ArtSunday: "improving" Jane Austen

Periodically, it seems, to those who now have bought back into the concept of history, humans begin to think that their great works of literature are insufficient. This is not necessarily a bad thing. New literary movements grow out of this perceived insufficiency, and new masterpieces appear that eventually become, for some insufficient – and so new literary movements….

Unfortunately, we humans also seem to have a propensity to look on the great works of art we have and see their “flaws.” This has caused us to make some interesting and even laughable “improvements” to our masterpieces – Moby Dick has had the entire whaling section expurgated for “easier” reading for American students; 18th century stagings of Macbeth had the Thane of Glamis survive and repent his evil ways.

Now it seems that Jane Austen, our most brilliant analyst and most insightful critic of women’s roles in society and the institution of marriage, has been deemed too unromantic.

The PBS series Masterpiece (once called Masterpiece Theater, but the series’s name, too, has been “improved”) has recently completed airing The Complete Jane Austen. Two of the productions had previously aired (Pride and Prejudice, with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth as Elizabeth and Darcy – easily the definitive adaptation of Austen to the screen – and Emma, with pre-surgically enhanced Kate Beckinsale showing that she once considered acting more than posing as a pouty vampire – and giving a performance worthy of her considerable talent). There was also an original drama, Miss Austen Regrets. Olivia Williams gave an outstanding performance as the author in the last years of her life dealing with her lately come fame and admiration (for those who may not realize, Austen died at only 42).

The other entries in the series – Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Sense and Sensibility – were all new productions. And it is here that the authors of the new adaptations, Andrew Davies (Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey) and Simon Burke and Maggie Wadey, (Persuasion and Mansfield Park) take “creative liberties” that are, for those of us with strong scholarly and/or critical appreciation of Austen’s work, (I’ll ignore “Jane-ites” here out of courtesy for those who can think about what they read beyond the level of “That Wickham is so despicable!”) ill considered and unappreciated. A look at two of the productions makes clear that Austen’s sense and sensibility would be offended by these authors’ “improvements.”

Persuasion is the last of Austen’s completed works – and it represents a departure from her previous novels – particularly from Emma, the novel preceding it, one of the works that makes us remember Austen’s description of Pride and Prejudice: “It is too light and bright and sparkling. It wants shade.” Persuasion certainly provides shade. Its heroine, Anne Eliot, has missed (she believes) her chance at true love and a happy marriage by taking the snobbish advice of a misguided friend and mentor. At 27 she finds herself well past typical “marriageable” age when her lost love, naval captain Frederick Wentworth, reappears. Their fumbling rediscovery of each other, climaxed by a proposal written as a note while both are in the same room and while Anne defends the fidelity of women’s affections, is often cited as the prototype of the modern novel.

Unfortunately, the new Burke and Wadey adaptation sees Anne as a damsel in distress – and treats her diffidence and Wentworth’s reserve and injured pride as just so much adolescent angst. And the ending, wherein Wentworth carries Anne in his arms toward her stately new home, is pure Regency Romance rot.

Readers are advised to find BBC’s older version of Persuasion with Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds as Anne and Wentworth. It is an adaptation worthy of the novel’s greatness.

If this “improved” Persuasion weren’t bad enough, for some reason known only to God and Pop Idol (the Brit precursor of that American abomination), not only do Burke and Wadey take plot and structural liberties with Austen’s most problematic masterpiece, Mansfield Park, in a casting stroke straight out of the mind of Fox television executives, British pop tart Billie Piper was chosen to play the mousy Fanny Price. She chose to do so by portraying Fanny as a sort of “wild child” who preens and pouts like the pop star Piper once was rather than the character Austen struggled so to convey (Mansfield Park is the novel dear to writers – such as I – because it allows us to see Austen the writer working hard at her craft). The adaptation itself is full of the same frothy Regency Romance nonsense that ruined the new adaptation of Persuasion – but in the case of Mansfield Park that is less distressing because astute readers understand that Austen herself struggled to figure out what to do with the convoluted and over-moralistic plot. Still, this adaptation, with its shiny, sexy leads (Blake Ritson, who rivals Billie Piper on the “Are you hot?” scale) leaves one feeling as if somehow someone at BBC thought combining Mansfield Park and Footballer’s Wives was a terrific idea.

The other two adaptations – Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility, though better by comparison, still suffer from Andrew Davies’ desire (or response to a corporate directive) to emphasize romance at the expense of fidelity to Austen’s clear and not always kind vision of love and marriage in her times.

Austen will survive, of course – our greatest writers blithely endure the occasional indignity done to their work whether by editor or film maker with the aplomb and humor we’d expect (one has only to think of the misguided Patricia Rozema adaptation of Mansfield Park into a feminist screed). But one expects better of BBC and Masterpiece – who have given us so many wonderful adaptations of great literature in its nearly 4 decade history – and one hopes that this misstep is only that and not the beginning of one of those unfortunate periods of “rethinking” and “improving” our literary masterpieces to meet senses and sensibilities other than those of their authors.

