George Justice, Editor

The Silver-Screen Austen

Jane Austen on Screen

Edited by Gina Macdonald and Andrew F. Macdonald.

Cambridge University Press, 2003. xii + 280 pages.
20 b/w illustrations. Softcover. $24.99.

Eighteenth-Century Fiction on Screen

Edited by Robert Mayer.
Cambridge University Press, 2002. xiv + 226 pages.
20 b/w illustrations. Softcover. $23.99.

Reviewed 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.

In a 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.

Strict fidelity 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.)

Penny 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 Darcy.

Ellen Belton 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.

It’s 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.

In the meantime, who else can’t wait to see Bride and Prejudice

Victor Mather is an editor in the national news department of The New York Times. He grew up on a street named Netherfield Road. 

JASNA News v.21, no. 1, Spring 2005, p. 15

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