Two hundred years after her death, films based on Jane Austen’s books are still box office hits.
Why is Jane Austen still so popular 200 years after her books were published? Why does the publishing industry produce so many sequels and prequels? Why are there so many spin-off books, films and series?
The simple answer is that it is because Jane Austen wrote so few books, but those books have etched themselves into the English speaking culture. Although written by a reclusive spinster about a handful of families in an English village, her novels speak to our souls, because they are about the most fundamental questions in life — How should I live? Who should I love?
Eternal as Jane Austen’s books are, however, times have changed dramatically since 1816, especially in the area of human experience that Jane Austen wrote about. Women are no longer economically dependent on men. They are better educated and are freer to express and meet their own needs. We have much more sexual freedom and are more open in expressing our emotions and sexuality. And many of the subjects that were then taboo are spoken about freely now.
In the publishing industry Jane Austen spin-offs fill the need for more of the same. But film is a different medium, a contemporary medium, and film must bring Jane Austen to a contemporary audience, to make her books relevant to our own time. Even the most straight-down-the-line British adaptation of Austen’s novels brings to the surface the underlying passions of the novels, so that even a Regency Mr Darcy dives into a pond to cool his ardour.
In this article I’ll be looking at how well Jane Austen spin-offs succeed in both making Jane Austen contemporary while retaining the essence of the original.
Mansfield Park (1999)
adapted and directed by Patricia Rozema
Although strictly speaking a screen adaptation, this version of a Jane Austen veers so far from the original text that it could be called a spin-off.
For modern film makers, the major problem with bringing Mansfield Park to the screen is that its central character, Fanny Price, is just so wet, and not really a protagonist but more of a passive observer of the action, waiting patiently for her true love to notice her. Rozema has overcome this problem by turning Fanny into Jane Austen herself. Drawing on Austen’s letters and juvenilia she has given Fanny all of Jane’s intelligence, wit, charm, love of story-telling and her repressed passion. In this version it is no wonder Henry Crawford woos her so earnestly, and it is her rejection of him that throws him into Maria’s arms, made rather explicit in this version when Fanny catches them in flagrante delicto.
The underlying themes, particularly the darker themes, in the book are made explicit in this version. One of those themes is the question of whether to marry for love or money. Rozema very cleverly makes this theme explicit by casting Lindsey Duncan as both the sisters Mrs Price and Lady Bertram, thus making them the two sides of the same coin. Mrs Price, who married for love, is a pale drab, rendered almost numb by crushing poverty, a drunken husband and constant child-bearing. Meanwhile, having married for money and position, Lady Bertram buries her dissatisfaction in a laudanum-induced stupor.
But the one theme that distinguishes this version is that of slavery. Austen never mentions the issue by name, but the fact that the Bertrams live off the profits of a plantation in the West Indies, and that the problems there are so grave that Sir Thomas has to go there himself might only be a hint to us, but would have been quite explicit to Austen’s contemporary readers. In this version the theme is brought in even before the credits. On her way from her home in Portsmouth to Mansfield Park, ten-year-old Fanny sees a ship and hears wailing. Her coachman explains that it is ‘black cargo.’ The issue of slavery also adds depth to Tom Bertram’s character. In the book he is just a young wastrel who resents his father’s attempts to tie him down. In this version he is a troubled young man who is openly hostile to his father. When he is gravely ill, Fanny discovers the cause of his unhappiness, in a sketchbook in which he has documented the horrific abuses of the slaves he witnessed in the Indies, including by his own father.
Although this version goes beyond the bounds of the text and infuriates the purists, all these issues are there in the book, and would have been plain to its contemporary readers, but, given the sensitivities of the time, just not proper to be mentioned out loud. However, for a modern audience which might not know the historical context very well, it does need to be made explicit and I think this version does that well without sacrificing the essence of the novel.
Bride & Prejudice (2004)
written and directed by Gurinder Chadha
Gurinder Chadha has fused her British and Indian Sikh cultures in this delightful Bollywood style rendition of Pride and Prejudice, making a colourful, noisy Indian musical based on the quintessential British story. To a large extent, modern Indian culture is still very much like the culture of Austen’s Regency England. Marriages are arranged between families and premarital sex is taboo. But rather than a clash between classes, in this multinational film, Chadha has focussed on the clash between cultures. The plot keeps very close to the original, and there is the same cast of characters although in a variety of nationalities and locations.
