Libba Bray’s novel BeautyQueens is a satire that plays out like an all-female Lord of the Rings, a project that is now, contentiously, in development at Warner Brothers. The author has written an essay for Entertainment Weekly about what happened when Hollywood came calling for her project, and it’s definitely worth the read if you’re interested in what people are calling, “Hollywood’s Woman Problem.”
If you haven’t read the book, here’s my review:
When a plane full of teenage beauty contestants crashes on a not-quite-deserted island, the young women find themselves fighting for survival with all their pageant skills and determination.
It’s an old show business axiom that “Satire is what closes Saturday night.” In Beauty Queens, Bray lets loose on a ton of popular culture topics, from reality shows (Amish girls and strippers share a house on Girls Gone Rumpspringa) to beauty pageants to plucky businesswomen running for president. She hits her targets too, for the most part, although the arch tone of the book’s prologue is a little annoying.
The result is not unlike the HBO movie about the Texas cheerleader murdering mom, which was played tongue-in-cheek to good effect. The problem is that this estrogen-soaked version of Lost meets Lord of the Flies meets Survivor is kind of one note and awfully silly and it’s hard to see what demographic it plays to.
There’s also a part of us that sees the story more like one of those parodies of contemporary movies, like Vampires Suck. Adding the satire to the comedy is not necessarily a commercial choice. (Two hilarious satires about politics, Election and Dick were both disastrous at the box office ($15 million and $6 million returns, with no international distribution), and this satire seems to have an even more narrow focus.) Also, the shows that are the targets here seem like somewhat dated topics—having been done to death in Comedy Central and Mad TV and SNL and … many other places.
The characters are a lot of fun, though, even if they’re not necessarily original. A lot of the best of the character stuff is internal, as when one contestant sizes up her competition for the “ethnic” card of the pageant and another takes charge of the girls with her firm conviction and endless supply of philosophy culled from books by her idol, Ladybird Hope, the most famous winner of the Teen Dream Pageant. (She’s a running gag all the way through the book that pays off nicely at the end.)
Some of the really best moments in the book come in the form of Bray’s hilarious footnotes that explain who various characters and situations are. The narrative is sometimes a mess, especially when a particular subplot is introduced. The story actually resembles some cheesy television movies about hot girls thrust into survival mode, but those were played straight. Here things just seem to be made up as they go along.
Still, Bray keeps things moving along in an amusing way and the ending is a showstopper. This is very different from her Gothic-tinged historical novels and a lot of fun.