With students now done with the school year, why not look at an adaptation set in a school? Like fingerprints, no two fictional schools are the same. Some are prestigious, accepting only the best and the brightest. At the other end, there is St. Trinian’s, a school for girls that takes in juvenile delinquents known for terrorizing rival schools and even the locals.
St. Trinian’s started as a panel cartoon gag strip by Ronald Searle. The first St. Trinian’s appeared in 1941, but, with the Second World War looming, Searle enlisted and was stationed in Singapore, where he was taken prisoner by the Japanese. After the war, he resumed the St. Trinian’s strip, though his time as prisoner meant that the cartoon took a darker turn. Searle wrote the strip between 1946 and 1952, compiling the collections in five books. The girls of St. Trinian’s were delinquents, as the various cartoons showed. Field hockey matches against the school were bloody, closer to guerilla warfare than actual sport. The older girls dressed provocatively, modifying their uniforms for effect. However, the teaching staff wasn’t much better, and shared their young charges’ interests is smoking, drinking, and gambling.
Two years after the last of the St. Trinian’s strips, a film adaptation was made. Directed by Frank Laudner and written by Laudner, Sidney Gilliat, and Val Valentine, The Belles of St. Trinian’s brought the wretched hive of scum and villainy to the British silver screen. With the St. Trinian’s strip consisting of gag-a-day cartoon panels, a plot had to be created for the movie. However, given the nature of the school, even a wild plot would fit.
The movie opens with the Sultan of Makyad looking for a boarding school for his young, impressionable daughter, Fatima. Fatima’s governess suggests St. Trinian’s as she knows the headmistress there. The Sultan agrees as his race horse, Arab Boy, is in Barchester County, the same location as the school, and would be able to visit both his horse and his daughter at the same time.
In Britain, the back-to-school trains are busy as students head off to their boarding schools. The screaming from the girls never ends, terrifying everyone in between them and St. Trinian’s. Streets clear out as everyone, from storekeepers and shoppers to hens and the police constable, hide from the returning menace. The girls of St. Trinian’s are well known in the county and are avoided. The police superintendent wants something solid to pin against the school to shut it down, but the Ministry of Education hasn’t sent inspectors after losing two assigned to the school.
However, St. Trinian’s is facing a problem that would see the school closed – a lack of funds. Headmistress Millicent Fritton, played by played by Alastair Sims in drag, returns from her much needed summer vacation only to be told by her accountant that the school has too many outstanding bills to pay and nowhere near enough money to pay them. To add to Millicent’s headaches, her twin brother bookie Clarence, also played by Alastair Sims, returns with his daughter Arabella, played by Vivienne Martin. Bella is upset about being expelled unfairly; after all, her class mate destroyed the library and was allowed to stay. Millicent explains that the library was insured. Clarence, though, isn’t so much interested in Arabella’s education as he is in getting information about Arab Boy.
The school’s sixth form, led by Arabella, and fourth form, including Fatima, take the time to find out more about Arab Boy. In a trial run, the horse wins with a large margin, impressing both sets of girls. Arabella is concerned, though; her father could wind up paying out too much money if Arab Boy wins. The fourth form, though, sees a chance at winning big, and call in Flash Harry, played by George Cole. With their limited funds, even at ten-to-one odds, the fourth form girls wouldn’t get much, unless they can get some of the £100 cash that Fatima’s father gave her.
Millicent, while appearing somewhat doddering, knows exactly the type of people – students and staff – she has at the school, and had put away Fatima’s money for safekeeping. The fourth form girls explain the situation but get nowhere. Millicent, though gets an idea. St. Trinian’s needs £4000, but only has £400. Ten-to-one odds would pay the bills and keep the school open another year. She calls on Flash Harry and lays down the bet.
