We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Never underestimate the capacity of the BBC costume department · 23 December 06

Dear Harriet,

I have finished watching 2 more film adaptations of Austen’s novels, bringing the number I’ve seen up to 15. And I’m half-way through a 16th, the last of the apparently faithful BBC types I will watch for this round. I want to write about the 2 as a way of discovering what it is I think of all these as a group and individually.

The first I’ll tell you about is the second I watched: the 1940 MGM nearly 2 hour Pride and Prejudice, director Robert Z. Leonard; screenplay by Aldous Huxley and Jane Murfin, based on a sentimental drawing room comedy by Helene Jerome; starring Laurence Olivier, Greer Garson, Edna May Oliver, Edmund Gwenn, Mary Boland, Maureen O’Sullivan (to name but a few actors in the large cast).

I can see that in filmic terms of the 1940s, Murfin, HUxley and Leonard genuinely attempted to provide a filmic or visual and dramatic analogy for Austen’s book; where they couldn’t , they thought and imagined hard to create a complex ambience appropriate.

I was absorbed by the long opening dance sequence where Darcy delivers his famous snub aimed at Elizabeth, sitting alone or almost alone. All the important characters but Lady Catherine and Anne de Bourgh are there and we foresee their fates through the dance. Lydia dances with Wickham at one point and we see him say something hard to her about what she may expect from him someday.

This dancing occurs in the 1940 movie after an opening scene of shopping on the village street and takes place in the Assembly room. Between the opening and the Assembly we have a number of the scenes that occur in the early part of the book. After the Assembly Room dancing we have Mr Collins’s proposal, Charlotte’s acceptance of him, Elizabeth’s trip to Hunsford and Rosings. The scenes between Elizabeth and Darcy at Rosings over the piano are superbly well done. I think the first proposal scene suffers because it was rewritten. If you are going to stick with the ideas Darcy expresses, you need to put them in the older language. Also a reader of Austen remembers Elizabeth’s responses and the language Huxley and Murfin came up with, just doesn’t match for passion, revenge, and, yes, arrogance.

I was also absorbed by the vast garden party at Netherfeld Park occurring we are told early in May and one Sunday. It is during this sequence Darcy attempts to teach Elizabeth to shoot arrows and we see how much better she is than he. Again all the important characters reappear. The garden party occurs about 3/4s the way through the film and precedes Lydia’s running away with Wickham, and the second proposal scene. The second proposal occurs in the Bennets’ drawing-room. Then Darcy and Elizabeth walk out into another pastoral erotic garden. Nearby we see in a pantomime Bingley approaching Jane; in the foreground is the statue of a doe. In the back a statue of a Greek goddess (Venus?).

On the actors and actresses, I thought they were right to keep Darcy (Olivier) on stage a lot of the time and tried to develop an ongoing relationship between him and Elizabeth (Garson). I saw they wanted to make Elizabeth a strong woman—and this was the era of strong women in films (40s types, Rosalind Russell, Jean Arthur, Katherine Hepburn) and so, for example, added a scene immediately after Darcy snubs Elizabeth where she snubs him; added the bow-and-arrow scene and others too. I thought the film-maker and director and actors were developing a real relationship between this Elizabeth and Darcy slowly as in a 24 hour play. Olivier is by the way not Austen’s Darcy, nor a modern macho male: the conception is closer to the gentleman Ashley Wilkes as a type in Gone with the Wind.

Laurence Olivier as Mr Darcy appealing to a proud Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet.

Nonetheless, this older film again did not work for me. I cannot
accept the change in the central character, Lady Catherine (Edna May Oliver) and in the denouement. Austen’s Lady Catherine is a strained harridan, an angry repressive woman who functions to show us how cruel women can be to one another. In Austen’s novels ruthless desperate young women betray one another; older women poison and maim the existences of younger ones; yet they must all herd together. Austen’s Lady Catherine is an unconsciously cruel, narrow, tenaciously controlling figure who does all she can to stop Darcy and Elizabeth’s marriage. This type is found everywhere in fiction by other women of the period too, e.g. Charlotte Lennox, Fanny Burney, Sophie Cottin, Germaine de Stael. The MGM Lady Catherine has a heart of gold and acts as Darcy’s emissary to discover for him that Elizabeth loves him. This is a sentimental trope straight from Little Women (and in the 1930s MGM film Edna May Oliver brought together Meg and her man).

