Edited by Inger Sigrun Brodey

When Austen Was Cool

Jane Austen in Hollywood
Edited by Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield.
University Press of Kentucky, 1998.
iv + 202 pages. 27 B/W illustrations. Hardcover, $27.50.

Reviewed by Bruce Stovel.

It was exhilarating, it was vindicating, it lasted about two years---the time when Jane Austen was cool. Six films of the novels, all to some degree successful, appeared between 1995 and 1997, and Jane Austen reached the pages of People magazine and Entertainment Weekly. We saw the four films in theatres (Clueless, Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, and the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma) and watched the British TV adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and Emma. But then Paltrow and the public moved on to Shakespeare, the new IN author, and Jane Austen returned to being a literary classic.

However, the film adaptations remain, and this comprehensive, handsome, reasonably-priced volume allows us the pleasure of continuing to appreciate and enjoy them. The book contains 13 essays that probe, explicate, and speculate on the six 1995-97 Austen adaptations (along with the Laurence Olivier/Greer Garson Pride and Prejudice of 1940), together with a thoughtful Introduction by the editors, Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield, 27 black-and-white photographs from all six adaptations, a four- page bibliography listing reviews, articles and books on the adaptations, and "Austen Adaptations Available on Video," an appendix giving full details of 13 adaptations.

The essays themselves have a wide variety of approaches, topics and arguments---and provoke, tantalize, and illuminate without resorting to academic jargon. Five of the 13 essays have been previously published (in much shorter form), two in Persuasions, Volume 18, and three in a special issue of the journal Topic entitled "Jane Austen Goes to the Movies" (an issue also edited by Linda Troost). Looked at as a whole, the essays reach a surprising amount of agreement on some issues--and remain divided and inconclusive on others.

Three questions remain unanswered for the reader of this volume. One is why the sudden appeal of Jane Austen's novels in the mid-1990s? Some essays argue, overtly or implicitly, for escapism (to a world so different from ours); others argue for relevance (our world has become like Austen's). Another question which evades consensus is to what degree the films are faithful to Austen's novels. Opinions vary remarkably here; for instance, two essays claim that Clueless, the Beverly Hills High Emma that likens itself to a Noxema commercial, is the most faithful adaptation of all. Suzanne Ferris says this is because the film's heroine, Cher, more accurately reflects the impoverished situation of Jane Austen's heroines, while, according to Nora Nachumi, the film's first- person narration successfully recreates the split nature of Austen's heroine and our divided response to her.

A third contested question is whether the films are feminist in import. Ferris believes they are not, and so does Rebecca Dickson, who argues that minor characters such as the Elizabeth Elliot of Persuasion ("the lolling, loud, and unbalanced social disaster") and major characters such as Emma Thompson's emotionalized Elinor in Sense and Sensibility fail to reflect Austen's insistence on women's constricted lives. Kristin Flieger Samuelian makes a similar argument and Devoney Looser argues just the opposite: that the films, just as Austen herself had done almost two hundred years earlier, "mainstream" (bring into popular culture) liberal feminist ideals.

The essays are in striking agreement on five points. One is that the films are remarkably enjoyable. A second point of agreement is that these adaptations tell us much more about the nature of our own culture than about Jane Austen's novels and Austen's social world. So central is this emphasis that the editors entitle their Introduction, "Watching Ourselves Watching." But what exactly do we learn about ourselves from the films? Point three: that the films are much more romantic and sexually charged than Austen's novels. Deborah Kaplan, for instance, argues that the films "harlequinize" Austen to create a broad commercial appeal.

And this leads to point four: almost all the essays insist that the film adaptations, in casting, script, direction, cinematography, and other respects, make the film heroes much more handsome, romantic, emotional, sensitive--in fact, much more important. Lisa Hopkins, whose essay argues that the Pride and Prejudice TV series really amounts to "Darcy's Story," thinks Colin Firth's Darcy is presented as the typical hero of women's romances, a man who "craves the love of the heroine with an intensity which, we may fear, real men rarely experience."

A fifth point of agreement emerges from several essays: that the three Hollywood studio films (Clueless, Sense and Sensibility, the Paltrow Emma) differ significantly from the three all-British TV productions (Persuasion, the Beckinsale Emma, Pride and Prejudice). Amanda Collins finds Sense and Sensibility (premised on the very American notion that "history is whatever we make it") inferior to Persuasion in fidelity to both social history and Austen, while Carol Dole argues that in a typically American way, class barriers are permeable and in the end dissolve in Clueless and the Paltrow Emma in contrast to the tough-minded consciousness of class in Persuasion and the Beckinsale Emma.

For all its pleasures, this book is only a starting point. Have you read the novelization of Clueless?

Bruce Stovel is a faculty member in the English Department at the University of Alberta. Along with Juliet McMaster, he served as Co convenor of the 1993 Lake Louise AGM and was Co-founder of the Edmonton Region.

JASNA News v. 15, no. 2, Summer 1999

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