The sixth form, though, wants Arab Boy to lose. Their plan is to steal the horse until after the race is over. However, Florrie, another girl of St. Trinian’s overhears, and taunts the fourth form with the news. Florrie eventually does tell the younger girls the details after being subjected to a makeshift rack. When Arabella and her form go to steal the horse, they find Arab Boy already gone.
Arab Boy’s whereabouts are discovered the next morning by the sixth form; the horse was enjoying the morning sun through the window of the fourth form’s dorm. This triggers a war between the fourth form, the sixth form, and the teaching staff, who just want to be paid. The fourth form smuggle the horse out the window while the teachers distract the sixth form with a frontal assault.
The film takes pains to keep authenticity with the comic strip. The uniforms worn in the film are modelled after the ones drawn Searle. Several scenes come directly from the strip, including Florrie’s torture and the field hockey match, where the referee, the opposing team’s coach, and the opposing team are taken off the field one by one on stretchers. The opening and closing credits include a a parade of St. Trinian’s drawings by Searle. The result is a movie that incorporates the essence of the cartoon strip while fleshing it out for the needs of a longer work.
The Belles of St. Trinian’s was popular, enough so to have three direct sequels and a continuation of sorts in 1980 with The Wildcats of St. Trinian’s. In 2007, the film franchise was given a reboot with St. Trinian’s, with an eye to updating the setting while still keeping to the roots. The new movie was based on both Searle’s work and The Belles of St. Trinian’s, with Rupert Everett taking on the Alastair Sims roles as both Headmistress Camilla Fritton and her art dealer brother, Carnaby.
The movie begins with Carnaby driving his daughter, Annabelle, played by Talulah Riley, to her new school, St. Trinian’s. Annabelle is horrified at what she sees on the way on to the grounds – burnt out car, a shrunken head, and other dire warnings. The school itself has seen better days. Carnaby is transferring Annabelle from her old school, the Cheltenham Ladies’ College, because he thinks he can get a good discount on his daughter’s tuition. He does manage to haggle Camilla down to £2300, which really doesn’t help her out. Annabelle has no choice but to start school at St. Trinian’s.
Head Girl Kelly, played by Gemma Arterton, gives Annabelle a quick tour of the school and introduces the new girl to the different cliques — the chavs, the geeks, the emos, the posh totties, and the first years. Annabelle doesn’t fit in right away with any of the cliques. Later in the evening, she is the victim of a prank pulled by the entire school. She tries to get her father to come pick her up, but he blows her off. Frustrated, Annabelle slaps her cell phone hard enough with her field hockey stick to shatter a bust down the hall. The act of destruction is seen by Miss Cleaver, played by Fenella Woolgar, who, instead of punishing Annabelle, recruits her for the field hockey team.
In London, the new Minister of Education, Geoffrey Thwaites, played by Colin Firth, wants to make his mark on the position. Formerly in charge of prisons, Geoffrey wants to bring the same approach he used there on schools, by taking the worst school in the nation and forcing it to reform. One of his aides has flashbacks to when he was undercover at St. Trinian’s, showing the PTSD he picked up from the time in country. But, since St. Trinian’s is the worst school, both in academics and in behaviour, that is where Geoffrey will start his reforms.
The banks, though, have other ideas. St. Trinian’s is £500 000 in debt, and after having had six final notices ignored, a representative hand delivers the final final notice, giving Camilla four weeks to raise the money, or else have the school turned over to the bank. Making matters worse, Carnaby tries to convince Camilla to just let the school shut down so it could be sold. The girls of St. Trinian’s, though, have mastered the art of electronic surveillance and learn about the looming debt. Kelly comes to the conclusion that, since the adults look to be useless, the girls will have to save the school. If they don’t, they’ll have to go to normal schools.
The Minister arrives in the morning, hoping to find the excesses at St. Trinian’s during the field hockey match between the school and Cheltenham, where his daughter, Verity (Lucy Punch), is the star player and terror. He is surprised to see his former flame, Camilla, as headmistress, though. The match is vicious, with casualties on both teams. Geoffrey takes advantage of the chaos to sneak around. He discovers the various unauthorized extracurricular the St. Trinian’s girls have, including the religious education teacher crucified, the distillery for knock-off vodka and the pay-per-minute chat line run by the posh totties. However, he’s caught and is shown the way out, though a third story window.
