From the Emma discussion in The Jane Austen Book Club (Robin Swicord, all the principals gathered together over their books)
Dear friends and readers,
I’ve decided to blog about my long-term book project, A Place of Refuge: the Jane Austen Film Canon. I started it an embarrassingly long time ago now: 2007. Since this past March or so (when I taught a course on Jane Austen novels at the OLLI at AU) I’ve been keeping it up intermittently, sometimes consistently for a couple and more hours a day for a week or so or more, and then again, less so when I’m writing a review or (as I did last week) helping to referee a paper for a peer-edited journal (on a 17th to 18th century woman writer, Catherine Trotter Cockburn). I’m returning to using this Austen reveries blog for working out thoughts.
Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwood when she thinks she will spend her life alone (long a favorite still with me for the strength of endurance she manifests) (2008 JA’s S&S)
I began the study with the goal of enabling myself and other readers of women’s novels and lovers of film to understand Austen’s Sense and Sensibility better, in some circles still underrated and her first published novel. I wanted to raise the status of this book generally too; following Roger Shattuck’s Forbidden Knowledge, its relevant dramatization of male and female sexual awakening and coming of age. My method has been to examine how and what elements in the text were transferred to a group of film adaptations of it and then compare the transference of these elements between these films. It’s been my experience that close comparative film adaptation studies enable the reader to reach deeply into the archetypes and workings of a text more than any other method. I also value the Austen film canon as a subset of two important kinds of movies combined: romantic and costume drama: it’s a rare coherent body of work which uses female narrators, looks at life from a woman’s perspective, and contains a number of film masterpieces and a variety of kinds of films. So I have also studied the six Sense and Sensibility films as works of art in their own right to bring out the peculiar set of cultural meanings conveyed by each film.
Alan Rickman as the enthralled melancholy Brandon (1995 S&S)
Basically I managed to write a Prologue to Part Two showing that one important source for Sense and Sensibility was Isabelle de Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfield and that uncannily some of the archetypes underlying S&S as found in Montolieu’s work show up: such as the Brandon figure as someone the Marianne character falls in love with and for whom she is a revenant. I wrote about the 1971, 1983, 1995 Sense and Sensibility Heritage films, and the 2000 I Have Found It. So 5 chapters. I got bogged down when I got to the 2008 Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility because I couldn’t manage to contextualize Davies’s film in a small enough compass (a 6th unfinished chapter), and then I was defeated by a life crisis of overwhelming dimensions during which time another very successful appropriation of S&S was brought to the theaters, From Prada to Nada, about which I did write blogs at least. I hope to finish the 6th chapter and write a 7th on the Hispanic S&S. There has been yet another S&S film, an appropriation which I’ve seen, Scents and Sensibility which moves the material into a fable about the commercialization of romance. I have not begun to watch it often enough to say more.
As I studied the S&S films, I realized in order to make these films and this book significant beyond a still stigmatized and to some extent ghettoized readership, the Janeites, and groups of viewers who like costume drama, soap opera, TV serials based on classic books, I would have to place my study in the context of central issues debated in film studies in a consistent thorough way. The central section of this book rather simply allows Austen’s novel, one of its important literary sources and then the films themselves to set the agenda and structure of what is discussed.
It is my view that the screenplay adapted and worked up into a visual and auditory experience capable of absorbing an audience has been paid insufficient attention to, is wrongly overlooked, its role underrated. Most of the time they are not published anywhere or presented in such a doctored form (as a novelization of the film) as to be unusable as a basis for comparison. The exceptions are individual cases where the film has been such a success or its eponymous novel is so respected or the scriptwriter him or herself gained attention as an artist in his or her own right. yet many of them are literary works of value in their own right, or at least enough of them. We are very lucky when it comes to studying scripts in the Austen canon: she is a cult figure with a world-wide following, a number of the script-writers and directors of her films are respected film auteurs with a recognized body of film work studied in its own right. It is therefore possible to study a number of the scripts in the Austen canon in the context of film work outside Austen, and romantic and serial drama. Some are appropriations drawn from an intermediary analogous novel to the Austen one limned and that may be compared.
Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth and Matthew Rhys as Darcy discussing how they should view Georgiana’s desire to marry a young lawyer, Henry Alveston (Death Comes to Pemberley)
Talking together in bed
So I’ve spent much of my time on this book in the last few months first reading about screenplays, then sampling non-Austen ones, and finally taking down with great delight every word of Death Comes to Pemberley and The Jane Austen Book Club while I watched. I’ve now gone on to read the published screenplays or shooting scripts of Metropolitan, Ruby in Paradise, and Andrew Davies’s Emma.
