Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 91 (March 1999): 22-26.
When my daughter was seven, her Austrian grandmother sent her three Erich Kaestner novels for Christmas. Her favorite was Das Doppelte Lottchen, a disarming tale about a pair of nine–year–old identical twins separated from infancy by an acrimonious divorce. When these girls meet accidentally at a summer camp and discover their common parentage, they devise a plan to switch places. The end result: a marital reconciliation.
Das Doppelte Lottchen, written in 1949, once promised to be one of those children’s books—like Heidi and The Secret Garden—destined for imperishability. Published in English under the title Lisa and Lotte, it had three essential ingredients of a classic: suspense, pathos, and a happy ending. Most of all, it had something that very few children’s books can boast—namely, a grip on reality. Kaestner was that rare children’s author who needed no occult imagery or talking animals to charm the little ones. He spun fantastic enough tales, but they were spun from the stuff of real life, populated with people you could almost touch, and set in social milieus familiar to the average child. And they dealt in serious ways with intensely serious subjects, in this case with the subject of broken homes.
Sadly, Das Doppelte Lottchen is barely known outside German–speaking lands today. Or at least it would seem that way, to judge from the warm reception given the recent remake of a 1961 Disney comedy based on the Kaestner story: The Parent Trap. Oh, there have been some complaints. A number of critics have lamented the film’s impossibly high spirits and phantasmagorically opulent settings. A few have even accused Disney and Co. of a certain insouciance in the treatment of family breakdown. But most reviewers have praised the new Parent Trap as a wholesome updating of a light and funny family classic, as entertainment purveying healthy values to children about the importance of two–parent homes. Curiously, nobody has commented on the stark contrast between the two Disney comedies and the very dramatic novel on which they were based.
To be brief, neither version of The Parent Trap—the old or the new—has much at all in common with the German story. The Disney films are about two energetic young ladies whose unremitting ingenuity and bottomless material resources enable them to engineer the resuscitation of their divorced parents’ romance. The Kaestner story is about two far less fortunate girls whose loneliness and emotional desperation determines them to attempt to penetrate the secret of their painful separation. As we shall see, the difference between the Kaestner and the Disney approaches to the same kernel of plot is telling, for it reflects radically different views on the evils of marital disruption.
Kaestner was not one to shy away from exposing the grittier socioeconomic afflictions of divorce. In the case of Das Doppelte Lottchen, his main characters, the twins, are vulnerable and insecure, and one of them suffers real economic want. Unlike their Disney counterparts, who are both well–heeled and seem cut from the same character cloth, the Kaestner twins are very different personalities: one shy and industrious, the other saucy and lazy. The difference, Kaestner makes clear, is by no means inborn. Rather the girls have been raised differently. Lotte has been raised by a harried single mother who ekes out a hand–to–mouth existence as the photoeditor of a Munich tabloid. A latchkey child, Lotte has learned to be responsible for herself. She keeps house, prepares the meals, and tallies up the family expenditures. In fact, like many children of divorce, she has participated in a peculiar role reversal. A sensitive child, she nurtures her perpetually exhausted mama, who greets her from camp with the striking exclamation, "My little housemother! I finally have you back!"
Luise, on the other hand, is spoiled—at least in material terms. Raised by her father, a well–known Viennese conductor and composer, she is the object of lavish attention among the staff and regulars at the tony Café Imperial, where she gorges herself daily on cheese–filled pancakes. But her hunger for affection and direction remains unsatisfied. Papa rarely has time for her, and the housekeeper entrusted with her daily care is indifferent to her.
If there ever was a literary appeal to parents to "stay together for the sake of the children," Das Doppelte Lottchen was it. Lotte and Luise are two kids set adrift in a world of adults seemingly unable to make any serious accommodation to childhood. The girls are driven to their adventure as much by the fragility of their ties to the parent who has raised them as by their curiosity about the parent whom they do not know. When Luise and Lotte resolve to switch identities, they have no explicit hope of bringing their mother and father together. Still less do they intend to confront their parents with questions about the past. Kaestner is clear as regards the modesty of the twins’ scheme. "Perhaps together," he writes, "if they pay close attention, they will finally unravel the reasons their parents live separately. Perhaps one fine day, one wonderful day, they’ll be together with both parents—but they dare not even think of such a possibility, much less speak of it."