The different cliques have to work together to keep the school open. They enlist the help of Flash Harry, played by Russell Brand, who is their main contact with other criminal elements. He gives the girls a crash course in crime, but Kelly comes up with the master plan – the theft of Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” from the National Gallery. A field trip to the Gallery lets the girls find the security systems and map out how to get in and out. The biggest challenge, though, is getting into the museum. That problem is solved by the new teacher, Miss Dickinson (Lena Headey), who has been trying to get a School Challenge team together. The finals would be held at the Gallery. All the girls need to do is get a team to the finals to get in with security distracted.
However, Geoffrey is still a threat. He returns to St. Trinian’s with the press in tow. His goal is to expose the school’s nefarious activities on camera. The girls are ready for him and go to Code Red, even with ten-year-old twins Tara and Tania (Cloe and Holly Mackie) testing their homebrewed explosives. There is no sign of the problems he found earlier, with a nun teaching the religion class. Worse, Geoffrey flings Camilla’s dog out of the school and into a mulcher in front of cameras, leading him to be the headline, not the St. Trinian’s.
The posh totties become the School Challenge team. While they aren’t necessarily the brightest girls, though they do get the occasional flashes of brilliance, they are the most photogenic. Through means mostly foul, they defeat their opponents, impressing the show host, Stephen Fry. In the finals, they will face Cheltenham. But this does let them get the break-and-enter team a way in.
With The Belles of St. Trinian’s, the memory of Searle’s strip was still fresh, only having ended two years prior to the film’s release and the fifth compilation, Souls in Torment having been released in 1953. The reboot, though, came out fifty-five years after the last published St. Trinian’s cartoon. Times had changed. What was once shocking for movie audiences became quaint. Technology offered more opportunities for mischief. However, St. Trinian’s made efforts to keep to the essence of both Searle’s work and the 1954 film.
First, the uniforms, while updated to take advantage of modern fabrics and sensibilities, were still recognizably St. Trinian’s. The older girls modified the outfits, but even in Searle’s work, they did the same. The definition of scandalous has changed over time, so the uniforms reflected the modern meaning.
The 2007 St. Trinian’s also showed more dead girls than the 1954 film, keeping in line with the strip. Movie ratings systems grew more granular over time, allowing for a difference between a younger teen audience and an older teen audience. A St. Trinian’s girl floating in a fish tank isn’t as unsettling to the older audience. The school itself is far more chaotic in the reboot, reflecting Searle’s work a little closer. The school grounds also showed the dangers more, from the burning car to the various warnings with graffiti.
St. Trinian’s also carries on the tradition set by The Belles of St. Trinian’s, having a male actor play the headmistress and her brother. Alastair Sims’ version of Headmistress Fritton was more dowdy and just getting into the sorts of activities her girls were familiar with. Everett’s Headmistress Fritton encouraged her girls to explore themselves and become the threat the merciless world needs. Both versions cared about the school and the students.
Finally, to show the plan to both the girls and the audience, Polly (Lily Cole) created an animation. The animation is in Searle’s style, though with caricatures of the cast. It’s a nice nod to the original, with some Easter eggs to be found, without confusing new audiences. The animation also furthers the plot, showing the obstacles during the heist.
St. Trinian’s took on the challenges of being both a reboot and an adaptation with two sources, one of those being an adaptation as well, with the added difficulty factor of updating a setting that, while not tied to its time, was shocking for its era. The smoking may have gone, but the attitude remained. In the reboot’s favour, it returned the focus to the students. St. Trinian’s updated the source while remaining true to both the cartoon strip and The Belles of St. Trinian’s.
This article was originally published at Seventh Sanctum.
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