PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.35, NO.1 (Winter 2015)

Modernizing Mansfield Park at the Millennium: Reconsidering Patricia Rozema’s Film Adaptation

Nora Foster Stovel


Nora Foster Stovel (email: is Professor Emerita at the University of Alberta.  She publishes on Jane Austen, D.H. Lawrence, Margaret Laurence, Margaret Drabble, and Carol Shields.  She has edited Jane Austen Sings the Blues and Jane Austen and Company, is composing “Sparkling Subversion”: Carol Shields’s Vision and Voice, and is planning Women with Wings: The Romantic Ballerina.


patricia Rozema’s controversial film adaptation of Mansfield Park at the end of the twentieth century modernized Austen’s novel for a twenty-first-century audience.  Patty-Lynne Herlevi judged that “Rozema created memorable characters that will take Austen’s work into the next century in a dynamic fashion,” and Claudia Johnson exulted, “Finally a director has taken real risks and reaped real rewards . . . , treating [Austen’s] novels not as a museum piece or as a sacred text but as a living presence whose power inspires flight.  Mansfield Park is an audacious and perceptive cinematic evocation of Austen’s distinctively sharp yet forgiving vision” (Introduction 10).  It is interesting to reconsider fifteen years later, especially when that date coincides with the bicentenary of the publication of Austen’s novel, whether Rozema’s 1999 adaptation succeeded in translating Austen’s creation to the screen.


“The process of adaptation, like any reading,” Penny Gay argues, “demands a recognition of the historical distance between the original text and its new audience.  The challenge for film-makers is to find the visual language and a reading of the original that allow the story to speak to that new audience” (108).  Adapting Austen’s Regency characters for a contemporary film audience is a major challenge, however, and translating the page to the screen can have its hazards.  The differences between print and film preclude precise fidelity, of course.  Exploring Rozema’s adaptation can highlight differences between page and screen and illuminate changes in sensibilities between Regency and millennial societies.  Granted that Rozema’s film displays her directorial genius, are aspects of Austen’s genius lost in this translation?


Rozema employs two methods of modernizing Mansfield Park:  first, she modernizes, or, rather, postmodernizes, Austen’s novel by metafictionalizing her narrative, responding to contemporary critical theory in a way calculated to intrigue millennial audiences familiar with such methods; second, she modernizes Austen’s heroine by applying to Fanny Price features of second-wave feminism to render her more sympathetic to contemporary audiences.


First, Rozema’s metafictional framework makes the heroine of Mansfield Park more interesting to a contemporary audience.  Certainly, Fanny Price has puzzled and perplexed generations of readers and critics, illustrated by the final 2006 JASNA Tucson AGM panel, “Fanny Price: Likable or Not?”  How can we like such a goody two-shoes, and yet how can we not when, despite being such a killjoy, she is dear to our beloved author, who calls her “My Fanny” (MP 461), and is possessed of all that is admirable in values, beliefs, and principles?  Rozema’s strategy for making Fanny palatable to millennial audiences in her 1999 adaptation was simply to conflate the creation with her creator, ascribing to this largely silent character the witty words of the author, putting in Fanny’s mouth satirical comments from Austen’s letters and fictions.


Rozema explains her postmodernist revision: she admires what she calls Austen’s “anarchic spirit,” but dislikes her “annoying” Fanny—“So I made my character more like Austen.”  By employing “a collage or prismatic-like approach,” conflating the author and the character, she created a “metafictional mix”:  “it felt like a contemporary strategy to include the reality of the author and her other fiction” (qtd. in Herlevi).1  Rozema emphasizes her metafictional palimpsest visually through close-ups of paper, quill pens, and longhand writing underlying the opening credits.

© 1999 Miramax


In Rozema’s film, voice-over techniques imply Fanny is narrator, even author, of Mansfield Park, as Fanny speaks directly to the camera, addressing the audience as confidant.  The film claims to be based on “Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, her Letters and Journals.”  Although Janeites would be delighted to discover Austen’s journals, Rozema actually quotes her juvenilia, implying that Fanny also authored Henry and Eliza and The History of England, written “By a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant historian” (Screenplay 30).  Claudia Johnson argues, “By weaving in Austen’s uproarious early writings, Rozema transforms Fanny into a version of the Austenian narrator we love” (“Run Mad” 17).  David Monaghan cautions, however, that “there is something rather questionable about an approach that privileges a portrait of the author over her fictional creation, especially when that portrait both conflates the teenage Austen with the mature woman who wrote Mansfield Park and makes highly selective use of biographical evidence” (86).  Indeed, such conflation can create illogical anomalies, such as having an adult Fanny compose the audacious adolescent satire, The History of England.


