26 May 2012 (updated 4 April 2014)
Many of those who read and love the novels of Jane Austen find themselves unable to enjoy most, sometimes even any, of the film versions that have been made. Those who have inflicted this self-imposed wound are missing a great deal: a film can often give a new insight. Everyone who reads Jane Austen interprets her novels in a different way: we all have different experiences, different beliefs, and reading is not a passive absorption of a story. We are all active readers. It is only necessary to read the diverse views of writers such as Kingsley Amis, David Lodge and Lionel Trilling (gathered, with many others, in a wonderful book “A truth universally acknowledged: 33 reasons why we can’t stop reading Jane Austen”) to see how diverse these views are, sometimes to the extent of making one wonder if the reviewers had all been reading the same book.
When I first started writing about Jane Austen and screen adaptation, I was unaware of several books that illuminate this subject, and some of them hadn’t been published at that time, or were not readily available. One of the best is Jane Austen on Screen, edited by Gina and Andrew Macdonald, with contributions that range from completely dismissing the possibility of a screen adaptation, to some thoughts on how the different films can show a new insight. There’s also Screen Adaptations: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: A Close Study of the Relationship between Text and Film, by Deborah Cartmell, and there’s also Jane Austen on Film and Television: A Critical Study, by Sue Parrill, but that was published in 1935, and things have moved on, of course. And any published book is soon going to be out of date, partly because there seems to be no lack of enthusiasm for new screen adaptation of Jane Austen.
All of Jane Austen’s major novels have been filmed several times. There are twenty films available on DVD or Blueray that are recognisable as ‘based on’ the novels. In addition there are a number of wilder imaginings, such as the Bollywood film Bride and Prejudice, which I won’t be discussing here (except for a sneaking admiration for Clueless), and a number of films made in or before 1960 which are no longer available, except for a version of Emma, starring Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier (1940).
The films vary, of course, in the extent to which they adhere to what Jane Austen wrote, and this is where aficionados have to decide where they stand. For some readers, any substantial departure from the story will destroy any pleasure. In two of the three films of Mansfield Park Fanny Price is not the shrinking, shy, girl depicted by Jane Austen. One of them is Billie Piper: you can’t get much more gutsy extrovert than that, but Billie Piper does bring her own understanding to the screen, and her agonies when she fears that her beloved Edmund is falling under the spell of the enchanting Maria Crawford are moving. Everyone rejects the departure at some point, but to dismiss a film too soon is too lose a great deal.
Of the twenty films, twelve have been made by the BBC, either alone or in conjunction with other studios, and these have been some of the best. In my book, that’s a good enough reason for the licence fee.
The films have come along in clutches. There’s an early bunch of films from the 1970s, 1980s, still very acceptable, then a series from the mid-late 1990s, and the latest flush from the late 2000s. There don’t seem to be any productions on the stocks at the moment (2013).
Each novel presents its own challenge. The cast lists of most of Jane Austen’s novels are long. There are over 24 characters in Emma, 55 in Pride and Prejudice, and even about 15 in Northanger Abbey, one of the shortest books. So some cutting is needed, and, on the whole, it isn’t difficult. You lose something, but you can always read the novel. The way in which the scenes can be cut to achieve a film of reasonable length is the mark of a good scriptwriter and director. Some directors have been fortunate, allowed to make a film or TV series running for 200 minutes, in two instances for over 300. Those who had to cut to a little over 100 minutes have done well: of course they have, that was what the producer was demanding, and that is what the director had to achieve. Characters can be left out completely. Producers and scriptwriters lose different characters, and the story doesn’t seem to suffer much. This is a consequence of the genius of Jane Austen. Each of her novels is both a unified structure, and a series of vignettes, in each of which we see some truth about the life we live. Still, there is something puzzling about the felicity of the Jane Austen films. There’s another author whose novels illuminate character, full of scenes that show us how men and women behave to each other, and that is Henry James. But there are a mere eight films of his thirteen major novels , and even I, a lover of Henry James, cannot claim that I enjoy all of them. They are made by some of the greatest film makers, like James Merchant. Some are successful, like Jane Campion’s film of The Portrait of a Lady, or Ian Softley’s film of The Wings of the Dove, for which Helena Bonham-Carter received an Academy Award as best actress, but there’s nothing like the variety, the ingenuity, the illumination that these films of Jane Austen’s novels achieve.
The writer of the screenplay has a great responsibility in a film of a novel. He or she has to decide how far to use the words written by Jane Austen, which ‘business’ is important (together with the director, of course), what to emphasize, what to downplay, giving a passing reference to some event to keep the story flowing. And, above all, in a film the viewer is shown the action. A reader of the novel will imagine the novel happening in his or her head. Some people don’t want to see a film of a novel before they’ve read the novel itself. These are the people for whom it is the novel that is the primary source, and they are lucky if they can enjoy the films, and let them illuminate the novel.
You can read reviews of films of Mansfield Park, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility. And if you’re prepared to tolerate a little digression, Clueless, which is a brilliant take on Emma, not because it tells the story of Emma, but because it takes the central idea of Emma, a conceited young woman who gives a less fortunate woman ideas, and finds that she is about to lose out to this upstart.
Film makers will inevitably emphasize different aspects of Jane Austen’s novels. The film versions of Mansfield Park, probably the most ‘difficult’ of the Austen novels can illustrate this.
The film versions of Mansfield Park, probably the most ‘difficult’ of the Austen novels can illustrate this.
Then there is Pride and Prejudice, almost certainly the most read book, and the most watched film. We are almost spoilt for a wealth of interpretations. And there is Northanger Abbey, in which Jane Austen mocks the gothic novel of her day, a charming story of a country girl, thrown into adventures at Bath. As Jane Austen comments “If adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad.”
Persuasion takes us to Bath again, where Anne Eliot, who has rejected the proposal of Captain Wentworth under the influence of Lady Russell, her godmother, and lived to regret it, finds that Captain Wentworth turns to her again. The novel, and the film, explore sensitively the constraints on young women in the early 19th Century.