Posts Tagged ‘screenplays’

Christmas at Trenwith, Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza questioned by Caroline Blakiston as Aunt Agatha (Poldark, 2014, Season 1, Episode 4 — corresponding to the last quarter of Ross Poldark

Christmas at Nampara, Angharad Rees as Demelza with the children carolers (Poldark, 1976-77, Part 8, Episode 2 — corresponding to last quarter of Demelza)

Friends and readers,

Last year I commemorated Christmas with a blog essay showing how central a role the Christmas or Winter Solstice seasons plays in the cending of a number of the Poldark novels. I went on to show how the passing of the seasons is also emphatically realized across the Poldark novels, to link them to one another, and the land, landscape, & seascape in Cornwall. This fits them deeply into traditions of writing and art about Cornwall (see Ella Westland, Cornwall: The Cultural Construction of Place) from DuMaurier to lesser knowns Rumber Godden, Denys Val Baker, and then again to Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse).

This year we’ll dive into the experience of two of these: To begin with, Christmas at Trenwith (Ross Poldark)

Ross Poldark shows us where the first Christmas Ross and Demelza are married: they are invited to Trenwith, and find themselves struggling to keep the identities they are building against the undertow of great old house, grounds, a cultured family for generations back, military norms (you name the obstacle), and come together through music (December 1787).

Aidan Turner as Ross, with Demelza walking there

There are five phases to that first Christmas at Trenwith in the book (Book 3, Chapters 7-11, or the last), and I equally enjoy its slow realization (Season 1, Episode 4) In the book I find the complex characterization of Demelza’s encounters with each of her new relatives, especially Frances; Ross’s fluctuating feeling about Elizabeth, his relationship with the rest of his family, his pride in its history (which separates him from Demelza, the conversation, the rivalry between Elizabeth and Demelza as musicians (some of it taken from Austen’s Emma), their discomfort and the threat they feel to their relationship, but how their deeper congeniality and values overcome this; in the film I can’t help but dwell (as they do) on Demelza’s uncertainties, dress, when more characters are brought in than were in the book (beyond the Trenegloses, with a very catty jealous Ruth Teague, Warleggans come in) and we have Demelza’s song in the evening.

Demelza dressing for dinner

At dinner — a table full of characters


I’d pluck a fair rose for my love
I’d pluck a red rose blowing
Love’s in my heart, a-trying so to prove
What your heart’s knowing

I’d pluck a finger on a thorn
I’d pluck a finger bleeding
Red is my heart, a-wounded and forlorn
And your heart needing

I’d hold a finger to my tongue
I’d hold a finger waiting
My heart is sore, until it joins in song
Wi’your heart mating
(Poldark Complete Scripts 1, Episode 4, Scene 96: Int. Trenwith, pp 244-45)

In fact the 2015 film reverses the meaning of the book: in the book the two are almost torn apart, the pictures and furniture especially get in the way; Elizabeth and Ross’s private talk drives a circle around them apart from the others, and equal weight is given to Elizabeth’s delicate renditions of Mozart and a canzonetta by Handel are as alluring as Demelza’s folk tune. In their mutual talk and love-making upstairs they renew themselves as a pair

Graham’s Ross Poldark: at the house as they begin to adjust: “the strength of the past could not just then break their companionship:

Demelza sat there, her arms behind her head, her toes stretched towards the fire while Ross slowly undressed. They exchanged a casual word from time to time, laughed over together over Ross’s account of Treneglos’s antics with the spinning wheel; Demelza questioned him about Ruth, about the Teagues, about George Warleggan. Their voices were low and warm and confidential. This was the intimacy of pure companionship.

The house had fallen quiet about them. Although they were not sleep, the pleasant warmth and comfort turned their senses imperceptibly towards sleep. Ross had a moment of unspoiled satisfaction. He received love and gave it in equal and generous measure. Their relationship at that moment had no flaw.

