A Posting on
Other Failed Adaptations
Of a Jane Austen Novel to Film
A Male Voices Web Page
No film adaptation of a Jane Austen film is as offensive as Patricia Rozema's mal-adaptation of Mansfield Park. However, there are two other adaptations of Jane Austen novels that can be mentioned in the same breath and those productions were great commercial successes What is to be expected at a time when reality is defined by marketing, and when justice is only a rumor? I am thinking of the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice and the recent production of Sense and Sensibility (1995). Let me discuss those two, and make my charges and complaints, and in that way, you will have something to react against.
December 16, 1997
In both cases, the screenwriters began with the notion that Jane Austen wrote "comedies", in the modern sense of the word, novels that are more or less like burlesques. This led them to interject a number of tasteless modifications for the sake of humor. For example, in [S&S-95], the screenwriter reminded us that early nineteenth-century horses defecated and that was played for laughs. Also, what Jane Austen describes as "a commotion" in the Dashwood household, translated in the screenwriter's portrayal to a knock-down, hair-pulling combat between two of the female characters, also played for laughs. And then there are those horrible costumes and the slap-stick behavior in [P&P-40]!
One should remember C.S. Lewis' descriptions of what Jane Austen's humor is and what it is not . He reminds us that her humor is NOT "a brief moment of unbalanced provincialism in which we may laugh at the merely unfamiliar". [P&P-40] and [S&S-95] as insipid and more than just "brief" moments of unbalanced provincialism.
In the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice, Olivier plays Darcy as a spend-thrift, an effeminate fop, and someone who is exactly what Elizabeth Bennet takes him to be.
Even in her own time, Jane Austen received some criticism for allowing her heroine to be error-prone in her impressions and judgments, and the 1940 screenwriters apparently took upon themselves the task of repairing this perceived mistake, they make Elizabeth Bennet infallible. They do not allow their version of Elizabeth to be so foolish as to fall in love with Wickham. And, of course, she triumphs in every verbal skirmish with Darcy—men are so inept. I refer to this sort of thing as feminist bowdlerism. But beyond that, it is the burlesque nature of the 1940 production that is most offensive to those who love Jane Austen and her work.
Incidentally, Clark Gable had been considered for the role of Darcy in [P&P-40] at first and it is a shame that the deal was not completed. He may not have had much range as an actor, but his firm, masculine presence might have been exactly right for the role of Darcy. (The accents would have been more uniform as well.) We would have had the correct image of Darcy as a strong-willed, sometimes charming, sometimes short-tempered, determined and capable man. The type of man who could get things done. I like to think that Clark Gable would have resisted making that deplorable grape-eating scene.
Another thing in [S&S-95] that is just plain silly is the number of times that Marianne Dashwood is carried inside out of the rain. Jane Austen allowed this only once, over a few yards and downhill. In this film version that happened twice, with two different men, and each trip covered miles. It is a rotten shame because Kate Winslet's interpretation of Marianne Dashwood is superb—nearly perfect—and one hates to see such a fine rendering wasted in this way. Although, I think the screenwriter, Emma Thompson, is not completely a woman of the nineties; if she were, Elinor Dashwood would have done the packing.
The description of the Palmers' marriage in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility is painfully full of nature and probability. The husband treats his wife with contempt in public and is rude to everyone else. The distraught Mrs. Palmer has an hysterical laugh that even the reader can hear, but cannot bear.
If you think there is anything funny about that marriage, then you must get a real giggle from the sight of a compound fracture; however, you are invited to laugh at the Palmers when viewing Emma Thompson's [S&S-95].
Jane Austen invented the characters of Sir John Middleton and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings. They are ridiculous and the wonderfully generous and powerful benefactors of the Dashwood women. They are impertinent, and loving, and energetically kind. They are indelicate and fiercely loyal, constant friends.
Emma Thompson portrays those friends as ridiculous, impertinent, and indelicate.
There is only one chapter in all of Jane Austen's writings that ever gave me a problem, and that is Chapter 8 of Volume III in Sense and Sensibility. Elinor had just been delivered from the prospects of the worst kind of grief—she had been assured that her sister would recover from her illness. And just at that moment, she heard a carriage arrive. Elinor had good reason to believe that her mother was arrived with Colonel Brandon, and rushed to bring the good news that would end her mother's pain. She hurried to what she thought was to be her mother's side but, instead, found herself face to face with Willoughby—and he was drunk. Her first reaction was mine as well, revulsion. But then followed something I could not comprehend at the first reading; Elinor allowed him to stay long enough to attempt an explanation, and she actually ended with some measure of sympathy for him. What was Elinor thinking?—I wondered—I mean what in the world was Jane Austen thinking about? It took a few readings, but I finally understood the reason for my confusion, Jane Austen was a Christian and I am not. She had all those notions of absolution and Christian forgiveness that will forever escape me.