In fact, the twins’ distant dream of family reunification eventually becomes reality, but not through any of their own devices. Fortuitously, Mama is handed a photograph to caption and process for her newspaper—a picture of the girls taken at camp. It suddenly occurs to her why her once perfectly behaved "Lotte" has taken to burning the soup, turning in sloppy school work, and punching the school bully in the nose. Divining what her daughters have done, she confronts the child in her home who admits that yes, she is Luise, not Lotte. Mama then calls her ex–husband. At that point she finds out that the real Lotte, shocked by the anticipation of her father’s upcoming second marriage, has fallen victim to a nervous illness. Over Lotte’s sickbed a rapprochement between the divorced couple begins. It is based, incidentally, not on any initial reawakening of spousal affection, but on a family crisis, a crisis that makes Lotte and Luise’s parents reconsider the sacred obligations they owe to their children to "make them happy."
Anyone who has seen the 1961 version of The Parent Trap will not need to be told how radically Walt Disney altered Kaestner’s tale. The girls in his film, Susan and Sharon, are not only far richer, they are far older than Lotte and Luise; they are almost fourteen, rather than nine. Despite the fact that they are children of divorce, these young ladies seem to lead lives of near perfect emotional security and satisfaction—one in Boston, in the lap of an extended family, the other in Carmel with a father and two super–caring caregivers. Indeed, it is not their sense of loss that prompts Sharon and Susan to resolve to bring their parents together, but their sense of romance. They are convinced that "in their inner hearts" their parents still love each other, and have only remained separated because "that’s how true love creates its beautiful agony."
Increasing the twins’ age, maturity, and general level of comfort allowed producer Disney and director/screenwriter David Swift to transform an earnest tale of divorce into a send–up of marital discord. Boy and girl meet, fall in love, marry, fight stupidly, resolve to go their separate ways, and are confronted with regrets. The plot is all urban domestic comedy, yet with a fragile twist. The pioneering Disney adds children to his marriage roast, even making them the deus ex machina of his work.
In comparison to Kaestner’s book, of course, Walt Disney’s film was wildly improbable. In its most famous and most improbable scene, the girls, having chased away Dad’s new fiancée, restage their parents’ first date in the cellar of his house, gurgling a giddy rock serenade: "Let’s get together, yeah, yeah, yeah!" It is a scene to make one grimace, but however corny, somehow it doesn’t ruin the film. Under David Swift’s adroit direction, with adept portrayals of the parents by Maureen O’Hara and Brian Keith, and a signature performance by Hayley Mills (who played the twins), the Disney Company managed to invest The Parent Trap with a significant amount of erotic tension and very little sentiment. Indeed, the film may well have been Walt Disney’s most unsentimental. Certainly it was his most adult film in subject matter, dialogue, and character development. And beyond its hokey moments, what it had to say about marriage was of some interest. If for Kaestner an intact home was the single requisite of childhood well–being, for Disney, an intact home was the single requisite of adult well–being.
When we first meet Brian Keith and Maureen O’Hara in the 1961 film, they are for all intents and purposes de–sexed. O’Hara’s voluptuous curves are hidden beneath dark, spinsterly dresses. Her hair is bundled into a beehive. Her manner is detached. She may lead the glamorous life of a wealthy socialite, but for all her privilege, she is weary and embittered. While Brian Keith looks to be in better physical shape, his Western rancher character seems likewise libidinally challenged. At the opening of the film, he has just become engaged to a beautiful young woman, but it is she who has pursued him. Even after their betrothal, he persists in behaving with her like a man perfectly resigned to going to bed alone.
Slowly, with prompting by their children, the characters played by Keith and O’Hara begin to warm up. Both initially resist the girls’ inquiries about their parents’ romantic past; yet, as memories are jogged, the old sexual impulses begin once again to bubble to the surface. Before leaving for California and a rendezvous with her ex–husband, O’Hara procures a more fashionable and alluring look. Keith—typical man—is slower on the uptake. He has no inkling of O’Hara’s re–entrance into his life until she’s already been in his house for several hours. But there is a wonderful scene in which he unexpectedly encounters her brassiere hanging in his bathroom. He gingerly picks up the object and examines it. At that moment, it’s clear he’s done for.
It would have been easy enough for Disney and Swift to have allowed the characters played by Keith and O’Hara to rediscover their mutual attraction, fall into each other’s arms, and live happily ever after. But this is not the tack taken. As their romance is rekindled, Mom and Dad don’t simply fall in love all over again; they replay their checkered romantic history. To watch their initial re–encounter is to see them metamorphose in a matter of minutes from sublimely even–tempered single parents to irascible married lovers. It’s a discomfiting, if comical, transmutation, and it culminates in a riotous moment: Keith, angered to find O’Hara parading around his home in his bathrobe at the very moment he is planning his second wedding, starts barking orders at her to get dressed. In response, she hauls off and punches him. The point here is not that family violence is funny, but that love is a volatile proposition, wedded love not for the faint of heart. Disney makes very clear where Keith and O’Hara went wrong the first time around: As modern adults with an acute sense of propriety, they failed to accept the protracted skirmish that is erotic pair–bonding. If they had been willing to forgo some dignity for the sake of happiness, they might have humbled themselves long ago before the grand design of domestic warfare. Now, thanks to their children, they will get a second chance to man the trenches.