In the 2015 episode the experience unites them with their family members, Demelza to a much nicer Elizabeth than in the book, and Frances accepting Demelza as he sees that Ross is far happier & satisfied than he. Much as I enjoy the richness of the varied scenes of Horsfield’s drama, I prefer Graham’s book here: it’s more nuanced and about inward life, for it is only in coming home, the walk away, outside in the natural world of Cornwall where there is no human ordering, that Demelza thinks more accurately about what she has seen (Frances bored, Elizabeth strained, Verity without), and Ross’s spirit is truly lifted

Someone — a Latin poet — had defined eternity as no more than this: to hold and possess the whole fullness of life in one moment, here and now, past and present and to come.

He thought if we could only stop life for a while I would stop here. Not when I get home, not leaving Trenwith, but here, here reaching the top of the hill out of Sawle, dusk wiping out the edges of the land and Demelza walking and humming by my side.

He knew of things plucking at his attention. All existence was a cycle of difficulties to be met and obstacles to be surmounted (Ross Poldark Book 3, Chapters 10-11)


One of the poor children come caroling at the gate and window of Nampara

Now three years later at Nampara (Demelza). Their daughter now two, Ross’s copper smelting business and it seems his mine too are being thwarted and control through shares taken from him, and Demelza feels she has wronged Ross and the Poldark family by facilitating Verity’s romance and marriage to Blamey. But Verity’s letter intervenes, she thanks Demelza for enabling her “to make my own life,” he and Demelza are then next seen having a modest celebration where she tries to borrow a substantial sum from Sir Hugh and is rebuffed by all.

In the 1975 film Sir Hugh Brodrugan and Lady Constance are at Nampara

Robin Ellis as Ross relaxing (Season 1 Episode 8, Part 2)

Not in the revised Demelza at all, but in the 1975 film there follows in the film a brilliant strained scene over Christmas dinner between Frances, now drinking all the time, lonely, going for mistresses, and having told George Warleggan who the men are in the Carnemore Copper Company after the flight of Verity and his blaming Ross. Elizabeth has told him she means to leave him. The dialogue is acute, painful, utterly believable. In the first version of Graham’s Demelza (he cut down the 1947 version later), there are more scenes between Elizabeth and Frances and there is something of a loss in the book because we are not watching them fall apart bit-by-bit, so the 1075 film-makers supplied this:

Scene begins when Clive Francis as Frances comes to the table, Jill Townsend as Elizabeth with Stefan Gates as Geoffrey Charles already there

Trying to carve

At Trenwith Frances hysterical with grief, remorse, self-hatred, guilt, loneliness (still Season 1, Episode 8, Part 2)

In Graham’s book, we hear of how the other men and families are being hard hit by the Warleggans now that they know which men were in the Carnemore company, and they are invited to Werry house by the Constance, Lady and Sir Hugh Brodrugan:

Demelza with Christopher Benjamin as Sir Hugh Brodrugan

As our narrator tells us, “Christmas passed quietly inside Nampara and out — the calm before the storm.” There is some fascination in the completely disordered house, in the behavior of the host and hostess before the fire, and how they have a managerie of animals inside the house: “a family of owls, some dormice, a sick monkey, a pair of raccoons. Downstairs they went again to a passage full of cages with thrushes, goldfinches canary birds, and Virginia nightingales.”

In 1975 three couples are paralleled, contrasted and the effect of all three scenes, with a fourth just below, are deepened. All this before a gale brings a wrecked ship onto the beach, and a riot over “the flotsam and jetsam” ensues. It is after this that Demelza goes to nurse a desperately sick Frances Poldark and Elizabeth too, then returns to sicken her baby, herself and Julia die while we wait to go in the theater (Demelza, Book 4, Chapter 2). Arguably the 1975 serial drama improves on the book — if you discount the loss of Werry House


Later in the evening, in the 1975 film, Richard Morant as Dwight Enys drops by and three become cozy and comfortable, when a message comes to say Frances is deeply ill; and while Ross at first forbids Demelza to go, she declares she will anyway go with Dwight to help them

The two sets of serial dramas make opposite choices over these two Christmas: as to the first Christmas, the 1975 Poldark simply ignores it (!), substituting a slew of events not in the book at all; the 2015 Poldark lovingly, lingeringly recreating every phase of first Christmas in this first Poldark book. In the case of the second Christmas, the 1975 Poldark elaborates upon Christmas somewhat more than in the book to create a sense of poignancy, loss, and desperation amid an ethic of stoicism before the hell of tempest, fatal illness, and despair take over. Here the 2015 Poldark skips Christmas altogether in order to dwell more at length on aspects of the bitter close of the book the earlier film skips: like George Warleggan’s urging Frances successfully to betray Ross and Ross’s white-hot anger at Demelza when she confesses it was she who brought Verity and Blamey together and enabled them to effect Verity’s escape from a frustrated semi-servitude to her family.