Austen’s satire is delightful when expressed by her omniscient narrator but troubling when ascribed to her character.  Austen’s readers relish her narrator’s sarcastic comments, such as, “It would not be fair to enquire into a young lady’s exact estimate of her own perfections” (MP 331), but placing the narrator’s acerbic words in her heroine’s mouth renders Fanny sarcastic, even satirical—utterly inappropriate for our “‘creepmouse’” heroine (145) whose strength, as Alison Shea suggests, is in her silence (53).  In Rozema’s film Fanny’s Austen-like satirical comments constitute her revenge on the members of her adoptive family who have mistreated her.  When Rozema’s “pseudo-Jane Austenized Fanny” (Shea 53) writes to her sister Susan Austen’s narrator’s wicked comments about Maria Bertram’s marriage and Lady Bertram’s lethargy, Susan responds, “Your tongue is sharper than a guillotine, Fanny” (Screenplay 104).  As Claudia Johnson says, Fanny “engage[s] in the sweetest revenge of all—writing well” (2000, 6).  Rozema’s heroine, however, seems closer to Thackeray’s Becky Sharpe than Austen’s Fanny Price.  This transformation of Fanny into a vixen makes nonsense of Austen’s plot, for why would such a sharp-tongued woman suffer in silence the mistreatment of her unkind relations?

© 1999 Miramax


Rozema’s most startling conflation of character with author involves weaving biography into her screenplay:  Austen accepted Harris Bigg-Wither’s proposal of marriage, only to renege the next morning, as Rozema has Fanny do with Henry Crawford’s proposal.  Rozema’s conflation of character and author thickens the plot but traduces Austen’s creation, implying that Fanny is fickle, whereas her faithful devotion to Edmund Bertram is the cornerstone on which the narrative is founded.  On the contrary, while Fanny’s fidelity in the face of adversity may reflect the steadfast devotion of Austen’s heroes, including Colonel Brandon, Fitzwilliam Darcy, Henry Tilney, George Knightley, and even Captain Wentworth, it is Edmund who, like Austen’s heroines Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, does not know his own heart and who finally develops from infatuation with Mary Crawford to recognition of his love for Fanny.


Rozema’s second major method of modernizing Mansfield Park ascribes to Fanny features of second-wave feminism, including an emphasis on political, social, and sexual equality of women and a resistance to domestic violence and enslavement of women.  Whereas Austen’s Fanny never behaves indecorously, to make her more palatable for contemporary audiences, Rozema portrays her as a boisterous tomboy—a “wild beast,” in effect (Screenplay 32).  To emphasize Fanny’s rejection of the wilting female stereotype, Rozema repeats Sophia’s words to Laura in Love and Freindship—“‘Run mad as often as you chuse, but do not faint’”—three times (Screenplay 80, 101, 120).  When Fanny slides down a banister, laughing at Edmund, Sir Thomas—whom Rozema portrays observing Fanny through windows—remonstrates, “Fanny Price, could you at least try to act with some decorum” (31).


Devoney Looser claims that “Austen’s reemergence demonstrates progressive, feminist elements at work in popular culture [as] adaptations contribute to a ‘mainstreaming’ of feminism” (159).  Looser’s comments about Austen films of the mid-1990s apply to Rozema’s film as well:  desiring to portray Fanny as an assertive woman, Rozema presents her dressed in red, swishing a riding crop, and galloping vigorously.  She has Fanny talk back to Mrs. Norris, who asks, “Fanny, how long are you staying?”—to which Fanny replies, “I’m not certain, Aunt Norris. How long are you staying?” (123).  Rozema even has Fanny, who claims to have read Thomas Clarkson’s 1776 Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species: Particularly the African (a text Austen was familiar with), challenge Sir Thomas, countering his assertion that “I have a good mind to bring back [a mulatto] next trip to work here as a domestic,” with a reference to the Mansfield Judgment:  “Correct me if I am wrong, Sir Thomas, but I’ve read, Sir, that if you were to bring one of the slaves back to England, there would be some argument as to whether or not they should be freed here” (60).2 When Sir Thomas suggests holding a ball at Mansfield Park to bring Fanny “out,” Rozema’s Fanny remonstrates, “I will not be sold off like one of your father’s slaves, Edmund,” and gallops off in what Duckworth terms a “Brontification” (567) of Austen.


This kind of modernizing of a Regency text, however, results in anomalous anachronisms, for fictional events develop from character, and characters and relationships are, in turn, affected by events and social context.  Transforming Fanny from a “creepmouse” to an assertive modern woman makes nonsense of her relationship with Edmund, for example, for why would such a confident young woman conceal her true affection for the length of an entire three-volume novel?  Alison Shea criticizes this anomaly shrewdly: “Rozema’s film version of Mansfield Park is weakened both by her misreading of the relationship between silence and character and by her failure in the film to modify sufficiently aspects of the novel’s plot and characters that ultimately validate the qualities Rozema scorns:  quiet reflection and self-examination as the pre-requisites for good judgment and judicious speech” (52).


