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!
A cranky Jack Caldwell has his say about Hollywood and Jane Austen in this edition of the Cajun Cheesehead Chronicles.
The Cajun Cheesehead Chronicles
by Jack Caldwell
How Hollywood Ruins Jane Austen
Hello, everyone—Jack Caldwell here. The theme for this month’s blogs at Jane Austen Variations is Movies in May. So I thought about that—and sigh.
It is my proposition that Austen adaptations almost invariably get Jane Austen wrong, and thereby mislead millions of people.
Now, that’s a strong statement, and many of you out there—particularly the Colin Firth fans—are now sharpening their pitchforks and heating up the tar. Please hold off a moment and give me a chance to expand upon my declaration. As the token guy here, it is my job to Speak Truth to Power. Besides, it’s my birthday, and you have to be nice to me on my birthday. It’s a law.
I will lay out my arguments, and if you are dissatisfied afterwards, I will throw myself at your mercy. Deal? Good.
First, allow me to define my use of the word “Hollywood.” Hollywood is a real neighborhood in the central region of Los Angeles, California, where numerous movie and television production studios are located. For the purposes of this thesis, however, I will refer to film production worldwide as “Hollywood.” Not only will it save me considerable writing, but studios globally copy what comes out of Hollywood, CA.
Second, I have watched almost every adaptation of Jane Austen’s work, including the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, and the 1980’s BBC Austen cycle of six of her major works. I have enjoyed most of the adaptations, and watch several again from time to time.
Let’s talk about Hollywood. Filmmakers are talented people—actors, directors, producers, cinematographers, editors, make-up and costume designers, SPX (special effects) folks, etc. However, the least respected people in the business are writers. Cinema is a visual medium, and a cliché in Hollywood is to show something rather than say something. Because movies run only two hours, they have to cut somewhere, and that somewhere is in the words. Word’s aren’t really important, don’t you know.
It’s why books are almost always better than movies.
Movies express the impressions of the director and producers. The easiest impressions to express are drama and angst. Subtlety is difficult, and it is often impossible to translate accurately into a foreign language.
(The dirty secret of Hollywood these days is that they lose money on almost every film if one only looks at the domestic USA box office. Movies must sell overseas, particularly in China, Russia, and India to be profitable. That’s why most films today are either broad comedies or SPX extravaganzas. They don’t have to make sense—they just have to look good. Blowing up stuff looks good.)
Now let’s take a look at Jane Austen, particularly Pride and Prejudice. Fans of the 2005 movie argue endlessly with devotees of the 1995 TV version on which one was best and truer to the book. In my opinion, under the standard of accuracy, neither one is true to the book.
Wait! Put down the buckets of tar, good people! Let me finish!
Andrew Davies (1995) and Deborah Moggach (2005) wrote wonderful adaptations of Pride and Prejudice. I have watched both versions numerous times and enjoyed myself. Each has moments that illustrate the power of cinema. The cinematography and music are delightful. But both screenwriters—and their respective casting agents—get something wrong, something that the BBC got right in their 1980 version.
Pride and Prejudice is funny.
I don’t care how beautiful Keira Knightley appears as she gazes out at the Derbyshire countryside. I don’t care how daring it was to have Colin Firth take a swim and meet up with Elizabeth in a soaking wet shirt. Both Davies and Moggach turned Jane Austen’s delightful comedy of manners into angst-filled chick flicks. There’s nothing funny in either production.
And Austen did write a comedy. Read the darn thing. Mrs. Bennet is not shrill and stupid—she’s silly and flighty. Mr. Collins is not a short, oily creep—he’s a tall, pompous buffoon. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is not a dragon lady—she’s a self-important, interfering old fool. The Hursts are absurd. The reader laughs at these people.
The 1980 BBC mini-series, running almost five hours, takes the time to keep the humor in to balance against the misunderstandings between Elizabeth and Darcy—misunderstandings that are self-inflected and could have been resolved by a single, heartfelt conversation. A conversation that was impossible to have under the conventions of the time. Thus, a comedy of manners. To my taste, it’s a better adaptation, even with David Rintoul’s unfortunate wooden performance.
If you think I’m tough on Davies and Moggach, their mistakes are nothing compared to what Ang Lee and Emma Thompson did in 1995 to Sense and Sensibility. True, Sense and Sensibility is not as funny as Pride and Prejudice, but Lee and Thompson could have had a lighter touch.
In the book, Marianne Dashwood is about sixteen years old, and she does what sixteen-year-old girls do—become drama queens. You shake your head at Marianne’s antics, thinking, “Been there, done that.”
For me, watching Kate Winslet play Marianne in this movie was unbearable. I was half-hoping she would die and take us all out of our misery. What Alan Rickman’s Colonel Brandon saw in that Marianne I don’t know. I would have spanked her, not married her. Talk about dreary! I don’t blame Winslet; it’s Lee and Thompson’s fault.
2008’s Sense and Sensibility (written by Andrew Davies) improves upon its predecessor, but this attempt is still devoid of any humor.
Hollywood does a better job with Northanger Abbey and Emma. The 1996 version of Emma, while taking a few liberties with the book, keeps the humor of Austen’s funniest novel front-and-center.
Now I must mention the two other novels.
Persuasion is Austen’s last and greatest work. Fortunately, there was a film made that honors Austen’s achievement—the 1995 film. Unfortunately, Hollywood couldn’t leave well enough alone, and in 2007 came out with a disgrace. I like Sally Hawkins as an actress, but what the hell were director Adrian Shergold and screenwriter Simon Burke thinking? Suffering in silence? Running all over Bath? Did they even read the book? It was terrible!
Mansfield Park is Austen’s most challenging work. Few readers enjoy it (I’m an exception), and Hollywood flat doesn’t get it. How else does one explain 1999’s feminist abomination or 2007’s creepy bomb? I will protect your sensibilities and refrain from discussing in detail how truly awful both films are. The BBC’s 1983 version is the only one to watch, even though Sylvestra Le Touzel looks awkward in the production.
Strangely, two great Austen adaptations are variations. 1995’s Clueless is a spot-on modernization of Emma. And who can’t enjoy the pure Bollywood fun of 2005’s Bride and Prejudice? They even get Mr. Collins (as Mr. Kohli) right!
I have yet to see 2016’s take on Jane Austen. I hope there is some humor in Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, and I hold out hope for delightful nastiness in Love & Friendship (based on Lady Susan). Hope is eternal, but this is Hollywood we’re talking about. Don’t bet the house on either film.
So there you have it, a cranky Cajun Cheesehead’s opinion on Hollywood’s uneven track record adapting Jane Austen. In most cases, Hollywood doesn’t realize that Jane Austen is funny. So let me have it. Agree or disagree? Be fair—no talking about how much you love the actors. I already know that everybody loves Colin Firth, Alan Rickman, Hugh Laurie…yada yada yada.
How do the movies’ plots, humor (if any), and their characters’ appearances, actions, and motivations fit in with what Jane Austen actually wrote?
Heck, I think I’ll crack open my copy of Pride and Prejudice while I await your verdict. Be nice, though—it’s my birthday.
Until next time, this has been the Cajun Cheesehead Chronicles.
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