Monday, October 3, 2011

A Year (and then some) of Jane Austen

It’s been slightly more than a year since a friend and I joined the local chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA). Since then, I’ve been re-working my way through the Austen canon and have re-read Emma, Lady Susan, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park. (Regrettably, Northanger Abbey is the only one I couldn’t find as an audio book, so I haven’t re-read that one yet. However, as that was the only one I had already read twice, I feel like I know it well enough to wait longer for another re-read.) In that time, I’ve also picked up Kipling’s short story “The Janeites,” the Lady Susan re-imagining Lady Vernon and Her Daughter, and the Sense and Sensibility modern adaptation The Three Weissmans of Westport. Through the JASNA group, I’ve not only been able to discuss these books with like-minded readers, but I’ve also visited the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia, been to a Lady Susan reading at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, seen a youth theater version of Pride and Prejudice, played a Pride and Prejudice trivia game, and met the authors of Lady Vernon and Her Daughter as well as the author of The Darcys of Pemberley, which I just bought a copy of so I haven’t read yet.

Also, with all the re-reading of Jane Austen’s novels I’ve done, I’ve also re-watched (or watched for the first time) some of the various film adaptations of these novels. (I’ve also re-watched The Jane Austen Book Club, which is not strictly an adaptation but among the many things I like about this movie is how certain situations in the lives of its characters mirror plot lines from Austen’s works.) Here are my thoughts on those movie viewing experiences:

- Sense and Sensibility (2008): To start off, I wasn’t sure I would like this version. I’m pretty partial to the 1995 Ang Lee version, even if the ages are completely off and it has to cut a lot out to condense to a manageable film length, as it captures the characters and spirit of the book so well. But I ended up loving this one as well. It is true to the book, the characters are well scripted and acted (and the actor who plays Marianne actually looks a bit like a young Kate Winslet if anyone is particularly attached to Kate Winslet as Marianne), and the scenes of the English countryside are absolutely breathtakingly beautiful. It’s so well done as a whole, that you can forgive that the movie tries to sex things up a bit with the racier scenes of Willoughby (technically all stuff in the book anyway, it’s just all “off screen,” if you would, in the book).

- Persuasion (2008): I did not like this version that much the first time I saw it, but I thought perhaps that had to do with the long gap between when I read the book and when I saw the movie. Re-reading and re-viewing much closer together this time, I realize why I’m not thrilled by this movie. I realize that it is difficult to condense a novel into a movie rather than a miniseries, but it just varies too much from the actual book. I never warmed up to Captain Wentworth and felt as though the actor took a page from Colin Firth’s book and made Wentworth as standoffish as Darcy was. But that’s not Wentworth and it didn’t endear him to me. Furthermore, there was no chemistry between Wentworth and Anne, and that’s vital to a story about two people still in love with each other after all these years. Anne, being so introverted and moral, is a hard character to play but I think Sally Hawkins does okay with the role. I do absolutely love the actor playing Mary, as she is spot on.

There are several scenes that just drive me crazy in this movie. Earlier on there is a scene where Anne falls down and Wentworth has to pick her up. This is absolutely maddening to me – she’s not Marianne meeting Willougbhy! This scene replaces one in the book where Anne’s rambunctious nephew is not listening to her and Wentworth comes and picks him up to stop bothering Anne. It is a vitally different portrayal of her character – it shows her as a caring aunt; the movie replaces this vision with Anne as a clumsy walker. Not the same thing at all. As many others who have seen this movie agree, I can’t stand the scene of Anne running all around Bath; it is just absurdly out of place in this film. Also, conveniently Mrs. Smith the invalid can run up to Anne on the street and warn her that Mr. Eliot plans to marry her but keep a mistress. This is less a point of contention because I get that sometimes the transgressions of the Regency era need to be amped up for contemporary viewers to understand the enormity of the error, but it’s worth noting that this is not why Mr. Eliot is a cad in the book, and although he does eventually take a mistress, this is after Anne has already made it clear that she will not marry him.

On the plus side, like with the 2008 version of Sense and Sensibility, there are some beautiful visuals in the movie – especially of the scenery of Lyme and Bath.

- From Prada to Nada: In this contemporary re-telling of Sense and Sensibility, sisters Nora and Mary learn on their father’s death that he was bankrupt, and they are forced to move from their beautiful mansion into their aunt’s crowded home in East LA, where they learn to love, work, and get in touch with their Mexican roots.

While not everything transfers so well to the modern day, this movie (along with Bollywood’s Bride and Prejudice) highlights the almost fairytale like nature of Jane Austen’s work – her stories have become a part of the culture and influence the consciousness of further storytelling. It is funny though to see what works and what doesn’t work over the years – Edward’s secret engagement subplot doesn’t transfer so well but the cheating Willoughy (here Rodrigo) subplot does! A hard one for me to fully embrace was how Brandon transformed into Bruno who, while yes doing nice things for Mary, also had a flirtation style with her that was mainly made up of exchanging insults.