Let us look upon all four iterations as enrichening our experience and be glad of them all.

Dear reader, in another year if I’m here and you are here, and we can do this again, I will cover another two of the end book Christmas or Winter Solstices in the Poldarks. Today is among shortest days of our year and I hope I have brightened it for you as I have occupied myself absorbedly.


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Emma Thompson, with her mother, Phyllida Law

Dear friends and readers,

Last night I watched on PBS Great Performances Emma Thompson steal all attention in a concert performance of Sweeney Todd from Lincoln Center (I have yet to discover who was the director) with Byrn Terfel as Sweeney, astonishing if you consider his extraordinary voice against her comic caterwauling. Entertaining (vivid, full of a sense of witty there-ness), it nonetheless did not match the dark and somber — and wildly exhilarating version I saw years ago (16 years ago now, Signature Theater’s opening show) directed by Eric Schaeffer where Todd is a man in an insane rage over what the world has done to him, and the magnificent Donna as dark and saturnine as he is mad, and somehow wildly comic, with blood everywhere, and continual death — but this version does make sense of all the music equally. The darker versions don’t know what to do about the lyrical couple. This Lincoln Center director had re-conceived the piece to be more like a Victorian music hall, partly to accommodate Thompson’s vein of quizzical nervous comedy. The lovers’ duets are done in a analogous vein of an ironic comedy that defuses deeper disquiet, and leaves Sweeney more humanly accessible. It was striking too how Lucy now the mad beggar also emerged as more important, a kind of opposite to Mrs Loveit. You might say this was a woman’s Sweeney Todd as Todd’s daughter became an icon of escape on the stage.

Emma Thompson as Mrs Loveit in the Lincoln Center production of Sweeney Todd: her nervous comedy reminded me of other of her performances and was made to fit perfectly

All this to introduce a transcript of selections from an interview about screenplay writing between Thompson and Charles Brock, a central topic of which is her screenplay for the 1995 Sense and Sensibility, directed by Ang Lee.

Jeremy Brock began by asking about her father, Eric Thompson who wrote the playlets for the Magic Roundabout. She said her father would watch the pictures of the Magic Roundabout – and write words for pictures. In screenplay writing you write words for the moving pictures. He did not write for children as if they were separate human beings but for adults and children as of one species.

The Magic Roundabout (Jim and I have watched these together; they are intelligent children’s entertainment, piquant to an adult)

She started writing and performing sketches when she was 16: monologues and sketches from Footlights was what she grew up with. Andy LaTour and she were doing stand up comedy – musicals in Australia – Al Fresco in Manchester – earning money doing sketch shows – and they then went to Edinburgh.

She got a commission to write a sketch show in the 1980s (1986), which she regards as an important signal in her life because it was such a massive failure –- yes it was all political, against that right de seigneur as practiced in modern film-making, against dieting (auto-cannibalism). No one seemed to watch and the reviews said “this is very man-hating.” She felt she loved men, and told herself this is what it feels like to be here writing shooting scripts as a woman now. So she never wrote another monologue or another sketch. It was a violent experience: she had wanted to be Lily Tomlinson.

She: men’s jokes are something this lead to an ejaculation at the end. Women’s comedy is more circular: big laugh, little laugh her, and then big laugh. Goes hand in hand with orgasmic nature.

She then suggested that screenplay writing is a kind of negotiation with a film industry.

