Monday, January 28, 2013

Jane Austen, Meet the 80s

As many of you may know, today marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen's classic novel Pride and Prejudice. Therefore, it only seems fitting to write up today a post I've been thinking about for some time. If you guessed that this post would be about Pride and Prejudice, you would be right. But you'd also be wrong. For this post is going to address two BBC miniseries that came in the 1980s - the first one is 1980's Pride and Prejudice and the second is 1983's Mansfield Park.

The BBC's 1980 miniseries of Pride and Prejudice seems to be one adaptation of the novel that has been largely forgotten. I hardly ever hear about it, for Austen fans seem to flock either to a feature film version - generally more watered down but also an easier thing to digest, especially in one sitting - or to A&E's 1995 miniseries, which seems to have positioned itself as the screen version of the Pride and Prejudice story. However, this miniseries does a pretty good job at adapting the novel, even if it is now overshadowed by the one starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth.

If you don't know the story of Pride and Prejudice, that can only be because you haven't read the book and you should do so immediately! :) But here are the basics for those of you who aren't well-versed in Austen's novel: In Regency England, there lives a family consisting of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and their five daughters. Because the law at the time would not leave estates to women and working was an unheard of thing for gentrified ladies, the five young women will be hard off, to put it lightly, when their father dies. That is, unless they can marry well. Enter their village's latest resident, the wealthy Mr. Bingley who comes accompanied by his good friend, the even wealthier Mr. Darcy. Bingley is immediately charmed by the eldest Bennet daughter, Jane, while Darcy snubs his nose at her sister Elizabeth. But as Shakespeare says, the course true love never did run smooth, and these first impressions aren't everything. We're taken on a roller coaster year as the Bennet sisters search for happiness and love.

The casting of the 1980 Pride and Prejudice miniseries is for the most part quite spectacular. In particular, Sabina Franklyn as Jane Bennet looks and acts exactly like the darling sweetheart you except her to be, and it may be heretical for me to say, but I actually preferred David Rintoul as Mr. Darcy over Colin Firth in the role. Some criticize Rintoul as too wooden and stiff in this miniseries but quite frankly, that's who Mr. Darcy is. He is someone who has a tough time letting his hair down, so to speak, and enjoy himself in the society of others, especially at large gatherings. (Come to think of it, Mr. Darcy is pretty much the definition of an introvert, even though everyone else around him decides his manners show an air of superiority and too much pride in himself.)  I really enjoyed that the actor playing Lady Catherine de Bourgh was much younger than ones I've seen in the role previously; I think that helped to make her feel less like a bitter old maid and more like the ridiculously snobbish person who she is.

When Elizabeth Garvie first appeared on the screen as Elizabeth Bennet, I wasn't so sure I would like her, but she grew on me pretty quickly and I came to enjoy her performance, with a few exceptions (more about that later). The rest of the Bennet sisters looked and played their parts quite well, but I was somewhat disappointed in their parents. This particular rendition of Mrs. Bennet was a little too over the top for me at times while Mr. Bennet came across as rather cold. Some of that may be more in the scripting than the acting, but I'm inclined to think it was a combination of both. I was a bit disappointed in the casting of George Wickham, as I generally am, for most versions don't seem to find someone so very attractive and dashing as to woo the whole town as Wickham does. Some of the seductive qualities might have been lost in the scripting as well as the acting, but I'm once again inclined to think both are at work here, if not more so the latter. Nearly all the rest of the characters, including Mr. Bingley, Miss Bingley, Charlotte Lucas, Mr. Collins, and so on, were very convincing in their roles.

Because it was 1980 and this was a made-for-TV production, this miniseries doesn't have the fine veneer of polish that we're accustomed to these days. Sometimes the production quality is quite low, with overwhelming lighting that washes people out and the outdoor noises of feet crunching on gravel or birds chirping that are overly loud. Better editing could have been used to tighten up some scenes, such as the opening one in which we watch Mary run from the front door to the path and back again in what seems like an interminably long time to be watching something so dull and out of focus. There were also sometimes quick cuts from scene to scene, seemingly popping the viewer out of one conversation into an entirely different one with no warning. Most likely due to the poor production values, whenever there was a large party scene, characters that were not the main focus only pretend spoke (i.e., you could see them moving their lips and acting like they were very interested in one another but no words were actually being spoken), which was actually rather distracting at times. Only going through the motions like this gave the feeling the viewer was watching a high school theater performance rather than a professionally done television show.