This MGM is as frank and thorough a reinterpretation of Austen as the 1999 Miramax Rozema MP and the 2005 Focus Wright and Moggach P&P. This film was meant to shore up the loyalty of the British people to the establishment which did not act to stop Hitler until he turned on them. It’s no coincidence that Greer Garson played Mrs Miniver in the MGM film version (director William Wyler, 1942), seen as one of the most effective pieces of propaganda for Britain since WW2 began: Churchill said Mrs Miniver did more for the Allied cause "than a flotilla of battleships," so the genteel middle-class woman, strong in her home-loving and pride lies behind the enactment of Elizabeth Bennet by Garson.

The other film I’ve finished watching is the nearly 6 hour 1983 BBC Mansfield Park, directed by Giles Foster, screenplay Ken Taylor, starring Sylvestra Le Tousel, Nicholas Farrell, Anna Massey, Angela Pleasance, Bernard Hepton, Robert Burbage, Jackie Smith-Wood, Samantha Bond. This is as excellent a film as the 1972 Emma (both in the fidelity mode).

Unlike the 1972 Emma, though, this 1983 MP does not have a "reading" or interpretation to project so much as to present the story in subtle, slow, nuanced ways. The long scenes at the meals, the long sequence at Sotherton and then the play itself is done fine justice to. The sequence at Portsmouth is vastly superior to the one in 1999 MP: Giles and Taylor made the same points about poverty, the enslavement to sex and a drunken ignorant man of Mrs Price (Alison Fiske), the embarrassment and shame over him just as surely and with much less over-the-top caricature; in fact Mr Price (David Buck) was given some understanding. We see Fanny adjusting, helping out; renting and chusing books, building a relationship with Susan through settling the knife dispute by buying another for the spiteful favored younger siser.

The 1983 film has an advantage over the 1972 film of Emma because the production values are more modern: improvements in color, in camera focusing, in light and darkeness (there are a number of gothic scenes at Portsmouth); many scenes are filmed in a lush green countryside where there are only 2 restrained such moments in the film made 11 years earlier. The 1983 MP achieves long lingering rhythms and qualities which feel Chekhovian, slow, and whose accent is unfolding intricate psychology. The film does not omit the ethical austere dimensions of the original book, the themes of memory and retreat (through Fanny Price, the character’s mind and nature), the interest in spiritual enrichment through religion, reading, art, meditation, and the realities of social injustice towards the victim heroine, the powerless Fanny Price (whose position as heroine creates insolent resentment and a feeling of distanced superiority in female readers who cannot recognize their own weaknesses and demand a fairy-tale high status princess heroine to identify with; these readers have a superficial understanding of what is strength).

I think I really loved it for the many excellent studies of in-depth emotional presences. Sylvestra Le Tousel was brilliant, absolutely moving in the deepest of ways. She brought out Fanny’s quiet stubbornness, perception, and yes, anger. You can see this quietly here and there particularly at Crawford, but it comes out elsewhere. And her intense love for Edmund. And how it’s disallowed and dangerous and she knows it. She becomes hysterical and her controlled neurasthenia comes to the surface when Sir Thomas pressures her to marry Henry Crawford and begins to berate and insult her. Le Tousel really enacts the inner life of Austen’s creation. Fanny is matched ironically by Angela Pleasance as a controlling helpless half-hysterical neurasthenically fragile Lady Bertram who is utterly subject to Sir Thomas (her benign benefactor indeed): they are truly mother-and-daughter as Lady Bertram recognizes in her startlingly apt utterances and relief when Fanny returns home at the end of the story. A brilliant ironic touch at the end of the film has Fanny now married to Edmund with a pug in her lap. Anna Massay presented a believably poisonous Mrs Norris; on the surface plausible, well-meaning (much like Shakespeare’s Iago should be played) but when she is left alone with Fanny or on rare occasions in front of others (as in the scene where she humiliates Fanny over refusing to take a part in the play) exposing her glittering resentment, envy, desire to cut Fanny down to keep herself higher in her own eyes.

