As you may or may not remember, I recently read Jean Webster’s classic novel Daddy-Long-Legs for the first time and have been pimping it out to the entire internet ever since. I seriously cannot get enough of this book. So much so that, against all better advice and judgement, I voluntarily watched four screen adaptations of my beloved novel - a silent film, a musical version starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron, a Japanese anime series, and a modern Korean adaptation. So which of these is worth watching? Clearly the only way to judge is with the magic of SCIENCE. As always, each category is assessed on a 10 point scale, with the sum total for each film deciding the victor at the end.
Disclaimer: I did my best, but their are probably minor spoilers from the book that can be inferred by some of my analysis. Nothing you probably couldn't figure out on your own, but proceed at your own risk.
Now let’s get to it!
With nearly flawless source material, it’s important to examine how closely each film sticks to the novel.
Daddy-Long-Legs (1919): 5
This adaptation hits upon the high points - the infamous John Grier Home Gingham, Lock-Willow Farm, the Judy-Jervie-Jimmie love triangle. Where it fails is its addition of all sorts of batshittery that is not in the book. The first forty-five minutes are devoted to Judy causing trouble at the orphanage, something that is merely referenced in the original. There’s also a weird, parallel subplot about someone called Angelina Wycoff and unnecessarily tragic flourishes like Judy being found in a trash can. It also likens the John Grier Home to a prison chain-gang. Everything is very melodramatic and badly paced.
Daddy Long Legs (1955): 4
As Olive Pendergast once said, “to say that one was ‘freely adapted’ is A BIT OF AN UNDASTATEMEN’, GOVNA!” For starters, Judy is played by Leslie Caron, who is French. So Judy (called Julie in this version) is from a French orphanage, and all her charms revolve around her being young and beautiful and French. Also, Fred Astaire is really, really old. Also also, this happens:
There are no words.
My Daddy Long Legs (1990): 8
This is far and away the most faithful version of the bunch. Like the 1919 version, it adds lots of storylines, but unlike its silent predecessor, the supplemental bits adhere to the spirit of the original and simply round out the plot into a full series of episodes. The major difference is that in this adaptation, Judy is in high school rather than college.
Daddy-Long-Legs (2005): 1
I’m not actually sure you can call this an adaptation. Judy gets a job at a radio station and also begins living at the vacated apartment of an unidentified staff member, who is away on a mysterious medical leave. On the owner’s computer, she finds some emails addressed to the owner’s future self, recounting their years-unrequited love for someone who doesn’t even know they exist. Unfortunately, said apartment owner is suffering from some kind of terminal, memory-degenerating illness that only exists in Korean dramas. Soon, they will have forgotten everything about their
stalkee One True Love, hence the letters to the future self. Meanwhile, Judy starts dating and falls in love with a librarian at the station, who I guess is the Jervie character? Except that he is nothing like Jervie. Anyway, in the surprise twist at the end, Jervie is Judy’s Daddy-Long-Legs, who had anonymously sent her presents when she was in school and then suddenly stopped. And he suddenly stopped because HE is the apartment owner with the terminal brain disease! He remembers nothing of his prior love for Judy, but fate brought them together again! And then he dies. The end.
If that doesn't make any sense to you, it doesn’t make any more sense watching it first-hand.
AWESOMENESS OF JUDY
The best part of DLL is how incredibly amazing Judy is. So how well does each actress capture Judy’s incandescent glory?
Daddy-Long-Legs (1919): 2
Mary Pickford is very, very pretty. I’ll give her that. Unfortunately, she doesn’t exactly exude personality? Jervie and Jimmie falling at her feet seems more about their being overcome by her beauty than by her AWESOMENESS, and Judy has so much more going for her than good looks.
Daddy Long Legs (1955): 4
Leslie Caron is certainly more charming than Mary Pickford, but it’s more of the French sexpot variety than a hilarious mix of whimsy and sarcasm. There’s also a very weird number at the beginning where she sings to some French orphans about spelling. I love Fraulein Maria as much as the next girl, but Judy Abbott she is not.
Plus, she falls in love with this fool:
Her judgment is clearly suspect.
My Daddy Long Legs (1990): 6
Again, this version best captures Judy’s spirit. Unfortunately, with the decision to make Judy younger, she’s a little too twee and adorably hapless. That Judy, always getting into hilarious scrapes! I also docked a couple points for her Pippi Longstocking braids. Not all precocious westerners have to be ginger with braids, anime producers.