Also hard for me to like was the character of Nora, surprisingly. Perhaps it’s because I like Elinor so much that I’m more critical of who plays her but the actor playing Nora seemed to be, well, acting. It was as though she were reading her lines instead of actually getting into the soul of the character. In addition, and this was more a fault of the writers than the actor, Nora was constantly doing things that seemed out of character for Elinor, such as needlessly hitting into her sister’s car in the driveway and brushing if off, refusing a needed job because Edward already ‘helped too much,’ getting drunk on tequila at a family party, kissing her boss, and getting upset about Edward’s engagement in front of the whole household. However, there was great chemistry between Nora and Edward and, at least in the beginning, his character is portrayed as a great guy who shows up with a U-Haul full of the girls’ things from their old house and taking on a pro bono case to please Nora. I liked this because I’ve never really understood from the text of Sense and Sensibility why Elinor love Edward so much early onwhen we really don’t get a great idea of his character.

In my opinion, though, the driving point of Sense and Sensibility isn’t Elinor and Edward (or even Marianne and Brandon) but the story of the two sisters. (Remember that the title refers to the characteristics of the two girls; perhaps it is more obviously their story under the original working title, Elinor and Marianne). With that in mind, a really poignant scene in From Prada to Nada was when Nora and Mary just moved into their aunt’s house and they are reduced to sharing not just a room but a bed. In a wordless scene, their different personalities are clearly depicted as Nora wakes up in the early morning and then tucks in a still-sleeping Mary. What a beautiful use of the visual nature of film to cinematically capture the characters and their relationship to each other.

For the more minor characters, I was glad to see the John Dashwood character (Gabe Jr. here) was redeemable in the end. His wife, Olivia, was possibly far worse (depending on how you view it) than Fanny Dashwood in that she would insult Nora and Mary directly to their faces. My only qualm with her was that she was basically the only Caucasian character in the whole movie (excepting her brother Edward and the barely-present Lucy Steele character) and she was the villain. Undoubtedly, there’s been ample evidence of Caucasian books and films ignoring or demonizing characters of other races, but in the modern day with a movie set in contemporary time, you’d hope for something more diverse and not so blatantly pointing to the “other” as the bad guy.

- Mansfield Park (2008): Taking Austen’s longest book and condensing it into an hour and a half movie is a feat that requires reducing characters (poor Mr. Yates is gone altogether) and events (much is collapsed or completely brushed over, such as the trip to Sotherton), and I understand that given time constraints (and viewer’s attention spans). However, I don’t understand why some things were flat out changed - i.e, leaving Fanny behind at Mansfield rather than sending her to Portsmouth or Fanny coming out at a picnic rather than a ball. Also, some characterizations were so reduced as to be meaningless (Mrs. Norris is hardly given lines so that you get no feel for how horrible she is) or are conflicted (Lady Bertram is more sly and clever than she should be and even Fanny spends a bit too much time running about free-spiritedly to feel like the reserved Miss Price of the novel). Overall though, it’s a fairly good “reader’s digest” version that doesn’t take too many liberties and would hopefully compel viewers to become readers.

(Short aside: In the old technology days of VHS, it was possibly to tape something off of television. My copy of Mansfield Park is one such tape and as we in my family are obsessive about giving ample time for programs to run over and thus occasionally end up taping something else in addition to the intended program, I found this tape also contained a half-hour long program narrated by Kevin Kline called Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris, which was insightful and informative. And while I still can’t quite put my finger on the exact quality, Rousseau’s paintings reminded me of the Serena Perrone woodcuts I saw in Philadelphia by being both fanciful and naïve (the apparently preferred word choice to describe Rousseau’s works). To paraphrase one description of Rosseau’s work, it is both old and very modern – which I think aptly fits Perrone’s woodcuts as well.)

- Mansfield Park (1999) – On a second viewing of this movie, I recall the many reasons why I hate this version. For starters, the creators decide to present Fanny Price as an abolitionist feminist writer. They confuse Jane Austen herself with Fanny and take words from Austen’s letters and early stories and attribute them to Fanny. Not only is this confusing creator with creation, but it is a grossly bad example of it. Of all Austen’s characters, Fanny seems the least likely to be drawn from herself. I think poor Fanny Price is so unloved by many (For instance, this person, who cracks me up with his commentary but really has it out for Fanny. I can’t help but wonder what Fanny ever did to him! Sometime I feel like Sylvia from The Jane Austen Book Club, who defensively stands up for Fanny.) compared to other Austen heroines that screenwriters feel the need to mess with her character, but this version is particularly egregious. For instance, could anyone really imagine Fanny crying in Henry Crawford’s arms because she reads a letter from Edmund saying he cannot imagine any woman other than Mary Crawford as his wife? And I hate that Fanny does say yes to Henry Crawford’s proposals at one point, changing a core part of her character – her unflappable integrity.

This movie is also more explicit and sensual than other adaptations, and it particularly bothers me that Mary Crawford cannot keep her hands off of Fanny. One scene in particular (not present in the book in any way) involves Mary Crawford undressing Fanny after she was caught unawares in a deluge of rainfall and is clearly meant only to titillate as it adds absolutely nothing to the plot or characterizations.

Here and there were a few well done scenes or funny moments but on the whole these didn’t help to redeem the movie. I recall now why I watched this movie once after finishing the book and then never again. The only truly good thing was that Jonny Lee Miller (here playing Edmund) is quite nice to look at, but I could watch the Masterpiece version of Emma for him as my favorite hero Knightley and get a much better adaptation of a Jane Austen novel while I’m at it.

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