"It was imprudent of us, in the first place, to become authors. We could have become something regular, but we managed not to.
We were lucky, but we were also determined." Roy Blount Jr

"I don’t change the facts to enhance the drama. I think of it the other way round, the drama has got to fit the facts,
and it’s your job as a writer to find the shape in real life."
Hilary Mantel

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

WWJT: What Would Jane Think?

Over the recent holiday weekend, my husband and I made a rare foray to the movie theatre. In recent years we've increasingly done the home-cinema thing. I prefer seeing flicks from the vantage of my big comfy sofa, with a glass of wine in hand and couple of dogs curled up next to me, and the spouse operating the increasingly intricate home entertainment paraphernalia.

But a cinematic version of a Jane Austen novel is too infrequent and too important to wait for a DVD. So we headed out into the cold, snowy world for an early matinee of Pride & Prejudice. In attendance were senior citizen couples, groups of middle-aged women, a clutch of teenaged girls, and one thirty-something guy (solo) with goatee who might have been an English teacher. As far as I could tell, they heartily enjoyed the movie.

So did we.

Based on the director's interviews in the British press earlier this year, and the fact that historian and author Jenny Uglow was a period consultant, my hopes were high. But reaction from the online community also made me a bit wary. Writers of fiction set in Jane Austen's era, and readers of same, and academics, have assessed the film and many found it lacking. Or misguided. Or inaccurate. Or frustrating.

As a filmgoer seeking entertainment, I'm forgiving of a film-maker's decisions when undertaking a literary adaptation. Not that I'm implying forgiveness is warranted in this instance. Having worked in film and on scripts, I know well enought that what ultimately appears on screen is the director's vision. The screenwriter (inspired and preferably guided by the novelist) shapes and shades the story. For me the faults of the screenplay (there were some) and the (occasionally) dodgy musical choices were overcome by all the rest of it in combination--actors, locations, set decoration, etc.

I was delighted by the choice to place the film firmly in the 1790's, when Jane was first working on the manuscript. Frankly, I'm more at home in that decade--four of my novels take place during that time--than the Regency. So I had no problem with the late-18th century boisterousness. Or the mud.

I've spent a fair amount of time in old houses in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland...it's hard enough avoiding mud and puddles in the 21st century, let alone the 18th. When one reads Jane Austen's letters to her sister Cassandra (who painted the above watercolour portrait of the author) she refers to muddy walks, rustic manners, and parties where some of the the women have dirty necks! Jane's mother was a scholar--and as such, not a likely model for flighty Mrs. Bennet--but she was also an dedicated and hands-on gardener when living at Chawton, and eccentric in her choice of garments.

The Jacobean, lived-in-for-generations feel of Longbourn was very appealing, it rooted the Bennets in their place. And it made the family's eventual fate seem, to me, all the sadder. Upon the father's death, and Mr. Collins's inheritance of the estate, the widow and her daughters instantly become homeless. For the Bennet girls, marriage equals survival.

There was enough of Jane Austen's witty dialogue and sharp observation to satisfy me. If the gap between Lizzie's and Darcy's circumstances was presented as very wide, wider than usual in adaptations, it offers modern audiences a clearer view of their apparent unsuitability as a couple. The BBC productions of P&P, which I greatly admire, tended to show the pretty, dressy, and genteel side of life at the expense of harsher realities. One comes away from them thinking that Darcy and Lizzie just didn't get on at first only because he was proud and snobbish, and she was too inclined to believe Wickham's bad propaganda about him. There's rather more going on, and in the new film I saw a lot of it.

And I find I just don't care that Lady Catherine de Bourgh shows up at Longbourn at night instead of morning, as in the book, when she and Lizzie tangle together in that "prettyish kind of little wilderness" on one side of the lawn. In the movie this was a powerful, pivotal scene, magnificently played by both actresses. A sunny pastoral landscape would have diluted its intensity, and distracted from the dialogue. The strange timing of Lady Catherine's arrival sharply underscores her arrogance--it seems a good choice, as the film offers fewer opportunities to do so. Here we get the essence of Lady C...those who wish to know her more fully should really pick up the book!

I could even handle the mushy tacked-on ending. That is, I didn't leave the theatre feeling violated. In my opinion, that very brief Chapter 61--the final chapter--of P&P: The Novel is a downer. Even Jane herself should've had the wisdom to end her tale with Mr. Bennet's remark about being "quite at leisure."

This film interested me, amused me, and felt familiar to me. On reflection, I regard it as a somewhat Hardy-esque version of Jane Austen, and to me that makes for a more intriguing presentation than we've been accustomed to.

What would Jane think? Just as we're unable to see her face in that portrait, we cannot tell whether she'd like Keira Knightley as Lizzie or Matthew MacFadyen as Darcy.

But I can confidently state that I did!

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