In this version, the Bennets have become the Bakshis, a Sikh family in Amritsar with four daughters — Jaya, Lalita, Maya and Lakhi (Kitty has been dropped). Mr Bingley is Balraj, a rich London barrister, in Amritsar to attend a wedding. He is accompanied by his sister Kiren and Mr Will Darcy an American whose family owns a string of motels. Darcy’s aunt Lady De Burgh becomes his mother, Mrs Darcy, and his sister is known as Georgie. Johnny Wickham is a British backpacker and Mr Collins becomes Mr Kholi, a distant relative who is doing well in California and is looking for a nice Indian wife. He marries Lalita’s friend Chandra.
However, although Chadha has kept relatively close to the novel’s plot, the biggest change she has made is to the characters, and not merely in their nationalities. In trying to placate both Hollywood and Bollywood sensibilities she has made the characters more likeable, but in so doing she has sacrificed the book’s satirical edge and lost its real essence and meaning. Moreover, in what is essentially a character driven story, by changing the characters, she has lost most of the motivation that drives the plot. She has rendered much of it implausible if not downright absurd, and has had to depend on misunderstandings rather than real differences to create conflict.
The Bakshis are not as bad as parents as the Bennets. Mr Bakshi is not a disengaged father, just rendered silent by his wife’s constant chatter. And while Mrs Bakshi can be absurd and embarrassing, she does not indulge Lakhi’s man-hunting, or encourage Wickham. Lakhi runs off with Wickham after her mother lets her go shopping one afternoon, which is nowhere near as bad as letting Lydia go to Brighton with an unsuitable chaperone. Lakhi’s elopement is therefore not a reflection on her parents’ shortcomings, just a symptom of adolescence.
Unfortunately, Wickham, the one character that should be likeable, isn’t. Here the problem is in the casting. Daniel Gillies has great pecs, but is such a wooden actor he has little to no charm, nor does he have the looks to make up for it. It is hard to believe such an intelligent and exacting young woman as Lalita would fall for him. With all the good British actors available, it is even harder to understand why Chadha cast him.
Ridiculously comic but fundamentally good-hearted, Mr Kholi is not nearly as delusional, self-important, narrow-minded or judgemental as Mr Collins. Chandra actually loves him so that her decision to marry him is not an indictment of a woman’s narrow options in a society where she has no choice but to marry or risk poverty and isolation. It is not even a desperate attempt to get to America. It becomes just a plot device to get the Bakshis to Los Angeles and see Mr Darcy in his own environment.
However, the biggest problem is with the characterisation of Will Darcy. He is rather overwhelmed by his first taste of India, and his initial false steps come from awkwardness rather than pride, snobbism or even racism. He refuses to dance with Lalita at the wedding because the drawstring of his traditional Indian suit has broken and his pants are threatening to fall around his ankles. As soon as he sees Lalita his longing gazes towards her are so obvious Chandra points them out to her. It is he who constantly approaches her. And his mildly disparaging remarks about India are obviously only a very awkward attempt to make conversation. Lalita’s hostility towards him in response seems overdone, and he soon develops such a positive attitude towards India it is surprising that Lalita doesn’t warm to him, or that Mrs Bakshi doesn’t see him as a suitable suitor for her daughters.
In fact, Will Darcy is so nice and so obviously already smitten by Lalita, that his talking Balraj out of marrying Jaya seems totally out of character. Nor is it plausible that he doesn’t think Jaya loves him as she and Balraj are lovey-dovey from the moment they meet. While in the book this incident is an insight into Mr Darcy’s social attitudes, and his ambivalence about his own feelings towards Lizzie, in the film it becomes just another empty plot device.
Pride and Prejudice is a finely balanced book, but in trying to achieve her own balance between Bollywood and Hollywood, Chadha has tampered with the very fundamentals of her original and ended up with a completely different, and much less powerful, creature which has missed the point entirely.
Pride & Prejudice: A Latter Day Comedy (2003)
Written and directed by Anne and Andrew Black
This little-known modern American adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is not entirely incongruous as it is set in a Mormon community, whose conservative values are not dissimilar to those of Jane Austen’s Regency period. Set in a college, the film dispenses with the older members of Austen’s cast of characters, and while they retain their original names, the five young women are house mates rather than sisters.
