The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, despite its flaws, is well worth watching. Chances are, you’ll either love it or hate it. If you love it, it’s probably because the movie makes you cry, and each time you watch it, you cry even more. And if you hate it, that’s probably because the movie makes you cry, and each time you watch it, you cry even more. Or to paraphrase the movie poster: You’ll laugh; you’ll cry; you’ll share the pants.
Note: This episode has minor spoilers. I don’t believe these spoilers give away anything that wasn’t obvious from the beginning, and I don’t believe they make the film less effective or enjoyable. Even so, if you care about such things…
The movie, based on Ann Brashares best-selling novel of the same name, is about four 16-year-old girls, inseperable almost before they were born, now spending their first summer apart. Browsing through a thrift store, they discover a pair of jeans that magically fits all four girls perfectly. They make a pact to share the pants during the summer. Each girl will get the pants for one week then send it overnight to the next, along with a letter detailing all that happened to her while she had the pants.
This is an analysis, not a review of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, as there are many reviews already available. Here are some reviews that I think are worth reading:
- Dustin Putman, themovieboy.com
- Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz, InsidePulse Review
- Cynthia Fuchs, PopMatters
- Joe Rickey, Movie Gurus
- Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat
Note that many reviewers didn’t get it. This is the third prong in the “love it, hate it, ignore it” trinity. Welcome, Tim Taylor fan-boys, I guess. Some concentrated on the settings, such as in Lena’s trip to Greece; or on the fact that the story is targeted to highschool girls, making it okay for men not to get it or like it (insert grunting noises here); or the plot, even though this is a character-driven story. One reviewer even went so far as to paint the story endings as Deus Ex Machina, enumerating each story resolution, and getting every single one wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong. The conflicts are inside each character and are resolved inside each character, who then acts to bring about external change. If you look only for the external changes, you will indeed miss the causes of these changes, which result from changes first occuring inside each character.
How many minutes per viewpoint?
The biggest problem with The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is that there are too many viewpoint characters, or too few feet of film. As a result, important points got glossed over. The introduction fails to establish the characters and their relationship, even though that’s what it tries to do. The 4 story arcs, each driven from a different viewpoint character, don’t get the depth that such stories require. Bridget’s story gets short shrift all around.
The introduction tries to establish the characters and their relationship with four scenes in four minutes. This is too few and too fast in order to provoke substantial character sympathy. One key introductory scene, that of Bridget’s mother’s funeral and of Bridget’s reaction to her mother’s suicide, I didn’t even understand until I had seen until the fourth viewing. As a result, I couldn’t understand Bridget’s character or her conflict until then.
The profundity of the pants
The pants establish a pattern between the four different stories. In each one, the pants appear twice: the first time to establish the conflict, and the second time to resolve it.
In each story, when the girl gets the pants the first time, something happens that challenges her. This she sees as negative, and she discounts the magic of the pants. Still, the challenge has been made, the story has been set in motion, and the conflict continues to escalate, until the pants return to that girl. At that point, she changes something inside herself, resolving the conflict.
Using character reaction to drive audience reaction
Orson Scott Card wrote, “If your characters cry, your readers won’t have to; if characters have a good reason to cry and they don’t, the reader will.”
But in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, the characters cry, and we cry right along with them.
Perhaps we can understand why by comparing what H.P. Lovecraft wrote in his essay “Notes On Writing Weird Fiction”:
Inconceivable events and conditions have a special handicap to over come, and this can be accomplished only through the maintenance of a careful realism in every phase of the story except that touching on the one given marvel. This marvel must be treated very impressively and deliberately — with a careful emotional “build-up” — else it will seem flat and unconvincing. Being the principal thing in the story, its mere existence should overshadow the characters and events. But the characters and events must be consistent and natural except where they touch the single marvel. In relation to the central wonder, the characters should shew the same overwhelming emotion which similar characters would shew toward such a wonder in real life. Never have a wonder taken for granted. Even when the characters are supposed to be accustomed to the wonder I try to weave an air of awe and impressiveness corresponding to what the reader should feel.
Each girl is a deep, sympathetic character. As the emotional pressure builds, we empathize with her. We identify so thoroughly with the character that when the character responds, we respond. When the character cries, we cry right along with her. We can’t help ourselves. Repeated in each of the four stories, watching The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is like getting shot with an emotional machine-gun.
BTW, Here’s the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants trailer: