Thursday, 11 September 2014

Adapting Jane Austen

A no-nonsense article on how film adaptations completely misunderstand Jane Austen:
"Finally! The teenage passion of Jane Austen will become known to the world! Chemistry! Passion! Rebellious self-determination! With the movie Becoming Jane, devoted fans will become ever more devoted! The Regency period and the twenty-first century will embrace!
An obscene 1999 film (in which, among other things, Sir Thomas Bertram abuses and rapes slaves, Miss Crawford makes sexual advances on every other character and a few pieces of furniture, and Fanny happens upon her cousin Maria and Mr. Crawford in flagrante delicto) and a more traditional 2007 ITV production have both tried to reinvent the heroine altogether, rejecting her modesty, timidity, physical frailty, and staunch sincerity in favor of an unlikely, outspoken, and altogether too-hardy specimen of proto-feminism.
In the novel, Fanny is quiet, Fanny endures, and Fanny is essentially good. It requires the full length of the novel for her to be esteemed by her fellow characters and rewarded as she deserves; it may take several more decades for modern readers (or viewers) to attain such clarity.
As the cinematic treatment of this novel shows, instead of embracing the depth of feeling of the novels, and Miss Austen’s characteristically deft articulation of the authentic human experience, modern readers tend to reject or misinterpret what they cannot bear to acknowledge: the fact that virtue, not force of will, is the basis for heroism in Austen’s world.
The heroines of Jane Austen are not the selfish, willful, reckless creatures who sow social disruption and pain in their wake. They are the eager and essentially virtuous maidens who, although they often make mistakes, have a well-established code of virtuous behavior and can recover from any misstep..." 


My thoughts: 
1/ The 1999 Mansfield Park film is a betrayal of the book. 
a) Fanny is an outsider, a Cinderella figure, who feels that she doesn't belong to Mansfield park throughout most of the story. She grows up in the little white attic, close to nobody but Edmund. Her personality is introverted, introspective, the situation makes her more timid and modest, especially when there's always a Mrs Norris to remind her of who she is. The Fanny of the film, even if we forget the book, is too outspoken for a girl under such circumstances. 
b) Nothing is as distasteful as associating Jane Austen with 1 of her heroines. Why bring details of Jane Austen's life into the characterisation of Fanny? 
c) Fanny in the film says yes to Henry- of course, the next day she takes it back (as Jane Austen did once in real life), but saying yes once already betrays the stance and the spirit of the book. 
In Jane Austen's novel, Fanny's outward frailty is contrasted with her inner strength, her firmness and strong principle, she refuses Henry less because of her hopeless love for Edmund than because of her distrusting of Henry, based on his character. The film fails to grasp that. It should be fine if they want to borrow the story, change it, add their own ideas to it, but with these changes, the Mansfield Park film becomes rather pointless. 
Fortunately, much as I hated the film (and still do), it didn't put me off the novel. 
(Must tell myself: Never judge a book by its movie). 

2/ Why do filmmakers think that they must add some water to Darcy to make women adore him? Isn't Darcy of the book enough? 
In the 1995 TV film, Colin Firth's Darcy swims in the lake and comes out wet and encounters Elizabeth. 
In the 2005 film, Matthew Macfadyen's Darcy proposes to Elizabeth (the 1st time) in the rain. 
I suspect that many people who say they adore Jane Austen in fact only adore Pride and Prejudice, swoon over the charming Colin Firth and imagine themselves as Elizabeth Bennet. 

