Beyond the Prairie: True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Beyond the Prairie: True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder

reviewed by Deb Houdek Rule

Beyond the Prairie

available from Amazon

Beyond the Prairie: True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder, released on DVD November 23, 2010, is a made-for-TV movie from 2000 which intended to return the story of Laura and the Little Houses to their true origins. The Little House on the Prairie television series had drifted radically from the books and so this movie planned to take the story of Laura from age 14 to adulthood back to the “true” story.

“True” is apparently a relative term.

First an admission: I didn’t make it to the end of the movie. The promos for it, back in 2000, had me completely intrigued. They made a big thing of showing an accurate version of Laura’s engagement ring as a clue that “they know the real story”, but from the beginning the flaws and diversions from reality screamed at me too loudly. It wasn’t so much the major diversions from the storyline in the books which bothered me as the smaller indications that the entire production failed to understand Laura, her family, and her story.

I’m a television person. I’ve worked in television for thirty-odd years, with a film school education before that. So what I saw said to me those putting this production together had no love for, nor understanding of, the subject. A movie of this sort is far more involved that the story and script. It’s possible the script writer had a love for the Little House stories, but from his IMDB listing, I think it rather more likely he was a contract script writer hired because he did western historical work. Nevertheless, no matter how good and accurate the script, what we see on the screen is the product of a huge number of others and if they’re not all in sync and in understanding of the subject, you’ll see their interpretations of what the story is or should be. Casting. Costuming. Set decoration. All these, and more, go into the story as we see it.

Case in point: The movie starts in the Ingalls home on the prairie in South Dakota. You see the characters you’d expect to see in period costumes. Except — and this is a huge ‘except’ — any reader of Laura’s books knows immediately this is NOT a home Caroline “Ma” Ingalls would have made. How would we know? The curtains were crooked. The hems at the bottom of the curtains looked like they were sewn by someone who had no knowledge of sewing. They were crooked, shoddy, wrinkly, and a bit grubby. In that moment they blew the “true” scenario away and showed they didn’t understand Laura or her family.

The casting was… odd. Richard Thomas as Charles “Pa” Ingalls could have been okay but something has happened to his voice and the deep, harsh, raspy voice in no way said this was the Pa who twinkled and sang along with his violin. No insult to the actress who played Laura — she could have been fine in the role — but she didn’t play it as the Laura we know from the books. The script and direction would be at fault there. Her costuming was wrong, wrong, wrong. She wore a scruffy man’s hat. What was that about? Did no one but the scriptwriter read any of the books? Her hair was short, loose, and stringy. And, worse, she was a blond. As anyone who has read the books knows that is a major, significant no-no.

So what we saw from the start was a visualization of Laura’s Little House stories that converted them from people who lived as clean, hard-working people with intelligence and skills, though they were poor, into a generic stereotypical view of poor pioneers as being unskilled and quaint just as artificial as a fake ‘distressed’ antique finish on a new piece of furniture. It was insulting to us who have read Laura’s works, and to Laura and her family.

Even as I write this there are three very positive 5-star reviews on Amazon for this DVD movie (which is part 1 only, part 2 which I never saw came out two years later). Decide for yourself and add your own review here in the comments section.