Daddy-Long-Legs (2005): 0
UGH. Get a personality, woman. Also, she’s kind of a terrible person? Her job at the radio station is in jeopardy, so she starts broadcasting the very personal, very not-belonging-to-her terminal brain disease letters on the air as a serial. She justifies this completely reprehensible behavior by saying that in sharing it with the public, she’ll be able to help the writer’s One True Love find them and be reunited. Judy would NEVER do such a thing!
As much as Judy’s awesomeness is a strength, the main (and only) flaw of the novel is how deeply, deeply creepy its romantic aspect is. Jervis is not only significantly older, he is jealous, controlling, and manipulative. These are details I’m willing to overlook for the sake of JUDY BEING AWESOME, but as we have already seen, her awesomeness (or lack thereof) might not be able to make up for the creep factor in these adaptations.
Daddy-Long-Legs (1919): -10
So I’m hazy on this part because I wasn’t really paying attention, but I think they made this version slightly less creepy than the book? Jervis is still significantly older than Judy, but the development of their romance seems a little less like he’s trying to control her life and a little more like serendipity. My read could be totally wrong, though, because I really wasn’t watching properly.
Daddy Long Legs (1955): -100
I never thought I’d say this, but Fred Astaire is so not charming or debonair. He is creepy to the max. This is largely attributable to Caron being in her early 20s, whereas Astaire was born in the 19th century, but this also has a lot to do with it:
Seriously, WHO THOUGHT THIS DANCE NUMBER WAS A GOOD IDEA?
My Daddy Long Legs (1990): -1,000
Jervis’ age might be more accurate in this version, but Judy is in high school. You see how the frame angle on Jervis is from way, way below his eye-level? That's because he's like two feet taller than Judy. Because she's a child. Where I come from, grown men who want to sleep with Pippi Longstocking are called pedophiles.
Daddy-Long-Legs (2005): -2
In the real world, receiving anonymous gifts from a person who is secretly in love with you is not romantic. It’s terrifying. I once received an unidentified box of fancy tea in the mail, and it bothered me for the next several years that I didn’t know who sent it. However, this version does earn (or rather, doesn’t lose?) points for having Judy and Jervis be the same age, and their mutual stalker behavior kind of cancels one another out.
But all the above problems could be overcome by simply making an enjoyable film. Could being the operative word.
Daddy-Long-Legs (1919): 0
I’m sorry to silent film fans of the world, but this version is just unspeakably boring. I tried to watch it at least four times and had to settle for playing it in an adjacent window as I type this. Also, it is an hour and a half long. Do you know how long an hour and a half of silence is? Interminable, that's how long. Judy doesn’t even go to college for the first half of the film; she’s just dicking around the orphanage. Then college happens for oh, five to ten minutes, and the rest of it is just Jervie and Judy frolicking through fields and such. Very, very dull.
Daddy Long Legs (1955): 3
I really thought that with all the song and dance numbers, this film would be eminently watchable. But with the exception of “Something’s Gotta Give,” the songs are super shitty, and the dancing is kind of odd. The last 15 minutes of the movie turn into this bizarre, avant-garde dream sequence that makes me feel like someone has surreptitiously laced my drink (HEALTH WARNING: link involves acrobatic clowns). And, oh yeah, THIS:
On the other hand, it does have kind of a train-wreck quality that ensures that I can’t stop watching.
My Daddy Long Legs (1990): 5
This was alright. I got a little into it for a few episodes, but that could just be my grad-student need to do anything that is not related to my degree, as often as possible. It’s kind of cute, but in the end, I just couldn’t care enough about it to get over the creep factor. Maybe if you actively like anime it would be more watchable, but I could take or leave it.
Daddy-Long-Legs (2005): 2
This was... not good y’all. It probably would have helped going in if I knew that Korean doesn’t use gendered pronouns, allowing for the big twist at the end. As it happened, I didn’t! So I was just really baffled. But even if I weren’t still scratching my head, it would have been bad. The only reason I finished this movie was for the sake of science. And this is coming from a person that unabashedly LOVES Korean dramas. Can we go watch The Classic now instead of this tripe?
Daddy-Long-Legs (1919): -3
Daddy Long Legs (1955): -89
My Daddy Long Legs (1990): -981
Daddy-Long-Legs (2005): 1
So there you have it. Science has proven that the completely unwatchable Korean version is the winner by virtue of not having a negative score. It’s a sad day when the best adaptation of something is the one which in no way resembles the original plot. Clearly, the only solution is for someone to make a new version that is at least halfway decent, with a younger, less creepy Jervis (Top Hat JGL, anyone?) and a Judy that I actually like. Get to it, Hollywood.