Beautiful heritage houses in Emma Thompson’s and Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility
Aspects of modernity such as commercialism, visuality, idealism, realism, velocity and intertextuality likewise foil directors’ attempts to translate Jane Austen directly into film. Films swerve from their originals when movie screens are filled with Lady Russell’s glamorous toques in PERSUASION or the beautiful heritage houses in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. The sheer materiality of movies distracts from Jane Austen.
The idealising culture of Hollywood means that characters may not fit our imaginings, but conversely, the realism of Roger Michell’s PERSUASION cannot guarantee authenticity to Jane Austen’s. Then too, signs of the modern world such as velocity, feminism and the carnivalesque ‘contaminate’ Jane Austen. For instance, the Vorticist obsession with velocity makes feathers flutter, horses gallop, feet twinkle, and arrows fly about in McGrath’s EMMA as they never could in Jane Austen’s. In the same movie, modern expectations for women transform her into an Amazonian huntress, while Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory that the carnivalesque overturns hierarchies precipitates a circus into the final scene of Michell’s PERSUASION.
Finally, the Jane Austen versions cannot be considered faithful translations if the scriptwriters mangle her words. Accurate quotation is surely preferable to bad substitution, as comparison of film scripts with their originals sadly show. Whereas Jane Austen’s free indirect speech gives the impression of selectivity and speed, the scriptwriter can plod. For all film’s reputation for quickness, then, it cannot always move at fiction’s pace.
techniques can however erase the need for words altogether. For instance, in
Thompson’s SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, Fanny Dashwood’s deduction of a coin from
the landlord’s tip displays meanness, and her checking of the hallmark on the
butterknife snobbery. Images can supply objective correlatives to a mood, as
when the cottage looks cold and bleak. Here cinematic techniques quickly convey
complex information in the familiar idiom of film.
Such examples result in justifiable difference. But improper difference derives from unself-conscious, even ignorant lapses of tone, register or felicity, as when Mr Martin says, ‘Oh, blast!’ or Emma calls Mr Knightley ‘overqualified’ to contribute a riddle in McGrath’s EMMA. And why dip into the cancelled chapter of Persuasion, where Wentworth asks Anne whether she plans to return to Kellynch Hall? Worst of all, when Captain Wentworth drops not the pen but the sand-shaker, Michell misses the point that although the pen, with its power to define, has always been in the hands of men, a man now drops it in order that a woman may speak.
References to other texts can also enter by mistake. For instance, in Davies’ PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, Lady Catherine de Bourgh plays the witch from Disney’s Snow White. If such modernisings are deliberate, they bridge Jane Austen world and ours. If unconscious, they are ridiculously anachronistic. Ideally, intertextuality engenders metatextual commentary, because the context imported by an allusion prompts further reflections. But allusion shorn of context is mere echo, and may even mislead the viewer.
On-screen versions of Jane Austen cannot then be faithful translations. So what is the point of making them? When directors try to make their films ‘relevant’ to young audiences through visual detail and modern reference, they may simply mirror back to us our own reflections. Only Amy Heckerling’s CLUELESS operates successfully in the recognition of youthful ignorance by ‘translating’ Jane Austen into the world of Hollywood teen-age soaps and school melodramas. Far better to make the alteration deliberate and wholesale, that is, to create an imitation.
Unlike translation, an imitation stresses its difference from the original in order to showcase the inventiveness of the author. The delight is in the difference. So too, I suggest, with the cinematic versions of Jane Austen.
The relationship of texts to texts is as ancient as literature itself. Words such as emulation, plagiarism, translation, the citation of authorities or beauties, allusion and imitation describe its varieties. All these practices made relationships between texts seem natural, normal, and actually creative. What this means is that before the Romantics promulgated their notions of originality so widely, everybody knew that books were made out of other books in a spirit of benign or competitive emulation. We have recently circled back to that earlier perception, for modernist, post-modernist and post-structuralist ideas of creativity depend in their various ways upon intertextuality, or the relation of books with books. I have argued that all the Jane Austen versions, whether they set out to be a translation or an imitation, necessarily stand in an intertextual relationship to her novels. But only some directors seize the chance to thicken up their intertextual possibilities. I believe that Thompson’s SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, Rozema’s MANSFIELD PARK and Heckerling’s CLUELESS reinstate the honour, the creative potential of the imitation.
