Nearly every Janeite already has an opinion--sometimes a violent one--on the remarkable spate of Austen film adaptations of the mid-1990’s. On one side are those who enjoy the films and welcome the mainstream attention they have brought to Austen. On the other are those who feel the movies’ alterations to plot and character are corrupting.
In Jane Austen in Hollywood, editors Linda Troost and Sayre
Greenfield have collected the writings of 13 Austen scholars covering nearly all
the angles on the recent films. Thankfully, the opinions are thoughtful and
nuanced; none of these authors is a strict-constructionist crank.
In general, Persuasion (1995) is the most admired film, drawing praise for its realism and faithfulness. (Several writers even approvingly cite stars Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds’s relative homeliness.) The more Hollywood-style films like Sense and Sensibility (1995) draw mixed reviews. Clueless (1995), which transferred the basics of Emma to a Southern California high school, seems to be a favorite of many of the authors, perhaps because it is easier to forgive when it is less than faithful to its source.
One of the liveliest chapters is by Rebecca Dickson, who takes the films of Persuasion and especially Sense and Sensibility to task. To Dickson, Emma Thompson’s Elinor is inappropriately depicted as emotionally repressed, and she believes the film warps Austen’s complex work into a simple tale of Elinor’s journey to overcome that repression. The climactic tearful breakdown of Thompson as Elinor was a much debated scene, and was one of the clips chosen to be shown on the Academy Awards telecast. Dickson finds the scene “downright embarrassing” and imagines the audience’s response to the moment to be antifeminist relief: “Ah, the strong, reserved woman is broken.” Admitting that her opinion is unlikely to be popular, Dickson adds “I like the plot as presented in the book. I like Elinor as the most mature person in the book … I like that she can control herself emotionally.” Although her essay is fiercely argued, Dickson undermines it with some sweeping generalities. Calling the film’s Elinor “emotionally unglued” and “emotionally eruptive” is hard to justify. Recall the scene in which the Dashwood cottage is in a frenzy after Willoughby’s sudden departure. Tears are shed, doors are slammed, yet Elinor sits quietly on the stairs drinking the tea she has prepared for Marianne. Despite her weeping scene, filmgoers have no reason to doubt that Elinor is—and will remain—the sensible, mature woman of the book.
While other contributors praise the films, none seems ready to take the final step and suggest that any of them actually improve on Austen. But is it not at least arguable that screenwriter Thompson’s fully realized Margaret is a valuable addition to the narrative? Or that her elimination of Anne Steele is a welcome streamlining?
If there is one theme running through the book, it is that by departing from Austen’s text, the films are reflecting their times. Along those lines, Cheryl L. Nixon’s chapter elaborates on the men in the films. Brandon and Edward of Sense and Sensibility and Colin Firth’s sometimes shirtless Darcy in the BBC Pride and Prejudice (1995) are made more appealing for modern viewers: less restrained and decorous (or put in a 20th century way, less “stiff and boring”). A final new chapter in this second edition, written by the editors, covers the 1999 Mansfield Park film.
In the introduction to Recreating Jane Austen, John Wiltshire directly addresses some of the more critical chapters of Jane Austen in Hollywood. To him, the criticisms miss the point. He considers the films not travesties of Austen, but “re-creations.”
Wiltshire is not concerned solely with the films. He includes notes on works with intertextual allusions, like Bridget Jones’s Diary, as well as Austen biographies, which he suggests often flirt with being fiction themselves. A chapter devoted to an intelligent reading of Pride and Prejudice mentions the film version only in passing.
Wiltshire has a lot to say about Austen reimaginings. But the book suffers from an odd tic: numerous references to the child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. On occasion, Winnicott’s ideas do illuminate Wiltshire’s points; for example, Winnicott suggested that works of art are neither entirely found, nor entirely made. But more often, they read like jargon-filled digressions--do we really care about Winnicott’s views on the psychological ramifications of a child’s security blanket?--and the reader’s attention may begin to wander.
In the end, I side with those who embraced Hollywood’s mid-90’s Janemania. If a film gives one a viewer a wrong-headed understanding of Austen, it may also turn another viewer into a lifetime devotee. Troost and Greenfield point out that membership in JASNA jumped 50% in 1996 alone. And Jane Austen in Hollywood contributor M. Casey Diana reports that students who had seen the Sense and Sensibility film enjoyed and understood the novel far more.
These books are sure to keep the debate going as we wait for Hollywood’s next crush on Jane.
Victor Mather, formerly an editor at The New York Times, is managing editor of The Daily Racing Form.
JASNA News v.18, no. 1, Spring 2002, p. 15
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