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.