On her two best-known successful screenplays become films:

Branagh and Thompson in a typical moment from Dead Again

How did Sense and Sensibility come to her? “It came to me because of that sketch — the sketch she was so attackd for: they showed that series in the US on some obscure channel.” Lindsay Doran produced Dead Again, and as Emma’s friend, Doran thought that’s the woman I want to adapt a Jane Austen novel. Thompson said she’d have preferred Persuasion. “I’ve never adapted anything … I’ll have a go.” She is told to begin by dramatizing the whole book, see what works, and then take out what she wants and link everything together through tiny connectives. Thompson’s first script was 600 pages long and the task was to distill.

“You end up with an imaginative invention of your own. First you adapt the whole thing and much of the language in S&S is arcane.” Thompson said several times she writes her first drafts by hand. She went through 17 drafts over five years for the 1995 S&S. She was not doing this all the time –- she produced one draft while they were shooting Much Ado About Nothing affected by experience. Doran said throw it out and go back to the one before. Everyone needs a good editor – really good at knowing what’s good and what isn’t – editing in film is highly regarded . She, Emma, couldn’t write a decent screenplay without a good editor. Unless you are in conversation with someone you can’t get to final draft – it’s a collaborative writing.

What was nature of Elinor emotionally as seen by Austen and then translated by Thompson, realized by Lee – “Emma’s language is arcane [she kept saying this], late 1700s. What Elinor comes to stand for is the honor of a man,” not the same as virginal intactness. “Elinor Dashwood holds to honor and duty;” Ang Lee has the same line (as above scene), in Eat Drink Man Woman: “What do you know of my heart?” meaning also, “How does a woman act to be honorable? What is honor to her? What her methods?” (Is integrity to tell the truth is about it? yes, I think so.) What’s interesting here is Thompson gives weight and gravitas to Elinor’s decision to keep Lucy’s secret, to support Marianne. They become not just steps in a romance.

Thompson with Kate Winslet as Marianne

Emma Thompson went from there to ask and to answer the question, What is a female hero? Where is she? What does she do? She suggested we need to define and see female heroism existing in the ever flowing river of human behavio … in details Detail of human life acts of heroism stitched into last flow. This reminds me of George Eliot’s praise of Dorothea’s life at the close of Middlemarch, but she went on to say for her it’s not enough to know you’ve protected others and helped them by your little acts of heroism. She’d also to be the one who goes out and be the active hero – she instanced Clint Eastwood.

On the Jane Austen society: “she’s very protected,” and her adherents easily “excited.” They had been no picture since 1940: she means movies, reinforcing this idea that what’s on TV doesn’t count. Thompson told someone in the JASNA organization that she had cut Nancy Steele and the person walked away – the woman was so appalled.

She then talked of Elinor and Edward as characters and said she saw in them the potential for a connection to contemporary relationships. Edward and Elinor (she and Hugh Grant) had to lay in a deep humorous understanding of one another, a shared sense of honor. There is a frisson of sexuality embedded in Austen indirectly and as screenplay writers you write it into the script directly. The script is the muse for the performer; you leave open for such a thing to have happen offstage: our problem is how little we know of Austen from her letters since so many were destroyed: I did like how she said “I want to kill Cassandra for burning much of JA’s correspondence. The books show selfish people getting what they want, they stay selfish, Lucy is extremely selfish and carries on; that is the realism of Jane Austen.

So how do you approach a classic novel: you must bring your own feeling to the work. The way it’s done is dramatize the book. Go through it dramatizing as you go, and then start to cut. You eventually recognize some keystone, some central crucial incident or theme and build a structural integrity around that. This keystone enables the director to navigate the filming the film, or it’s a loadstone attracting everything to it like a magnet. You build around keystone if it’s taken away, the arch of the film’s arrangement of scenes will fall. It has these angles to it. The screenplay holds water like a balloon – a good one will carry on holding its water, some water might move and change shape but not burst.

Great screenplays – making a screenplay to film — after dramatizing the whole book, you take out the bits that don’t work. You have to cut the bits that don’t work. Essential in screenplay you’ve adapted it to film, I can see it, it’s implicit, there already, so I don’t need to have that scene

In thinking of her screenplay for Sense and Sensibility, she remembers Howards End where Margaret talks so famously of only connect. Everyone said and Jim Ivory too, we’ve got to have it in. Well theye shot it, and in the movie it wasn’t there. We didn’t need it; the idea of only connecting was watched all movie long.

