Posted in writing

Analyzing Austen-tatiously

Keoni and I usually read in bed for a while every evening, and then put on a movie. Netflix is our one “extravagance,” and we tend go on exploratory themes with our movie-ordering—the latest being a comparative look at some of the film-adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels.

Yup, I’ve got a husband who willingly watches “chick flicks” with me. More than that, a husband who has no objection when I hit “play” again on a movie that just finished, for the fun of picking out details and nuances that we missed in the first viewing. Sometimes several times in a row. And a husband who chats with me about screenwriting-choices and character-portrayals and comparative effectiveness of different story-telling techniques…

As a writer, I’ve been fascinated for a while with the storytelling choices of film-makers—specifically, the combined choices of directors and screenwriters in telling a story. And especially in any adaptation from a book, where I can compare the on-screen choices to the on-the-page choices of the original author.

Peter Jackson (mastermind behind “Lord of the Rings”) in the Hobbit Hole (photo courtesy of geekweek.com)

My film-fascination really began with the “extra” footage on the Lord of the Rings films—in addition to a couple dozen hours of how-we-did-it footage, you can watch the entire extended version (12 hours in itself) with voice-over commentary of the director and screen-writers. As I wrote the other day to my blogging-buddy ChatterMaster (who shares a birthday not only with my sister, but with Bilbo and Frodo Baggins), Lord of the Rings is one of the very few films that I actually prefer to the book. Peter Jackson and his crew walked a marvelous line of staying true to the book, while telling the story better. So their combined commentary about the choices they made… Purely fascinating to me. (Yes, I’m a nerd!)

But back to our Austen-exploration… What I enjoy most in reading Austen is how fricking FUNNY she was! (I re-read her novels last week, and Keoni can attest that I giggled my way through all six books.) That was also my favorite “revelation,” as expressed by students, when I was teaching Austen to high-schoolers. Unfortunately (but not without reason, given how they’re often taught), kids tend to equate Classics with dryness, so Austen’s humor (and even her occasional naughty innuendo) came as a shock to most of them.

I think I’ve never been so indignant at a movie-review as the one I recently read (by a professional reviewer, no less) which dissed a version of Emma and asserted that “Austen didn’t write comedies.” I can only think of three possibilities that could account for such an outrageous statement. 1) The reviewer hadn’t read Austen. 2) The reviewer’s sense of humor had been surgically removed. Or 3) She’d had Austen shoved down her throat by one of those English teachers who give the rest of us (not to mention Literature) a bad name. (My own high school English teacher began her class with the pronouncement, “I know you all hate American literature, but I hate it too, and we’re all stuck with it.” I knew I was in for a crap year.)

When it comes to a film adaptation of any Austen novel, one of the main choices of directors-and-screenwriters seems to be whether to play the comical characters to their full comedic potential (which I love), or whether to tone them down to make them a little more realistic and more emotionally accessible (which, strangely enough, I also enjoy). I haven’t yet seen a film that managed to do both.

comical Mr. & Mrs. Bennet in the “Colin Firth version” (photo courtesy of fanpop.com)

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, the parents of the heroine Elizabeth in Pride & Prejudice, are a perfect example. As Austen wrote them, and as they’re portrayed in the 1995 BBC/A&E adaptation (or as I prefer to call it, the “Colin Firth version”), they are a hilarious pair. Mrs. Bennett is fluttery, self-absorbed, stupid, and always saying ridiculous things she shouldn’t—overstepping the bounds of propriety and manners at every turn. Mr. Bennett, in his turn, has realized for twenty years that he’d married a pretty face that didn’t have a brain attached to it, and so finds his own peculiar entertainment in ridiculing his wife. His sarcastic comments (which she’s too dim to understand) are even funnier than she is. In contrast, the 2005 film (the “Keira Knightly version”) tones them both down. She’s still a little fluttery and her comments are occasionally embarrassing, but she’s genuinely emotionally involved with her daughters and the family is much closer. Mr. Bennet is far more gentle and affectionate with her—and with his daughters—and the emotional dynamics of the family are very different.  Oddly enough, I love both versions.

a closer family—the Bennetts of the “Keira Knightly version” (photo courtesy of fanpop.com)

The “comical” take is far truer to the Austen original, in my opinion, but I’m not such a purist that I can’t enjoy the effects achieved by the different choice in portraying them. I do think that the change alters some of of the motivations in the plot, however, and I’m not sure I’m entirely reconciled to that.  In the book, the hero Mr. Darcy struggles against his attraction to Elizabeth Bennett (and warns his friend off her sister) partly because of the difference-in-status between them, but even more because of the socially unacceptable nature of her family’s behavior. It’s completely clear in the book (and in the Colin Firth film) why a marriage there would be socially disastrous for him, and why it becomes a whole story-worth of struggle. That motivation is a little fuzzier in the newer, gentler film, for the simple reason that the Bennetts aren’t so outrageous.

We’ve been playing this same game-of-analysis with Sense and Sensibility (particularly the 1995 version with Emma Thompson & Kate Winslet, and the wonderful 2008 BBC mini-series without any actors I knew, aside from the one I’ll always think of as “Mr. Weasley”)—and we have some Emma on order… That’s the playground where my mind has been spending time lately—pondering the structures of story-telling… I’m curious what YOU think!