1983 MP, Anna Massey as Mrs Norris.

By contrast Rozema presented caricatures in her Lady Betram and Mrs Price; Rozema’s Mrs Norris was marginalized, stiff.

As to the male characters, Nicholas Farrell’s mobile face and intensities conveyed irony, quiet despair, humor, the good-nature of the somewhat imperceptive Edmund; Robert Burbage was as complex a Henry Crawford, not just a rake (as was Rozema’s Alessandro Nivola), but someone seeking to assert himself as all-powerful. A disappointment here: Sir Thomas (Bernard Hepton) was not allowed to open up as a character (to develop or show his gradual change and growth), and the film series ended too swiftly. I would not have wanted a grating wedding (none in Austen), but there Rozema’s MP was more satisfying. She gave time to show Edmund beginning to discover he loves Fanny.

Some parallels between the two MPs: both Rozema and Giles/Taylor saw the suggestiveness of Austen’s portrait of Tom in the same light (debauched and angry). And there was sex enough between Maria (Samantha Bond) and Henry Crawford in the 1983 production: their kissing was hungry and passionate; as in the last time I watched it, I thought bringing out lines from Lovers Vows for them to re-utter upon meeting once again in London was a theatrically brilliant way to present their unbroken sexual congress. Both directors recognized and exploited the gothicism of the film, the 1983 film more subtly through light and individual performances of characters.

Angela Pleasance showing the gothic elements in her presence overtly in a powerful gothic horror film, Symptoms.

It is true the 1983 film comes without beautiful sexy stars, does not use exciting computer technology so the viewer must lend herself to the film as if it were a play. There was no huge advertising campaign at the time either. So it has been forgotten mostly. So I rejoice to say there’s an essay comparing the more recent 1999 MP with this earlier one, and praising the 1983 one strongly: Jan Fergus’s "Two Mansfield Parks: purist and postmodern," in Jane Austen on Screen, edd. Gina Macdonald and Andrew F. Macdonald. Fergus criticizes Rozema’s film: not only is it too short; it resorts to unnuanced caricature, and omits the social injustice Austen herself clearly does focus on. Fergus makes the point the 1990s films resort to caricature and not only because they’re shorter. Davies 1995 P&P was long but gave us a series of irritating noisy caricatures: shrieking Mrs Bennet, rowdy coarse Lydia; slimy Mr Collins.

I’d say the contrast between the 1970 and 1980 films and the films of the 1990s and recently show a pernicioius trend in popular culture today: an open jeering at serious sentiment, an area as central to Austen’s novels as her satire. The later films move away from proto-feminism because they don’t allow the other subplots (relationships between women) to emerge—with the exception of the 1995 S&S by Emma Thompson where the relationship between the sisters and mothers trumps the romance story. There’s a very good essay on Thompson’s film in the same volume as the one Fergus wrote: Penny Gay’s "Sense and Sensibility in a post-feminist world." The other later films tend to turn the women into rivals sheerly, even the 1996 Meridian Emma where some justice is done to Emma and Mrs Weston as a relationship, and an attempt to return to the importance of Mrs Elton as a version of Emma herself writ large and quite right to get back at the snobbish complacent Emma for snubbing her.

I headed this letter "Never underestimate the capacity of the BBC costume department. No matter how one splits and lumps film adaptations of older novels, they are all joined at the spine and in the heart by the use of historical fanciful costuming. I have been intensely enjoying these film adaptations of classic and high status novels, and have asked myself why.

The answer comes back: partial escape. I do like these Jane Austen ones because I so love the novels and am gratified to see them come to life. But I like costume dramas of novels I am not so engaged by and even when I’ve not read the novel. It’s the costumes, landscapes, houses, dream fantasy of beauty. Not for nothing are they called costume drama. The historical perspective "frees" us: it’s far away. At the same time the conflicts and values worked out are close to ours (or mine at any rate). Jim says the luxury and privilege of the central characters’ surroundings are part of the appeal. We are made to feel we belong to this class of people. I also like how important the characters are to one another; the emotional temperature of the lives of the characters are much more caring and intense than similar relationships in real life. It’s very appealing how much the characters mean to one another: not really like real life except in rare moments. It’s gratifying and consoling. This is central women’s emotion picture stuff.

