Dear friends and readers,
This film adaptation blog differs from most I’ve written in the last few years. It’s not so much an analysis of a film but in terms of its eponymous source and author, I discuss what’s left out. In the case of the Austen films which have come to form a sub-species of film (like Shakespeare adaptations), the more recent films seem to go much further from their originating text or novel matter and are intertextual with the other films in the ambiguously defined canon. They do more than appropriate their matter to contemporary and cultural and auteur purposes; what troubles me about the Austen canon is the recent films seem determined to erase central aspects of the originating author’s outlook and in so doing lose some of the value or uses the material can offer to their particular imagined audiences, in Austen’s case, women.
As the canon grows ever larger, permutating this way and that, it seems worth while to look at what’s deliberately omitted across the movies no matter which novel their source, and how when something is left it’s skewed. I’m thinking of elements like the Austen films’ ability to have a female narrator, so uncommon in all films: in Sandy Welch’s (a woman script-writer) 2009 Emma, our narrator is Mr Knightley. Or how the genre to which most commercially-driven Austen films, specifically those meant for movie-house and not TV (and not the limited audience of PBS), have been since the 1940 Pride and Prejudice screwball comedies, while the BBC and US PBS mini-series (funded by companies who want to look civic-minded) have been women’s dramatic romances, soap opera if we want to use the denigrating term (epitomized best in the 1979 Fay Weldon P&P, a striking contrast to its immediate predecessor, the 1940 film); yet recently these types are re-worked to lose some of the fundamental elements of these genres. Screwball comedies had strong females who prevailed — remember Claudette Colbert, Greer Garson as Elizabeth trumping a shy Laurence Olivier as Darcy. In Aisha, a screwball comedy Aisha is scolded fiercely not just three times, but made to get up in front of a crowd of people she doesn’t know and bare her soul, at which she encounters derision. Where are the family pathologies (the 1972 Doran Goodwin as Emma was frigid, scathing, frustrated), the fallen women (Lydia in P&P is supposed ruined, sexually promiscuous, not the victim of male abuse as is implied in the 2005 Joe Wright P&P), they become gothic Jane Eyre like. Charlotte Bronte was right yet the alienated person, bitter, is now eager to conform.
So what is happening across the canon and to individual variations of a particular book. Here we look mostly at Emmas, especially as found in Aisha.
Last week I added to my repertoire of Austen films for the first time in two years: I watched two recent free or analogous adaptations which in the 21st century way since the 2004 Gurinder Chadha Bollywood Bride and Prejudice uses Austen’s story to examine, critique or simply display another and non-Anglo culture: 2011 From Prada to Nada (Angel Gracia, Fina Torres), where the Sense and Sensibility matter becomes a sometimes seriously delving depiction of class and ethnic clashes between poorer Hispanic and upper middle American white culture in Los Angeles; and 2010 Aisha, both the 1996 Emmas (Andrew Davies, Douglas McGrath, respectively) and 1995 Amy Heckerling Clueless matter (with some memories of both Helen Fielding/Andrew Davies Bridget Jones movies) become a celebratory depiction of hugely rich Indian life in Delhi, with an excursion into Bombay/Mumbai and an expensive resort in the Himalayan mountains, Rishikesh.
As Linda Troost says in an excellent concise review these two films are part of what is an evolving Austen canon, where increasingly appropriation of Austen for purposes often quite different than Austen’s preoccupations is the prevailing aim. Not all of them do this. For example, Walt Stillman’s 1990 Metropolitan and 1998 Last Days of Disco (Mansfield Park and Sense & Sensibility with Emma respectively) and Victor Nunez’s 1993 Ruby in Paradise; (Northanger Abbey) seriously delve Austen’s own values and show their relevance or loss in our era. The central point of the 2009 Lost in Austen (Dan Zeff and Guy Andrews, mostly a re-worked Pride and Prejudice) is to ask why many readers of Austen want to retreat from their modern worlds and expose some delusions about the Austenland as imagined by many readers of the novels.
It is though, true to say, that both Aisha and From Prada to Nada as well as a couple of the transposition or faithful adaptations of recent years (the 2005 Joe Wright Lawrentian Pride and Prejudice; a 2007 anti-Mansfield Park Mansfield Park by Maggie Wadey) have a strong tendency to or deliberately wipe out or contradict central perspectives found in Austen. Troost and Sayre Greenberg have shown that many of the Austen films (faithful, commentary, analogous) reverse Austen’s jaundiced view of social life and exposure of painful family pathologies to be films which endorse the view that individual characters’ troubles come not from their immersion in a particular family (which is supportive, not adversarial) but larger unjust social and economic arrangements or other people outside the small band of good people they can turn to. There are some exceptions or this: the 1971 Denis Constanduros and 1981 Alexander Baron Sense and Sensibility (the latter said to be “very dark” and 1995 Nick Der and 2007 Simon Burke and Adrian Shergold Persuasions (the latter condemned as “neurotic”) come to mind.
