Do you love films based on Jane Austen’s work or life? Well, then you’ll love our theme this month. Grab your popcorn and a soda! It’s time for Movies in May!
Today: how Shannon Winslow, almost against her will, learned to love the loosely biographical film Becoming Jane.
I love movies and I love Jane Austen, so what could be better than a movie about Jane Austen?
I’ve been building my private library for years – movies to my taste, distinctly separate from my husband’s much larger collection of action/sci-fi films. In mine, adaptations of Jane Austen’s books feature prominently. I now own three versions of Pride and Prejudice (with an extra copy of P&P’95 to loan out), two versions of Sense and Sensibility, three Emmas, one Northanger Abbey, and one Persuasion. (I have yet to find a production of Mansfield Park that I like.) Then there are the odd, related films, but nothing about Jane Austen herself before Becoming Jane.
I went to see the movie at a theater when it came out in 2007. How could I not? I was too impatient to wait until the video was released. I had to find out for myself if it was worthy to claim a legitimate connection to our dear Jane. From the trailer and blurb, I had my doubts.
It’s the untold romance that inspired the novels of one of the world’s most celebrated authors. When the dashing Tom Lefroy, a reckless and penniless lawyer-to-be, enters Jane’s life, he offends the emerging writer’s sense and sensibility. Soon the clashing egos set off sparks that ignite a passionate romance and fuel Jane’s dream of doing the unthinkable – marrying for love.
This was before I had a single novel published, but I already considered myself pretty well informed about Jane Austen. So I was prepared to be offended by any inaccuracies in the film. I was prepared to be indignant if the producers had played fast and loose with the facts… which they had. For starters, two of the major players (Lady Gresham and Mr. Wisley) never existed. And although it’s true that Jane met and had a brief but flagrant flirtation with Tom Lefroy, there’s no evidence to show that their romance went anywhere near as far as it does in the film.
But instead of being offended as I watched it, I found myself being sucked into the romance.
This is a very well-made film. The cinematography is beautiful, the dialogue witty, the musical score brilliant, and the cast top-drawer. No, Anne Hathaway’s accent isn’t perfect, but that’s a minor flaw. Otherwise her performance is believable and engaging. James McAvoy, whom I’d never seen before, was excellent as the male lead. And you would expect nothing less from proven talents like Julie Walters, James Cromwell, and Maggie Smith.
So, what about the story itself? How did I get past the lack of accuracy? How did I reconcile my passionate love for fiction with an equally passionate desire to see Jane Austen represented rightly?
I think the reason this story works, even for somewhat of a Jane Austen purist like me, is that, although not historically correct, it respects the lady and her legacy. That’s the standard I hold myself to in my own writing, and that’s what I expect of others. Becoming Jane gets the spirit right if not the details, showing Jane as a bright, intelligent young woman, full of potential, facing a world where social constraints severely limit her possibilities. It depicts the challenges she faced, the difficult odds against her marrying for love and also being allowed to fulfill her writing aspirations. If Tom Lefroy truly had been Jane’s one true love, things might have played out very much like this.
Perhaps most importantly, Becoming Jane feel like a story JA might have written herself, except for the less-than-perfectly-happy ending. It also seeks to explain what so many have wondered: how with supposedly little personal experience Austen could have written so expertly about romance, how Jane the girl became Jane the author.
There are plenty of authentic touches incorporated to satisfy JA insiders: real events, lines from her books cleverly worked in to the script, music based on tunes found in her personal music collection. I would have preferred that, especially for the sake of the uninitiated, the movie had been clearly labeled as fiction, or at least only “inspired by” events in Jane Austen’s life. But, in the end, I enjoyed the movie too much to quibble, and I soon added Becoming Jane to my personal collection.
Have you seen it? Own it? Love it? Hate it? Tell us why.
PS – It may not surprise you to learn that I have since written a novel portraying my own theory as to the source of Jane Austen’s knowledge of romance. Although in The Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen Tom Lefroy is no more than a youthful infatuation, I have to admit that writing the banter between him and Jane was a delight – perhaps somewhat influenced by how their relationship was depicted in this film. Read an excerpt I shared in a previous Austen Variations post here.