Adaptation process is double: there’s book to screenplay and screenplay to film. Editing is the final rewrite of the film where people see what the film doesn’t need. Now when you excise something you can make juxtaposition of the two remaining scenes much more powerful. That is key to power and effect.

About ellipses, it’s a matter of taking out everything; then what’s left really pings out because of whaty ou have taken away. And performance art all to do with energy

The ending of a film should ideally be like a magnet — scenes, characters and words – all are piles of iron and then pulled to end into the magnet. All the odd filings have gone whosh and you go out filled up with energy – magnet’s your ending.

Elinor’s last scene with Edward is the last scene of S&S for real (so she discounts that marital montage orgasm the studio insisted on) – she’s all about withholding, well I wrote it all first and saw how much you can withhold. Now sometimes people take out too much; you must be able to follow – she’s accused by sister of having no feeling, but she’s nothing, she can do about it nothing as everything having do with being active is against what she has been taught. Thompson said that “every time I read it, I cried so I didn’t change it.” That last scene was written quite early. When Grant began to rehearse it with her, he asked “Are you going to do that cry all the way through my fucking speech. She answered “Yes, because it’s funny, it’ll work I promise you it’ll work. He all right, I’ll do it,” and it did work.

Long languors, they can be written or just performed. This is not to deny that stage directions are very important –- they need to be witty, well written – cursory or banal. “Then I am willing to read bloody dialogue — every single word must be the most beautiful things. It has to be as perfect as it can be and then you do hand it over to other people’s art” (acting, production design, costume, directing).

Later she was asked, Where do you keep the box of drafts? In the attics – she does not go back and reread – she ddid find the box of drafts for S&S and was asked by Jeremy to bring them to the interview. She begins by writing by hand, and goes through 3 or 4 drafts by hand. She becomes more neat – nearer all the tie –- you have to copy by hand so you get to know your text when you barely do copying and pasting.

Turning away from Sense and Sensibility gradually Brock asked her, “To what extent do you bring actors’ antenna to writing and the journey. She referred him to her comments on the DVD feature accompanying The Remains of Day. She will tend to act all the roles as she writes. She will not write something that cannot be spoken. You test that continually. “You can learn bad writing. Good writing goes into your system. Such a joy, such a pain. When it’s good, you are so grateful.”


She turned to her other well-known script: Nanny McPhee. How did she come to write a screenplay for this child’s book? Well, hovering in the room which has got best of the books in my house, Matilda by Christiana Brown, she came to read it again and came to think Brown was writing for herself: the book was about an anarchic change from an ugly to a beautiful nanny. She phoned Lindsay Duncan (who had suggested S&S to her). Thompson thought it’d be so much easier: 9 years later she had a script which took 7 years in development. When you come to make it into a film, you realize there’s no story. You also you can’t have 32 children. It was hell to adapt.

They had thought it would be this lovely simple story – “we’re going to be so happy” … instead it was “I can’t go on … “ Thompson says “You want to make something good and precious and good for an important audience — children — and find there is no story in them, no structure.” It was while she was staying in the Hotel Avalon – “Hitler’s favorite hotel by the way” she says, she began to see that it was a western about a kind of war. Nanny McPhee is about subversion. In the conversation she keeps bringing up Clint Eastwood who seems to me irrelevant; but she does have the archetypal pattern of the western right: the hero comes into a situation where order has broken down; he restores order and has to leave as he is the outsider. She made Mcphee into this cowboy-like character; she subverted a children’s film genre to allow Nanny McPhee to say what it is and then leave. So she was repeating her father’s ploy: again her father wrote for people not for special breed of human beings. You don’t want children to drown themselves or open a vein but you want to show them some truths.

Thompson as P.L. Travers in Saving Mr Banks: she wrote stories for children which had some truths


Asked what is the relationship between screenwriting and acting, she answers “There is no science,” and quoted choreographer Agnes de Mille, “Living is a form of not being sure not knowing what next or how. The artist never entirely knows; we guess we may be wrong but we take leap after leap in the dark. Good,huh?”