This is one of the most remarkable chapters in all of Jane Austen's novels, and a difficult one for anyone of our generation, but those passages posed no difficulty for Emma Thompson—she simply ignored it and banished it from her script.
In Chapter 11 of Volume III, Elinor showed that she carried a clear head over that Christian heart when she coolly and calmly delivered the most precise, the most complete, and the most damning indictment of Willoughby. She may have gained some sympathy for Willoughby in his remorse, but he had not blinded her. She detailed the indictment to her sister and you can sense that it was like a surgery. Marianne still loved Willoughby, but, in that conversation, the life-line of her love was cut and could only wither from that point on. This was the last in a long sequence of sweet, dramatic conversations that are among the most truly remarkable I have ever read.
You will see nothing of those affecting passages in the filmed version. In place of that, Emma Thompson substituted a smaltz-filled ending—chick-book stuff and her final scratches on a great work of art.
There is something worse that can be said. Apparently, Ms. Thompson is incensed about the inheritance laws of the early nineteenth century and intends to say so. She could not have made a worse choice than Sense and Sensibility as the vehicle for her outrage, or a worse choice of an author upon whom to graft her own misinterpretations of history. I am neither a lawyer nor an historian and will not be drawn into an argument about the true nature of the inheritance laws of another (or this) century. However, I am very familiar with the patterns of inheritance in Jane Austen's novels and I can be unequivocal in stating that if Emma Thompson is anything like correct in these matters, then Jane Austen is completely wrong. What are the chances of that?
There is no entailment against women in Sense and Sensibility. There is an entailment to a specific person, the step-brother John Dashwood, the son of a first marriage. The Dashwood women, in the novel, are the father's second family; and his uncle (the first owner of the Norland estate) preferred that the inheritance not go in that direction. There is nothing to do with gender in that kind of decision. The complete contradiction of Emma Thompson's legal interpretations begins on the first page of the novel. There we are told that John Dashwood did not really need Norland because he had already inherited a great deal from—get this—his mother. I mean that, upon her death, half her wealth went to her son and not to her husband (the father of Elinor and Marianne). Even the husband's half share of the wealth was entailed upon the son. John's wife Fanny also had a great deal of inherited wealth and stood to gain a lot more upon the death of her mother, the current holder of the wealth in the Ferrars family. And, of course, there were the other inheritors of great wealth and property in the novel—there is Mrs. Jennings and Willoughby's elderly cousin, Mrs. Smith (from whom he hoped to inherit the Allenham Court estate). So, John Dashwood was to inherit Norland!—is that so bad? Might not Jane Austen allow at least one man to inherit a little something?
There is nothing, on the face of it, to condemn the previous generation for the sudden drop in comfort in the lives of the Dashwood women. After all, the step-brother is rich and surely that must mean that the sisters would be rich as well—or so the thinking went. That was the usual expectation as Jane Austen reminds us in the very first paragraph of the novel where her narrator tells us that the old uncle cared for his own sister in that manner. (And, of course, that is the manner in which Jane and Cassandra Austen were treated by their brothers.) The Dashwood women were not done in by any man, or by—how does Emma Thompson say it—by "the laws of England"; they were done in by another woman, John's wife Fanny. This selfish sister-in law badgered and manipulated her husband into aborting his duties and his own better instincts. (We are grateful to Fanny of course; because, without her actions in this regard, there would be no novel, now would there?)
Incidentally, it is not true that the Dashwood sisters had been born at Norland, their immediate family had been in possession of the estate for only a single year before they lost it again. And before that, they had lived only ten years on the estate as guests of the old uncle.
But, Emma Thompson is a feminist Bowdler and she would take on the task of "correcting" Jane Austen's writing. It was absolutely ludicrous: this screenwriter had Elinor Dashwood lecture Edward Ferrars about the unfairness to woman of inheritance laws—Edward Ferrars of all people! I mean, didn't the screenwriter notice that Ferrars's mother had inherited all the wealth in his family, and that mom continually jerked Edward around by threatening him with an unfavorable treatment of him in her will? First, the mother demanded to choose Edward's profession and then she actually did disown him when he persisted in his honorable intention to marry the woman to whom he had proposed. (And that just as Mrs. Smith disinherited Willoughby because he refused to marry Eliza Williams.)
