Austen as a Hot Property, Part III
Stop the Press: The Bust
Mansfield Park is a problematic book, and it was destined to be a challenge for a filmmaker. Fanny Price is Austen's most conventional heroine. Austen was well aware of this at the time, but she wanted to be published, she needed the money, and she was trying to give her publisher the heroine she knew he wanted. The result was predictable; all duty and no nonsense make Fanny a dull girl. However, Hollywood was running out of novels. Austen only completed six before she died, not counting the early and unpublished Lady Susan, which as an epistolary novel would seem impossible to film. Only Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey were left. Miramax had designs on both, and screenwriter/director Patricia Rozema had a plan. She would recreate Fanny Price as a budding novelist, borrow freely from Austen's letters and juvenilia, brimming over as they are with irreverent humor and zest, and put the lines in Fanny Price's mouth, making her interesting and even fun. In theory, it could have worked, if they had stopped there, but Miramax's 1999 adaptation of Mansfield Park does not. Hollywood's misguided meddling ruined yet another attempt.
Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield have noticed a familiar adaptation problem in Mansfield Park, that it "takes 35 minutes to get through the first 40 pages of the novel" (10). Most of this is due to Rozema's attempts to enliven Fanny Price, but the film really begins to slip with additions of sex and violence. Somehow, Miramax had failed to get the message that Austen's fans found the absence of these appealing. The most successful Austen adaptations, Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility, the 1995 BBC Persuasion, both 1996 Emmas, and the television blockbuster Pride and Prejudice, focus on chaste lovers and build up to a kiss at the very end. By the final scene, usually a wedding, there is nary a dry eye in the house. The absence of physical intimacy up to this point is vital. The repeated successful formula is so obvious, but not to Miramax.
In what could have seemed like a good idea only to a twelve year old male, scenes of lesbian seduction and heterosexual adultery were added to Mansfield Park. In a slinky black dress, Mary Crawford strikes a Mae West pose before a room full of men and teasingly asks "Which of you am I going to have the pleasure of making love to?" Fanny's aunt becomes a drug abuser, and a cousin, who is absent through most of the novel, is shown as a raging alcoholic. One line from the book, Fanny's question about the slave trade in the West Indies, a remark that is met with embarrassed silence, is translated in the film into depictions of gruesome violence and rape. Fanny's uncle, a benevolent but status conscious social climber in the novel, becomes a sadistic sex pervert, an evil and menacing presence even in his own home. Making room for all of this sex and violence required further editing of Austen's lines and even more compression of her plot. By the time Miramax works up to Fanny and Edmunds first tentative kiss, the jaded and world weary viewer no longer cares.
The majority of the audience for an Austen adaptation are women, possibly as high as 80% (Troost & Greenfield 5), and they tend to be educated and independent. They know what they want, and they come with certain expectations. Miramax's Mansfield Park was bound to disappoint them. As John Wiltshire notes, the film is not Austen but merely modern America in costume: "[I]t does not imitate, in the usual sense, and certainly is not faithful to Mansfield Park. Rather, it takes elements from the novels, and breaks them down, redistributing them and reconstituting them into something recognizably contemporary" (52).
The result was a box office disaster which inspired Miramax to cancel its Northanger Abbey project, scheduled for release in 2000 and all ready to begin filming on location in Bath. Miramax had also greedily swallowed up Faye Weldon's script for Sanditon, an unfinished novel Austen was working on when she died. The Sanditon script was shelved. Stinging with disappointment, Hollywood's love affair with Austen became a thing of the past, or at least for those Austen adaptations requiring period costumes.
The Sincerest Form of Flattery: The Knockoffs
The loosely based and modernized Austen adaptation is still much in demand in Hollywood; it is Austen's plot, and Austen's characters, even an attempt at Austen's wit, but set in the present, Austen unbonneted and without the corset. The first of this type was the witty 1990 film Metropolitan, based on Mansfield Park. Metropolitan's status conscious New York yuppies take the place of Austen's English gentry, but their lives, their loves, and their problems are much the same, as the Austen reading heroine informs her rather dense male friend, whose infatuation with another woman causes him to overlook her. An Austen character by any other name would smell as sweet, and Fanny Price, Edmund Bertram, and the troublesome Crawfords are all there. Although Metropolitan was moderately successful and won some critical acclaim, it would be fifteen years before another modernized Austen appeared.
According to Linda Troost, "Austenmania started with Amy Heckerling's Clueless in August 1995" (iii). An unflinching spoof of Emma, Clueless reinforced Metropolitan's premise that Austen's characters are really us. This time Highbury's residents were wealthy Beverly Hills high school students with sports cars and cell phones, but busybody Alicia Silverstone, dispensing advice and administering fashion makeovers between trips to the mall, was unmistakably Emma Woodhouse. Nora Nachumi believes that the movie was successful because the use of the first person narrator, Cher's "As if!" and "Whatever!", serves the same function as the voice of Austen's omniscient narrator and thus "faithfully replicates" Austen's irony. Nachumi further asserts that Clueless also achieves Austen's primary goal in the novel:
Although Heckerling's Clueless has been dismissed as a charming
but "light" version of Austen, Clueless is the only one of the
three non-BBC films to recognize and replicate the most
profound of Emma's ironies. The genius of Emma is that it
forces its readers to question the values and expectations they
bring to the book. (136)
Austen's premise and Heckerling's humor proved a powerful combination, making Clueless a box office success, so it was not surprising that another comedy based on Emma was quick to follow, Cold Comfort Farm in 1996, adapted from the 1932 novel by Stella Gibbons.