Exurberantly drunk one year at the Golden Globes

The audience applauded and then they took questions.

A woman identified herself as a playwright, and explained she was trying to get her screenplay realized. How do you approach production companies? (Can she invite you to her new play? — this was ignored.) Thompson: “There’s no science. You have to be in the context – and then resilient, persistent and solipsistic. You have to send it to people and turn up. You also need to be sure it’s good.” Thompson said “I have had scripts rejected – and later seen the underlying material she wrote up made with another script.”

A woman said, “when you want a strong female character, at some poin tyou have to make it a male; where do you stop to keep the character a female?” Thompson denied her central assumptions: first of all, great dialogue won’t necessarily tell you if speaker is a man or woman. Thompson said there is not this hard and fast difference at all; our brains not sufficiently different; then education and nurture starts to twist and beat us out of our shapes. We are gendered through culture and culture changes.

A woman asked, “How do you know when your re-write is finished, “It” — all done. Thompson: “It changes with each project. You can have a situation and a director drops out and hey suddenly say this actor or that needs to be a man – there’s that. “You get your studio notes – good and bad, irritating; you must buckle down and suck it up and make compromises I think. That’s as far as I can get it for now … leave it to cook and go back to it a month later …” Thompson said “I edit, I am a fierce editor; I like getting rid of things. You can only know up to to a point and then you have to leave it.” She has to earn a living between drafts and she can as an actress (and celebrity – she did not mention that.) She doesn’t write a screenplay for 7 years and do nothing else, she can’t afford to do that.”

No good questions from audience so Brock said “Tone, pace, touch and feel; you to apply all of that, and it is an educated process; you learn while doing. Advice is “don’t panic. Let it be.”

“Who’s her role model?” Says Thompson, “You must be honest in these things. My role model is my mother (Phyllida Law), a great writer, my first editor. I did my first stand up for her in Croyden (age 25, 60 quid). “I would do pieces for my mum in the kitchen and she edit them.” Long after her father died. Both parents could and can write.

How do you find balance of what to keep in and out. She says you can’t know. She told of a recent film about a miscarriage of justice. A father wrongly imprisoned and has died – many scenes cut; only when editing was it seen the cutting of playlets would only make the script better.

Brock made an effort to find a male questioner and found one. I don’t remember if he or the next questioner asked, “Do you go in knowing how story will end … or is it during flow that you get the ending? Thompson said most adaptations end with the ending of the book (it’s remembered by audiences). You have to have this writer’s stuff to work with, do the knitting, spin the wool, if you have nothing to work on, just write. Just sit and write – this is the only advice that works for her. (I can’t do that, I must make each section as good as I can before going on to the next, even when I have break throughs and suddenly write and write.)

Someone asked, “How often do you write a character with an actor in mind,”and “how does that work? Thompson replied that she “never gets the actors she wants.” She pulled back from that joke to saye sometimes she does – she sometimes does write with a specific actor in mind. “It’s very helpful; ” in the case of Hugh Grant, she knew he would be able to do Edward, so 90% of work of directing was achieved; directing is also done in casting. But then “Not always she does not always have people in mind.”

I omitted from my transcription how Thompson came back several times to say her mother was her best reader and inspiration. How she read her early writing to her mother, how her mother accompanied her sometimes early in her career, how her mother is still there for her and her sister, Sophie Thompson. Phyllida Law never remarried.

Emma’s sister, Sophie Thompson, also a superb actress, with their mother

Thompson’s close: William Wyler said “your screen play needs to be all good scenes, no bad scenes and one great scene.”

I hope readers find this as instructive as I have.

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Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth — a remembered dream image of her embarrassment overhearing conversation about her in a previous Lady Ball (Juliette Towhidi’s Death Comes to Pemberley, Episode 2)

To theeas

Romola Garai as Emma gets to come to the sea at last (Sandy Welch’s 2009 Emma, Episode 4, last shot)

Dear friends and readers,

I sent off a proposal to deliver a paper for a panel on film in a coming conference, and thought I’d tell a little about it. What I proposed was to present findings from analyses of a group of films to show what one can learn about a film if you make its screenplay or near-final shooting script your guiding text.

Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan is also a Christmas movie (Carolyn Farina as Aubrey-Fanny Rouget with her mother)

I thought it would be instructive if I compared different relationships between screenplays and films and their underlying materials in novels or other sources.  There are numbers of appropriation films in the Austen canon where there is no novel, just a film and screenplay or shooting script. Two cases where the screenplay or shooting script has been made available, and the same person wrote the screenplay and directed the film attract me especially: Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (from Mansfield Park) and Victor Nunez’s Ruby in Paradise (adapting Northanger Abbey). Nunez’s play is a poetic masterpiece, while Stillman’s is brilliant about the nature of integrity in Mansfield Park as this relates to viewers in the 1990s.

Ashley Judd as Ruby reading Northanger Abbey (after which she and Todd Field as Mike McCaslin discuss Austen’s novels values) (Victor Nunez’s Ruby in Paradise) — for me a favorite still

There a number of films where you can tease out the shooting script (a near-final version before editing and cutting) with, on the one side, an intermediary novel and on the other a closely adapted Austen novel:  of all of these, the 2013 mini-series, Death Comes to Pemberley can be most instructively analyzed using Juliette Towhidi’s shooting script more than others because P. D. James’s novel is a genuine sequel to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, so an analysis reveals illuminating levels of reference in these different underlying materials dramatized, visualized, and heard. I also am deeply engaged by the development of how aspects of Darcy’s character (his pride in ancestry especially) and Elizabeth’s sense of her lack (mortification) leads to disillusionment, estrangement for a time.

Matthew Rhys as Darcy testifying on behalf of Wickham (Death Comes to Pemberley)

Finally the traditional film adaptation, often said to be taken directly from the same Austen novel, so I thought of two heritage films out of Austen’s Emma: in the case of the 1996 Meridian/A&E Emma, scripted by Andrew Davies, a screenplay and scenario in the form of a companion book have been published, and some have persuasively argued a scenario is as crucial to a final film as the screenplay; the recent 2009 Emma, scripted by Sandy Welch, is a 4-part mini-series, and will reveal what happens to this tightly-knit Austen novel when it is turned into this kind of TV program. It’s also been unfairly neglected: its use of Knightley Jonny Lee Miller) as a central perceiver will make for a telling contrast too.

Jonny Lee Miller as Mr Knightley plays a central inward role in Sandy Welch’s 2009 Emma (a new development in the heritage films)

In the history of film criticism, time and again film-makers and critics have asserted that the screenplay used in making a film is one of the central instruments for achieving high quality and commercial success. Some have argued that these plays are works of literature in their own right; others have proselytized (most notoriously Syd Field) for the idea that behind successful movies (no matter what particular surface structuring), lies a forward-thrusting three-act formula; others (Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush in their Alternative Scriptwriting) have produced nuanced accounts of the variety of structures found in different types of screenplays (e.g., the cyclical) from the standpoint of how much time the film can take (the multi-episode form), its genre and/or its author’s gender. Yet it is still common to find analyses of films which compare imagined transfers of specific materials from the underlying or eponymous novel with the finished film without attending to this central prescriptive intermediary. I suggest studying the screenplay will lead to less impressionist film criticism. More studies of shooting scripts and screenplays might encourage the publication of screenplays and shooting scripts, with appropriate apparatuses and annotation.

I’ve assigned and read paperback editions of this book with classes — alongside Austen’s novel

Why the Austen films? I love them. A number of the Jane Austen films’ screenplays and shooting scripts have been published and the underlying materials of all of these naturally form a coherent body of work. Those wanting to attract an audience have hired or been script-writers and directors whose work is studied in its own right. One can therefore obtain scripts, scenarios (companion or “Making of” books), and useful practical commentary for a number of these films. All this because Austen herself is such a cult figure with a world-wide following. Beyond this, the Austen films have similar structures and perspectives: they use female narrators, and attempt to see experience from a woman’s perspective. Yet they are (for the student of film) literally usefully varied films: they come in many different genres, e.g., from Christmas movies to gothics to screwball comedy & family romance.

Alicia Silverstone as Cher in Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (one of two screwball romances made thus far, the previous the 1940 P&P)


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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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