PBS is currently broadcasting a series it calls The Complete Jane Austen, but up until last week the series didn't have a whole lot to do with Jane Austen. Austen's novels (which my lover and I are currently reading aloud to one another) are full of moments involving subtle nuances of emotion and behavior. They take place in a society whose members are constrained by manners, propriety and convention from directly expressing their true feelings. But all three of the adaptations that have been completed so far in the series have dispensed with subtlety, making Austen's characters into caricatures. The adaptations aren't even true to Austen's plots: key scenes are cut and others are invented by the screenwriters.
Persuasion (broadcast January 13) is probably the worst offender of the lot. This latest version, starring Sophie Hawkins as one of Austen's most sensitive and wise heroines, Anne Elliot, fails on every level. It goes wrong almost immediately, when Anne recites key lines from the climactic letter scene near the end of the book during a dinner party that takes place within the first minutes of the film. Since the letter scene is the moment in the novel when Captain Frederick Wentworth finally confesses his undying love to Anne, you just don't mess with it. But apparently the writers thought that the letter scene wasn't cinematic enough. So to replace it, at the end of the film they have Anne running through the streets of Bath after Wentworth, something that would have been an impossibly scandalous action for a woman of Anne's situation. This isn't the only time Anne runs after Wentworth, either--in an earlier scene at a concert, Wentworth stalks out when sees his rival William Elliot sitting next to Anne. Anne jumps up and runs after him, catching up to him in the hall outside the concert room--a scene that exists nowhere in Austen's novel. Here's an excerpt from the actual concert scene in Chapter 20 of Austen's novel, after Anne maneuvers herself away from Mr. Elliot to make it easier for Captain Wentworth to approach her:
"He owned himself disappointed, had expected singing; and in short, must confess that he should not be sorry when it was over. Anne replied, and spoke in defense of the performance so well, and yet in allowance for his feelings so pleasantly, that his countenance improved, and he replied again with almost a smile. They talked for a few minutes more; the improvement held; he even looked down towards the bench, as if he saw a place on it well worth occupying; when at that moment a touch on her shoulder obliged Anne to turn round. It came from Mr Elliot. He begged her pardon, but she must be applied to, to explain Italian again. Miss Carteret was very anxious to have a general idea of what was next to be sung. Anne could not refuse; but never had she sacrificed to politeness with a more suffering spirit.What makes the new version even more pointless and annoying is that the BBC had already done a perfectly wonderful adaptation of Persuasion in 1995 (apparently a magical year for Austen films; see Pride and Prejudice below), starring Amanda Root as Anne and Ciarán Hinds as Captain Wentworth. That version is far more faithful to the events of the books, and to the social and emotional world of Austen's characters. Both Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds are well-cast--neither is a supermodel inexplicably dropped into the rural English society of the 1800s--and both completely embody their roles. Seek out the 1995 Persuasion, and shun the new one as the butcher job it is.
"A few minutes, though as few as possible, were inevitably consumed; and when her own mistress again, when able to turn and look as she had done before, she found herself accosted by Captain Wentworth, in a reserved yet hurried sort of farewell. 'He must wish her good night; he was going; he should get home as fast as he could.'
"'Is not this song worth staying for?' said Anne, suddenly struck by an idea which made her yet more anxious to be encouraging.
"'No!' he replied impressively, 'there is nothing worth my staying for;' and he was gone directly.
"Jealousy of Mr Elliot! It was the only intelligible motive. Captain Wentworth jealous of her affection! Could she have believed it a week ago; three hours ago! For a moment the gratification was exquisite. But, alas! there were very different thoughts to succeed. How was such jealousy to be quieted? How was the truth to reach him? How, in all the peculiar disadvantages of their respective situations, would he ever learn of her real sentiments? It was misery to think of Mr Elliot's attentions. Their evil was incalculable."
Northanger Abbey (broadcast on January 20) could only be an improvement--and it did manage to catch the spirit of Austen's novel, even if it also exaggerated the characters and invented scenes. There are a few anachronisms: Henry Tilney (the excellent J. J. Feild) confides to the Gothic-novel-loving Catherine (Felicity Jones) as they approach the Abbey that "There is a kind of vampirism" at large there. Only the first vampire fiction in English, John Polidori's The Vampyre (whose aristocratic bloodsucker Lord Ruthven is modelled on Polidori's friend Lord Byron) wouldn't be published until 1819, two years after Austen's untimely death. Still, given the producers' bizarre decision to limit the new adaptations to 90 minutes, it didn't do too great violence to its source.
I have to confess that we turned off Mansfield Park (broadcast January 27) after the first 10 minutes. In the place of Austen's Fanny Price, a poor teenager foisted on to her rich relations, whose painful consciousness of her dependence only adds to her natural shyness, the new adaption's Fanny was played as a bold, saucy, athletic modern woman. In Austen's novel, it takes Edmund Bertram almost 500 pages to wake up and realize that Fanny is his perfect match; what red-blooded man could overlook for a moment the all-too-obvious charms of actress Billie Piper, whose previous credits include Secret Diary Of A Call Girl?
The less said about the Jane Austen "biography" Miss Austen Regrets (broadcast February 3), the better. It wove highly speculative versions of some of Austen's known flirtations as a young woman with a fabricated story in which the middle-aged Jane meddles in her niece Fanny's love affairs like some sort of Lady Russell (from Persuasion). Disappointing.
Finally, though, we're back on solid ground with Pride and Prejudice (1995; the first part was broadcast February 10, continuing each Sunday through the end of February). We haven't seen it before, but so far it fulfills every expectation. A key difference: the 1995 P & P is 300 minutes long instead of 90, giving the characters room to grow and develop over time, and allowing the filmmakers to be as faithful as possible to the novel. Colin Firth is an excellent Darcy, capturing his haughtiness and strong (but fundamentally decent) feelings, while Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet simply glows. We're looking forward to the continuation with the greatest pleasure; if you aren't watching it, you're missing something special.