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3.0 out of 5 stars Some astute readings of Austen adaptations, but sometimes too puritanical, 28 Dec. 2007
This review is from: Jane Austen on Screen (Paperback)
In this collection of essays, the authors focus on what is lost and what is gained in the translation of Jane Austen's classic novels to film: "the words will never be the same as the original," the two editors tell us, "yet a careful, imaginative treatment can shed new light on the text".

Paulette Richards contributes an illuminating essay on Roger Michell's Persuasion (1995) starring Ciaràn Hinds and Amanda Root, explaining the sometime lukewarm reception of the film: "The taste for feisty, active heroines leaves twentieth-century readers and viewers less able to accept Anne Elliot's reticence". Her sensitive analysis reveals how the cool blue colour of Anne's gown at the start and the nearly empty grate of the hearth "portray the lack of passion in Anne's life". She also teases out the phallic significance of the umbrellas in the teashop scene and notes that when Captain Wentworth silently points out a letter he has written to her declaring his undying love, he pretends to forget his umbrella in the film. In the light of its phallic symbolism, this "conveys his anxiety about being rejected as a man"; in the novel, however, he forgets his gloves - a mark of the gentleman - which "betrays his anxiety about being rejected as a social inferior". This measured and attentive appraisal contrasts with Tara Wallace's essay on the same film in which she paintballs Amanda Root's performance, favourably quoting another critic: "Amanda Root lets Anne Elliot and the movie down damnably". This attack rests on the assumption that Root "should" represent Anne precisely as Jane Austen characterises Anne in her novel (i.e. less neurotic and flustered than in the film), yet who is to say that an adaptation "must" be faithful or be damned?

Another case of puritanism can be found in Jocelyn Harris' essay in which she criticises film productions for "contaminating" what Austen wrote by introducing new elements. Harris thereby reduces filmic changes of novel - which can be enhancing, they do not all straightforwardly represent losses - to the level of poison. John Mosier doesn't do the collection any favours either by strictly and narrowly prescribing what Austen critics should be doing ("instead of judging the extent to which the films conform to preconceived notions about how the period should be seen, critics would do better to judge the adaptations by the extent to which they develop an interpretation of the text").

Penny Gay's favourable article on Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility (1995) provides welcome relief. Gay astutely notes that scriptwriter Emma Thompson and director Lee make genteel women's lack of access to paid work more bluntly explanatory in the film, thereby foregrounding and enhancing the feminist qualities of the original text in its movement to screen. There is comparatively little discussion in the collection of the much-loved BBC mini-series of Pride and Prejudice (1995) with only half an essay (by Ellen Belton) devoted to it. Interestingly, Colin Firth is quoted on Mr. Darcy's bewilderment and curiosity at Lizzy's character as Belton details how Darcy is tranformed "from eighteenth-century lord of the manor to late twentieth-century romantic hero" in the series.

I can understand that the editors wanted to provide contrary and competing views in their collection, but I had the impression that traditionalism and puritanism are simply given too much space. There are some good discussions here, but a more consistent and stringent dissolution of the "low" and "high-brow" dichotomy would, it seems to me, have enabled criticism of Austen adaptations to move more unobtrusively onto fresher and greener turf.
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