The adaptation of the novel to screen format itself was for the most part successfully done. With a long miniseries rather than a shorter feature film length, the screenwriters did not have to cut any major parts of the story out, forced to reduce it to just main highlights. Instead, we get all the balls and trips and so on that we see in the novel. The dialogue is largely straight out the book, although occasionally lines were given to different characters in the miniseries than in the novel, which seemed rather odd. This sometimes lead to rather awkward seeming conversations, where the actor seemed to be just reading the line rather than really getting into it. (This could also just be a result of me knowing these lines so well myself now that they don't sound fresh and unrehearsed.) There seemed to be few new lines of dialogue given in this production so if Jane Austen didn't supply a suitable next line word for word, we just jumped to the next scene in that rather quick and jerky way that I mentioned above. At times though, newly introduced monologues for Elizabeth were given as voice-overs, which became rather tedious as the series progressed. Her thoughts seemed rather dithering instead of the lively ones we would come to imagine from the feisty Lizzie. Of all of Austen's female protagonists, Elizabeth seems the least suited for long internal monologues as she is the most outspoken, excepting maybe Marianne Dashwood or possibly Emma Woodhouse. These bouts of introspection seem far more suited to Fanny Price, Anne Eliot, or even Elinor Dashwood.

One good point I will give this adaptation is that it seemed to grasp the humor of Austen's novel a little more than others, which seem to focus more on the dramatic aspects of the book. It was also nice, as always with these adaptations, to see these characters come to life and in particular to see their costumes, dancing, and fine manor houses with lovely grounds. All in all, I enjoyed this adaptation and could even be induced to watch it again. But like many others, I'm still considering the 1995 A&E version of Pride and Prejudice to be favorite my screen adaptation.

Now on to Mansfield Park, which was aired by the BBC just three years later in 1983 (a very good year). This Austen novel is generally not a fan favorite (although I love it), nor is its heroine (but I feel sympathetic toward her). So it has not been adapted near as many times as Pride and Prejudice, with just this miniseries and two movie versions in 1999 and 2007, neither of which I find entirely satisfactory. (Okay, I'll admit it, I basically detest the 1999 version; I'm pretty partial to the 2007 one, but it has a fair share of faults also, including the greatly condensed timeline.) So when this one came up in conversation recently, I thought I had to find it and watch it. When I found it on Netflix, I saw that I had rated this movie and then realized that I had already seen it before. I'm not sure the most glowing recommendation of a miniseries is to discover that one had invested five or six hours to it and didn't recall its existence, even when prompted. But I decided to watch it again and see what I thought of it (again).

To back up, here's the brief description of Mansfield Park for anyone who hasn't read the novel. Young Fanny Price, one of many children in a family of limited means, is sent to live with her wealthy aunt and uncle at their estate, the titular Mansfield Park. Sir and Lady Bertram, her uncle and aunt, have four children of their own - Tom, Edmund, Maria and Julia - who are mainly standoffish toward their young cousin, except Edmund who is always sweet and kind to her. As they grow, Fanny comes to love Edmund as more than a cousin, but he is completely oblivious to this. Meanwhile, Maria is courted by the wealthy but bumbling Mr. Rushworth and Tom spends his life rather frivolously wasting money. Their little world is rather shaken by the introduction into their society of Mr. Henry Crawford and his sister Mary Crawford. Edmund's heart is almost immediately captured by Mary, to Fanny's dismay, and Henry manages to enamor himself to Julia - and the engaged Maria. It's a recipe for a disaster, and hijinks do indeed ensue at Mansfield Park.

Like the 1980 version of Pride and Prejudice, the miniseries of Mansfield Park allows for all the ins and outs of the novel, rather than completely neglecting some parts to force a nearly 500-page novel to fit into an hour and a half long movie. So this version wins points for allowing us to see all that. But while it remains true to the action of the book, we see so little of Fanny's inner thoughts that it loses something. It occurs to me now that while I was well aware of Fanny's feelings the whole time because of my knowledge of Mansfield Park, to the uninitiated it was probably unclear that Fanny was in love with Edmund and felt Mary Crawford was not good enough for him. Unlike Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny so rarely gets to speak her mind that a little narration would be helpful to understand her character and her emotions. It is worth noting that her underlying motivations were so unclear in this film because Sylvestra Le Touzel actually played Fanny the way she was meant to be played - quiet and gentle and meek. So I leave no fault at Ms. Le Touzel's feet but wish that those internal monologues that were so popular in the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice were employed here instead.