3/ On principle, no.2 should not matter. 
But a few days ago, below an article on about Emma and Clueless, I saw this comment: 
"Fanny decides to marry the Mr. Collins character (who is also her first cousin) instead of the Mr. Darcy character (who is played by Alessandro Nivola in the movie, at his peak Alessandro Nivola-ness). Then said rejected charming/handsome suitor has sex with her married cousin Mariah and everyone reacts as they would in 1814: "Well, we can never talk to either of them again! Cross her name out of the family Bible!"" 
I don't usually voice my opinion, but whenever it comes to Mansfield Park.... So I had to write: 
"Hold on... Darcy?
For 1 thing, Henry is a bad guy, vain, selfish, insensitive, deceitful and unreliable, who toys with women's feelings. I don't see any similarities between him and Darcy. The problem is not simply that Henry sleeps, or elopes, with Maria; but his character in general, he toys with women's feelings, flirts with many women at the same time without caring about how they feel.
Besides, I have never seen Darcy as a particularly charming guy. In fact, he's even rude. The word "charming" would apply for Henry Crawford, William Elliot or Willoughby, and among Jane Austen's good guys, I think the only one that can be called charming (to me anyway) is Henry Tilney. You must have Colin Firth in mind. Readers of Pride and Prejudice like him not because he's charming, but because he's generous, sincere, understanding (especially in the way he handles the Wickham- Lydia business).
I don't think you've really read the books." 

4/ I watched only part of Becoming Jane. Much as I like Anne Hathaway, I couldn't continue watching. 
Her bad accent is 1 thing, I don't like the way the film presents Jane Austen as Elizabeth Bennet, and suggests that she incorporated her personal experience into her novel. It's distasteful (go back to 1b). Besides, in popular culture, the name Jane Austen almost always goes with Pride and Prejudice, though Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion are artistically greater and deeper and Mansfield Park is her most complex and profound work. 

5/ I dislike the tendency of many film adaptations to romanticise literary works. 
A sentimental Jane Austen film is very, very wrong. Worse is the case of Wuthering Heights- many films remove the 2nd part about the later generation and focus on the love story between Catherine and Heathcliff, but Emily Bronte's book is not about a beautiful love story- it's about greed, the love vs money/ social position question, about obsession and hatred and revenge... 
Or think of the latest The Great Gatsby film. Baz Luhrmann strips Fitzgerald's story of all the essential things and of the main theme, the result is no more than a love story, visually dazzling but empty. 

6/ However, you should not have the mistaken view that I dislike all of the adaptations. Nor should you think that I always demand adaptations to be faithful- an adaptation is an interpretation and the filmmaker can take liberties with a story, as long as the film is good, I wouldn't object. 
1 good film I can think of is Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility. Emma Thompson's script creates greater contrast between Elinor and Marianne (unlike the 2008 TV adaptation), and if Jane Austen's more on the side of sense (Elinor), Emma Thompson's a bit more on the side of sensibility (Marianne). I do not think that Jane Austen thinks of Elinor as perfect and ideal, the story simply tends to be seen from her point of view; Elinor doesn't express her emotions so on the 1 hand, Edward never knows how she feels and doesn't know how to act and Elinor almost loses her chance of happiness, on the other hand, she has an outburst in the end after holding back emotions for a long time. Think of Jane Fairfax in Emma, she's too reserved and, as George Knightley notes (which I think is also Jane Austen's opinion), an open temper is preferable; similarly, Elinor's too reserved. Other characters remain the same, the mercenary, greedy... people are still in the story. In short, the 1995 Sense and Sensibility offers a new interpretation without betraying Jane Austen's general idea about the balance of sense and sensibility (one can see from the works that her emphasis is on virtue, good will and balance). 
Another film is Clueless, a modernisation of Emma. Let me digress a bit: one may wonder how Jane Austen can sympathise with all of her heroines, different as they are, but what they have in common is that, whatever faults they have, they always mean well (unlike Mary Crawford, albeit similar to Elizabeth on the surface because of her charm and vivacity, is egoistic, insensitive, frivolous, shallow, insincere, manipulative, mercenary... and should be in the same camp with Lucy Steele, Caroline Bingley, Susan Vernon, Fanny Dashwood...). Emma Woodhouse is not as likeable as Elizabeth Bennet; anyone adapting Emma faces the danger of depicting Emma as full of malice and contempt. Clueless doesn't do that- like Emma, Cher makes mistakes because she interferes in other people's lives, thinking she knows all, but is in fact delusional, but she means well; like Emma, Cher is good-natured and capable of learning and changing in the end. Clueless modernises the story, changes the setting, changes a few characters and details, but the spirit is the same. And it's well-done. 


