Location, Location, Location: The Apollo-Daphne Myth in What a Girl Wants
by John D. Tatter
Birmingham-Southern College

We expect for the location for a film to be adapted to fit the screenplay, to serve as a background for the plot and a context in which the characters will act. That the reverse might happen—that the location for a film might actually determine the development of both the plot and characters in a screenplay—would seem to turn the process of screenwriting inside out. Yet this second dynamic is true of the 2003 film What a Girl Wants, written by Jenny Bicks and Elizabeth Chandler. While the writers acknowledge their debt to the 1958 film The Reluctant Debutante, the latter story bears little resemblance to the former. Instead, Bicks’ and Chandler’s screenplay spins out a revision of the Greek myth of Daphne and Apollo designed for a 21st-century audience. This paper will show that the 18th-century English landscape garden at West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire, where What a Girl Wants is set, provides visual allusions to Daphne and Apollo at key points in the film, and it will argue that the screenwriters use the location in the same way that wealthy 18th-century landowners used their gardens: to create a readable space of literary and historical allusion to serve as a backdrop for lived experience and as a topic for intellectual discussion.

Before getting to the film, let me say a few words about gardens like the one at West Wycombe. The English landscape garden as it developed in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries was designed to be walked through so that its elements could be encountered in sequence and in relationship to each other. Circuitous pathways intended to be explored on foot led visitors to monuments and temples, replete with explanatory inscriptions and appropriate statuary. Like a work of literature or a landscape painting, the garden begged to be interpreted, and the more educated a visitor was (and is) the richer his or her experience of the garden.

Some 30 miles north of West Wycombe is Stowe, the former estate of the Dukes of Buckingham and perhaps the best example of the great landscape gardens of the period. The families of these two estates knew each other well, and Sir Francis Dashwood, owner of West Wycombe, patterned his own smaller garden after that of his neighbor, Sir Richard Grenville. Stowe was the first of the great English estates to be opened to the public, and a series of guidebooks were printed to help the less educated visitor interpret the meaning of the temples and statues. Visitors would begin their tour at the Lake Pavilions, where they encountered murals on the walls that told a story from an Italian opera—Pastor Fido—of unrequited love. Further along the walk, they would come upon a temple dedicated to Venus: here the doorway is flanked by busts of the Roman emperors and empresses—all of them examples of either marital fidelity or extramarital passion. On the interior walls were murals of a story from Edmund Spenser’s The Faery Queene in which the young wife of a miserly old husband leaves him and takes up with a band of satyrs. Even further along the walk the visitor would encounter a temple to Bacchus, replete with paintings of orgies on the ceiling—here represented in an engraving from the period that leaves little doubt about the temple’s sexual implications. Close by, nestled in a grove of evergreens, is a temple dedicated to Queen Dido of Carthage and her love affair with Aeneas recounted in Virgil’s Aeneid, and eventually the visitor would encounter the Rotondo, which houses a gilt statue of the Venus de Medici. Taken in sequence, these temples encouraged visitors to contemplate the nature of love and marriage, and at each temple a visitor could stop and reflect on where he or she had been and on what permutations on love lay ahead. Obviously, for a visitor to get the full effect of the garden’s intellectual design, he or she had to be educated in both classical and English literature. Otherwise, the garden was simply a pretty place to while away the hours or, for our purposes here, nothing more than an attractive location for a film.

The Rotondo at Stowe is important to this paper because Sir Francis Dashwood of West Wycombe adapted its architecture to create a temple to Venus on his own estate. Dashwood, however, chose to depict the goddess of love in even more graphic terms than his neighbor had at Stowe, replete with a very suggestive opening to the subterranean room, Venus’s Parlour, below. Significantly, it is this temple that serves as a backdrop for an early scene in What a Girl Wants and provides the first clue that the mythology inherent in the garden at West Wycombe informs the screenplay. That the screenwriters use Dashwood’s two other temples, one to Apollo and one to Daphne, as a backdrop for subsequent scenes, leaves no doubt that they crafted their Daphne’s story in response to the classical allusions in Dashwood’s garden, which, taken together, explore the tension between possession and freedom, and how that tension affects love.

Although What a Girl Wants is said to be based on the 1958 film The Reluctant Debutante, written by William Douglas-Home and directed by Vincente Minnelli, the parallels to the earlier film are of only the most basic sort. In both films the young heroine, daughter of an English father and an American mother, comes to London from America and, during her visit, is presented to English society as a debutante. Also in both films a love interest develops between the heroine and a member of the band that plays at the coming-out balls, and a sort of Midsummer Nights Dream competition develops between the heroine, Jane Broadbent, and her fellow debutante Clarissa Claremont. But whereas The Reluctant Debutante is primarily a comedy of manners focused on Jane’s romantic mishaps, What a Girl Wants is the story of a young woman in search of her identity who is also a daughter in search of her father. Furthermore and quite significantly, the daughter has been renamed Daphne, and the father and family she hopes to reconnect with has been renamed Dashwood.