I conclude with my categorized list as of today:

Transposition or analogies

1) Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s 1980 Jane Austen in Manhattan (an early James Ivory and Ismail Merchant production);
2) Whit Stillman’s 1990 Westerly Metropolitan;
3) Amy Heckerling’s 1995 Clueless (Paramount), starring Alice Silverstone.

Apparent fidelity

1) 1972 BBC Emma, directed by John Glenister, screenplay Denis Constantduros, starring Doran Goodwin, John Carson, Fiona Walker, John Eccles, Constance Chapman, Debbie Bowen, Timothy Peters;
2) 1979 BBC P&P directed by Cyril Coke, screenplay Fay Weldon, starring Elizabeth Garvie, Irene Richards, David Rintoul, Moray Watson, Priscilla Morgan, Judy Parfitt;
3) 1983 BBC MP, directed by Giles Foster, written by Ken Taylor, starring Sylvestra Le Tousel, Nicholas Farrell, Anna Massey, Angela Pleasance, Bernard Hepton, Samantha Bond, Robert Burbage, Jackie Smith-Wood;
4) 1995 BBC P&P, directed by Simon Langton, producer Sue Birtwistle, screenplay Andrew Davies, Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth;
5) 1995 Miramax Sense and Sensibility, Ang Lee director, Emma Thompson screenplay, starring Emma Thompson, Kate Winslett, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant, Gemma Jones, Gregg Wise, Elizabeth Spriggs, Robert Hardy;
6) 1995 BBC Persuasion, written by Nick Dear, starring Amanda Root, Ciarhan Hinds, Susan Fleetword, Fiona Shaw, Sophie Thompson;
7) 1996 Meridian Emma, written and directed by Douglas McGrath, starring Gweneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam, Sophie Thomson, Juliet Stevenson;
8) 1996 BBC Emma, directed by Diarmiud Lawrence, producer Sue Birtwistle, written by Andrew Davies, starring Kate Beckinsale, Mark Strong.

Frank reinterpretation

1) 1940 MGM Pride and Prejudice, directed by Robert Z. Leonard, written by Aldous Huxley & Jane Murfin, based on a sentimental drawing room comedy by Helene Jerome, starring Laurence Olivier, Greer Garson, Edna May Oliver, Edmund Gwenn, Mary Boland, Maureen O’Sullivan;
2) 1987 a gothic Northanger Abbey, directed by Giles Foster, screenplay Maggie Wadey, starring Katharine Schleisinger as Catherine Morland, Peter Firth as Henry Tilney, and Robert Hardy as General Tilney;
3) 1999 Miramax Mansfield Park, written and directed by Patricia Rozema, starring Francis O’Connor, Jonny Lee Miller, Alessandro Nivola, Harold Pinter, Embeth Davidtz;
4) 2005 Universal Pride and Prejudice, directed by Joe Wright, screenplay Deborah Moggach, starring Keira Knightley, Donald Sutherland, Matthew Macfayden, Judy Dench.

Working out out categories which usefully distinguish between types of adaptation is not easy since the supposedly literal faithful type can’t be, and all are free to some extent, all commentaries and interpretations too. I’ve omitted the kind of film which is overtly intertextual between books: the 1998 BBC Cold Comfort Farm, directed by John Schlesinger, written by Malcolm Bradbury, based on Stella Gibbons’s satire of gothicism. Cold Comfort Farm opens with the heroine reading a Jane Austen text and wanting to write like Austen, and with allusions to her, and the actress (Kate Beckinsale) plays Flora Poste as a type analogous to Emma Woodhouse. Another overtly intertexual film with the Austen films is the 2003 BBC I Capture the Castle, directed by Tim Fywell, screenplay Heidi Thomas, based on Dodie Smith’s young adult novel, which itself has many allusions to Austen. Once you go down this path, the connections become multiple.

I have not tried to see if there is a difference between films written or directed by women as most of them have both men and women doing central things. I mean to try another free adaptation: the 1993 Victor Nunez Ruby in Paradise (if it is connected to Austen).