Imitation invites the reader to hold the old text and the new simultaneously in the mind. This quasi-metaphorical manoeuvre depends for its effect on intelligent and informed readers, whose pleasure compounds with the flattery. When film directors similarly re-create that prestigious and well-known ‘modern classic’ Jane Austen, the well-read spectator likewise enjoys the rewards of recognition.
Jane Austen herself looked back to the English classics as well as to her contemporaries. Her intertextual practices include translation, parody, imitation, allusion, and metatextual commentary, all of which show her mind creatively engaged with the paradigms and particulars of other authors. In fact, she discovered her own voice in dialogue with her predecessors. Her early parodies especially resemble imitation, which depends upon readers recognising relationships between copy and archetype. As a mature writer, she moved from parody to appreciative deployment of other texts, but almost always she re-worked her source. In her last books, Jane Austen appropriated Midsummer Night’s Dream for Emma and the Wife of Bath for Persuasion with a silence that suggests complete approbation. Thus the on-screen versions of Jane Austen stand to her in the same intertextual relationship as she stood to her predecessors.
The camera brings Margaret the shadowy third daughter in Emma Thompson’s and Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility quite literally to light.
Even in versions which seem primarily to translate, one finds intelligent expansions approximating imitation. For instance, when the camera brings Margaret the shadowy third daughter in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY quite literally to light, Emma Thompson endows her with a presence, an education and a future. Thompson prophetically modernizes Jane Austen and compares the life of late eighteenth-century women to the greater freedom of ours. Her metatextuality is entirely characteristic of imitation. But to make her allusions resonate, Thompson depends on spectators joining joyfully in the production of her text.
Thompson calls upon intertextual allusion to convey meaning, as when her Marianne identifies with those doomed heroines Juliet, Guinevere and Heloise. She also gestures to other Jane Austen texts, for instance when Fanny Dashwood’s plan to replace the walnut grove with a Grecian temple recalls the reprehensible plan to ‘improve’ the avenues that a very different Fanny sighs over in Mansfield Park. It’s as though all Jane Austen’s texts were one text, in which meanings slide about readily to confirm meanings..
Rozema interpretation develops Mansfield’s Park's intense sexual undercurrents.
Patricia Rozema ranges just as freely over all the Jane Austen novels in MANSFIELD PARK, as well as dipping intertextually into the Juvenilia, letters, and recent biographies. Clearly inspired by David Nokes’s idea that the novels may be fruitfully mined for autobiography, she merges Fanny Price with her creator. Far from being the creep-mouse of the novel, Fanny turns into the ‘wild Beast’ of the letters admired by Nokes, while the juvenilia she recounts to Susan are anarchic, sexual and violent. This interpretation allows Rozema to develop Mansfield’s Park’s intense sexual undercurrents.
Rozema also inserts recent readings of the eighteenth century into her movie when she places gender, race and class at the very heart of her enterprise, for instance when she images women confined by patriarchy as caged birds. In fact, not just women but men are trapped behind the grand window-frames of patriarchal dwellings. But at the end, when Fanny turns to watch a flock of birds wheeling up and away, the camera rises high over the countryside in a panning shot that points to liberation and freedom beyond the panes of patriarchal custom.
This common trope of women as birds merges with another pervasive eighteenth-century discourse of women as slaves. Gender, race and class underpin Rozema’s reading of Mansfield Park, with its analogy between the economy of slaves and of women. Her post-colonial lens magnifies Jane Austen’s hints about the slave-trade, for Sir Thomas’s dual functions as slave-owner and patriarch are represented as indistinguishable. Edmund is right to say that the wealth and status of the Mansfield Park is built upon slavery and the imperial project, while Fanny points out that it matters how wealth is acquired. Nobody is exempt from its enjoyment; all are the beneficiaries of empire.