I’ve asked myself what features these have in common, how are they distinct from non-Austen romance and mini-series or comic movies.
This book could be a triptych, with an opening part having the aim of understanding how the key instrument of the script repeated across the body of film work that makes up the Austen film canon is turned into a movie. I was interested to see what happens when in appropriate films there is no intermediary analogous novel (Lost in Austen and Metropolitan), where there is one (Death Comes to Pemberley and The Jane Austen Book Club), and how these compare to those screenplays-films where the immediate source is an Austen novel (however inflected by film genre and intertextualities of all sorts). What about a film like Davies’s 2007 Room with a View where he has read back into Forster’s novel its source material in Northanger Abbey and allowed the later character relationships to comment on Austen’s own. I would be answering the question, Is there a subgenre, the Austen films and how does its underlying material (the novels, the letters, favored ideas about Austen herself comprise itself.
I hope to post some of the material I gathered about the individual screenplays. I especially enjoyed all the discussions of the Jane Austen novels in Robin Swicord’s The Jane Austen Book Club, the way Juliette Towhidi reworked P.D. James’s maturation and darkening of the characters of Darcy (he is made more understandable, more consistent) and Elizabeth (she hurt and disillusioned by the experience of how she is treated by others) after a few years marriage in Death Comes to Pemberley. I had surmized that direct violence inflicted on women was not seen in Austen films, but attempted rape is central to Ruby in Paradise, and (piquant to me) that Aubrey Rouget in Stillman’s Metropolitan is modeled on Audrey Hepburn (from the 1957 Love in the Afternoon (a weak late romantic screwball comedy). Films alluded to in these films (watched by the characters too) include the 1966 Un Homme et Une Femme, and Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (in two of the films), which I admit I once fell asleep on.
Ashley Judd as Ruby and Todd Field as Mike McCaslin (1993 Ruby)
I discover that some of these screenplays really stand on their own as poetic texts (Nunez’s Ruby in Paradise), that the effect of reading them is different and enrichening in ways that experiencing their realization in film loses (Davies’s Emma is a visionary text, things are constantly dissolving into dreams and we can’t always tell whose the dream is; Stillman’s literary thoughtful Metropolitan). I want to do justice to their peculiar typical cyclical structures. The beauty of the portraits of fleeting moments is unobtrusive in Nunez’s (surprising perhaps in western impoverished Florida, even junkyards) but there, and there in all the best of those on the evocative romantic end of the Austen spectrum.
Olivia Williams as Jane Austen very pleased to see three of her books set up by Clarke in the Prince Regent’s London home (Miss Austen Regrets by Gwyneth Hughes and Anne Pivcevic)
A last problem is the snobbish devaluation of these films, one writ large in Austen film studies: the legitimate question would be, why are a set of books concerning a small sub-set of privileged people who experience hardly any violence, minor losses, and where the author displays an unawareness, even indifference to central issues or norms maiming the larger society upon which the community of characters depend endlessly discussed, rated almost hysterically high, filmed and re-filmed continually? One would have to study frankly the flaws and problems in her books, by studying the struggle film-makers have had turning her last three published full novels into films: Emma goes on to long and too little literally happens for a film theater; two of the books are partly unfinished or truncated books, named by her brother Henry, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. There are fissures in P&P, S&S and MP from all the years of revision. I want to see what are the assumptions film-makers make about the reading experience audiences have had with an Austen novel and expect to have analogously in watching an Austen film.
Amanda Price (Jemima Hooper) reading Pride and Prejudice (Lost in Austen)
The strange film Austenland, a creditable failure, ia intended as a kind of commentary on romance readers of Austen: I’ll make a separate blog on this. film-makers try to counter what they think makes many contemporary readers, especially women uncomfortable when they read Austen (Austen’s Fanny Price, anyone?) and what have the film-makers done to compensate, erase, replace these elements in Austen’s texts. The biopic, Miss Austen Regrets, based on Austen’s letters and Nokes’s biography is important here.
So next up in this series of blogs will be the discussions of Jane Austen’s novels found in The Jane Austen Book Club — whence my opening still. I hope to carry on the Austen Papers though few are now joining in: the book is insufficiently annotated and there are no texts by Jane Austen, and return to blogging about my Valancourt edition of Smith’s Ethelinde which is coming along now: completely typed and annotated up to near the end of the fifth and final volume.
Of course I’m now trying to make the time of my bereft life (without Jim) as endurable I can. I derive some pleasure watching, studying, reading and writing about this ever-increasing subset of movies. They help me to forget where I am, how silent this house, to yes escape.
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