Rozema also modernizes Fanny—surely Austen’s least sexy heroine—by sexualizing her through décolletage and sensual touching, as well as by having Fanny discover Maria and Crawford in flagrante delicto and by suggesting lesbian interaction with Mary Crawford—situations that would accord with contemporary Hollywood standards but that would make Jane Austen blush, as Regency decorum precluded such blatant sexuality in fiction. Indeed, the film is “suffused,” Johnson claims, “with frustrated, illicit, wayward, or polymorphous sexuality” (“Run Mad” 17). Three filmic characters comment on Fanny’s developed figure, including Fanny’s father, who says, upon her return home to Portsmouth, “Let’s look at ya. . . . Lovely.  Are the pretty boys already sniffing around then? . . . Give your coarse old father a little squeeze” (Screenplay 99).  Mary Crawford’s fingers play lasciviously over Fanny’s shoulders during a rehearsal of Lovers’Vows witnessed by Edmund, who is embarrassed and titillated (53).

© 1999 Miramax


Later, “Mary undresses Fanny, who is shy but overwhelmed by Mary’s industrious delight in helping” (72).  Rozema takes Austen’s word “fascination” (MP 208), a term Johnson believes “carries an erotic charge,” to give her license to portray “homoerotic badinage” (Introduction 7).  Perhaps, however, Rozema felt that audiences might be offended by too blatant sexuality.  For example, for North American audiences she cropped the scene where Fanny discovers Maria Bertram and Henry Crawford in flagrante delicto, revealing less nudity.  In the film, Rozema excised the screenplay’s masturbation scene:  “Fanny lies in bed. From the ever-so-subtle movements of her covers we suspect she may be touching herself” (76).  Further, Rozema entirely omits Fanny’s brother William, strengthening the focus on her amatory relationships with Edmund Bertram and Henry Crawford although losing the opportunity to suggest incest between the Price siblings, as she does between the Crawford pair.


The ball that climaxes Volume II illustrates Rozema’s modernizing impulse.  Langdon Elsbree observes, “Dancing, particularly the ball, is for the young girl the formal announcement of her nubility—an obvious, traditional, and important function. . . . Mansfield Park is the most explicit about the dance as a ritual which celebrates a girl’s . . . marriageability” (115, 122).  Indeed, Sir Thomas suggests the ball because he wishes to facilitate Fanny’s marriage to Henry Crawford.  As Celia Easton asserts, “both dance and narrative need to balance multiple actions at one time with multiple players, finally settling every dancer/heroine with a suitable partner and a close of the figure” (254).


Rozema’s adaptation dramatizes the ball vividly, but inaccurately.  Although Austen’s Fanny is made uncomfortable by Crawford’s attentions, while pining to dance with Edmund, who is besotted with Mary Crawford, Rozema shows Fanny dancing and flirting with Edmund and Henry with almost equal delight.  Whereas Austen emphasizes Fanny’s embarrassment at being “Queen of the evening” (MP 267), Rozema’s whirling camera-work, blurry close-ups, and slow-motion movements present Fanny’s subjective, psychological perspective, suggesting her giddy, even tiddly, state.  Johnson points out that “the ball here is not shot as a set-piece of Regency spectacle” but “is conceived almost as a semi-private scene so as to bring out Fanny’s awakening to the pleasure of her body and the circulation of erotic interest between and among the two principal couples” (“Run Mad” 8).  Rozema acknowledges that the ballroom scene “is not strictly period dance” but “a slightly more intimate” dance emphasizing the “quartet” of characters.  Portraying couples dancing intimately, however, is historically inaccurate and eroticizing Fanny’s dance with Crawford is illogical.  Moreover, Rozema contravenes the patterns of English Country Dance, which Austen’s courtship plots emulate, by leaving Fanny with no partner, as the scene ends with Fanny exiting the ballroom unsteadily—and alone.

© 1999 Miramax


In the novel’s final chapters, Austen sets up the marriage of Edmund and Fanny, concluding, “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.  I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore every body, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest” (461).  Rozema emulates this acknowledgement of the fictionality of Austen’s novel in a series of freezes that suit her metafictional framework and mete out the justice that Austen leaves to her readers’ imaginations.3  Rozema declines to conclude her film with a wedding, instead onclude finishing it as she opened it—with metafiction.  As Fanny and Edmund stroll arm-in-arm, he remarks, “I spoke to John Ward at Edgerton’s town4 and he’s willing to publish, at our expense, of course, but you would keep ten percent of the profits” (145).  Fanny then becomes the author of Mansfield Park.  Ironically, however, Edmund undermines Rozema’s feminist emphasis by supplying Fanny’s title, “Effusions of Fancy in a Style Entirely New by a Very Young Girl” (145),—the title Austen’s father gave her juvenilia.