Fanny discovers her sexuality.
Contemporary concerns about class are highlighted when Lindsay Duncan plays both Lady Bertram and Mrs Price, one surrounded by luxury, the other by maggoty plates and filth. The sheer accident of marriage makes one pampered and pretty, the other worn and plain. And modern preoccupations with bodies make Rozema’s MANSFIELD PARK more explicitly sexual than Jane Austen’s could ever be: Fanny, tipsy and staggering slightly as she weaves her way from the ballroom, exults in her new-found sexuality. Rozema offers a new proposal scene in which Edmund declares to Fanny, ‘I have loved you all my life’. To her indulgent ‘I know’, he replies, ‘I love you as a man loves a woman’. Fanny smiles merrily into the camera as Edmund embraces her, incandescant and triumphant. In all these ways, Patricia Rozema’s MANSFIELD PARK declares itself an imitation by its intertextualities, its developments of Jane Austen’s hints into fully realized scenes, and its attention to these dominant modern paradigms of gender, race and class.
Amy Heckerling’s CLUELESS is however the most thorough-going revision of Jane Austen and therefore the most fully creative imitation. Cher, like Emma, is a spoilt, educationally-challenged rich kid. She drives a white jeep, chooses her clothes by computer, and is meddling, pretty and smart. Motherless, for her mother died of a fluke accident during a routine liposuction, she is not exactly likeable, but her solicitude about her hard-working father’s diet, like Emma’s patience about Mr Woodhouse and his gruel, shows that her heart is good. This brilliant and funny movie endows Cher with a rich black friend, Dionne, and Mr Knightley becomes Josh, her Granola-breath, Nietzsche-reading stepbrother. When Josh rebukes her for her ninety-percent selfish life, she responds defensively that she plans to brake for animals. Her consequent realisation that ‘it is a far far better thing doing stuff with other people’ sets her off on a path similar to Emma’s.
Spectators of the movie will see similarities with Jane Austen at every turn, but Heckerling goes even further than Thompson and Rozema when she works not only from Emma but from a multiplicity of printed, filmic and musical texts. She can assume an intertextual awareness in modern audiences trained in filmic conventions. In CLUELESS, for just one example, Christian’s admiration of Tony Curtis in Spartacus hints at bi-sexuality long before Christian turns out to be gay.
is knowing, deliciously intertextual and definitely post-modern in its
‘conversations’ with other texts. The charm of CLUELESS lies in its cheek, its transformation of high culture into low, its gleefully
transgressive disestablishmentarianism, its cast of young and culturally hybrid
actors reflecting the ethnic makeup of Los Angeles, its thorough-going
re-location and dislocation of Jane Austen to the New World and the end of the
twentieth century. It draws its essential elements from Jane Austen, but renews
them completely, deliberately, within and by means of their new context. Of all
the cinematic versions, CLUELESS proclaims its own most comprehensive and
self-contained life. It stands on its own feet as imitations were meant to do. Emma
is certainly alive and well in CLUELESS, but if you want to read Jane
Austen, you can always read Jane Austen. Her aura and authenticity remain
intact, however often she appears on-screen.
on a theme are acknowledged to be creative in music or art, so why not in
cinematic texts? Jane Austen, who transported the English classics into her own
age and country, has now has become that oxymoron a ‘modern classic’ upon
whom movie directors stamp their markers of modernity. To define the on-screen
versions of Jane Austen as imitations rather than as translations allows us to
appreciate moments of genuinely creative divergence from her texts.
So-called fidelity to the text cannot then guarantee a successful transition from novels to films. Quite the opposite. The most satisfying Jane Austen movies are not just ‘translations’ but ‘imitations’ rejoicing in their difference. As Miss Bates said, ‘Such a transformation!’ These innovative and creative works suggest new paths for future adaptations of Jane Austen.