The 16th film and 9th apparently faithful adaptation I’m in the midst of is the 1986 BBC Sense and Sensibility, directed by Rodney Bennet, written by Alexander Baron (using Dennis Constantduros’ 1971 script for S&S), starring Irene Richards, Tracey Childs, and Diana Fairfax as Elinor, Marianne and Mrs Dashwood; Bosco Hogan as Edward Ferrars, Robert Swann as Colonel Brandon, Peter Woodward as Willoughby; Amanda Boxer as Fanny Dashwood.

More on that another day as well as some commentary on sophisticated genuinely illuminating film criticism, e.g., Patricia Mellencamp’s A Fine Romance: Fives Ages of Film Feminism.

For now, to bed,

Posted by: Ellen

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  1. From Austen-l:

    "Ellen’s right—Anna Massie was a magnificent Aunt Norris. In the recent MP, OTOH, I found that when I asked friends what they thought of Mrs. Norris, they didn’t even remember who she was. What a waste of a great character!

    Edith Lank"
    Sylvia    Dec 23, 11:34pm    #
  2. "My late mother and I liked this very much too: we watched both MPs before reading the book (not really intentionally), and found the series much truer to the spirit of the novel, and Le Touzel’s Fanny much more satisfactory. There are nice, long sequences joining Fanny’s perspective with that of the audience, and Le Touzel includes us fully without breaking out of her introspection. It creates a strong and unbreakable bond between us and Fanny. Her silences are equally strong and deep. Nicely done (I feel the same about Amanda Root’s Anne Eliot, and like that production, generally, very much).

    I like Mary (Jackie Smith-Wood) better here, too: she is given more scope and dimension; you can watch her character developing and her value-system making moves to shift within her. As in the novel, this Mary is a both a foil and a mirror for Fanny. Anna Massey is always stupendous (like her papa Raymond, one of my favorite actors). Bernard Hepton is another family favorite, and I had little to no trouble reading the nuances within him after his return to MP, but maybe it’s because I like him much. Good, strong confrontation scene over Henry Crawford (Robert Burbage)between him and Fanny, with lots of stuff going on underneath the dialogue. The two play off each other perfectly.

    Sylvia    Dec 23, 11:37pm    #
  3. P.S. I’m now thinking my favorite film adaptations are the 1972 Emma, the 1979 P&P, this 1983 MP, the 1995 Sense and Sensibility and (not as good as those I’ve just cited partly because too short), the 1995 Persuasion. There has not yet been an at all really successful NA.

    Finally it’s the performance of the central actress that matter. The actresses which come near Sylvestra Le Tousel are Doran Goodwin, Elizabeth Garvie and Emma Thompson. Acting matters. The heroine is central.

    Sylvia    Dec 24, 12:20am    #
  4. From Judy:

    "I agree that the costumes – and the luxury and privilege they imply – are important in costume dramas and that it’s no accident we call them that – earlier this year I quite enjoyed ‘Marie Antoinette’, even though I thought it was a pretty bad film with hardly any dialogue or depth of characterisation, just because the costumes and food were so sumptuous to look at."
    Sylvia    Dec 24, 6:47pm    #
  5. I read an essay on the presentation of interiority in film today and, applying what I read in this general essay, made the following applications:

    "Voice over by central heroine-narrator used in Clueless, 1996 Meridian Emma, 1999 Mansfield Park (3). Some of this done through diary and letter writing in the two more literally faithful adaptations.

    If we include the reading aloud of letters by disembodied presences, the 1972 Emma, the 1979 P&P, the 1983 MP, the 1995 S&S (Elinor by Marianne’s bedside presumably dying); the 1995 P&P, the 1995 Persuasion, Clueless, the 1996 Meridian Emma, & the 1999 Mansfield Park (9).

    If we include heard voices over scenes, we add yet more. A frequent use of this sort of sound-bridge is found in films based on Austen’s novels.

    Another way into interiority is the flashback: we look into someone’s face and then are transported into a scene he or she is remembering, imagining. Well it’s hard to remember, but this happens a great deal (frequently) in the 1995 P&P; in a patterned way in the 1996 BBC Emma; for dreams in the 1987 Northanger Abbey. It’s a familiar technique in movies in general.