The Parent Trap’s take on marital conflict, then, is that it is a natural part of the game of married love, feeding the fires of Eros and exercising the muscles of the marriage bond. Near the end of the film, Keith reflects on the precious time together he and his ex–wife have lost, and the emptiness he has felt without her: "You know what I miss?" he asks. "I don’t care if it does sound silly, but I miss those wet stockings you used to have hanging around the bathroom, and . . . my razor being dull because you used it to shave your legs with; and I miss the hair pins mixed with the fish hooks in the tackle box. It’s no fun having a clothes closet all to myself; and it’s no fun swearing, because you’re not around to pretend you’re shocked. In fact, nothing’s any good without you, Maggie. I miss a lot of things. . . . I guess I just miss you."
In short, Walt Disney had an important message to deliver. Go ahead and fight, he seemed to be saying to parents everywhere. Lose your tempers all you want, but keep your marriage together. It must have been a refreshingly old–fashioned message in the early sixties, when divorce was on the rise, and open spousal conflict—especially physical conflict—was widely regarded by professionals as an indication of serious marital dysfunction.
Indeed, Disney’s message about marital relations has never seemed so antiquated as it does today. Yet, never has it been more urgently needed. In this era of high marital failure rates, research shows the single most important predictor of divorce to be avoidance of conflict. That is, people who divorce typically do not fight with their spouses any more than those who stay married. Rather, people who divorce are not able to handle marital conflict with the equanimity that enables them to preserve and strengthen their marital ties.
One might expect that the new, 1998 Parent Trap would resemble Disney and Swift’s sophisticated roast of the marital estate. Curiously, it is slightly closer in sentiment to Erich Kaestner’s more earnest story of divorce and reconciliation. While producer Charles Shyer and director Nancy Meyers have cannibalized whole scenes from Swift’s 1961 Parent Trap screenplay, they have eliminated nearly all its acerbic moments, and focused far more on the appeal of the children than on the appeal of the parents. Indeed, though Shyer and Meyers are themselves a married couple, in their remake of The Parent Trap they have neglected altogether to set up a believable marital history for the twins’ parents. There may be some vague references to the conflicts of the past—to objects thrown, insults hurled, and a general "driving" each other "nuts"; yet, no hints of post–divorce bitterness, no fights, no tensions at all in the ex–spousal relationship are played out on screen. Dennis Quaid and Natasha Richardson, cast as the romantic leads, are not simply the image of gay divorcés when we meet them—eminently attractive and available—they are played throughout the film as if completely unburdened by any romantic past.
It would seem that Shyer and Meyers believe today’s "family viewing" market to be allergic to the suggestion of anger or anguish in conjunction with family life. Their two–hour film is laboriously warm, fuzzy, and cute. The twins—who in this version reside in Napa and London, respectively—are restored to childhood, and despite their frequent protestations of a desperate wish for two parents, are played by the charming Lindsay Lohan with that self–sufficiency and complaisant pre–pubescent prescience audiences might recognize from such hits as Home Alone. Like the children, the parents are cheerful, fashionable, accomplished, and independent. Everyone is, indeed, "too cool!" as twin "Hallie" observes of her glamorous screen–mother on meeting her. So cool, indeed, so autonomous, so perfectly situated that one could not conceive of anyone’s being in need of anything. Not even love. Especially not love. For there is already a surfeit of laughs and kisses and hugs and gushes in each respective broken home; even the British butler dispenses these things with reckless abandon. And if all that love weren’t enough, ecstatic product endorsements—for everything from Oreos and Skippy peanut butter to Jeeps, the Concorde, and the QEII—remind us of what really makes for happiness in the modern world. Family reunification could hardly be portrayed as more superfluous than in this film. Curiously, even the reconciliation scene between Mom and Dad fails to move; it is eclipsed by a far more effusive love affair between the household help.