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I am... a writer, an explorer, a coffee-drinker, a recovering addict, a barefoot linguist, a book-dragon ("bookworm" doesn't cover it), a raconteur, a sailboat skipper, a research diver, a tattooed scholar, a pirate, a poet, a spiritual adventurer, a photographer, a few kinds-of-crazy, a joyful wife, a mom... a list-maker! :)

32 thoughts on “Analyzing Austen-tatiously

  1. I absolutely loved this post Kana,
    I can read, talk about and watch Jane Austen indefinitely. She is wonderful, isn’t she, and her wicked insight into human nature is a killer. I too love the Colin Firth version, particularly Mr Bennett – and of course Darcy! Though I think Knightly is my favourite hero in the books.

    .I also love the singing and the dancing sequences, the music, the settings, the clothes… though their up lift bras wrecked the clothes in Pride and Prej, Jennifer Ehle’s dresses never fitted properly because of those jutting breasts, totally out of period.

    I once played Catherine de Burgh in a school play…it was such fun…
    Have you read Sanditon, the fragment she wrote before she died? The incredible insight into human nature is still there, but her observations are quite sharp, and almost bitter… I wonder how much her illness had influenced her writing…

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    1. Lady C de B must have been a RIOT to play! (My mom always said it’s more fun to play a disagreeable character than a “good girl”…)

      I did just read Sanditon for the first time, and I’m betting you’re right about illness affecting her outlook.

      Ah, Darcy!! What Austen-fan doesn’t swoon over Mr. Darcy? ;) And Colin Firth is one of the few examples of a movie-character actually making into my reading of the BOOK. (When I read Harry Potter, for example, I don’t “see” the movie-actors in my head—but when I read P&P, it’s always Colin Firth!) Having said that, I DID also enjoy McFayden’s more puppyish portrayal of Darcy…

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  2. It has been far too many years since I have read Austen’s books to be able to remember such wonderful feelings. The only thing I do remember is that I did enjoy the books. And reading YOU has greatly increased my reading list. Perhaps reading her again will be like an entirely new book(S). I will read again, with different eyes (due to maturity, not age) and see what it is I enjoyed initially and what I might enjoy new. You make reading FUN Kana.

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    1. I flatter myself (I couldn’t resist–that’s a borrowed phrase from P&P’s Mr. Collins) that “making reading fun” might have been my best skill as an English teacher. ;) I certainly HOPE my own enthusiasm “caught” in the classroom—but I’m tickled if it’s contagious here! ;) Please do share when you’ve been (re)reading–I’m thoroughly engrossed in thinking about these, and would enjoy the conversation! (If I’d written out ALL the analyses and conversations we’ve been having about these books and films—not only P&P, but Sense & Sensibility & Emma so far—it would have been a book instead of a post. I figured I’d better stop where I was, LOL)

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        1. No hurry, of course—enjoy what you ARE reading! ;) Maybe I will write out some more of it… Its a topic that I figure isn’t interesting to a lot of people, but it’s VERY interesting to those of us who are interested by it. ;)

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    1. I DO enjoy a Pride & Prejudice spin-off (when it’s well done), but I hadn’t ventured into zombies yet! I’ll definitely check it out. :)

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        1. :) Me too, LOL. This bumps “library card” up the priority list! (I prefer to buy books—because I always want to WRITE in them—but there isn’t room in the budget at the moment…)

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          1. I definitely know what you mean!! I love to add them to my bookshelf so I can look at them, even if I don’t reread them for a year or two….or ever again! I have a library card I don’t use often enough. Shopping for brand new books at Barnes & Nobles gets pricey!

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  3. What do I think? I think nerds ROCK and I think we have awesome company! You know what I like about you? You go out and do all the nerdy things that I think about doing, but, being the only girl outside of the dog here in Testosterone Land, I don’t get to rock my Austen Nerdiness. I choose to live vicariously through you until I can unload these boys for a day and indulge myself.

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    1. Enjoy it when you DO have the chance! I first discovered the BBC Pride & Prejudice when my first husband was on a business-trip, so I fully understand about having to wait for the opportunity to indulge. ;) Nerds rule!

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  4. I’ve got to get them and read them again. Thanks for the reminder!
    I took a screen writing class and am the writer of five of the world’s worst possible screenplays. But I’m happy with that achievement and learned so much about writing from that class. Great fun. Give it a try!! You and Keoni would come up with something great!!

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    1. I love the idea! And I’d be SO interested in what a screen writing class would have to teach… Any chance you’ll pass along the learning sometime? ;)

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      1. I’m probably not the one to ask, but three of my class mates have had their work optioned. That is impressive considering there were only about 28 in the class. I send you info on the books we learned from. The instructor wrote the books, but I’ll tell you she is teaching what she knows and does best. Great fun!!

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  5. Crazy…in my “drafts” folder, now awaiting my return, is a film review. Not an Austen portrayal, but a review just the same. I also have awaiting my type writer an “ode to my sister”.

    I believe, if I didn’t know better, it would appear as if I am stalking your ideas! But alas, I think we are just two people who more than likely would be good neighbors and better friends. :)

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    1. As Keoni and I say: “Same Surf, Sister!” (That’s our version of being on the “same wavelength”…) Cyber-distance aside, I think “good neighbors and better friends” is a terrific description of us! :)

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