like Sherlock and Tewkesbury. She fights not only for the life she wants, but for the people she wants in her life. Enola is an example of the type of female hero I always long for – one who is not only strong because of her physical strength and courage to chase her independence, but also for her strength of heart.

by Vickie Sprenger

Vickie (she/her) is a Film & Theatre Graduate of Queen’s University living in Ontario, Canada. She loves examining and writing about book to movie adaptations – the good, the bad and the really bad. You can usually find her drinking a chai latte, wearing something pink and dreaming of starring on Broadway. Talk to her about your favourite TV shows or musicals on Twitter.

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