I think [Trilling's] very strange. He says ‘nobody’ could like the heroine of Mansfield Park. I like her. Then he goes on and on about how modern people today, with ‘our’ modern attitudes ‘bitterly resent’ Mansfield Park because its heroine is virtuous. What’s wrong with a novel having a virtuous heroine?” (Audrey Rouget, Whit Stillman’s 1990 Metropolitan)
that disgrace to humanity, that pest of society, Elizabeth, who, murderess and wicked queen that she was confined her cousin, the lovely Mary Queen of Scots for NINETEEN YEARS and then brought her to an untimely, unmerited and scandalous death. Much to the eternal shame of the monarchy and the entire kingdom (Fanny Price, 1999 Mansfield Park)
Dear friends and readers,
Yesterday I sent off a proposal to give a talk on “What the four film adaptations have to tell us about Austen’s Mansfield Park and one another” at the JASNA in Montreal, 2014. I’ve been reading Austen’s strong novel, and re-watching all four films for the last several days, and found I like them all.
The best known is Patricia Rozema’s 1999 Mansfield Park, famously controversial, yet in many ways just another fusion of heritage, popular, romance, and Austen tropes:
The least known is Stillman’s Metropolitan whose apparently elite cast has roused intense class antagonisms and prevented some of the actors from developing a career out of a movie that at the time was much admired by high culture critics (Vincent Canby) and at the Cannes Film Festival. I have written briefly on Stillman’s in-depth exploration of the complex characters, their relationships (especially the love of Fanny-Audrey for Edmund-Tom, evocation of the worlds of young adults,
Outside the Plaza Hotel, 59th, we get our first glimpse of our Fanny-Audrey (dark-haired Carolyn Farina), Tom-Edmund (ginger-hair, trenchcoat, alone, Edward Clements) Nick (Christopher Eigemann) and his girlfriend, Jane (Alison Rutledge-Parisi), Audrey’s best friend
the theme of parental misconduct (abandonment and hurt of their adult children), the difficulty of launching a career in this apparently well-connected world and succeeding at it; its exploration of what is ethical behavior, to say little of its many allusions to Austen’s MP, also Persuasion and Emma (there is a game played where losers have to tell candid truths inside their minds and as Mr Knightley says we find such truths can be searing, destructive) and that it’s a melancholy New York Christmas movie,
I’ve defended the ceaselessly abused Maggie Wadey’s (the screenplay writer)’s 2007 abbreviated (93 minute) Mansfield Park at least 3 times, for its defense of the natural world as opposed to falsifying artifice, its hatred of bullying and stifling social conformity, and its addressing British issues of the 21st century.
And written now and again on the epistolarity, female narrator (3 of the films have this), Chekhovian feel, wonderful poetry of the 1983 film — ignored as uninventive (! — it’s ceaselessly semi-original). Ken Taylor’s screenplays, tone and pace and similar choice of plain actors (e.g., 1984 The Jewel in the Crown) has been admired again and again, while David Giles’s direction are deemed a saturnine delight (e.g., 1982 Barchester Chronicles).
Well over the week I read reviews of all the films: a wonderful defense of the 1983 film: Jan Fergus’s “Two Mansfield Parks: Purist and postmodern (Jane Austen on Screen, ed. G. and A. MacDonald); a full book on Stillman’s films with several essays on their relationship to Austen’s novels (Doomed Bourgeois in Love, ed. Mark C. Henrie), lively defenses of Rozema that I agree with (Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield in their Jane Austen in Hollywood, Alistair Duckworth in Eighteenth Century Fiction (2:4 :565-72): I really newly admired the Rozema film. It’s so interesting the many different kind of filmic techniques she employs to make humor, sexiness, pleasure-filled moments, some of the wit (though words are not her strength).
And she does continually choose women’s icons, women’s figures in the talk (Joan of Arc), brings out the feminist talk of the book (Fanny: why should I jump when any man asks me to marry him). I like the way Lindsay Duncan acted the much-put upon controlled Mrs Price this time round — her pain very real (though Lady Bertram as drug addict was overdone).
I listened to the over-voice commentaries of Stillman, his film editor, and two of the actors; of Rozema on her film, and was able to read the screenplays for Metropolitan and Rozema’s MP.
I made some discoveries.
All of them react to the movie (or movies) that came before (except of course the 1983 as it is the first film adaptation of MP to have been made), and there is an increase in intensification over areas of Mansfield Park which many readers apparently do not like: either what’s there is eliminated, or inverted, or (in the case of Stillman) defended vigorously. I discovered that the 2007 Mansfield Park does not depart any more radically from the book than Rozema’s 1999: both skip Sotherton (rather like the 1940 P&P skipped the visit to Pemberley). They are a body of films, apart from the films adapted from her other books. They are all literary: in her commentary Rozema reveals she thinks Mansfield Park was originally an epistolary novel, and all but Metropolitan have deeply subjective complicated sequences of over-voice, montage, blurring. They all have beautiful dance sequences, moments with stars.
