The Janeite lens.
What makes Jane Austen's novels so popular and so readily adaptable to film? Linda Troost's and Sayre Greenfield's anthology Jane Austen in Hollywood asked that question in 1998, and apparently it still needs answering, because now we have Jane Austen on Screen. Both collections rely predominantly on English professors to explore Austen's work in film or as pop culture phenomenon, although Jane Austen on Screen rounds itself out by including a film director and a film specialist among its cast of experts. English professors might understandably think themselves best suited to delving into Jane on screen, but that does a disservice to the labors of their colleagues in communication and cultural and film studies, who are usually better trained to explore the subtleties of cinema and popular culture.
Jane Austen on Screen, a book designed for academics and Janeites rather than the general public, suffers from the weaknesses inevitable in trying to do justice to film, feminism, and literature all at the same time. The point should not be which is better, book or film, but what we can learn from each. The bad news for Jane Austen on Screen is that the tide is a misleading hook that panders to the same kind of commercialization the novel-based films are often accused of. The good news is that the individual essays often have more insight than the undertaking as a whole.
In their introduction, Macdonald and Macdonald set up an awkward dichotomy by trying to square off the "purists," for whom any film version of the Austen novels will rail, against the "film enthusiasts," who argue that the films have their own validity. The battle seems weighted in favor of the novels. The editors compare the films to the translation of a poem: "[T]he words will never be the same as the original, yet a careful, imaginative treatment can shed new light on the text and open up a new readership that brings new perspectives and new responses to the source." Fortunately, many of the authors ignore the literature battle cry.
A structurally odd little section entitled "Short 'Takes' on Austen: summarizing the controversy between literary purists and film enthusiasts," contains the first three essays. Austen scholar Roger Gard gamely stumbles onto the battleground with a stunning series of gaffes that fail to offer the reader the benefit of his literary expertise but instead betray his ignorance about film as a medium. "The camera has no narrative voice," he declares. Pictures "can't establish an ironic context." They cannot "manage time, or summarize." "Pictures can tell only of the surface of things." Finally, Gard disposes of every one of the Austen-based movies in a single sentence: "[I]sn't it unfortunately the case that none of them remains in the mind as even a minor work of art?" Fortunately, New Zealand film director Gaylene Preston helps level the playing field with a tribute to Ang Lee's film of Sense and Sensibility, and Kate Bowles ignores the whole either/or noncontroversy by discussing the vitality of Janeite Internet fandom.
The editors close their collection with perhaps the most confusing essay of all. John Mosier displays an impressively broad array of European literary scholarship to argue, "the primary objective of a good adaptation, like that of any good interpretative reading of a text, is to make viewers return to the text and reconsider it anew." A fair enough statement. Then he meanders, sometimes entertainingly but often bewilderingly. For example, at the beginning of his commentary, he dismisses Clueless as hardly a serious adaptation of Emma. He wanders through the semantics of "handsome" as applied to an "over-aged" Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma, complains about how filmmakers fill up the frame with bustling servants and stampeding sheep, then decides director Amy Heckerling's application of "clueless" is intriguingly Austenian and allows that the movie Clueless has considerable virtues after all. Mosier has the collection's final say: "No film has yet been made worthy of Austen." But he fails to make any consistently coherent or enlightening point about what makes Jane Austen so popularly filmable.
Within this unfortunate framework come some interesting discussions of what film versions of Austen novels may do. Penny Gay introduces a too-often missing feminist perspective with a look at the foregrounding of sisterhood in Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility. Jocelyn Harris weds classic literary analysis to more recent critical techniques by considering the merits of translation versus imitation and intertextuality. Paulette Richards examines the use of Regency romance motifs in Roger Michell's Persuasion without falling prey to Deborah Kaplan's argument from Jane Austen in Hollywood that the movie version "harlequinizes" Austen.
Ellen Belton starts on solid ground in her comparison of the 1940 and 1995 film versions of Pride and Prejudice by focusing on historical context. It's useful to be reminded that the 1940 version was released as War World II was unfolding and that the relationship between Britain and America helps explain the subtext in the 1940 film of England as a "lost and lovingly remembered world." While her premise that the 1995 miniseries is a post-feminist rewriting of the novel for an audience that "wants Elizabeth to have it all" is interesting, it might have been even more rewarding to see her sustain her broad sociopolitical perspective in her discussion of the later film version. Jan Fergus flounders somewhat in a comparison of "purist" and "postmodern" versions of Mansfield Park, because she confines herself to a narrow consideration of film as adaptation.
To be fair to the enterprise as a whole, the authors do occasionally dispute one another, and it can be intriguing to see critics make entirely opposing judgments about the same film. Hilary Schor begins her essay in response to Anthony Lane's review of Douglas McGrath's Emma by asking what the terms are by which we "read" adaptations of Emma. "What does it mean to be true to a text? What is the Austen spirit? What is celebrity and what is its relation to narrative film? And, most significantly, what is a classic?" While she doesn't presume to answer such big questions, she puts them on the table as reminders of how slippery they are. Then she wisely narrows the analysis to manageable size, concentrating on modes of narration and giving fair play to their exercise in both novel and film.
She tells the reader,
What has made McGrath's Emma seem classic to most viewers is not anything on the screen at all, but something that surrounds it: its complicated use of voice-over narration, both from the unseen female narrator who opens the film and from Emma herself in ironic commentary and epistolary confession, and its equally strategic deployment of characters' voices, both to bridge individual scenes and to interrupt our easy progress from one perspective to another. (p. 145)
She gives equal weight to narrative technique in the novel. From its first chapters, Schor suggests, Emma "is playing a complicated game, asking us at once to identify with its heroine, and to believe a voice floating somewhere above her, which knows more than she (or we) about Emma's 'real' situation." The analysis deepens further when Schor points out, '"The problem highlighted in this essay is one of where, again almost literally, to locate the site of female speech: the film, like the novel, asks, where is that voice coming from? whom is it sale to speak for? where can Emma 'go' as an independent narrator?"
Thus, Schor's analysis doesn't deteriorate into the good/bad generalizations that plague the premise set up by the editors and often mire the individual essayists. Had the other essayists felt free to follow Schor's capable lead, Jane Austen on Screen might have accomplished the difficult task of juggling film, literature, and feminism with greater success.
BROOKS ROBARDS is a poet, journalist, and professor emerita at Westfield State College, with an MA and AB in English literature and a PhD in communication studies. The author of 10 books, including Arnold Schwarzenegger (1992), she writes about and does radio commentary on film.