From Prada to Nada and Aisha both eliminated, Aisha reversed central specific perspectives in their respective books in troubling ways that simply mirror the erasure of important problems in life for women today as much as in Austen’s time. One question one could ask of these two and those Troost cites is: as the Austen films move increasingly away from Austen’s books and instead mirror and interact with one another (or Austen sequels), how far can they leave Austen behind, even reject her and still be approached as derived from Austen? The film-makers say they appropriate Austen because she permits them to deal centrally with women’s issues, to have female protagonists and narrators central to the stories. So a second question comes when we see that the perspectives omitted are precisely those that mislead and distort women’s characters and lives.
Teresa Kenney has written a comprehensive analysis of Aisha
Aisha, Rajshree Ojha’s Urban Emma: Not Entirely Clueless, Persuasions On-Line, 32:1 (2011) so I can refer my reader to Kenney for plot-design, characters, and close-reading evaluation. I want to point out that in this depiction of the “posh” 1% of relaxed great wealth serious themes common to better Indian films as well as (separately) Austen ones have been erased. I had read that Aisha was a commercial flop when it first came out (wikipedia); certainly it lasted but one weekend in the movie-houses of the DC area. Nothing of most levels of Indian life, of the diaspora, of economic and social conflicts between traditional and modern, country and large city, of colonialism is to be found here. I liked how the songs and dances were integrated into the story and did not mind that but one was traditional, all the others being forms of contemporary global rock. But as a character says in I Have Found It, the Indian audience comes to see its distinctive movies because they want their characteristics there — to compel their passionate enjoyment and interest.
The complete absence of Miss Bates, near absence of Jane Fairfax, and sympathy for the nearly destitute and genteely impoverished we find in Emma is our clue (we are not clueless in Aisha) for what’s disturbingly missing from Aisha. I’ve been persuaded by a close-study of Jane Austen’s novels in the context of her life and letters by Pierre Joubert (JA: Etude Psychologique de la Romanciere) who has translated several of her novels. Joubert demonstrates that while we find in Jane Austen the idea of the necessity of marriage before the couples have met, and know before the characters that the marriage with a specific one is the best thing that can happen for our hero and heroine, the obsession derives from a fear on the part of the heroines (clearly seen in the books) of impoverishment. In all her novels we are led to see there is something deeply awry when a woman marries a man no matter what his nature, without regard for his nature.
Joubert argues that Jane Austen seems to call on her heroines to be willing to accept spinsterhood out of strong pride and self-hood rather marry anyone. What we find in the novels is non-marriage, self dependence freely and proudly accepted however desolating. An indirect condemnation of the husband-hunt from the get-go is central to understanding them, even the late semi-finished book, Persuasion or the one begun so early with the naive non-desperate Catherine. She gives us heroines who won’t quite be beggared or homeless but dependents on indifferently cruel or hard families. This angle of vision permits us to see how money is so important. A striking statement made early in The Three Sisters (a juvenilia) is “I had rather work for my bread than marry him”. (I dealt with this under the aspect of importance of affection and companionship in Austen in my blog on Austen’s poetry for Austen’s birthday).
The novels which gives us the most wrenching sense of this are Mansfield Park and Emma: Fanny withstanding castigation for not agreeing to marry Henry Crawford on the grounds he would make her miserable and she is not fit for him (we know he’d be bored as soon as his triumph was complete) is not our concern here, but a quartet of Harriet (desperately orphaned), Jane Fairfax (not far from it) Miss Bates (with no income once her mother dies) and Mrs Weston (poor Miss Taylor that was). Clueless kept Miss Taylor in Cher’s English teacher but it romanticized her and too re-constructed Harriet, marginalized Jane and eliminated Miss Bates.
An independent spinster English teacher (Twink Caplan as Ms Geist) with the kindly shy bachelor history teacher (Wallace Shawm as Mr Hall) — they survive into super-rich complacent aunt-uncle marrying as Aisha opens
I suggest with Joubert that Austen makes us feel the manner in which she feels her fate (in her letters and as implied author), tries to counter the notion of inferiority of women not married. He is puzzled by the “fierce outrage” as he calls this that accompanies this in the depiction of Charlotte Lucas’s marriage. I’d say it’s worse in the letters and in the way the unmarried heroines are now and again treated by other characters when it comes to regarding their marital possibilities. Mr Collins thinks Elizabeth Bennet a worst case scenario. Mary Musgrove casually humiliates her sister, Anne, continually. I’ve suggested in my blogs over the past year that Austen had lesbian impulses which went unassuaged, and the one man she passionately loved was verboten for her (Frank), a paradigm we see carried across the novels, which close readers from Isabelle Montolieu (her first translator) said gave her novels their power. We don’t have sentimental romance only hungry longing against something the heroine can not have, and then unexpectedly at the close the desired object is snatched against fate.
