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Message from the President: Messing with Morality: Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park

I Hereby propose  a new kind of credit for films that play fast and loose with history or texts on which they are supposed to be “based.”  Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park was only the latest in a long line of such movies, some harmless, others downright alarming.

            The 1939 film version of Pride and Prejudice probably fits into the harmless category.  You will recall Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s portrayal as the deus ex machina Cupid who promotes the match between Olivier’s Darcy and Garson’s Elizabeth.  Liberties taken with the original novel—and there are many—did not prevent filmgoers from turning to the book and finding more delight.  Indeed, many a devoted Janeite arrived at our favorite author along this route.  I confess, as well, to affection for the P&P of the literature-loving television dog, “Wishbone.”  And I dare say that Jane Austen would have joined me in appreciating Clueless as a cinematic homage to her Emma.  These filmed adaptations, despite considerable artistic license, as well as most of the BBC miniseries (I exclude Northanger Abbey) remained faithful to the spirit and tone, if not the costumes, of the original novels.

            In the second, more problematic category, I include the 1998 film Elizabeth, which, without credible evidence, portrayed Queen Elizabeth I as a wanton, deluded figure convinced she was, or ought to be, the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary.  Similarly, Oliver Stone’s conspiratorial film JFK persuaded many a young (or not so young) moviegoer that the federal investigating agencies of the United States colluded in a presidential assassination and cover-up.

            There are many more memorable movie manipulations of history and literature, some funny, some potentially harmful, some laughable.  I think moviegoers of my own and earlier generations tend not to rely on movies for historic or literary verisimilitude.  I suspect, and fear, that the young today—sometimes called the “post-literate” generation—do rely more heavily on pictures for information and tend not be as wary of the entertainment media. 

            Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park struck me as a cinematic mixed bag.  It was oddly paced but generally well acted, and certainly rich in production values.  I didn’t particularly object to Rozema’s replacing Fanny Price with her own concept of a Jane Austen surrogate:  frankly, a protagonist as still and passive (or passive-aggressive) as Fanny Price must represent a formidable problem to any adapter.  The hybrid character I call “Fanny-Jane” was Rozema’s device for solving the problem.

            I rather enjoyed hearing quotes from Jane Austen’s letters and Juvenilia that were recited by Fanny-Jane, though the citation of Jane Austen’s nonexistent “early diaries” as a source for the script was irresponsibly misleading.  Attempts by both Mary and Henry Crawford to seduce Fanny-Jane in the film were not wholly unexpected, given Rozema’s background and past work.  And perhaps even Jane Austen might have forgiven a 1990s panorama of feminist, lesbian, anti-colonialist and other social issues if the filmmaker had managed a deft patina of social consciousness rather than a heavy-handed overlay of political correctness.

            Rozema’s equivocation on Fanny-Jane as the moral center of the action bothered me.  Although Austen once yielded (albeit only overnight) to the temptation to accept a marriage proposal from an unsuitable partner, she never, never let her Fanny Price weaken in her determination to resist that fate.  Even with Edmund Bertram enamored and nearly committed to Mary Crawford, Fanny Price held firm to her love and her principles, indeed to some readers’ discomfort.

            Rozema seems to have missed what makes gentle Fanny Price, in common with all Austen heroines, a genuine candidate for subversive feminist heroism:  Fanny—like Elizabeth, Emma, Catherine, Anne and Elinor—makes for herself the most important decision of her life, her choice of a husband.  She prevails despite pressure from friends, cruelty from relations, and even some moral wavering by her true love.

            A respected colleague worries that a young moviegoer entertained by Rozema’s slickly comic and romantic but heavily distorted Mansfield Park may turn to the Austen novel expecting frothy entertainment, only to be so disappointed by its density and seriousness that he or she will never read another.  I have more confidence in Jane Austen’s genius and appeal, and hope that a few young readers—the best—will not retreat discouraged but read on.        

            I do support introducing a new level of “truth in movie advertising.”  Rozema’s Mansfield Park might carry a disclaimer like, “Based LOOSELY on Jane Austen’s novel.”  Or, “Inspired by Jane Austen’s novel.”  Or, better yet, “With Apologies to Jane Austen.”

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