Kate Beckinsale plays the matchmaking Emma Woodhouse again, but this time as Flora Post, an aspiring author in the 1920s who models herself on Jane Austen and whose goal is to write a novel "as good as Persuasion." When Miss Post goes to stay with her relatives in the country, it becomes a case of Emma Woodhouse invading the House of Usher and "tidying up." Cold Comfort Farm spoofs other writers as well as Austen, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, the Brontes, and P.G. Wodehouse among them. Flora is surrounded by an assortment of crackpot and oddball relatives, more or less tortured souls who are exaggerations of characters from a variety of sources. The literary allusions lie thick on the ground, which make the film great fun for the bookish, but Cold Comfort Farm is more an adaptation of an Austen character than of an Austen novel.
Universal's 1999 Notting Hill is a very loose adaptation of Pride and Prejudice with the male/female roles switched. Mr. Darcy's class conflict is replaced by Julia Roberts's stardom, and, like Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth at the ball, Roberts offends Grant when he overhears her insulting him in conversation with a third party. Hugh Grant is given Elizabeth Bennet's embarrassing family and her opportunity to turn down a proposal from on high. Some modern films like Notting Hill may be nearly unrecognizable as Austen adaptations, but key scenes and familiar characters will give them away, if their screenwriters and directors have not already done so in interviews.
Jennifer Foster has noticed similarities in many cinema romances: "Film adaptations of Austen novels take their place alongside movies such as Sleepless in Seattle, While You Were Sleeping, and French Kiss. They share the same kind of plot, characterization, and more subtly, the same ideological under-pinnings" (56). As Austen has long been considered the mother of the romance novel, this is hardly surprising, but how little modern films have varied from Austen's original novels is remarkable. Foster notes the basic formula: "The plots are similar to Austen's plots in their theme of marriage, in their belief in love, and in shifting the focus from sex to romance by keeping the lovers apart, their love unverbalized until the very end" (60-61). You've Got Mail can be compared to Pride and Prejudice, as The Wedding Planner can to Emma, and Serendipity to Persuasion, but the romance comedy hit of the summer of 2001 was without a doubt an updated version of Pride and Prejudice.
Bridget Jones's Diary is a flagrant Pride and Prejudice spoof, or as near to being Elizabeth Bennet as the flawed and thoroughly modern Bridget is likely to get. More Lydia than Elizabeth, Bridget Jones is an Elizabeth Bennet wannabe who battles her own excesses, eating, drinking, smoking, and talking too much. As familiar Austen scenes and characters crop up, Bridget fails to rise to the occasion, or even to maintain her dignity. Lizzie Bennet's clever repartee is simply beyond Bridget's poor powers to add or detract, so sprinkled throughout the dialogue are corruptions of some of Austen's lines, and, to add to the satire, Bridget Jones cast as many Austen adaptation actors as it could muster, including Colin Firth and Crispin Bonham Carter from Pride and Prejudice and Hugh Grant and Gemma Jones from Sense and Sensibility.
Author Helen Fielding's heightened sense of the ridiculous first made the novel a best seller. A fan of the book, Roger Ebert was delighted with the movie: "Glory be, they didn't muck it up." Veteran Austen adapter Andrew Davies lended Fielding his experienced hand on the screenplay, but Bridget Jones's success in both paperback and movie forms is no doubt due to Fielding's light hearted approach, the same sense of fun Amy Heckerling used in Clueless, and this leads us back to the most troubling problem of adapting Austen, the loss of her irony and wit. However, screenwriters who satirize or spoof a novel have no obligation to capture Austen's elusive subtle humor, as long as they replace it with a sense of their own.
After the Ball is Over: The Future
Columbia took Jane Austen out for a spin in Sense and Sensibility, but the studio never called back. Miramax seems to have abandoned Austen after one bad date, a disaster of its own making, Mansfield Park. Don't blame the victim. As Hollywood appears to lack the respect and commitment that a mutually beneficial relationship requires, perhaps it is just as well. Austen would hardly be surprised. She knew the flashy Willoughby/Wickham types would drop you in a minute to chase after a girl with money. Now Miramax has taken up with the loose living, foul mouthed, mini skirted Bridget Jones instead, but she is probably more its type anyway. After all, unlike Austen, the R-rated Ms. Jones is willing to try almost anything, naughty or nice, and the audience seems willing to accept her. She's a good time waiting to happen. After the brief flirtation with Hollywood, Jane Austen appears destined to return home to her faithful admirer, the BBC, who has carried a torch for her since that first radio program in 1965.
As Andrew Davies's Northanger Abbey and Faye Weldon's Sanditon gather dust on the shelves at Miramax, the studio has sent Weldon back to her typewriter to work on The Bennet Boys, a story about five brothers in modern London who are being pressured by their controlling mother to marry for money. Sound familiar?
Sheryl Craig is an Instructor of English at Central Missouri State University. She is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Kansas and is preparing to teach a course on Austen in film and literature. A full bibliography for this article is available upon request.