In short, if feelings and markets be the driving forces of the Zeitgeist, the new Parent Trap is about as contemporary as a movie could possibly be; it addresses both in profusion. What it does not address, however, is any meaningful social observation about family life. If the film’s ultimate message—that children deserve an intact family—is noble enough, it can’t get anywhere with the message, because it fails to seriously broach the questions of why or how. Shyer and Meyers have constructed a world far too whimsical and euphoric to provide a meaningful context for the moral of their story. Unlike Kaestner, they fail to address the poverty—both economic and emotional—that characterizes children of divorce. And they ignore the depletion of energy and resources that marks the lot of single parents disappointed in love. Unlike their cinematic predecessors, they don’t even bother to address the work involved in keeping a modern family intact—the endless challenges of living, loving, fighting, working, and parenting together.
In their diverse treatments of the same story, Kaestner’s book and the two Disney films enable us to trace three distinct attitudes toward marriage as conveyed to young people in the past fifty years. In Das Doppelte Lottchen, Erich Kaestner clearly views marriage as a child–rearing bond. In his tale, the conjugal romance, upon the appearance of children, takes a very low second place to the exigencies of parenthood. The needs of children are the focus of family life, and mothers and fathers—whether love lasts between them or not—are considered to have a sacred obligation to meet these needs together. Indeed, in his story the twins are nothing more than a metaphor for the single child of divorce whose life—whose very identity—is split into two irreconcilable parts, the part that remains in the reconstituted home, and the part that has left with the parent that has left. Each twin, in fact, suffers immeasurably the emotional and economic weaknesses of her erstwhile custodial arrangement.
Kaestner’s approach, in essence, is to convey the traditional ethos of marriage—a meta–cultural ethos of marital duty which, as anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski would put it, defines marriage as "the end of romance" and "the beginning of a sterner task . . . the production and maintenance of children." Kaestner’s is a story of marriage as a static institution, one that meets prescribed socioeconomic functions involving prescribed cultural roles for men and women.
In the Walt Disney/David Swift story, children are no longer at the center of family life. Rather, the marital romance—that most dangerous, exhausting, yet promising of erotic adventures—comes to the fore. Disney’s ethos of marriage is no longer traditional, although clearly it is rooted in the Judeo–Christian story of the First Marriage. Here, the defining relationship of marriage is not the one of parents to children, but of husbands to wives. As Eve is to Adam—both a "fitting helper" and the agitator of his fall from innocence—so every woman is to her man. As Adam extorts his revenge (Does not God scold Eve: "In pain shall you bear children, Yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you"?), so every husband to his wife.
There is purpose in the marital union above and beyond the bearing and rearing of children. That purpose involves the erotic experience of otherness, the drive to physical and spiritual union with someone fundamentally different from ourselves. The needs adults have for sexual intimacy, and the unique companionship, mutual regard, amusement, and struggle that life–long sexual intimacy brings become every bit as important (if not more important) to the institution of marriage as the task of child–rearing.
The great theme of Disney’s movie, then, is the primacy and delicacy of the marital romance, always vulnerable to the conflicting sensibilities and power struggles that define relations between the sexes. For Disney, marriage is less an institution than an organism. A modern marriage is kept alive not by virtue of duty, but by virtue of love. How to keep love alive? Lighten up, he suggests. Marriage may be serious, but it should be serious fun.
In the more recent Parent Trap, the story told of marriage is again different. Perhaps a tad more of the old concept of parental duty has crept back into a marital ideal that primarily celebrates the spousal romance. "Love," after all, as the words of the film’s title song go, "is more than just a game for two." But the marital romance itself becomes idealized in a new way. Marriage is seen solely as a union of allies, not as a union of potential adversaries. The marital estate is no longer viewed as a safe haven for the exercise of that inevitable contention bound to plague every romance. Rather the opposite. In this film, only the immature marriage, the "first time around" marriage, involves conflict. The second time around promises a marriage perfectly free of conflict, a composed alliance between two mature, settled human beings who have resolved—in the words of the reunited couple—to "grow old together" but who no longer share either the capability or the desire to drive one another "nuts."
In a way, the new Parent Trap reflects a disturbing trend in contemporary thinking about marriage, a trend to increasing discomfort with marital conflict, and a growing conviction among young married people that to be successful a marriage must be completely harmonious. Balzac once wrote that "a happy marriage is the result of a perfect understanding between two souls." Surely such a perfect understanding is every married couple’s goal. But to pretend that such a goal may be reached without abiding contest is to denature the volatile intimacy of sexual love, even ultimately to de–eroticize our most romantic cultural institution. Certainly, it is to deny marriage its crucial psychological function as a refuge and outlet for the passions, as well as to deny our children adequate training for lasting marital unions. After all, if we are obliged to teach our young only one lesson, it must be the honest lesson of what it takes to keep a marriage together: love, a sense of duty, and yes—sometimes—a good, sporting fight.
Dana Mack is a writer living in Connecticut.