Austen on Screen
by Gina Macdonald and Andrew F. Macdonald.
University Press, 2003. xii + 280 pages.
b/w illustrations. Softcover. $24.99.
Fiction on Screen
Edited by Robert
University Press, 2002. xiv + 226 pages.
illustrations. Softcover. $23.99.
by Victor Mather.
The essays in these
two collections cover just about every facet of adapting great novels
to the screen, but the question they keep returning to is the one you
would ask a fellow Janeite who saw a new film before you did: “So what
did they change?”
There are those
in our fraternity who get a lot of mileage out of grumping about any
alteration or anachronism in a film version of a beloved classic. The
authors in this collection have a chance to grump to a wide audience:
the films are variously critiqued as too modern, too beautiful, too
romantic, too frank, too superficial, and too reverential. (And oh that
kiss on the street in Persuasion!)
But they are often praised for the same qualities.
brief introductory essay to Jane
Austen on Screen, Roger Gard throws up his hands, dismissing any
effort to make a great film from Austen. No adaptation, he contends,
“remains in the mind as even a minor work of art.” If the other authors
agreed with him, this wouldn’t be much of a book. But most are eager to
wrestle with the thorny challenges of adaptation, and they display real
enthusiasm for the subject.
Several of the
other authors agree with Mr. Gard that one major element missing from
the films is Austen’s narrative voice. Jan Fergus’ look at the ways
that voice is translated on screen is especially welcome. Her examples
come from a little-seen 1983 BBC film of Mansfield Park, but apply readily
to any film: Austen’s voice can be given a visual equivalent, assigned
to a character, or used in voiceover. Ms. Fergus admires the BBC film,
but acknowledges that it failed to captivate her students the way the
1999 Miramax version did, with its focus on romance, and its
sensational incorporations of slavery, nudity, and lesbianism.
to Austen’s text is not important to every essayist. In David
Monaghan’s look at three film versions of Emma, he writes that the 1996
version with Gwyneth Paltrow is closest to Austen “in terms of
incident, plot, and character,” but “furthest from engaging
intellectually with its source text.” He values films that are not
merely “illustrated supplements to the original novels,” but rather
rethink them in visual terms. And he praises the ITV Emma, also from 1996, in part for
its invented scenes, like the raid on the Woodhouse chicken house. (He
may be on shakier ground when he sees allusions in this scene to the
French Revolution and the 1916 Easter uprising.)
Gay takes a thorough look at the Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility, which she
finds to be infused with late 20th Century feminism. Unlike many of the
authors, she offers significant attention to filmic qualities like
camera angles and mise-en-scene. It is a close reading of a film, not
just of a screenplay.
Those who scorn
modern adaptations for lacking fidelity may want to steer clear of the
1940 MGM Pride and Prejudice.
They will miss an enjoyable film, but spare themselves the shock of
seeing Lady Catherine de Bourgh serving as Cupid to Elizabeth and
makes the interesting case that this film was an effort to idealize
British life at a time when many were eager for the United States to
join World War II on the British side. Ms. Belton suggests the twist
involving Lady Catherine represents “the capitulation of the British
aristocracy to democratization and social equality. Such an attempt to
reconcile the British class structure with American egalitarianism is
an essential ingredient of the argument for the U.S.-British alliance.”
The film does
idealize England, but might that not be incidental to the time of its
release? And if not, is Ms. Belton suggesting that MGM, director Robert
Z. Leonard, or the screenwriters, who included Aldous Huxley, were part
of a conscious propaganda effort? She leaves this question unanswered.
Many of the
arguments in these essays will be familiar to diehard Janeites, from
previous publications and perhaps from their own salons. So those who
enjoy film adaptations of classics of all stripes may want to broaden
their horizons with Eighteenth-Century
Fiction on Screen, which gives the same treatment to adaptations
of Barry Lyndon, Tom Jones, Joseph Andrews, Clarissa, Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe, which Robert Mayer
suggests is so vexed a tale to modern ears that it must be retold with
Crusoe as a morally ambiguous or even villainous figure.
It also covers
screen versions of several novels in other languages: Diderot’s Jacques le Fataliste and La Religieuse, Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses and
Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprentice Years.
pretty certain that Hollywood will keep adapting, borrowing from, and
ripping off the classics for many years to come. In 5-10 years, it’s
likely that both these books could easily be updated with films from
the first decade of the 21st Century.
meantime, who else can’t wait to see Bride
Mather is an editor in the national news department of The New York Times.
He grew up on a street named Netherfield Road.
v.21, no. 1, Spring 2005, p. 15
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