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Filming Jane: Austen and Adaptation

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January 06, 2022

Filming Jane: Austen and Adaptation

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January 06, 2022
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  1. Filming Jane Austen and Adaptation

  2. Ready for her Close-Up Fifty-five years after Robert Z. Leonard’s

    Pride and Prejudice (1940) charmed both the viewing public and Oscar voters, Simon Langton’s BBC mini-series set the standard for Austen adaptations. The critical and commercial success inaugurated a golden age of Austen- related filmmaking and inspired the most famous novelistic adaptation of Austen’s work, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary. Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride and Prejudice and recent BBC productions of Northanger Abbey (2007), Sense and Sensibility (2008), Mansfield Park (2007) and Persuasion (2007) demonstrate that Austen continues to remain “hot” filmic property. “You see, this is my life! It always will be! Nothing else! Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark!...”
  3. Hollywood’s Golden Girl Although critics are still pondering what prompted

    the unprecedented rash of Austen adaptations in the 1990s, they have determined the basis of her cinematic appeal. Not only does the perennially popular author have a strong fan base willing to see any adaptation of her fiction; her realistic novels prefigure the conventions of one of the most successful of all filmic genres, the romantic comedy. Nora Ephron’s knowing remake of The Shop Around the Corner (1940), You’ve Got Mail (1998), shows how compatible Austen’s plots are with the conventions of classical Hollywood cinema.
  4. “Let Other Pens Dwell on Guilt and Misery” Not surprisingly,

    film adaptations of Austen’s work stress the romantic aspects of her novels: after all, even Austen’s ironic take on the marriage plot, Emma, concludes with the reformed Miss Woodhouse’s betrothal to the dashing Mr. Knightly. Much of Austen’s enduring fictive and filmic appeal has to do with such satisfying denouements, a point borne out in the inevitable “happy endings” of even the loosest of Austen adaptations. In this way, the unlikely Romantic author serves as an important touchstone for romantic fiction and film.
  5. An Austen for All Seasons? For critics steeped in the

    humanist tradition, the growing body of Austen films is further proof of the author’s inherent timelessness. For more historically minded scholars, Austen’s uncanny filmic afterlife merely demonstrates that we continue to recreate the Regency author in our own (flickering) image. Whether Austen’s writing is considered “universal” or a context- specific form of cultural capital, it remains clear that the filmic adaptations of her novels are historically grounded. Ever since Greer Garson donned crinoline to portray a Scarlet O’Hara- inspired Elizabeth Bennet in 1940, Austen films have been indissolubly linked to the age in which they were produced. Garson politely refrains from looking at Olivier’s tight breeches.
  6. Looking through a “Pair of Fine Eyes” This linkage is

    particularly evident in what many consider the most faithful adaptation of Austen’s work, Simon Langton’s Pride and Prejudice (1995). Following in the footsteps of earlier heritage films, the carefully staged series presents a nostalgic rendering of an idealized British past. Perhaps even more importantly, the lush film targets a modern female audience through its overtly erotic representation of Colin Firth as Fitzwilliam Darcy. Almost gratuitous scenes of Darcy in states of undress, and lingering shots of an entranced Darcy looking at an off-camera Elizabeth, cleverly invert the male gaze and foreground the complexities of female perspective in fiction and film. The face that launched a thousand websites
  7. Remaining Faithful “When Hope is Gone” Most Austen-inspired movies are

    prestige films specifically marketed as faithful adaptations of the author’s novels. While a great deal of these works exhibit remarkable fidelity to Austen’s fiction, even the most reverent of films has to change the source in order to render it suitable for the screen. In addition to creating a viable mise-en-scene, adaptive filmmakers must “adjust” the story line by compressing, expanding, and correcting the narrative elements that will be “read” on camera. Audience members who do not expect the movie to “be” the novel often discover that they can grow to love even that which is “much altered” from the original.
  8. What Novels Can Do That Films Can’t Unlike films, which