In addition to Le Touzel, the rest of the casting was very well done with a few notable exceptions. I had not recalled that the Honourable Mr. Yates was meant to be such a fop, so he seemed over the top to me but perhaps I am remembering his character incorrectly. I was not particularly fond of Nicholas Farrell as Edmund Bertram for he came across as far too smug and self-righteous for my taste. And Jackie Smith-Wood was a travesty as Mary Crawford. For starters, in every scene she was in, I was completely distracted by her short, short hair, which seemed counter to every picture of Regency hairstyles I've ever seen, although apparently some rather daringly fashionable women did have cropped bobs. As Miss Crawford is meant to sporting the latest fashions from London, I could perhaps think the hair and costume department were going for this, but her clothes in many scenes were duller and plainer than those of Maria and Julia. And, the actor herself is not particular attractive and seems a bit old for the part. I know these complaints sound rather superficial and in other circumstances, I would not make them. But recall the source material! Mary Crawford is meant to be so stunningly beautiful and charming that she nearly makes Edmund abandon his high moral ground (and arguably is successful in this on some fronts, such as the play acting or hogging Fanny's pony) and that she is looked up to by Maria and Julia because of her London fashion and air. Ms. Smith-Wood is not capable of fulfilling that role, plain and simple. She does do a pretty decent job at having a lively and pert manner, but I can hardly believe the BBC couldn't find another person who could do that also. Or at the very least give Smith-Wood a more interesting hairstyle and wardrobe.

Despite these few objections (although Edmund and Mary are large parts so not liking these actors was a big deal), I did enjoy the casting choices, as I've mentioned. In particular, I thought Lady Bertram, Tom Bertram, Henry Crawford, Mr. Rushworth, and Susan Price were particularly well suited to their roles. These actors seemed born to play these parts and I'll probably picture them in these roles the next time I read the novel. The Bertram sisters, along with their father and their aunt Norris, also were played by fitting actors. (I do have to note that I found Sir Bertram's badly adjusted wig distracting also, but not as much so as Miss Crawford super short hairdo.) A fun fact is that Jonny Lee Miller has a small part as one of Fanny's younger siblings - not only do I adore Jonny Lee Miller as an actor, but he went on to star as Edmund Bertram in the 1999 film version of Mansfield Park. However, while the casting and acting was overall well done, there were a few moments when the characterizations were a bit overblown. In particular, I'm thinking of the scene in which Fanny Price works herself up into complete hysterics over the idea of marrying Henry Crawford and the one or two scenes where Lady Bertram is not only dozing stupidly on her couch but also sucking her thumb while doing so. Both mannerisms were taking the characters a bit too far into the extreme possibilities for their personalities.

Also similar to the Pride and Prejudice miniseries from the 80s, the production values in 1983's Mansfield Park leave something to be desired. The shaky camera for the conversations within carriages particularly bothered me, although the microphones picking up some sounds more so than dialogue was also irritating at times. This was more of an issue to me here in Mansfield Park than in Pride and Prejudice because for some reason, BBC did not feel the need to include closed captioning for this miniseries. If I really couldn't catch a line of dialogue in Pride and Prejudice, I could rewind and hastily slap on the captions feature to get it but there was no such recourse here. (As I grow harder of hearing all the time, the lack of closed captioning on certain films and TV shows displeases more and more.) At least in this movie, however, they managed to figure out how to allow some background noise in larger party scenes so the actors off to the side could actually murmur to one another rather than doing the peculiar silent lip movement thing they did in Pride and Prejudice. The abrupt scene shift was not really an issue here, except when a particular episode ended. The working model seemed to be to cut the episode off at exactly 52 minutes regardless of where the story might be at that point. There were no good "hooks" so to speak to keep the viewer wanting to come back for the next episode, let alone any sort of satisfying conclusion. One episode ended so abruptly in the middle of a conversation between Henry and Mary Crawford that for a moment I thought the picture froze ... until of course I saw the credits start to roll. I suppose many Austen fans didn't need the extra something to compel them to come back for another episode, but other viewers might have and an episode conclusion that felt at least like the end of a conversation instead of the middle of it wouldn't be an absurd request.

While this version of Mansfield Park is adept at presenting the book in a fairly complete and favorable adaptation and I did enjoy it this time around as well as the first time, I still prefer the 2007 movie as the best available version at this time.

To all those Janeites out there celebrating Pride and Prejudice's big 2-0-0 today, I wish you joy! And I leave you with some questions: What do you think about the BBC's 1980s versions of Austen's novels? Which are your favorite adaptations of Austen's works?


  1. Linking this to the post I wrote for Wednesday's (1/30) blog post!

  2. Great, I'll look out for that :)