Adapting Austen: Sense and Cinematography

There are no kisses in Austen novels. And while you may be an Austen purist who owns 17 annotated copies of every single one of her novels, you must admit, a kiss at the end of a romance film is always a firework way to welcome the credits roll.

Adapting Jane Austen’s works is a tricky thing, not because she has a centuries-spanning rabid fanbase, but because she’s singularly one of the wittiest writers that the English language has ever seen. Whether her heroines are passive or passive-aggressive, they all interact with the other characters with such nuance that doesn’t just drive the romance, but comments on courtship, class-separations, gender-relations, and society. Some of the best Austen quotes are not even in the dialogue but in the description. She pins everything down with such wit and moral grayness, whilst being completely understandable and enjoyable. Is it any wonder girls still swoon to Mr. Darcy today?

The world of film jumped right onto that fandom as soon as it could, of course. The earliest Austen film is from 1938. Over the years, the titles have just multiplied, up to the point where very single of her novels has at least two film counterparts. Nevertheless, the criticisms continue. Entire books have been written about how to make a successful Austenian adaptation, if such a thing exists. But what are the consistent compromises directors make in transposing Jane Austen’s worlds onto screen?

The arguable biggest strength of film is that it is visual. This means more than just casting two incredibly good looking people as your leads, although that certainly helps in catching attention. It means that while novels may “transcend sense”, films allows the establishment of characters and contexts through visual cues rather than scenes that, while hilariously written, may not fit a generous two hour running time. In removing these, one can focus on elevating the more compelling characters — something Emma Thompson did in her screenplay for Sense and Sensibility (1995), with the male leads Colonel Brandon and Edward Ferrars. An Article in the Atlantic argues that departures from the original narrative were necessary to include proto-gender values. And whether that was better for the story or not may be arguable, but it did make our two heroes all the more appealing to a modern, worldwide audience. In general, less restrained male affection to convey modern sensibilities as opposed to eighteenth-century sense is a running theme in Austenian adaptations.

Meanwhile, Roger Mitchell’s Persuasion (1995), a film which I personally love very much and am incredibly defensive over, is a film that rejoices in the realism – this time in the form of class issues, and with much less prettiness or grandness than standard period film fare. Here, even the rich and the righteous get messy, find their clothes difficult, and have “bad teeth and unkempt hair”. This lack of prettification — that one may interpret as also being embodied by its’ more seasoned lead couple — may have had something to do with the film’s modest success. People no longer want a sense of seriousness with Austen, they want a sense of fancy.

This balance is arguably what Joe Wright achieves with Pride & Prejudice (2005). Wright renders a more “realist” approach to Austen, in terms of context, whilst elevating the wish fulfilment aspect of the romance. We do see pigs running around and mud getting on dresses that are plain and down-to-earth compared to other period films. But then again, we also see Darcy walking through the fields, practically naked by Regency-standards, as the sun rises behind him and the piano music swells. Wright says in his DVD commentary that as they filmed Matthew Mcfayden with his shirt open, blue coat billowing, walking towards Lizzie to declare his love, one of the makeup-artists behind him whispered “I wish that was my life”. Of this, he says, “Wish fulfilment serves a purpose. A lot of people consider it a cop out…but I think wish fulfillment’s really important in drama.”

And there’s the bit. While the story is a drama no matter where you put it, film dramas are different from novel ones. Stewart-Beer is correct in saying that the strength of the film, despite its’ departures that first generated criticism, is the subtleties. Wright plays a largely restrained love story, again, through visual cues. The anxieties and the longing are visible in the silences and the hand flexes and quick gazes — all things that literary text could only allow so overtly. Wright directs all this, against the backdrop of magnificent scenery and stunning cinematography, showing unmistakably that he was less concerned with poring over every word Austen had then making a beautiful film that communicated what was basically necessary.

Visual-ness also has the benefit of communicating certain levels of romantic fantasy and subtle eroticism. Clearly, this benefits the fan-fluttering audience, but done well, it also adds to the interactions of these characters, presenting their desires as something more relatable and elevating whole films into more feminist or feminine-view-benefiting overtures.

Still, one cannot disregard Austen’s word. One doesn’t need to work on it for so long as Thompson and her 5 years converting Sense and Sensibility to screen. However, things like Mansfield Park (2007) that was liberal with not just the plot but the characters and the dialogue and even the fashion, go about it much too liberally. Hayley Atwell and Billie Piper certainly try their best to elevate it, but they were trapped by a clunky script. It resulted in plenty of scathing reviews from loyalists (my favorite of which is the one up on austenprose) and a feeling of predictability from casual fans. The 1999 version of Mansfield Park treats the whole story with less levity, and even adds a whole sub-plot about slaves in America, but makes our lead Fanny, so headstrong, she becomes more modern and likeable to a casual viewer but indistinguishable from Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth for a fan. Both of these renditions of Mansfield Park are certainly enjoyable and makes the butterflies in your stomach take wing, but neither serve as particularly great adaptations. I am inclined to argue that this is also because the subtleties this write-up has touched upon repeatedly aren’t present — in fact if anything, a lot in these two renditions are pretty heavy-handed, whether in the romantic or dramatic aspect. People chase each other, Fanny narrates to the screen, there’s an actual sex scene, Edmund blatantly stumbles over his own confessions — it’s enough to make anyone take pause.

These are just slim pickings of the many Austenian onscreen adaptations — we haven’t even touched all her novels, nor film modernizations (that’s a later blog post) — but I’m not here to write another book about Austenian adaptations. Suffice it to say, my personal consensus is the same. Film has to be watchable, but taking a title from a source material needs to imply a level of sameness. Otherwise, it’s a different story entirely. There will never be a perfect 100-to-100 transposition of Austen’s novels — with how much subtlety she imbued into them, it is simply impossible. But in filmmakers attempts to aspire to capture as much of that essence as possible while doing their jobs of entertaining their audiences, they need to commit to their balancing act of transposing modern values and social commentary of the present onto the past, while bringing the wish fulfillment and romanticism of the past to the present. If they are able to do so while sticking to more than just the barest bones of the plot or warping their leading ladies to fulfill postmodern “strong female character” insistences, it is a step in the right direction.

Austen already has a lot in her book. Instead of taking all of it or next-to-none-of-it, it’s up to filmmakers to cautiously take what is necessary and hopefully make it better, kiss or no kiss.

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