Elizabeth Bennet is a serious student and aspiring novelist, with feminist views and, even at twenty-six, not yet interested in marriage. Jane is a beautiful if not too bright Argentinean. Mary is awkward and religious. A bossy man-chaser, Lydia is the spoilt daughter of a millionaire, and her younger sister Kitty is her slave and fall-guy. Mrs Bennet’s influence has been replaced by ‘The Pink Bible’ a guide to capturing your man.
Elizabeth already knows Wickham and Collins as the film opens and runs foul of Will Darcy, a snooty Englishman, when he comes into the bookshop where she works. All the characters first come together at a party to welcome Charles and Caroline Bingley to town. Jane and Bingley fall in love at first sight, and Mary makes a fool of herself at the party, getting up on stage and singing in an attempt to impress Collins. Elizabeth wins Darcy’s reluctant affection when she gets up alongside Mary in order to rescue her. In the ensuing weeks, Collins attempts a gauche proposal to Elizabeth while Wickham tries to charm her into marriage. Darcy and Elizabeth clash seriously when it turns out he is the publisher who has finally shown an interest in her novel, but is much too honest in his criticism of it.
Then Bingley inexplicably leaves Jane. Believing Wickham’s lies, Elizabeth accuses Darcy of talking Bingley into going, as well as other sins. In his email in reply, Darcy tells Elizabeth that Bingley’s departure had nothing to do with him. He left because he thought he saw Jane accept a proposal from Collins. As for Wickham, he took Darcy’s sister to Las Vegas where he not only bigamously married her but lost all her money at the gambling tables.
When Lydia runs off to Las Vegas with Wickham, Elizabeth, Jane, Kitty, Bingley and Darcy go after her. They catch up with the runaways in a tacky wedding chapel and fisticuffs ensue. Darcy is arrested with Wickham, but when he realises Elizabeth wrongly believes he is to marry Caroline, he escapes and runs after her. Knocked over by Kitty who is at the wheel of the car, still in his handcuffs and prostrate, Darcy finally tells Elizabeth he loves her.
The least one can say about this version is that the Blacks haven’t tried to make the characters too nice. However, they have watered down the story in some fundamental ways. Darcy is pretty obnoxious to begin with, but he warms up pretty quickly and is exonerated of his original’s worst offence. While Collins is loathsome and self-righteous, he is in no position to exert patriarchal or economic power over Elizabeth. Wickham is suitably charming and shallow, but the story he tells Elizabeth, while omitting his own worst sins, does not reflect all that badly on Darcy. Lydia is even more horrible than her original, and as she has no claim of family ties or friendship on anyone and is old enough to make her own decisions, one wonders, in fact, why they all go to such lengths to rescue her from her own folly.
While the Mormon setting fits the story, it is well disguised, and if it were not for a review I read in the IMDb I would never have picked it up. There is a brief mention of the fact that they are in Utah, the young men are all clean-cut, they all go to church and they all talk about marriage rather than sex. Yet the name of their church is never mentioned, and except for Collins, nobody preaches. Their religion is assumed in the same way as Anglicanism is assumed in the novel.
It might seem, therefore, that the film is made by and for Mormons. However, at the same time it undermines Mormon values. Despite the Mormon belief in a woman’s subservience to the man, Elizabeth is a feminist, and her feminism is respected even by Collins. In the end, Darcy declares his love while manacled and prone at Elizabeth’s feet and therefore in a subordinate position to her. Meanwhile Wickham is punished because he has committed several acts of bigamy, in other words, because he is a polygamist. Perhaps the Blacks are lapsed Mormons!
While it tries hard to adapt the story for a modern audience, I find this version of Pride and Prejudice rather lame. It has blunted Austen’s cutting edge and placed it in a narrow context that most young people just could not relate to or understand. It has failed, therefore, in both making the story relevant to modern youth, and in capturing the essence of the book.
Lost in Austen (2008)
Written by Guy Andrews, Directed by Dan Zeff
Amanda Price is bored. She’s bored with her routine job, she’s bored with her boor of a boyfriend and she’s frustrated with everything in between. Her only escape is to constantly read and reread Pride and Prejudice. One evening she hears an intruder in her flat and on investigation finds Elizabeth Bennet standing in her bathtub. Elizabeth has come through a portal that leads from the attic at Longbourn into Amanda’s bathroom. When Amanda passes through the portal to see for herself, it closes behind her and she finds herself in Pride and Prejudice, while Elizabeth is stuck in twenty-first century London.
