First published in Produced By, the official magazine of the Producers Guild of America
Myth to Movie: Pygmalion
By Ken Atchity
The wish-fulfillment archetype —the dream become
flesh—finds perennially poignant expression in stories based on the
A Cyprian sculptor-priest-king who had no
use for his island’s women, Pygmalion dedicated his energies to his
art. From a flawless piece of ivory, he carved a maiden, and found her
so beautiful that he robed her and adorned her with jewels, calling her
Galatea (“sleeping love”). His became obsessed with the statue,
praying to Aphrodite to bring him a wife as perfect as his image.
Sparked by his earnestness, the goddess visited Pygmalion’s studio and
was so pleasantly surprised to find Galatea almost a mirror of herself
she brought the statue to life. When Pygmalion returned home, he
prostrated himself at the living Galatea’s feet. The two were wed in
Aphrodite’s temple, and lived happily ever after under her protection.
Though it was never absent from western
literature, this transformation myth resoundingly entered modern
consciousness with Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, which enlisted it to explore the complexity of human relationships in a stratified society. My Fair Lady, based on Shaw’s retelling, took the myth to another level of audience awareness.
obligatory beats of the Pygmalion myth: the protagonist has a dream
inspired by encounter with an unformed object (“Look at her, a prisoner
of the gutter!”), uses his skills and/or prayers to shape it into a
reality; falls in love with the embodiment of his dream, and lives
happily ever after, or not.
Essential to the pattern is that the
dreamer-protagonist is rewarded for doing something about his dream,
for turning it from dream to reality with or without a dea ex machina.
Thanks to the infinite creativity of producers, directors, and
writers, Pygmalion has generated countless wonderful movie story
variations: Inventor Gepetto, in Pinocchio
(1940--with numerous remakes), wishes that the wooden puppet he’s
created could become the son he never had; a department store window
dresser (Robert Walker), in One Touch of Venus (1948, based on the Ogden Nash/S. J. Perelman musical), kisses a statue of Venus (Ava Gardner) into life— trouble begins when she falls in love with him. In 1983’s thenEducating Rita
(from Willy Russell’s play), a young hairdresser (Julie Walters),
wishing to improve herself by continuing her education, finds a tutor in
jaded professor (Michael Caine), who’s reinvigorated by her. In a
reverse of the pattern, as quickly as she changes under his tutelage he
resents the “educated” Rita and wants her, selfishly, to stay as she
Alvin Johnson (Nick Cannon), in 2003’s Love Don’t Cost a Thing, a remake of Can’t Buy Me Love
(1987), comes to the rescue of Paris (Christina Milian) when she
wrecks her mother’s Cadillac and can’t pay the $1,500 for the repair.
Alvin fronts the cash with his savings and, in return, Paris has to
pretend to be his girlfriend for two weeks; Alvin becomes “cool” for
the first time in his life, but learns that the price of popularity is
higher than he bargained for. In She’s All That
(1999), the pattern is reversed as Freddie Prinze, Jr., is a high
school hotttie who bets a classmate he can turn nerdy Rachel Leigh Cook
into a prom queen but, of course, runs into trouble when he falls in
love with his creation. In The Princess Diaries
(2001), Mia (Anne Hathaway), a gawky Bay Area teen, learns her father
was the prince of Genovia; the queen (Julie Andrews) hopes her
granddaughter will take her father’s rightful place as heir, and
transforms her from a social misfit into a regal lady but discover their
growing love for each other is more important than the throne.
Pretty Woman (1990) is my second favorite example of the tirelessness of the Pygmalion myth. Taking the flower-girl motif of My Fair Lady
to the extreme, Vivian (Julia Roberts) is a prostitute (albeit
idealized) and Edward (Richard Gere) a ruthless businessman with no time
for real love. As he opens his credit cards on a Rodeo Drive shopping
spree, we experience a telescoped transformation-by-money accompanied
with the upbeat music that reminds us that we love this highly escapist part of the Pygmalion story, the actual process of turning ugly duckling into princess swan.
My favorite example is La Femme Nikita (remade as Point of No Return,
1993, with Bridget Fonda), because it shows the versatility of mythic
structure, taking Pygmalion to the darkest place imaginable as it
fashions of street druggie Nikita (Anne Parillaud), under Bob’s
merciless tutelage (Tcheky Karyo), a chameleon-like lethal sophisticate
whose heart of gold allows her to escape both her unformed past and her
darkly re-formed present.
So popular is the Pygmalion myth with audiences that it crops up in the most unlikely places. In Pao zhi nu peng you (My Dream Girl,
2003), Shanghai slum-dweller Cheung Ling (Vicki Zhao) is thrust into
high society when she encounters her long-lost father, who hires Joe Lam
to makeover his daughter to fit her new status. In Million-Dollar Baby (2004), the unformed matter (Hilary Swank) reports for duty and demands
to be transformed. Instead of falling in love, the boxing instructor
(Clint Eastwood) is reborn, reinvigorated, re-inspired, learns to feel
again—thereby revealing the underlying emotion that drives the Pygmalion
myth for both protagonist and the character he reshapes: rebirth into a more ideal state of being.