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How Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris’ Director Diversified The British Classic, While Staying True To The Source

The name Paul Gallico might not immediately ring any bells, but some of the author’s most well-known books have made movie history. Pride of the Yankees and The Poseidon Adventure both became cinematic classics based on his writing, and now Flowers for Mrs. Harris has been adapted into the new movie release Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, the latest film to take Gallico’s work and bring it to the screen. This meant that for co-writer/director Anthony Fabian, it was the perfect moment to diversify this British classic, while staying true to its source.

Ellen Thomas sits with a smile at a table in the pub in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris.

(Image credit: Focus Features)

The Reinvention Of Vi Butterfield In Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris

One reinvention in particular stuck out as I attended the press day for Mrs Harris Goes to Paris that allowed me to speak with Anthony Fabian. There were several areas from Paul Gallico’s original source material that he and his co-writers Carroll Cartwright, Olivia Hetreed and Keith Thompson were able to expand upon from the 1958 novel (known as Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris in the U.S.), but it was the reinvention of Vi Butterfield (Ellen Thomas) that was key to the team. 

The best friend to Lesley Manville’s haute couture-seeking protagonist Ada Harris, Vi and Ada’s beautiful friendship allowed Fabian and the rest of the Mrs. Harris team to pay tribute to immigration's role in British history. We’ve seen this sort of thing happen with literary film adaptations, and events such as Idris Elba’s casting in The Dark Tower have even seen authors like Stephen King defending such reinventions

However, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris' big change had a big historical emphasis behind it. As Anthony Fabian told CinemaBlend, precedent supported the following decision process:

One of the additions I’m proudest of is the creation of Vi, Ada’s best friend, as a Jamaican character. Historically in Britain, there was a whole generation that came from Jamaica to work in the UK. They’re very underrepresented on our screens, so it seemed a natural opportunity to rectify that. Ellen Thomas, who plays Vi, is just the most joyful character, and such a wonderful foil and contrast to Ada, in terms of her presentation. Their friendship is extremely credible, I think, in the film; but it’s also historically plausible. That pleased me, as did the introduction of Chandler, the bus conductor who Vi ends up having a little romance with, potentially.

It’s one of those details that is never fully built up in Paul Gallico’s original novel, and past casting would presume that Vi Butterfield would be white like Ada Harris. However, in one of many decisions that would be made to craft Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris into a beautifully human fairy tale, casting Ellen Thomas to star alongside Lesley Manville diversified the acting roster, while also tipping a hat to history. 

Similar to how Anthony Fabian also introduced Jamaican bus conductor Chandler (Delroy Atkinson) to set up Vi’s potential future in romance, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris' story built even more of a foundation for potential sequels. Some of those important details are not only intriguing, but they come from Paul Gallico’s own writing.

Jason Isaacs sits in the stands with a slight frown in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris.

(Image credit: Focus Features)

How Future Adventures Were Woven Into Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris

Many who are new to Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris are probably amazed to learn that the story of this kind cleaning woman and her ambitions in life actually stretched into three sequels. Published between 1960 and 1974, Ada would go on to have adventures that would take her everywhere from New York to Parliament, with a final stop in Moscow to cap things off. 

The themes of those books were an easy fit for Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, with segments of the future plot being sampled by Fabian and company. Drawing a clear line between this first film and further installments, here’s what was plucked from the Mrs. Harris universe, per the director: 

I think the whole bringing more heart into the story. [Paul] Gallico is about heart, but I think this film is overwhelmingly romantic. I think that’s one of the reasons why people respond to it emotionally. There’s another aspect that I think we brought to the fore, which is her fight for worker’s rights and social justice. Interestingly, although it’s not particularly in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, it does appear when she becomes a member of Parliament. So there are elements from the future books that we brought into this one.

Aptly enough, those themes are more of a sticking point in the second sequel, 1965’s Mrs. Harris, M.P., published in the United States under the title Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Parliament.  Weaving the political with the personal in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, Carroll Cartwright, Anthony Fabian, Olivia Hetreed and Keith Thompson give Ada another quest to embark on, besides acquiring her Christian Dior dress. That being said, even the chase for haute couture took on a better resonance. 

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris saw its protagonist chasing a dress, and pretty much only that, in the first book. It wasn’t until Anthony Fabian and his team expanded Paul Gallico’s story that the dress stood for something else. In the production notes for the film, which is one of many literary adaptations hitting screens in 2022, Fabian cites the dress as the catalyst to a wider goal for Ada Harris’ life: allowing herself to fall in love again.

As such, a romantic interest was needed; and as luck would have it, a character from those next couple books fit the bill perfectly. Here’s Anthony Fabian explaining how Jason Isaacs’ character of Archie wound up in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris

There’s no Archie in Mrs. ‘arris Goes to Paris, but there is an Archie character, starting with the second book, who becomes her companion in the second, third, and fourth books. We introduce some of these elements that I think made it richer, and yet I think people who are devoted to the original won’t be disappointed by these additions.

If it becomes a smash hit necessary to justify sequels, then Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris has put down some strong roots to continue down the line of Ada’s continuing adventures. As the movie cracked into last weekend’s top 10 box office results, there may be legs on this film yet. Which means we might get to see Jason Issacs may have more of a breather from playing a villain, despite the Star Trek: Discovery actor enjoying his bad side.

However, should this adaptation be a one and done affair, at the very least Anthony Fabian and his co-writing team have paid tribute to the entire series in one go. Not to mention that their efforts of diversifying Vi Butterfield should stand as a landmark to anyone else who wants to bring this story to life, allowing for the casting to break even further from traditional mores. 

Should you want to get caught up in the whimsy and spectacle of what is arguably one of the best films of the year, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is currently showing in theaters. If you need a little more selling, then you can read CinemaBlend’s official review on the film

Mike Reyes
Mike Reyes

CinemaBlend's James Bond (expert). Also versed in Large Scale Aggressors, time travel, and Guillermo del Toro. He fights for The User.