  1. Di,

    Well said, definitely well said! I have not seen any of the Austen exploitation films that have appeared over the years. I have seen at least one of the various versions of her novels, especially those produced by the BBC. However, I have not seen any of the more recent adaptations as I have decided that if I want to revisit Persuasion or Mansfield Park or any of the others, I'll just reread the books themselves to see what Austen thought about it, rather than some new and improved version for the "modern reader."

    1. Thank you. "Exploitation", haha.
      Persuasion is the only novel by her that I haven't seen on screen, and probably won't. Neither will I watch another Mansfield Park film. But I'm not going to give up and ignore Austen adaptations altogether. I don't even know why. Take Anna Karenina, I love the novel and dislike all of the 5 films I have watched, but when another one comes out I'm still willing to give it a try. But I have no intention of seeing War and Peace, and am determined never to watch any adaptation of The Sound and the Fury.
      Guess it has to do with my vision of the book in my head and how personally I feel about it.
      Which reminds me, have you watched The Jane Austen Book Club?

  2. Di,

    I've only seen three of the AK films and rated them as AK Lite--it was impossible to convey the depth of the novel to the film. I have seen two versions of War and Peace and again, it was the same problem.

    No, I haven't watched The JA Book Club.

    I did read the first of a series of mysteries featuring Austen as the detective and once was enough.

    I find that I am less willing to watch a film based on a complex novel as time passes. I start watching and then give up and start to read the book instead. This is especially true if I have already read the book and my memories of it are fairly extensive. I am more willing to watch an adaptation if I haven't read the book or if it's been so long ago, all I can remember is the title and having read it in the past.

    An example: I have started to read Anthony Powell's massive series--A Dance to the Music of Time--four volumes with three short novels in each volume. I started because I had seen a film adaptation and enjoyed it and also thought that the books would also be interesting.

    Another example: One of my favorites is Ford Madox Ford's quartet--Parade's End. There is a film adaptation of it but I'm reluctant to watch it now. I would have jumped at the chance to view it twenty years ago, but not now.

    1. It is true that when it comes to Anna Karenina (or War and Peace), it's impossible to convey the depth of the novel- but I didn't expect that. My problem with the 5 versions (Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh, Tatiana Samoilova, Sophie Marceau and Keira Knightley) is that I find the main actors wrong for the parts, so I guess I'll continue watching till finding the right Anna.
      "I find that I am less willing to watch a film based on a complex novel as time passes."
      => Do you mean "complex" in the sense that it has lots of details and great depth, or in the sense that it's difficult to adapt to the screen? If you mean the 2nd one then sometimes it's precisely because a book seems unfilmable that I'd like to see how the film's done. Take The French Lieutenant's Woman, adapting it is difficult, but I've watched the film and it's brilliant.
      For that reason I may watch As I Lay Dying, though I don't trust James Franco when he's directing. But The Sound and the Fury, no, and it has to do with Caddy. Then Quentin and Benjy, but mostly Caddy.
      The idea of Jane Austen as a detective is so weird.
      The Jane Austen Book Club is silly, don't bother to find it, I was just wondering. Haha.
      So, are the series good as you expected?

  3. Complex: generally a novel with characters with depth to them and also with at least one or more subplots interwoven with the main plot.

    I've just started the Powell series, and it's excellent. I got busy yesterday and didn't have time to continue with it. I will have to skim the first part when I pick it up again. I want to make sure that I have a solid grasp of the POV character and his three friends

  4. Di,

    Yes, does sound like it would be found in her letters.

    1. I'm not sure of the part about the Scots though.
      Found ethnic slurs in Charlotte Bronte's works, not in Jane Austen's, and as I remember, nor in the letters.
      Do you like the Brontes?

  5. Di,

    Must have missed that part about the Scots. Don't remember any comments by Austen in either her letters or her books.

    The Brontes are OK, but I prefer Austen or George Eliot or Dickens.

    1. Hmmm. Awful. I haven't read anything by George Eliot.

  6. Di,

    _Middlemarch_ is probably considered her best work. If you only read one, I would recommend that one. _Adam Bede_ is another good one.

    1. Yeah, those are in my to-read list. Thanks.
      I'm reading Villette at the moment.