Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Complete Jane Austen: Unpersuasive

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.

"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."

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.

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.


  1. You hadn't seen that P&P? Woah. I've watched it at least five times and love every minute.

    I'm so surprised by your thoughts on the other adaptations and will have to reread them before I feel adequately prepared to comment. I've been having a fabulous time with PBS's series, loving how they've turned the adaptations into an event. I even threw a little shindig for the kickoff of the series, complete with Regency era snacks.

  2. Beth, thanks for your comment. Northanger Abbey aside, my objection to the other adaptations so far is that they falsify the social and emotional world of Jane Austen's characters. They take what's subtle and nuanced in the books and make it anachronistically direct and obvious.

    But the dramatic tension in the novels results entirely from what can't be directly expressed by the characters. If they're free to run after each other in public (as in the new Persuasion), why doesn't Wentworth just sweep Anne into his arms as soon as he finds out she's not interested in Mr. Elliot? If in Mansfield Park Fanny isn't constrained by her own awareness of her obligations to the Bertrams and inadequacy as a match from letting Edmund know how she feels about him, why doesn't she just give him a little encouragement (a little more, that is, than her plunging necklines were already giving him)?

    The "event" part is fun--I definitely look forward to Sunday nights--and Northanger Abbey wasn't too bad. I think we're particularly sensitized to how poorly the new Persuasion and Mansfield Park represented the books because we've just read them. But I wish that the new adaptations had followed the lead of the excellent 1995 films of Persuasion and Pride & Prejudice and had tried to offer us something closer to the characters and stories that Jane Austen created.

  3. I couldn't agree with you more (and so do my parents ;-)...I've quit watching the series in fact. I have the Colin Firth P&P and the Ciaran Hinds Persuasion on DVD and they are both phenomenally good and worth watching over and over again.

  4. Thanks, memsaab. As for abandoning the series, you might want to check back in for Emma (the 1996 version with Kate Beckinsdale, to be broadcast March 23), and the new Sense & Sensibility (to be broadcast March 30 and April 6). Both were written by Andrew Davies, who also wrote the Colin Firth P & P.

  5. Here, I'm going to be even less informed than my usual ineptitude...

    It seems to me that if Pessimisisimo is looking for “subtle nuances of emotion and behavior,” he’s best off sticking to Austin’s novels. The reason: these sensitive responses are produced by our own bodies. And in this regard, the printed word (which has to be taken into the body to become vibrant) is vastly superior to film or TV images (which dazzle all on their own, but we are more distanced from them).

    I think this is especially true of historical dramas. The only way to make films emotional, is to make them immediate. And Austin’s world is not ours. I find that historical films that “work” typically don't really seem like they are from another age at all; rather, the actors seem “just like us,” transported back in time and “playing make-believe.” The occasional film that actually captures the subtleties and mood of another age are few -- Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon strikes me as an excellent example. And frankly, that film is more of an estranging (“foreign”), than sympathetic, experience for me. My sensitivities are more challenged than persuaded.

    The written word, by contrast, is by medium designed to evoke “inner dialog.” So if Pessimissimo wants more out of these BBC productions than costumes, antiquated setting, and an occasionally interesting character (I have some friends in Seattle who have formed a Sunday potluck dinner “Carriage Society” to watch for precisely these elements), I recommend: stick to reading Austin.

    Last thought about Austin films: I get far more out of contemporary adaptations -- like Clueless, or more recently The Jane Austin Book Club -- than I do the historical dramas. I think they do a better job of blending Austin sensibilities with contemporary sympathies.

  6. M. Lapin, I'm going to respectfully disagree with you here. That subtlety and nuance are possible in a film/TV adaptation of Jane Austen is proved by the 1995 versions of Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice. In fact, if P & P has any fault, it is that the confession/acceptance scene between Elizabeth and Darcy is a bit too restrained--but I'll post on that separately.

    It's not that I expect the film versions to match Austen's psychological insight, wit, or slow unfolding of character. Obviously, a three- or four-hundred-page novel will be a far richer imaginative experience than even a five-hour film. But I do expect the film versions to remain true to the spirit, if not the letter, of Jane Austen's work, and in that the new Persuasion and Mansfield Park failed miserably.

    I also don't agree that the most successful costume dramas involve actors who seem "just like us." Austen's characters operated in a world with many more constraints on action and expression than we encounter today, and it's precisely when those constraints are disregarded (as in Persuasion and Mansfield Park) that the film adaptations seem most jarringly false.

    But I do agree with you that no film version, however faithful to Austen's world, can substitute for the imaginative richness of her novels. If The Complete Jane Austen encourages people to read--or re-read--her books (as I know it has, since I've sold quite a few at my bookstore over the last two months), even the travesties of Persuasion and Mansfield Park are--ever so slightly--redeemed.

  7. I totally agree with you. Like you, I found 'Mansfield Park' with Billie Piper unwatchable and jarringly inconsistent with the tone and spirit of the novel. I've watched the Firth/Ehle P&P more times than I care to admit, and I never get tired of it. The writing is (almost) impeccable, and the performances are wonderful. It's one of my favourite things to watch EVER. I do agree with your comment above that it would have been nice if they'd done a little more with the climactic (re-)proposal scene... I suppose the writer was afraid of pushing it over the top, but I think they (and we) could've handled a little indulgence - and it would have been true to the book. Perhaps the kiss at the end was meant to compensate, and it was very nicely done, but from time to time I still find myself wishing for a little more... expression... during the Lizzy/Darcy walk. Oh well, it's a small quibble. I shall shut up now - as you can probably tell, I could on and on about P&P forever...

  8. Daddy's Girl, many thanks for your comment. One of the first things I did after the end of the P & P broadcast was run out and buy the DVD--I know we'll be watching it over and over again, with great pleasure.

    I was going to do a post on the (re-)proposal scene, and how it would have been nice if the characters were a bit more demonstrative. And then I re-read the scene in the novel, and the characters are actually quite reticent. So the film is faithful to the book, but this is one scene where, like you, I wish that they'd taken some small liberties.

    By the way, it's a bit late to post on the rest of the series, but I thought I'd make a few comments here. I found the Kate Beckinsdale Emma to be somewhat disappointing--she's just not quite my idea of the character. But I thought the new Sense & Sensibility was highly compelling, mainly because of Hattie Morahan's wise and compassionate portrayal of Elinor Dashwood. If only similar care had been taken with the earlier novels...