By the way, two of the most powerful people in Jane Austen's family were Mrs. Knight and Mrs. Leigh-Perrot. Two clanswomen who had inherited all from their rich husbands, and who had no qualms about flexing their economic muscle before the Austens, and no qualms about jerking some of them around as well.
Jane Austen once described her writing as "... the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush...". Two hundred years later, Emma Thompson went back over those same pieces of ivory with a gelding knife. It's a scrape, scrape here and a scrape, scrape there, but Ms. Thompson does her most complete surgery on the Colonel Brandon character.
This instance of feminist bowdlerism begins with the story within a story, the story of Eliza, Brandon's cousin and the ward of the Brandon family. In Jane Austen's version, Eliza was raised with Brandon and his older brother, the family heir. The father intended Eliza for the older brother because she was independently wealthy—very wealthy (yes! still another female inheritor in Sense and Sensibility). When it became clear that Brandon and Eliza shared a growing affection, he was sent away to the army in order to get him out of the way. Eliza was unhappy in her marriage with the heir and slipped into adultery. She was of independent means (take note) and, so, was able to walk away from her husband's home. Her first adultery resulted in the birth of a child, also called Eliza, the Eliza Williams who was to play such an important off-scene role in the novel. After the separation, the mother moved from one affair to another and ended in a premature death, but not before she extracted from Brandon, her childhood friend, a promise to protect and care for the daughter. It was understandable that Brandon would have left for the army, given that he could not provide the same material comfort for Eliza that she would gain in her marriage to the heir. Perhaps, it was also honorable that he placed the wishes of his family over those of his own. A little later, the brother also died prematurely and Brandon succeeded to the inheritance. All that is in the ever-perfect and tightly constructed Jane-Austen logic, and all is much affecting.
Wait until you hear what Emma Thompson did with that story! She did not allow an older brother in the filmed version, nor did she allow Eliza to have a fortune. Brandon was the heir all the time, and was merely sent away into the army because Eliza was poor, and Eliza was "flung out of the house" to be "handed from man to man" and to "die in a poorhouse". All that is going to satisfy the audience of our generation because we don't expect to see a women blessed with an inherited wealth, and we certainly don't dare attach any moral blame to a women. Of course, Ms. Thompson extracted a price from some of the male characters for these alterations. I mean, why should we have any respect for a Brandon who abandoned his Eliza in this way? What kind of a man would have done that? What kind of a man was Brandon's father? What would the father's family and neighbors have thought of a man who treated his ward in this way? The screenplay makes no sense, Emma Thompson is no Jane Austen.
The surgery was completed in the film when the party moved to London. By that time Brandon had discovered that Willoughby had seduced, impregnated, and abandoned his teenaged ward. In other words, the Colonel had completely failed to keep the promise made to his first love upon her deathbed. In the film, Colonel Brandon visited Elinor and wanted to know—golly gee—does Marianne love Willoughby? If so, then Brandon would not think to criticize him. What a wimp! Jane Austen's Brandon reacted much the same way as one of the Austen brothers might have done: he tried, unsuccessfully, to put a bullet into Willoughby during a duel. Jane Austen's Elinor reacted to this news much as Jane would have herself, I think;
"Elinor sighed over the fancied necessity of this; but to a man and a soldier, she presumed not to censure it." [S&S, Volume II, Chapter 9]
Ms. Thompson invented many original scenes for her film. A number of these involved the youngest Dashwood daughter, the pre-pubescent Margaret. In one such scene, Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant) and Margaret are engaged in a mock sword fight with sticks. Edward becomes distracted and Margaret seizes the moment to jam her sword into Edward's groin. This is played for laughs, of course, and there can be no doubt that many women of our generation share in the joke. However, I think the scene was redundant, because Ms. Thompson had already emasculated Edward by this point in the film.
Ang Lee directed the film and perhaps he deserves some share of the disapprobation. The directing is hopeless. The worst example is a scene depicting a picnic with the Dashwood women and Willoughby. Ang Lee's Willoughby acts grotesquely, he takes liberties with Marianne's body and he gets in Elinor's face and mocks her in a most offensive manner. If you or I had seen someone treat our sisters like that, it would have been an occasion for trouble—big trouble. Yet, the Ang-Lee version of the Dashwood women seem almost amused.