    are necessarily narrated in the present tense (even if they utilize flashback or voice over), novels can toggle between and among a variety of tenses. This temporal flexibility allows for a more nuanced representation of time. Perhaps even more importantly, the novel can exploit a variety of perspectives. Film, which is dependent on the objective “eye” of the camera, is relatively fixed: it is unable to fashion a truly unreliable narrator, focalize consistently through character, or replicate free and indirect discourse (the narrative technique that Austen pioneered).
  9. And Vice Versa Although the novel has a temporal flexibility

    that film lacks, it is not able to render the present, particularly the immediate present, as well as film can. Additionally, the novel is unable to represent simultaneity as effectively (or in as many ways) as film. The composite medium can blend sensory perception more obviously and more adriotly than writing alone and inhabit a sense of space that the novel can only approximate. Historically precise Austen adaptations can immerse their viewers in a milieu that Austen’s novels can only gesture toward, and diegetic and non-diegetic sound, framing devices, and cinematic cross- cutting can make narrative parallels more immediate and direct.
  10. On Interpretation In many ways, filmic adaptation is a form

    of interpretation. Like any good critic, a filmmaker must judiciously select relevant passages and carefully re-present important narrative elements in order to offer a coherent “reading” on screen. While it would be misleading to suggest that Austen filmmakers are de facto literary critics, it is interesting to note that their filmic “readings” often correlate with scholarly trends. To cite the most obvious (and controversial) example, Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park (1999) offers a feminist interpretation of Austen and her work alongside a contrapuntal reading of the novel.
  11. An Austen by Any Other Name. . . Transformations, updates,

    and reimaginings of source material are also varieties of interpretation, as they necessarily foreground the themes, motifs, and styles that filmmakers deem integral to the original work of art. Not only does Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995) do more to replicate Austen’s comedic tone than McGrath’s staid period piece Emma (1996), but the successful film also foregrounds the relevance of the female bildungsroman in contemporary society. Both Bride and Prejudice (2004) and Kandukondain Kandukondain (2003) implicitly show that Austen’s little bit of ivory encompasses a world that reaches far beyond four and twenty families in an English countryside, and hence they offer compelling arguments against Austen’s purported provincialism.
  12. Whatever Happened to Spinster Jane? Some of the most interesting

    filmic interpretations of Austen are not rewrites of her novels, but reconstructions of her life. The quiet author, who rather modestly compared her writing to work done on a tiny piece of ivory, has recently been reimagined as a rebellious heroine who mirrors her most famous creations. These apochryphal biopics, which invariably explore the “mad woman” in Austen’s “attic,” seek to explain why an unmarried and frequently impoverished author would spend so much of her professional life crafting stylistically accomplished tales of romantic love. Olivia Williams and Hugh Bonneville in Miss Austen Regrets (2008)
  13. Discovering the Falsehood of Opinions While “The pleasantness of an

    employment does not always evince its propriety,” recent scholarship suggests that watching Austen films can be intellectually rewarding as well as entertaining—so breakout your flannel waistcoat and go rent some movies!
  14. Select Austen Adaptations Emma • (1996) Dir. Douglas McGrath •

    (1996) Dir.Diarmuid Lawrence Mansfield Park • (1999) Dir. Patricia Rozema Northanger Abbey • (1986) Dir. Giles Foster • (2007) Dir. Jon Jones Persuasion • (1995) Dir. Roger Michell Pride and Prejudice • (1940) Dir. Robert Z. Leonard • (1980) Dir. Cyril Coke • (1995) Dir. Simon Langton • (2005) Dir. Joe Wright Sense and Sensibility • (1995) Dir. Ang Lee • (2008) Dir. John Alexander Updates, Translations, and Fictive Remaginings • Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) [Fielding’s novel and Pride and Prejudice] • Bride and Prejudice (2004) [Pride and Prejudice] • Clueless (1995) [Emma] • The Jane Austen Bookclub [Fowler’s book and Austen’s major novels] • Kandukondain Kandukondain (2003) [Sense and Sensibility] Biopics • Becoming Jane (2007) • Miss Austen Regrets (2008)