    In recent films we feel a strong desire to give Jane Austen a voice herself.

    Sylvia    Dec 24, 8:01pm    #
  6. On Austen-l, Nancy Mayer had written she thought Sylvestra Le Tousel too well-knitted, robust, too heavy to be Fanny pRICE who is (Nancy said) presented as sickly.

    So then Gracia Fay Ellwood wrote:

    "I agree about Sylvestra Le Touzel as Fanny. Her acting was very fine, but to me she gave a visual impression of solidity and strength, the same disconnect I had with Toni Colette as Harriet Smith. (By contrast, Samantha Morton as Harriet was practically perfect in every way.)"

    To which I replied:

    In the case of Harriet we are not told she was sickly at all. Emma is "the picture of health," has a hazel eye and it seems is taller than Harriet, and Harriet is small, blonde and very pretty. Not sick at all. It’s Jane who has the pulmonary complaint; in fact physically Gweneth Paltrow should have played Jane though as the implication is that Jane is darker (not fair), were the producers to concern themselves with Austen’s details, like Jennifer Ehle, they would have had to put a wig on Paltrow as Jane Fairfax.

    Sickly is just not necessarily thin. In the latter part of MP we are told repeatedly Fanny has grown to be very pretty, very alluring in fact; Sir Thomas finds her attractive and speaks of it, and so does Edmund. There is no sense whatsoever that Fanny looks ill, only that she lacks body power and is unable to get on a horse. People who are not muscular may be plump.

    I do agree, though, on Morton. I find her an excellent actress in whatever she plays. It seemed to me she "stole the show" in whatever scene she appeared. By contrast Kate Beckinsale seemed to have a lacklustre face and physique, and was not psychologically interesting in her face at all.

    Sylvia    Dec 25, 7:03am    #
  7. From Austen-l:

    "Hi, everyone :-)

    Linore wrote:

    "Oooh, Ellen, I have to defer on this point! I think Kate Beckinsale was wonderful in the part. It’s true that Regency styles didn’t flatter her nearly as much as say, Gwyneth Paltrow, but she was in my opinion very expressive. Emma as she playedit remains a very big favorite with me, largely on her account."

    I’m glad you posted this Linore, because I also prefer Kate Beckinsale as Emma, though neither of the ‘straight’ adaptations have really captured the feel of the book for me. Gwyneth Paltrow wasn’t, for me, a particularly sympathetic or interesting Emma, but then I don’t usually like her as an actress and I do like some of the roles I’ve seen Kate Beckinsale in.

    To me, Andrew Davies’ screenplay seems to concentrate on bringing out the darker undercurrents in Emma, which is very different to how he approached P&P. The Miramax Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow focused on the humourous aspects of the story.

    If only Jeremy Northam and Kate Beckinsale could have been in the same movie ;-)

    "Samantha Morton never struck me as particularly pretty as Harriet, but that is the ONLY thing I could possibly hold against her (I don’t) because I agree that her acting was precisely on the mark."

    Yes, Samantha Morton acted Harriet well, didn’t she :)

    "Has anyone seen her in, The Libertine with Johnny Depp? (OT) She plays a thoroughly different character,with equal success."

    Yes, I’ve seen this movie. If you liked it, you may be interested in Stage Beauty with Claire Danes and Billy Crudup.

    Sylvia    Dec 31, 12:35pm    #
  8. In reply,

    For me Kate Beckinsale’s type (psychological baggage carried from film to film) can be seen when you remember she also played Flora Poste in the film adaptation of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm. The type is a self-satisfied cool female presence, partly satiric at others, and that’s why Beckinsale was chosen for the role; but, as others have suggested, the take on this Emma by Davies and Birtwistle is dark, sombre, melancholy. Mark Strong plays hard macho types often, the torturer in Syriana for example. So for me Beckinsale’s type didn’t fit the film’s outlook even if in a way she does fit how some people "read" Austen’s Emma as heroine.

    I did manage to go to no less than 3 sessions on film at the MLA in Philadelphia, and kept good notes. I mean to write these up, probably put them on my blog, but I’d like to share them here in order to get comments so we can dialogue some more about film adaptations of Austen’s novels.

    Sylvia    Dec 31, 12:41pm    #

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