The plot of What a Girl Wants goes like this. Some eighteen years prior to the beginning of the film, somewhere in Morocco, the young Henry Dashwood meets a beautiful American named Libby Reynolds, falls in love with her and marries her in a Bedouin ceremony. He returns with her to England, where she receives an icy welcome from his parents and where she is persuaded by the family solicitor that she is a threat to Henry’s future. Libby returns to the States and—unbeknownst to him—soon bears Henry’s daughter, Daphne, who spends each birthday wishing that her father will appear and reunite the family. On her seventeenth birthday, Daphne takes matters into her own hands by hopping a plane for London and, when she gets there, by climbing the wall surrounding the Dashwood estate, and confronting her father with evidence of his paternity—a scrapbook with her birth certificate and photographs of him and Libby in Morocco. Henry has now succeeded his father to the peerage and is in the middle of a political campaign, giving up his seat in the House of Lords to run for a seat in the Commons. Henry is romantically involved with Glynnis Payne, daughter of the family solicitor who had gotten rid of Libby eighteen years earlier, who herself has a daughter named Clarissa. Clarissa is Daphne’s age and serves a similar purpose in this film as Clarissa Claremont had in The Reluctant Debutante. Glynnis and Clarissa not surprisingly object strongly to Daphne’s presence and claim to blood relationship with Henry, but Henry (at the urging of his mother, Jocelyn, shown here on the right) decides to give Daphne a chance, invites her to stay with him for the summer, and begins to develop a relationship with her.

Unlike the earlier film, in which the central tension of the plot was the competition between the heroine and her nemesis for suitors, the central tension of this plot is between larger stereotypes, between the stifling atmosphere of aristocratic English society and the American ideal of individual freedom. Daphne soon discovers that to be a Dashwood she must give up her sense of self. At the same time her father faces a similar conflict in that he becomes less and less comfortable with the public persona he must adopt in order to get elected to the House of Commons. In both of these struggles, Daphne’s mother Libby (whose name has ties both to Queen Elizabeth and the concept of liberation) represents the freedom to be oneself. Quite appropriately she appears in England at Daphne’s coming-out ball—the crucial moment at which Daphne must decide whether she is willing to suppress her lively personality in order to become a proper Dashwood, as well as the moment when Henry must decide if he is more interested in becoming a Member of Parliament or a father. Their choices determine the outcome of the film.

It first occurred to me that What a Girl Wants was tapping into the Apollo-and-Daphne myth during the scene in which Daphne makes her first effort at adopting the manners of a Dashwood. As she and her boyfriend are boating (supposedly in Hyde Park, London) she stands in the boat practicing her posture, and the Temple of Daphne at West Wycombe appears in the background. The myth of Daphne begins with an altercation between Apollo and Eros over who is the better archer. To prove his prowess, Eros wounds Apollo with a gold-tipped arrow that produces love, and he wounds the nymph Daphne with a lead-tipped arrow that produces resistance to love. Apollo then pursues Daphne, who wants only to be free and independent, and when it appears that Apollo will catch her she begs her father, the river god Peneus, to come to her aid. Being a river god, he has the power to transform things, and he turns Daphne into a laurel tree (symbolic of eternal youth). Apollo honors her by taking the laurel as his emblem, wreathing his brows, harp, and quiver with her leaves.

The film picks up this theme of pursuit and capture in a scene early on in which Henry Dashwood chases and finally catches his daughter on the grounds of West Wycombe. Appropriately, the encounter happens under the Arch of Apollo. A later scene in which Henry’s mother explains to Daphne the restrictions of an aristocratic life happens in front of the same temple. In fact, these two temples, to Apollo and Daphne, are situated at opposite ends of the garden: the Arch of Apollo much closer to the house, and the Daphne Temple across the lake. The Arch of Apollo is indeed associated with the house—the family history and the male line of succession. The Daphne Temple is associated with the outdoors (the nymph Daphne was a lover of woodland sports), with the garden and, by association, with Venus, goddess of both love and fertility.

I mentioned a few minutes ago that an early scene in What a Girl Wants occurs in front of the Temple to Venus at West Wycombe. Although the audience is led to believe that this scene, of a wedding reception at which Libby sings and Daphne waits tables, occurs on Long Island, it—like much of the film—makes use of the extensive grounds of the real Dashwood family. Although the stage on which the band plays obscures the door to Venus’s Parlour, Venus herself is quite visible behind Libby as she sings. The final scene of the film, again supposedly back in the United States at a subsequent wedding reception, also takes place at West Wycombe, as Henry appears to reunite with Daphne and Libby after making the decision to give up his political career. By the end of the film, both Henry and Daphne have moved away from the male-oriented space of the house to the female-oriented space of the garden. Both have chosen the freedom represented by Libby—and Venus—over the restrictions of life as a Dashwood.

The film, then, turns the Apollo-and-Daphne myth inside out. At first, instead of being chased, Daphne Reynolds does the chasing as she seeks to establish a relationship with her father. As the film progresses, though she risks being stifled by the Dashwood legacy, she ultimately rejects its strictures and, in a symbolic gesture, hands over the family tiara—equivalent to Apollo’s laurel crown—to Clarissa at her coming-out ball. Furthermore, Daphne acts as the agent by whom her father escapes the destiny of the males in his family, who have consistently put public service ahead of personal concerns and lived out their lives as physical and emotional cripples. It is the Venus figure—Libby Reynolds—who represents the ideals of both love and freedom, who is always in the background of the story and who acts as a sort of guiding beacon for both Henry and Daphne. Appropriately, in the early scene of the first encounter between father and daughter, in the Entrance Hall, a small copy of the Venus de Medici can be seen over Daphne’s shoulder through the door into the Blue Drawing Room. Even in her father’s house, her mother’s spirit provides the means to turn this 21st-century Daphne’s story into what Premier magazine calls a “girl-power fairy tale.”

This paper was presented at the 29th Annual Conference on Literature and Film,
Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida, January 2004.

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© John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College, jtatter@bsc.edu