What is the true sublime?
They all have strong heroines — Sylvestre le Tousel is internal strength itself and quiet narrator again and again. Wadey uses deep-musing subjectivity to make her narrator over-voice as a young woman remembering her childhood. Rozema makes a sort of show of her author, Fanny. Stillman does eschew his sort of thing, but in his commentary he made some sharp observations that apply to Austen’s novel as well as his film: the subject matter is embarrassing and automatically controversial because the area dramatized is social class, exclusion, he called it social pornography with its talk so explicitly about the pain of existence in an elite milieu where individuals can fall away, fall out.
Which leads me to concentrate on an aspect of the 2007 Mansfield Park which was wholly unexpected: the regulation humiliation scene found in most Austen movies, nay frequently in all sorts of movies, but paradoxically especially in costume drama (supposed meant for women viewers), this scene for the central female in ordinary movie after ordinary movie is not there!
The rationale in Austen’s case is that indeed in her novels her heroines are taught rough lessons, and older essays about her books had titles like “The humiliation of Emma Woodhouse,” and “The humiliation of Elizabeth Bennett,” but it is arguable that the scene of confession, repentance, avowal to change one’s ways, is made more central in numbers of the films.
Not all: it’s muted in Fay Weldon’s 1979 P&P, Davies just about omits it in his 1995 P&P by making Darcy’s ordeal the center of the story (he also makes Henry and Eleanor Tilney’s stories far more poignant, deflecting attention from the misogynistic anti-romance motif), but recently I’ve noticed it’s back in full force, as much in the free adaptations (Aisha and From Prada to Nada) as in some of the older ones (the S&S films all have it). Rozema’s Fanny is taught grim lessons by her biological mother to marry up (for money, Henry Crawford) which are reminiscent of the mother in Lost in Austen (you must marry is Amanda Price’s mother’s refrain).
Well almost to my surprise, Maggie Wadey changes this. She uses the theme of the education of Sir Thomas to make the confession, repentance, avowal you were all wrong and at fault, Sir Thomas’s. The climactic moment is Douglas Hodge’s when he comes home (in a scene reminiscent of the scenes of Mr Bennett come home having failed to retrieve Lydia in the 79 and 95 P&P films) without Maria. He pretty well indicts himself thoroughly and we begin to see him unbend and change his ways.
As if that was not enough, the scene (again justified by the book in part) where Edmund tells Fanny about his disillusion with Mary Crawford is turned into another self-reformation scene where Edmund asks Fanny to forgive him for being so blind. Lady Bertram is presented as knowing all along that Fanny loved Edmund (the “incest” motive is twice denied by having characters state strongly that Edmund is not Fanny’s brother and presenting Fanny’s love for William as part of her Cinderella story), Mrs Norris does really care for Maria (though she is corrosive in personality).
Wadey’s 1987 NA has not been liked, but it too eschews the girl done in by her reading by making the gothic far more real and changing language to make the famous speeches more pro-Catherine. I suggest this refreshing pattern has not been noticed because the movie has been so damned that people have not paid attention to its motives: I don’t say it’s a good movie — the loss of Sotherton and Portsmouth push it back to the one-hour TV versions of Austen which would omit visits to Pemberley (as did the 1940 movie), the Grants are dropped, and Mary Crawford made hard and mercenary,and at moments its pace and epitomizing scenes make it feel like dramatized cliff notes, so the critique of marriage is lost (but then it’s ignored by most movie-makers) and Henry Crawford oddly muddled. At least in 1999 he read Sterne’s passage about the starling who couldn’t get out, gives Fanny a wagon filled with these exhilarating birds, and is made (with Fanny) to enact the Harris Bigg-Wither proposal and morning-after rejection by Austen.
But Wadey’s script and this movie made from it breaks code in who gets humiliated, confesses, vows to do otherwise, is taught a lesson.
Having noticed this I began to see that Rozema’s also makes Sir Thomas’s conversion and remorse central, Edmund’s blindness and request for forgiveness explicit at the close of the movie. As a woman movie-maker determined to adhere to conventional notions of strength (and thus embarrassed by Fanny’s abjectness), she anticipates the 2007 movie. Not that there is no humiliation scene: there is, and it’s in Edmund’s scornful response to Mary’s long winded amoral suggestions about how to think about, what noit to do about Henry and Maria’s elopement and what they may hope for from Tom’s death, in a scene which gathers all the characters together as if this were a murder mystery. This is paradoxical and shows a lack of clarity in Rozema’s mind since Mary Crawford is a favorite character for her.
I recommend as deeply pleasurable and instructive watching in tandem all the movies coming out of a particular Austen novel. It can be another way into the nature of Austen’s text and themes to see the them transferred into different filmic conventions. The way in is to use film adaptations: when you have a group of them from one book you can examine the different kinds of relations between the successive films and the novel and the cultural and entertainment work they all perform.