Amanda succeeds in passing herself off to the Bennets as a friend of Elizabeth’s and to cover for Elizabeth’s absence. However, while Amanda thinks she knows this world, she finds a few surprises, suggesting Jane Austen didn’t know her characters as well as she thought or took some artistic licence. At the same time, since Amanda is in this world and Elizabeth isn’t, things start to go awry. Amanda tries her hardest to put things right, and while, after many twists and turns, she can put some things back the way they should be, she has caused certain profound changes that can never be reversed.
As this Jane Austen spin-off doesn’t, by its very nature, follow the plot of the novel, I can’t tell you more without giving away spoilers. However, I can highly recommend it as a witty, post-modern take on a beloved story.
written and directed by Amy Heckerling
I must admit I didn’t like this film at first. I found the vacuous, shallow, inarticulate teenagers very annoying, but by the end of the film I realised why it has gone on to become such a classic.
As I am sure everyone knows by now, Clueless is Jane Austen’s Emma translated from a small English village to Beverley Hills. Emma has become Cher, a high-school student and much indulged daughter of a rich, widowed but since much-married litigation attorney. Unlike Mr Woodhouse, Mel Horowitz is no hypochondriac and ignores his health problems so Cher fusses over him. Mr Knightly has become Josh, Cher’s college-age ex-stepbrother who tends to hang around the house because Mel is the only one of his mother’s four husbands who cares about him. He and Cher constantly tease and annoy each other and he only realises his feelings for Cher are more than brotherly when she starts going out with Christian (Frank Churchill.) Cher’s protégé, Tai, is a streetwise new-arrival from the east coast, who will finally put Cher in her place. Tai’s ideal partner is Travis, a pot-smoking skateboard rider with a daff sense of humour. Elton is the handsomest, most popular and most arrogant boy in the class, but a slacker who only ever puts his hand up to ask if he can leave class early. Cher’s arch rival is Amber, a much more assertive character than Jane Fairfax. Emma’s sister Isabella becomes Cher’s best friend, Dione, who is in a volatile, but fundamentally loving relationship with her boyfriend, which Cher comes to envy. The housemaid stands-in for Miss Bates in her crucial scene.
Although Heckerling keeps close to the original plot, she does make a few additions and put in a few modern twists. In this version we see Cher’s efforts to bring two of her teachers together, but only so that, in feeling happier, they will give her better grades. Instead of beginning the story, their wedding ends it. And Frank Churchill’s secret is that he’s gay and just wants to be friends with Cher.
Perhaps the biggest shift, rather than change, that Heckerling makes, is to start Cher off as a much more spoilt, vacuous and shallow creature than Emma ever was so that the change in her by the end is much more pronounced. This difference is very much a product of the social and cultural difference between the book’s setting and the film’s. Emma might be the richest, most indulged, young woman in Highbury, but the culture she lives in is nowhere near as materialistic, self-absorbed and self-indulgent as modern Beverley Hills. Heckerling has seen that a young woman in Emma’s situation in Beverley Hills would turn out to be a very different person.
She has also seen that the change that has to come over Cher will take much more work on her part than Emma needed to do. Therefore Heckerling has stretched the ending out. Once Cher realises she is in love with Josh, she spends quite some time deliberately becoming good — taking on good causes, studying harder etc — in order to be worthy of him. It was then that I finally warmed to her so that by the time she and Josh came to their first kiss I was quite moved.
So, despite the changes she has made, in essence, Heckerling has kept to the spirit and meaning of the book. Clueless is a journey of self-discovery by a young woman who is fundamentally intelligent and compassionate, but has never had to exercise these virtues, until life and love teach her to know herself. I think it succeeds admirably in appealing to a modern young audience while keeping the essentials of the original novel.
As we can see then, a modern film adaptation of Jane Austen’s books has to do more than translate the story to a new setting, retain the original cast of characters or Austen’s plot. It must look for the essence of the story and translate that to the modern world, maintaining only those elements of the original plot and characters which serve that purpose. As we have seen, the chances of real success are low, but well-worth pursuing.
© Pauline Montagna 2016