© 1999 Miramax


Rozema’s film is attractive and evocative but inaccurate as an adaptation of Austen’s novel:  “I wrote it first as a contemporary drama and then I translated it into the period” (qtd. in Herlevi). As Eddie Cockrell concludes, “The cumulative effect is oddly disjointed, neither an accurate visualization of the book nor a contemporary spin on the issues it raises.”  Ultimately, Rozema fails to reconcile this incompatible interface of modern character and Regency situation.  Appealing and intriguing as her adaptation remains, one must conclude that Rozema jumped on the Austen bandwagon, employing her text to display her directorial skills and to proselytize for her own interests—interests which, unfortunately, do not always coincide historically with the Regency situation or with the Austenian principles of virtue, loyalty, and fidelity underlying the narrative.





The clips used in this essay satisfy the criteria for fair use established in Section 107 of the Copyright Law of the United States of America and Related Laws Contained in Title 17 of the United States Code.


1. Mireia Aragay claims that Rozema’s adaptation “self-reflexively points to itself as intertext, as an intervention into contemporary debates on Austen and authorship” (182), reflecting Rozema’s response to contemporary critical theory.


2. Austen writes to Cassandra on 24 January 1813, “I am as much in love with [Charles Pasley, author of Essay on the Military Policy and Institutions of the British Empire] as I ever was with Clarkson or Buchanan, or even the two Mr Smiths of the city.  The first soldier I ever sighed for.”  In 1772 Lord Mansfield set a slave, Jonathan Strong, free in a landmark case called the Mansfield Judgment.  Rozema remarks in her voice-over commentary on the DVD that she believes that Austen titled her novel Mansfield Park to reference this milestone, that this connection is what inspired her to adapt Austen’s novel to the screen, and that it is her justification for making explicit what is implicit in Austen’s novel regarding slavery.


3. Shields remarks, “Austen grudgingly provides her readers with the requisite sense of closure while reminding them of its artifice, its constructed quality” (17).


4. Thomas Egerton published Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park.



Works Cited


Aragay, Mireia.  “Possessing Jane Austen: Fidelity, Authorship, and Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park.”  Literature Film Quarterly 31.3 (2003): 177-85.

Austen, Jane.  Jane Austen’s Letters.  Ed. Deirdre Le Faye.  3rd ed.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

_____.  The Works of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  London: Oxford UP, 1933-68.

Cockrell, Eddie.  Rev. of Mansfield Park.  “Montreal World Film Festival (1999).”  Nitrate Online—Movie Reviews and More.  10 Sept. 1999.

Duckworth, Alistair M.  Rev. of Mansfield Park, dir. Patricia Rozema.  Eighteenth Century Fiction 12 (2000): 565-71.

Easton, Celia.  “Dancing through Austen’s Plots: A Pedagogy of the Body.”  Persuasions 28 (2006): 251-54.

Gay, Penny.  “Sense and Sensibility in a Postfeminist World: Sisterhood is Still Powerful.”  Jane Austen on Screen.  Ed. Gina Macdonald and Andrew Macdonald.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.  90-110.

Herlevi, Patty-Lynne.  “Mansfield Park: A Conversation with Patricia Rozema.”  Nitrate Online—Movie Reviews and More.  11 Feb. 2000.

Johnson, Claudia L.  Introduction.  Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park: A Screenplay.  By Patricia Rozema.  Hyperion: New York, 2000.  1-10.

_____.  “Run Mad, But Do Not Faint: The Authentic Audacity of Rozema’s Mansfield Park.”  Times Literary Supplement 31 Dec. 1999: 16-17.

Looser, Devoney.  “Feminist Implications of the Silver Screen Austen.”  Jane Austen in Hollywood.  Ed. Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield.  Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 1998.  159-76.

Monaghan, David.  “Reinventing Fanny Price: Patricia Rozema’s Thoroughly Modern Mansfield Park.”  Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 40.3 (2007): 85-101.

Rozema, Patricia.  Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park: A Screenplay.  New York: Talk Miramax, 2000.

Rozema, Patricia, dir.  Mansfield Park.  Miramax, 1999.  DVD.

Shea, Alison.  “‘I am a wild beast’: Patricia Rozema’s Forward Fanny.”  Persuasions 28 (2006): 52-58.

Shields, Carol.  Introduction.  Mansfield Park.  New York: Modern Library, 2001.  11-28.


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