(My translation studies and reading what good translators have to say about Austen’s texts have given me new insights into Austen.)
The indirectly voiced cry that a woman who does not marry is not inferior and its grounding in the danger of destitution is lost from view. There is once early on in the film where Aisha voices her indifference towards marriage (showing the scriptwriter knows Austen probably), but all Aisha worked for in the film is to marry her friends to the people she considers “right” for them, and their quarrel with her is she is turning them to a wrong man, not (never) that they don’t want or need one.
But not lost is the single relationship that the heroine wants. In Aisha there is nothing forbidden about it — incest is hinted at in Austen’s Emma, brought out in the father-daughter paradigm of Knightley-Emma in Davies’s 1996 Emma, but once Emma awakens to her suddenly magical right all obstacles fall away. (A fairy tale.) The two times this relationship as a core of Austen’s novel has been done justice to on film have been the 1972 BBC Emma by Denis Constanduros and John Glenister (in this case as important as the script-writer) and the 2009 Emma by Sandy Welch. Both of these either dramatize the book carefully (1972) or re-arrange it (2007, with Mr Knightley becoming narrator at times) so as to make its backbones a series of long continuous scenes of the evolving relationship of Mr Knightley and Emma. In 1972 much is invented to add to Miss Bates’s presence; 2008 adds to this some scenes for Jane not dramatized in the novel at all.
Well here Aisha does follow suit. Aisha‘s great strength is it has profited from many of the previous films beyond Clueless. Troost and Kenney point to some of these. Well from beginning to end we have Arjun Burman (Abhay Deol even resembles John Carson, though doubtless this is coincidence) and Aisha meeting, talking, walking, conversing, arguing, debating. As they squared off in the kitchen and then laughed, they reminded me of Goodwin and Carson squaring off over cards and then laughing. Unlike the 2009 Emma the latest Indian couple does not fiercely quarrel most of the time but like the 1972 film and Austen’s book are shown to be fundamentally on the same wave length, at times guessing one another’s thoughts, capable of instant cooperation, deeply congenial even if Aisha does not want to see this.
Some of the additions from other films are directed towards strengthening Arjun as Mr Knightley’s impact on Aisha. For example, Devika Bhagat includes Arjun challenging the super-handsome stud Druv Singh (Dhruv Singh as the Frank character) on what are his intentions in the way Andrew Davies has David Morrisey as the intensely melancholy Brandon challenge Dominic Cooper as the sneering cad Willoughby. In Aisha the result is a fist fight in the bar. Austen’s plot-design has been wholly re-arranged to allow for these moments together and sequences. The very sexy dance at a club where Aisha starts out dancing with Druv and Arjun with his secretary-friend of whom Aisha is intensely jealous (a borrowed character from Bridget Jones’s Diary) ends up at last with Aisha and Arjun dancing with great erotic intensity, close to one another intertwining bodies and hands in the way of Jonny Lee Miller and Romola Garai in 2009 (and earlier Sylvestra Le Touzel and Nicholas Farrell as Fanny and Edmund in the 1983 Mansfield Park)
As Kenney notes the second half of Aisha begins to pile up hingepoints and parallels with Emma, with the Clueless triple friendship and condescending patronage of Harriet-Shefali-Tai over. Perhaps having both of Aisha’s friends, Pinky and then Shefali accuse Aisha of snobbery, indifference to them for real, utter egoism, after all Arjun’s reprobations begins to feel like overkill, but these are there perhaps to compensate for the absence of the humiliation of Miss Bates. There are no notes of tragedy or near-tragedy in Aisha; there are in Austen and in a number of the finer Austen films in the growing canon.
Shefali: it’s she who almost drowns, with Arjun saving her; she’s arguable the real heroine of the movie, she stands up for herself, and instead of trying to get back at Aisha, gives her some perceptive advice
To conclude, it’s telling that the notes that are picked up from the McGrath 1996 Emma are Gwyneth Paltrow’s ever so kind love of animals. Paltrow is seen caring for them, with a reluctant Toni collette as Harriet in tow; Aisha has taken on animals as a cause for social work, boring the hell out of Pinky and puzzling Shefali (consistently made very appealing in the film). The least used of the Emma films is Davies’s mini-series with the astringent Kate Beckinsale and the sexually troubled and aggressive Mark Strong as her seething edgy Mr Knightley and a disquieting Olivia Wiliams as Jane abject before her half-gleeful Raymond Coulthard as Frank. He makes no excuses for himself while the Druv in Aisha blames Aisha for his “wrong flirting”.