It is a good thing that Allan Rickman and Hugh Grant have other work to point to; otherwise, Ang Lee might have finished off their careers. Still, the actors must share some of the blame; I mean that they should have closed their mouths when they weren't talking—I have never seen so many gaping stares. And they should have resisted Lee's direction and stood up straighter, and held their shoulders back. Grant should have taken that egg out of his shoe.
Is there anything good to be said about [S&S-96]? Well yes, two scenes in particular come to mind. The first was the scene set in London in which Elinor first told Marianne that she had known for some time about Edward Ferrars's engagement; and the second came near the end, on a beautiful English hillside, where Marianne and Elinor had their final discussion about Willoughby. Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet are actresses of the first rank, and there were just enough echoes from the novel in these scenes to make them very moving. Emma Thompson must be a sensitive person, so why didn't the mere making of these scenes help her realize the true nature of novel she was dealing with? I can only assume that her single goal is to pander to the expectations of some of the women in her current audience, regardless of how transitory those sentiments may turn out to be.
You know, it is Pride and Prejudice, and not Sense and Sensibility, that portrays anything like the sort of thing that Ms Thompson is railing against—the entailment against women. Actually, even the Bennet women would not have been that bad off, even if the two older daughters had not married so well. Mrs. Bennet had inherited four thousand pounds from her father and each of the girls was to inherit a thousand. (And, of course, a few of them might have considered employment!) This is probably a better situation than you or I have obtained. That last fact is not well understood because the true value of a Jane Austen pound has now been forgotten, and so the circumstances of the Bennet woman cannot be properly evaluated by the average reader of today.
Perhaps a lot of this nonsense can be avoided if the Male Voices community will collaborate to settle one simple question. What is the present value of a Jane-Austen pound? I mean what is the purchasing power in modern terms? I have been relying on authority to make the conversion, which means that I have been collecting conversion factors from things I read. I am finding a wide range as you might expect, from 80 current US dollars per Jane-Austen pound to 600 current US dollars per Jane-Austen pound. I found the higher estimate in Dava Sobel's Longitude (Penguin, 1995). There we learn that, in order to encourage the solution of the longitude problem, the English Parliament offered a prize of £20,000, of which the current purchasing power is estimated to be $12,000,000. The prize was first offered in 1714 but was not awarded until just before Jane Austen's birth (1775). In other words, this estimate is for a period a bit early for our purposes.
However, we have to start somewhere, so let us suppose that the conversion factor is 250 current-dollars per Jane-Austen pound. Given that, what are the values of some of the cash sums in Jane Austen's novels and in her life?
After the death of her father, Jane Austen lived with her sister, mother, and Martha Lloyd (a sister-in-law of her brother James and the future wife of Sir Francis Austen). Their combined income was a bit under £500/year. That converts to $125,000/year and about half of that was supplied by the brothers. That dollar estimate seems about right to me given that none of the women was employed, they kept three servants, and they could easily accommodate visitors at Chawton cottage. Also, Chawton "cottage" was provided them by their Darcy-rich brother Edward, and so it had six bedrooms.
Chawton "Cottage", the Home of Jane Austen
Now, these are very nearly the circumstances of the Dashwood women in Sense and Sensibility, so you can imagine my surprise when Emma Thompson informed us that the Dashwood woman could not afford sugar or meat. Jane Austen only told us they could not afford to keep a horse (because that would require hiring another servant, who would need still another horse of his own, etc.), but she said nothing about the severe dietary restrictions. I suspect that Ms. Thompson has it all wrong—terribly, terribly wrong.
I expect a lot of dispute about this conversion factor and I will welcome that because I am as interested as anyone in setting these things right. In this way, we will do a great service to other Jane-Austen fanatics on the web. However, some will merely wish for things to be different, to be more modest, and will remember things like the letter in which Jane Austen describes refurbishing a bonnet from the previous season. Poor baby. But, I think that folks should remember that Jane Austen dressed well enough and was considered respectable enough to be invited to a private guided-tour of the palace of the Prince of Wales. I think that says something, and not something about the egalitarian nature of the future George IV. Also, remember that the Dashwood women dressed well enough to be recognized by high society during their stay in London. Ms Thompson downloaded that fact into her script, but my guess is that she did not think about it.
In Jane Austen's Footsteps
What is it like to walk in Jane Austen's footsteps? Join our Linda in her Sentimental Journey to Winchester & Chawton.
... or, join Ray Mitchell in his search for Jane Austen.
Was Jane Austen ever in love?
Links to Other Web Sites