10 replies »

  1. As you know, I’ve never had a lot of time for people who fuck with the greats. I’ve seen Shakespeare reset a number of times, for instance, and not once to any productive effect.

    Great talents recognize great talent and as such seem to instinctively understand that greatness doesn’t need fixing, adjusting, updating, etc. The only people who do what you describe here are lesser lights who have no other hope, ever, of being mentioned in the same breath with those they’re bastardizing.

  2. You nailed it, Jim, and I’ve seen just about every adaptation of Austen available in any format. I have a feeling Andrew Davies may have let the (well-deserved) success of P&P go to his head a bit… and the execs at the BBC gave their profitable wunderkind far too much leeway, with unfortunate results. I’d add something pithy, but you’ve made every point I might bring up and more.

    Hey, this may well become the definitive critique of Andrew Davies’ Austen series – and we were there! Bravo.

  3. Hi there! With respect, would like to point out that Andrew Davies did not write the screenplays for the latest adaptations of Persuasion and Mansfield Park. They were written by Simon Burke and Maggie Wadey, respectively. Davies wrote the new NA and S&S as well as the previously released P&P and Emma. The PBS press release was really unclear and a lot of people were confused about it. Also, NA, MP, and Persuasion were actually made (badly and cheaply) by ITV. S&S and Miss Austen Regrets were made by the BBC.

    Incidentally, I call myself a Janeite, and I can certainly discuss (and enjoy) Jane Austen’s work on several levels and have been published on the subject. I was disappointed with the Jane Austen Season. I would say S&S and Miss Austen Regrets were the best of the bunch, though not approaching the great mid-1990s adaptations (Persuasion from 1995 is my favorite JA adaptation of all time). Ultimately I prefer the books anyway. 🙂

  4. Aha! That makes so much more sense! It was hard to believe how drastically different in concept and execution those productions were. And I so agree with you about the 1995 Persuasion… although I deny categorically that Ciaran Hinds in tight, tight breeches is a factor in my love for the film. Ahem.

  5. Not having ever read any Austin (and having no interest in doing so), I can’t speak for whether her works “need” improving or not. However, as someone who enjoys his Shakespeare, I have to say that I have seen at least one great updating of a Shakespeare play: the 1995 movie of Richard III, with Ian McKellen. Watching Richard as a fascist in a Nazi-like England was frighteningly well done, and I enjoyed that movie of the play far more than I have ever enjoyed the actual play performed.

  6. Mags: Thanks for the clarification of the screenplay work on the new series. BBC’s use of Davies to cover the execrable work of Simon Burke and Maggie Wadey. I knew that ITV did the new adaptations on the cheap and that their limited length (about 85 minutes) was a problem probably even Davies couldn’t have overcome. But the Regency Romance treatment by Burke and Wadey is inexcusable from anyone – even ITV. I will edit the post to assign blame where it is due. BTW, from the insight of these comments, you’re no Jane-ite as we in academia have known them…. Or, if you are, it is as though the clouds have parted and we’re all living in a brave new world that has such Jane-ites in it. 😉

    Brian – Give Austen a chance. You might be surprised. BTW, I almost cited the McKellan Richard III as one of my examples of tampering with the Bard…. 😉

    Euphrosyne: I wrote my thesis on Austen, so I take these adaptations very seriously. Persuasion with Amanda Root is a wonder. And P&P and BBC’s Emma are all they should be. I even can tolerate the Paltrow Emma because its good humor is so evident.
    But doing Austen on the cheap is a slap in the face of viewers from all backgrounds.

    Sam: Amen and Amen.

  7. Never having used the term, I hadn’t realized “Jane-ite” was pejorative; is it associated with the Regency romance set? If so, I can understand the negative connotation – but let’s not be too hasty to divide serious students and thoughtful fans of literature and theater into “enlightened academicians” and “those other silly people.” Some of the grossest offenses against Shakespeare and Austen I’ve ever been unfortunate enough to encounter have sprung from the febrile minds of sleep-deprived grad students and desperate seekers after tenure… but you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Jim. The Paltrow Emma gives me hairballs. I’d be interested in your take on the 1972 BBC version.

    The truth is, although I’m a fan, my own beloved Jane is not Ms. Austen at all – it’s Jane Eyre. And you do NOT want to get me started on film adaptations of my personal holy text.

  8. Well, you can’t blame the BBC for ITV’s sins. But I agree that it was odd to use Andrew Davies as a selling point for the series when it was on PBS. I’m not a big Davies fan, though I enjoy his P&P and some of his other non-Austen adaptations. I was very unhappy with the new NA adaptation. All the humor of the actual novel was removed and what replaced it was inferior. Also, the BBC offered Davies 4 hours for the new S&S and he said three would be better. I felt one of the weaknesses of the new production was that it felt rushed in places, that he was attempting to shoehorn in what was missing from the superior 1995 film but not with any care.

    I don’t consider “Janeite” to be a pejorative term. I’m not a scholar by any stretch, just a very well-read fan. 🙂

  9. “Adaptation” has always been a dangerous word, implying flaws with the the original (or, as Jim suggests, “corporate directive”).

    Thanks, Jim.